NHL Player Development Of First-Round Picks, Part Five

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NHL 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 draft picks in the back-half of the first round and how they were used early in their careers.

NHL Player Development Of First-Round Picks

NHL free agent frenzy

In the span of 2005 through 2015, there were 84 total selections made between 16th overall and 30th overall on forwards playing in North America. Looking at all 84 forwards, they were split into different categories. Those categories were “Forwards Deemed NHL-Ready and Brought In Immediately When Ready,” “Forwards Near NHL-Ready and Brought In Immediately When Near-Ready,” “Forwards Rushed Slightly,” “Forwards Rushed,” “Forwards Forced,” “A Little Patience,” “Patience,” and “Too Much Patience.” 

There were 13 forwards who fell into the third category on the list. Of those 13 players, six made their NHL impacts at or before their DY+3 season. Those six players are Tanner Pearson, Nick Schmaltz, Kerby Rychel, Jordan Eberle, Emerson Etem, and Scott Laughton. In this piece, we will look at Rychel and Eberle. 

NHL Player Development Of Kerby Rychel

Rychel, drafted 19th overall in the 2013 NHL draft by the Columbus Blue Jackets, came out of the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires organization. In his DY-1 season, he recorded 41 goals and 33 assists for 74 points in 68 games, for 1.088 points per game. That ranked 23rd out of the aforementioned 84 forwards in DY-1 production. Rychel followed that up with 40 goals and 47 assists for 87 points in 68 games the following year, for 1.279 points per game. That ranked 30th among those same 84 forwards in DY production. 

After getting drafted, Rychel would play another season in the OHL, followed by a season in the AHL. In that final OHL season, he would split between the Spitfires and the Guelph Storm. Combined, he scored 34 goals and 55 assists for 89 points in 58 games, for 1.535 points per game. That ranked 10th among the 82 forwards still outside the NHL in DY+1 production. In his first AHL season, he scored 12 goals and 21 assists for 33 points in 51 games, for 0.647 points per game. That ranked 56th out of the 70 forwards still outside the NHL in DY+2 production. The following season, the Blue Jackets would give Rychel his first true shot at an NHL role.  

How Was Rychel Used?

In his second professional season, he would split between the AHL and NHL. In the AHL, Rychel recorded six goals and 21 assists for 27 points in 37 games. Meanwhile, at the NHL level, he played 32 games and averaged just 9:31 time on ice per game in that span. In that small role, Rychel scored just two goals and seven assists for nine points. Analytically, however, he showed some promise. His even-strength offence goals above replacement (EVO) and even-strength defence goals above replacement were solid, at 3.4 and 0, respectively. For a rookie, being at or above replacement level in EVD is impressive. With those even-strength impacts, his wins above replacement (WAR) and goals above replacement (GAR) were both decent, at 0.6 and 2.9, respectively. 

In his third professional season, and second since his first true NHL season, he would play solely in the AHL. That is despite the fact he posted solid underlying numbers. He would also play within the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, with the Toronto Marlies. In 73 games with his new team, he scored 19 goals and 33 assists for 52 points. 

Another Trade Leads To Negative NHL Player Development

In his fourth professional season and third since his NHL impact, Rychel would stick mostly in the AHL. He would be dealt, again, in the middle of the season. This time, he ended up in the Montreal Canadiens organization. In total, he played 71 AHL games between the two organizations, scoring 18 goals and 24 assists for 42 points. At the NHL level, he would score just two points in four games, averaging 11:02 per game. 

Following that season, in 2017-18, Rychel would play just two more NHL games. With a new organization, he would not record a single point. Meanwhile, he would play 63 AHL games in parts of two seasons, scoring 23 goals and 21 assists for 44 points. In 2019-20, Rychel would play seven KHL games and be held scoreless. He has not played a professional game since. The NHL player development of Kerby Rychel started off well. Splitting between the NHL and AHL and having success in a small role is a generally good sign of things to come, based on what has been seen in this series. It was all for naught. Rychel fizzled out, as he was never given a good shot at the NHL. The problems are also likely a lot deeper than that, but that’s a story for another day. 

NHL Player Development Of Jordan Eberle

Eberle, drafted 22nd overall in the 2008 draft by the Edmonton Oilers, came out of the WHL’s Regina Pats organization. In his DY-1 season, Eberle would score 28 goals and 27 assists for 55 points in 66 games, for 0.833 points per game. That ranked 36th out of 84 forwards in DY-1 production. The following season, he scored 42 goals and 33 assists for 75 points in 70 games, for 1.071 points per game. That ranked 49th out of the same 84 forwards in DY production. 

After getting drafted, Eberle would play two more seasons in the WHL. In his DY+1 season, he scored 35 goals and 39 assists for 74 points in 61 games, for 1.213 points per game. That ranked 31st out of the 82 forwards still outside the NHL in DY+1 production. In his final WHL season, Eberle scored 50 goals and 56 assists for 106 points in 57 games, for 1.86 points per game. That ranked fourth among the 70 forwards still outside the NHL in DY+2 production. Following that season, he would become a full-time NHLer. 

How Was Eberle Used

In his first NHL season, Eberle would play 69 games and average a really solid 17:41 per game. In that big role, the rookie Eberle scored 18 goals and 25 assists for 43 points. Analytically, he wasn’t great. As a matter of fact, he was worse than Rychel. Eberle’s EVO (2.4) and EVD (-2.6) were worse than Rychel’s. Meanwhile, his WAR (0.2) and GAR (1.1) were barely over replacement level. 

In his second season, Eberle would see 78 games, and average 17:36 per game. That was essentially the same exact role as the year prior. With that, he scored 34 goals and 42 assists for a break-out performance of 76 points. His analytics were near-elite, with an EVO (17) that was extremely impressive. The only downside was his EVD (-6.6), which was horrible. But with his production and even-strength impact on offence so high, his WAR (2.9) and GAR (16.4) were outstanding.  

Year Three Lock-Out Forces Step-Back

In his third NHL season, Eberle was forced to play elsewhere before the season got underway. The 2012-13 lock-out kept the NHL season to playing just 48 games, of which Eberle played all of them. While waiting for the NHL to return, he played 34 AHL games, scoring 25 goals and 26 assists for 51 points. When the NHL came back, he averaged 19:00 per game, a noticeable jump in role after a big second season. With his new role, he scored 16 goals and 21 assists for 37 points, a step-down. Analytically, his EVD (-0.9) would be the only stat to improve. His EVO (5.4), WAR (1.4) and GAR (7.7) would all drop, but remain solid. 

Following his third season, in 2012-13, Eberle would play four more seasons with the Oilers. He scored 97 goals and 129 assists for 226 points in that 312-game span. After his last season as an Oiler in 2016-17, Eberle would join the New York Islanders, where he would play another four seasons. As an Islander, he played 272 games and scored 76 goals and 93 assists for 169 points. Finally, he would be drafted in the Seattle Kraken expansion draft. In his first season as a member of the Kraken, last season, he scored 21 goals and 23 assists for 44 points in 79 games. Safe to say the NHL player development of Eberle went really well until the uncontrollable, at least for him, lock-out of 2012-13. He would not return to the near-elite status he achieved in his second season, which remains his best season as a pro. 

Junior league stats via Elite Prospects, NHL stats via Hockey Reference, NHL analytics via Evolving Hockey.