Player development seems to always result in more questions than answers. How likely is it for a top pick to pan out? What makes a player a “steal”? Last Word On Hockey will be starting a new series on how to properly develop prospects from all different spots throughout the draft. This week’s piece involves top-10 picks and how they were used early in their careers.
Player developments of top-10 picks
In the span of 2005 through 2015, there were 40 total selections made between fourth overall and tenth overall on forwards playing in North America. Of those 40 selections, two players were given patience in their player development and took until their DY+3 season before making the NHL. What that means is an extra year, or in this case, more, despite solid production that deemed them NHL-ready before being given a chance. Those two players were Logan Couture and Brayden Schenn.
Player development of Logan Couture
Couture, who was drafted ninth overall by the San Jose Sharks in the 2007 NHL entry draft was taken out of the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s. In his DY-1 season, which was his rookie OHL season, Couture recorded 25 goals and 39 assists for 64 points in 65 OHL games. That was good for 0.985 points per game, ranking 17th out of those aforementioned 40 forward prospects in DY-1 production. He followed that season up with 26 goals and 52 assists for 78 points in 54 games with Ottawa, which was good for 1.444 points per game. That per-game mark ranked 12th out of those same 40 forwards in DY production.
Following his selection at ninth overall by the Sharks, Couture would return to the Ottawa 67s for his DY+1 season. He would score 21 goals and 37 assists for 58 points in 51 games, a down year. That saw him produce at 1.137 points per game, ranking 26th out of 30 forwards still outside the NHL in their DY+1 seasons. A motivated Couture would stay with the 67’s, becoming their captain in his DY+2 season, and recorded 39 goals and 48 assists for 87 points in 62 games. That was good for 1.403 points per game, ranking fifth out of 12 forwards still outside the NHL in DY+2 production. Couture would get NHL time following that season.
How was Couture used?
In his first pro season, Couture would play 25 NHL games and 42 AHL games. In the AHL, Couture would produce 20 goals and 33 assists for 53 points in those 42 games. At the NHL level, Couture produced five goals and four assists for nine points. While his production at the NHL level wasn’t great, he was only averaging 10:16 of time on ice per game. In that small role, Couture would record solid advanced stats. His even-strength offence goals above replacement (EVO) was at 0.7, while his even-strength defence goals above replacement (EVD) was at 1.0. That may not seem like much, but most rookies end up posting a below-replacement level score (below zero) in either one of those metrics, Couture didn’t. Overall, Couture recorded a 0.3 wins above replacement (WAR) and 1.9 goals above replacement (GAR), again, not outstanding, but solid for a rookie in a small role.
In his second pro season, Couture would play solely in the NHL, playing a total of 79 games there. He scored 32 goals and 24 assists for 56 points while averaging 17:49 of time on ice per game. He finished second in Calder Trophy voting, made the All-Rookie team, and, according to Hockey-Reference, finished 36th in Selke trophy votes. His analytics were excellent, as one would assume. His EVO and EVD improved to 4.9 and 2.8, respectively, which explains why he got votes for the Selke trophy. Overall, his WAR improved drastically to 1.9, and his GAR improved in an even greater way, up at 10.5.
Couture continues to be reliable for the Sharks
In his third pro season and second official NHL season, Couture would play 80 NHL games, scoring 31 goals and 34 assists for 65 points, while averaging 18:34 time on ice per game. His analytics didn’t see a big rise at even strength, as his EVO (2.1) saw a dip, while his EVD (3.2) saw a modest rise. In all situations, however, Couture saw a continued improvement in the form of a 2.4 WAR and 13.8 GAR.
Couture has played 10 seasons since and still plays with the Sharks to this day. In that span, he has played 661 games, recording 228 goals and 275 assists for 503 points. His player development went about as smoothly as the Sharks could have asked. They started him off split between the NHL and AHL, with a very small NHL role to allow him to get an idea of the NHL pace. They then followed that up with a big top-six role the following two seasons, allowing him to come into his own. Ever since he has become a lock to score 20+ goals and 50+ points in a full season. Again, the Sharks couldn’t have had better player development with Couture.
Player development of Brayden Schenn
Schenn, drafted fifth overall in the 2009 NHL entry draft by the Los Angeles Kings, came out of the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings organization. In his DY-1 season, which was also his rookie WHL season, he scored 28 goals and 43 assists for 71 points in 66 games played. That was good for a rate of 1.076 points per game. That ranked 15th out of 40 forwards in DY-1 production. Following that season, in his DY, Schenn would record 32 goals and 56 assists for 88 points in 70 games played for Brandon, recording 1.257 points per game. That ranked 22nd among those same 40 forwards in DY production. Schenn would return to the Wheat Kings following his selection at fifth overall.
The newly named Wheat Kings captain, in his DY+1 season, Schenn would record 34 goals and 65 assists for 99 points in 59 games played, scoring at a pace of 1.678 points per game. That ranked eighth out of 30 forwards still outside the NHL in DY+1 production. Following that season, Schenn would go through a whirlwind of movement. He would play 29 WHL games, split between the Wheat Kings and Saskatoon Blades. He also would see seven AHL games. In the WHL, he recorded 22 goals and 35 assists for 57 points in those 29 games. That was good for 1.966 points per game. That ranked first out of the 12 forwards still not in the NHL in DY+2 production. He also recorded seven points in those seven AHL games. He also saw eight NHL games, with two assists. Following that crazy season, spending time across three different levels and four teams, he would finally get his NHL shot.
How was Schenn used?
Schenn would split his first pro season between the NHL and AHL with the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers acquired Schenn by trading away Mike Richards and Rob Bordson for him, Wayne Simmonds, and a second-round pick. Schenn mostly stuck with the top team in the NHL. In the AHL, he saw seven games, where he scored six goals and six assists for 12 points. He also played 54 NHL games, scoring 12 goals and six assists for 18 points. He did that while averaging 14:07 of ice time per game. His advanced analytics were horrible, however. He recorded stats below replacement level in all four stats: EVO (-1.9), EVD (-3.2), WAR (-0.2) and GAR (-0.9).
Rather than demoting him for what was a pretty awful rookie campaign, analytically, the Flyers would give him more ice time at the NHL level in his second season (15:32 time on ice per game), while maintaining his NHL/AHL split, playing in 47 NHL games and 33 AHL games. In the AHL, Schenn scored 13 goals and 20 assists for 33 points. In the NHL, Schenn would score eight goals and 18 assists for 26 points. His advanced analytics improved drastically, and that is an understatement. Schenn’s EVO (3.7) took a complete 360 from his rookie season. Meanwhile, his EVD still needed work (-0.2) but was still drastically improved. His work in even-strength taking that big of a jump forward aided in his WAR (1.1) and GAR (5.8) to also take a large leap in the right direction.
Schenn continues rise to future stardom thanks to strong player development
In his third NHL season, Schenn would stick in the NHL full-time. In 82 games, Schenn would record 20 goals and 21 assists for 41 points. That’s while averaging 15:45 time on ice per game. His analytics continued to improve into this season, with his EVO (3.8) improving slightly. Meanwhile, his EVD saw a rapid incline, going from below replacement level to a much-improved 2.2 score. With his defensive improvement, Schenn would have a better WAR (1.6) and GAR (8.3).
Following that third NHL season, Schenn would go on to play 241 more games with Philadelphia. He would score 69 goals and 92 assists for 161 points, and averaging 17:15 time on ice per game. Following his Flyers tenure, he was traded to the St. Louis Blues for Jori Lehtera, a 2017 first-round pick, and a 2018 conditional first-round pick. He still plays with the Blues to this day. There he has played 343 games, with 110 goals and 166 assists for 276 points, averaging 18:47 time on ice per game. It’s fair to say that, like Couture, Schenn’s player development went well. Could he have been better with more ice time in this third NHL season? Possibly. But it’s hard to argue against Schenn’s success thus far. It’s hard to think anyone can be upset about the way it worked out. Except for the Los Angeles Kings, probably.
Junior league stats via Elite Prospects, NHL stats via Hockey Reference, NHL analytics via Evolving Hockey