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
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, four made their NHL impacts in their DY+4 season. Those four players are Alex Tuch, Nikita Scherbak, Jordan Schroeder, and Ryan Hartman. Today, we will look at Tuch and Scherbak.
NHL Player Development Of Alex Tuch
Tuch, drafted 18th overall in the 2014 draft by the Minnesota Wild, came out of the US National Team Development Program. In his DY-1 season, Tuch scored 11 goals and 15 assists for 26 points, for 0.464 points per game. That ranked 68th out of the 84 forwards in DY-1 season. He would follow that up with 29 goals and 35 assists for 64 points in 61 games, for 1.049 points per game. That ranked 53rd among the 84 forwards in DY production. After being drafted, Tuch would play two NCAA seasons before making the jump to professional hockey.
Alex Tuch said all the scans came back clear and he’s a game-time decision for tonight. pic.twitter.com/n2toZUp23X
— Lance Lysowski (@LLysowski) March 7, 2022
In his freshman season with Boston College, Tuch scored 14 goals and assists for 28 points in 37 games, for 0.757 points per game. That ranked 61st out of the 82 forwards still outside the NHL in DY+1 production. The following season, he scored 18 goals and 16 assists for 34 points in 40 games, for 0.85 points per game. That ranked 43rd out of the 70 forwards still outside the NHL in DY+2 production. Following his two NCAA seasons, Tuch would transition to AHL hockey.There, he played 57 games and scored 18 goals and 19 assists for 37 points, for 0.649 points per game. That ranked 16th out of the 46 forwards still outside the NHL in DY+3 production. Following this season, Tuch would get to make his first true NHL impact.
How Was Tuch Used?
In his first season as a near full-time NHLer, Tuch would still split some time in the AHL. He also was in a different organization, having been drafted by the Vegas Golden Knights at their expansion draft. At the AHL level, he scored four goals and five points in three games. Meanwhile, in his 78 NHL games played, he would average 15:15 time on ice per game. In that solid role, Tuch scored 15 goals and 22 assists for 37 points, a modest point total. His analytics were also really strong. His even-strength offence goals above replacement (EVO) was up at 2.5. Even better, however, was his even-strength defence goals above replacement (EVD), which was up at 3.3. With his solid even-strength numbers, Tuch recorded a wins above replacement (WAR) of 1.1 and a goals above replacement (GAR) of 5.8. For a rookie, these are impressive numbers.
In his second season, he scored 20 goals and 32 assists for 52 points in 74 games, as he was a mainstay in the NHL for Vegas. He did that while averaging 16:44 per game, a step up from his last season. His analytics were near-elite as well. His EVO (12.0) and EVD (2.6) were both very impressive. But his WAR (3.2) and GAR (17.3) were what really was impressive.
Big Regression From Tuch In NHL Player Development
In his third season, Tuch would play 42 games in a COVID-shortened season. In that span, he averaged just 14:37 per game, a big step back after a great season the year prior. With that smaller role, his point production would fall to eight goals and nine assists for 18 points, a huge drop off. Analytically, the regression was even more noticeable. His EVO (-1.3) fell below replacement level, while his EVD (0.4) barely stayed above replacement level. That poor even-strength play dropped his WAR (0.3) and GAR (1.6) in a big way.
Following that third season, in 2019-20, Tuch would play one more season with the Golden Knights. In that season, he scored 18 goals and 15 assists for 33 points in 55 games. The following off-season, he was dealt as a piece in a mega-deal to the Buffalo Sabres for Jack Eichel. He would then score 12 goals and 26 assists for 38 points in 50 games with them. Tuch also established himself as a fan-favorite and a leader on the team, and as he is still just 26 years old, his production is likely to go up over the next few seasons. Safe to say, his NHL player development is not yet finished, with how he has bounced around. However, he has established himself as a top-six guy at times, and it wouldn’t be a shock for him to keep that role with the Sabres.
NHL Player Development Of Nikita Scherbak
Scherbak, drafted 26th overall in the 2014 draft by the Montreal Canadiens, came out of the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades organization. However, in his DY-1 season, he was playing in his home country of Russia, at the MHL level. There, he scored seven goals and assists for 14 points in 50 games, for 0.28 points per game. That ranked 78th out of the 84 forwards in DY-1 production. After coming to North America to join the Blades, he scored 28 goals and 50 assists for 78 points in 65 games, for 1.2 points per game. That ranked 36th out of those same 84 forwards in DY production. After being drafted, Scherbak would play one more WHL season before heading to the AHL for two seasons.
In his DY+1 season, Scherbak scored 27 goals and 55 assists for 82 points in 65 games, for 1.262 points per game. That ranked 27th out of 82 forwards in DY+1 production. Then, in his first AHL season, Scherbak would score seven goals and 16 assists for 23 points in 48 games, for 0.479 points per game. That ranked 64th out of the 70 forwards outside the NHL in DY+2 production. He followed that up with 13 goals and 28 assists for 41 points in 66 AHL games, for 0.621 points per game. Scherbak would make his NHL impact the following season.
How Was Scherbak Used
In his first true NHL season, he would split between the top level and the AHL. In 26 AHL games, he scored seven goals and 23 assists for 30 points. Then, in the NHL, he played 26 games and averaged 13:23 per game. In that role, he scored four goals and six points. His analytics explained why he didn’t produce much. His EVO (-2.1) was really poor, but he played a more defensively-responsible game, with an EVD (2.1) that was impressive for a rookie.
The following season, he played mostly in the AHL. He would also be dealt to the Los Angeles Kings organization. In 28 AHL games, Scherbak scored five goals and seven assists for 12 points. Meanwhile, in the NHL, he played eight games and averaged 10:11 per game. In that very small role, he scored one goal. Every analytic was below replacement-level. His EVO (-0.4) improved, but not enough. His EVD (-0.2) would fall, which led to his WAR (-0.2) and GAR (-0.8) to drop a lot.
Year Two Regression Leads To No NHL Play In Year Three
In his third season, Scherbak would leave North America and return to the KHL. There, he scored 11 points in 31 games. After that third season, Scherbak would come back to play one more season of AHL hockey, scoring 15 points in 28 games. He returned to Europe, playing in both Czechia and Slovakia last season. In Czechia, he scored 12 points in 17 games. Meanwhile in Slovakia, he played 25 games and scored 21 points. Next season, he is slated to play in Czechia. It’s safe to say Scherbak’s NHL player development did not go very well. Which is unfortunate because he showed so much promise in his WHL career and smooth transition to the North American ice surface.
Junior league stats via Elite Prospects, NHL stats via Hockey Reference, NHL analytics via Evolving Hockey