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-15 picks and how they were used early in their careers.
Player Developments Of Top-15 Picks
In the span of 2005 through 2015, there were 21 total selections made between 11th overall and 15th overall on forwards playing in North America. Looking at all 21 forwards, they were split into different categories. Today, we’ll look at the category of “Near NHL-ready when brought in.” That category had three players. Those players were Mikhail Grigorenko, Sven Baertschi, and Michael Grabner. In this piece, we will look at Grigorenko and Baertschi.
Player Development Of Mikhail Grigorenko
Grigorenko, drafted 12th overall in 2012 by the Buffalo Sabres, came out of the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL. In his DY-1 season, however, he was still playing in his home country of Russia. In 43 MHL games, Grigorenko scored 17 goals and 18 assists for 35 points, good for 0.814 points per game. That ranked seventh out of 21 total forwards in DY-1 production. That’s when Grigorenko made the move to the QMJHL. In his first season, his DY season, Grigorenko would score 40 goals and 45 assists for 85 points in 59 games. That’s a pace of 1.441 points per game, ranking second out of the 21 forwards in DY production.
Grigorenko was the only player out of the bunch to immediately make an NHL roster directly following the draft. Following a very successful first season in the QMJHL, the Sabres felt satisfied with his relatively seamless transition from the MHL to North American ice.
How Was Grigorenko Used?
In his first pro season, Grigorenko would split between the QMJHL and NHL. In the QMJHL, he would score 30 goals and 24 assists for 54 points in just 33 games. At the NHL level, he would play 25 games, averaging 10:14 time on ice per game. In that role, he would score one goal and four assists for five points. Grigorenko was pretty much deemed replacement level based on analytics in that limited role, with an even-strength offense goals above replacement (EVO) of 1.2 and an even-strength defense goals above replacement (EVD) of -1.2. With those scores balancing each other out, Grigorenko’s wins above replacement (WAR) and goals above replacement (GAR) were both replacement level (0).
The following season, Grigorenko would be split across three leagues. First, in the QMJHL, he would play 23 games with 15 goals and 24 assists for 39 points. Then, in the AHL, he would play nine games, scoring four assists. Finally, in the NHL, Grigorenko would score two goals and one assist across 18 games where he averaged 11:26 time on ice per game. His analytics pretty much stayed the same in the bigger picture, landing around replacement level. They would, technically, take a small step forward though. His EVO (0.5) fell, while his EVD (-0.1) improved. That led to his WAR (0.1) and GAR (0.3) seeing a slight improvement.
More Of The Same For Grigorenko’s Player Development
In his third season, Grigorenko would yet again split his season between two leagues. In the AHL, he would play 43 games, scoring 14 goals and 22 assists for 36 points. At the NHL level, he would play 25 games, averaging 15:10 time on ice per game, scoring three goals and three assists for six points. His analytics continued to remain very similar. His EVO (0.1) fell again, while his EVD (0) rose to replacement level. Grigorenko’s WAR (0.1) would remain the same, but his GAR (0.8) would see a slight improvement, again.
After that third season, Grigorenko would go to the Colorado Avalanche, where he played full-time for two seasons. In total, he played 149 games, scoring 16 goals and 34 assists for 50 points. After that second season, Grigorenko would head to Russia to play in the KHL with CSKA Moskva for three seasons. He would play 147 games, scoring 46 goals and 70 assists for 116 points. That would lead to an NHL comeback, this time with the Columbus Blue Jackets. He played 32 games four goals and eight assists for 12 points. He again left the NHL, rejoining CSKA this past season, scoring 18 goals and 15 assists for 33 points in 41 games. Grigorenko’s player development was not great. However, it took a turn with the Avalanche. Unfortunately, he went back to his home country before he could truly establish himself.
Player Development Of Sven Baertschi
Baertschi, drafted 13th overall by the Calgary Flames in the 2011 NHL draft, came out of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. But, similar to Grigorenko, he was not in North America in his DY-1 season. That year, Baertschi played with SC Langenthal in the NLB (Swiss second-tier league). In 37 games, he scored six goals and six assists for 12 points. That was good for 0.324 points per game, ranking 20th out of 21 forwards in DY-1 production. He would come to the WHL for his DY, where he scored 34 goals and 51 assists for 85 points in 66 games. That was good for 1.288 points per game, ranking sixth out of 21 forwards in DY production.
The Flames would not give Baertschi an NHL shot just yet, having him sent back to the WHL for his DY+1 season. There, he would be an assistant captain and score 33 goals and 61 assists for 94 points in just 47 games, for exactly two points per game. That ranked first among 20 players still outside the NHL in DY+1 production. With that excellent season, Baertschi would see the NHL his following season.
How Was Baertschi Used?
Splitting between the AHL and NHL in his first pro season, Baertschi would play 32 AHL games, scoring 10 goals and 16 assists for 26 points. At the NHL level, Baertschi would play 20 games, scoring three goals and seven assists for 10 points, while averaging 13:24 time on ice per game. His underlying analytics were decent. He would record a 1.1 EVO, which was balanced out by a -1 EVD. With poor defensive numbers, his WAR (0.3) was nothing to write home about, and his GAR (1.5) was okay, but not great.
His second season would be more of the same. Splitting between the AHL and NHL, Baertschi would score 13 goals and 16 assists for 29 points across 41 AHL contests. Meanwhile, he also played 26 NHL games, scoring two goals and nine assists for 11 points, while averaging 14:07 time on ice per game. With a slightly bigger role, in a slightly larger sample size, Baertschi’s analytics would see a slight improvement. His EVO (1.0) got a tiny bit worse, but his EVD (0.7) took a big jump. That improvement defensively led to his WAR (0.7) improving, as did his GAR (3.6).
More Of The Same For Baertschi
In his third NHL season, Baertschi would see more of the same. He would get dealt by the Flames that year. He was dealt after playing 36 AHL games, scoring eight goals and 17 assists for 25 points, plus 15 NHL games with four assists, with the organization. With his new team, the Vancouver Canucks, he would play 15 AHL games with seven goals and eight assists for 15 points. Baertschi would play an additional three NHL games with the Canucks, scoring two goals.
In total, he played 18 NHL games, averaging 9:41 time on ice per game, scoring two goals and four assists for six points. His underlying stats were okay, with his EVO (0.7) seeing another small decline, while his EVD (-0.1) fell back below replacement level. That led to his WAR (0.1) and GAR (0.4) hitting new lows.
What Came Next For Baertschi?
Following his third NHL season, Baertschi would be a full-time NHLer with the Canucks for the next four seasons, before splitting between the NHL and AHL in his fifth season with the Canucks. In his sixth season with Vancouver, he stuck only in the AHL before joining the Vegas Golden Knights.
In total, with the Canucks, Baertschi recorded 56 goals and 52 assists for 108 points in 222 NHL games. Then, in the AHL with the Canucks affiliate, Utica Comets, Baertschi would play 67 games. He scored 18 goals and 42 assists for 60 points. With Vegas, he would play one NHL game, with no points, and 44 AHL games, scoring 15 goals and 13 assists for 28 points. Next season, Baertschi is slated to play with SC Bern in the National League, the top Swiss men’s league. Baertschi’s yo-yoing from the NHL to the AHL and back while with Vancouver hurt his player development.
Junior league stats via Elite Prospects, NHL stats via Hockey Reference, NHL analytics via Evolving Hockey