NHL Player Development Of First Round Picks, Part 22

NHL Player Development

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 16 forwards who fell into the fourth category, “forced,” on the list. Of those 16 players, six made their NHL impacts in their DY+2 seasons. Those players are Jared McCann, Nick Foligno, Curtis Lazar, Jordan Caron, Tom Wilson and Colton Gillies. In this piece, we will look at Wilson and Gillies.

In this piece, we will be using stats from eliteprospects (raw stats) and hockey-reference (ice time). Additionally, the analytics we are using are as follows: even-strength offence goals above replacement (EVO), even-strength defence goals above replacement (EVD), wins above replacement (WAR) and goals above replacement (GAR). Those analytics are from evolving-hockey (subscription required). 

NHL Player Development Of Tom Wilson

Wilson, drafted 16th overall in the 2012 NHL draft by the Washington Capitals, came out of the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers organization. In his DY-1 season, Wilson scored just three goals and assists for six points in 28 games, for 0.214 points per game. That ranked 82nd among the aforementioned 84 forwards in DY-1 production. The following season, he scored nine goals and 18 assists for 27 points in 49 games, for 0.551 points per game. That ranked 80th amongst those same 84 forwards in DY production. After getting drafted, he would play one more OHL season before making the jump to the professional ranks. 

In his last OHL season, Wilson scored 23 goals and 35 assists for 58 points in 48 games, for 1.208 points per game. That ranked 32nd among the 82 forwards still outside of the NHL in DY+1 production. The following season, Wilson would get his NHL shot. 

How Was Wilson Used

Wilson, in his first NHL season, played all 82 games and averaged just 7:56 time on ice per game. In that extremely small role, Wilson scored three goals and seven assists for 10 points. His counting stats were expected, especially with the extremely limited role. But there’s a silver lining in his analytics, finishing above replacement level in every metric. His EVO (0.3) and EVD (0.7) were okay, with his EVD being especially good for a rookie. That led to a modest WAR (0.1) and GAR (0.7).

In his second season, Wilson would spend some time in the AHL. Playing just 2 AHL games, he was held pointless. However, he would play 67 NHL games and average 10:56 per game, a slight increase in his role. The increase in role led his counting stats to be better. He scored four goals and 13 assists for 17 points. Analytically, he improved in almost every area, except for EVO (-0.6). His EVD (2.5) was very impressive, and it led to his WAR (0.7) and GAR (3.6) being solid. 

Full Season, Bigger Role, Continued Upward NHL Player Development

In his third NHL season, Wilson would yet again play a full 82 games, averaging 12:55 per game, nearly two minutes more on average than the year prior. With a much bigger role, Wilson scored seven goals and 16 assists for 23 points, his best season yet. His analytics were the same. Wilson’s EVO (6.5) was much better, while his EVD (0.4) regressed a bit. Overall, he improved his WAR (1.4) and GAR (7.4), for an overall strong and promising third season. 

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Following that third season, in 2015-16, Wilson would become a key piece of the Capitals team, where he remains today. There have been six seasons since that third professional year for Wilson. Of which, he played 416 games, scoring 101 goals and 122 assists for 223 points, all while averaging 16:38 per game. While his NHL player development wasn’t exactly a blueprint for other teams, the gradual increase in his role year-to-year was the right path to take. It clearly paid dividends, as Wilson is a top-line winger and important contributor to the Capitals year-in and year-out. 

NHL Player Development Of Colton Gillies

Gillies, drafted 16th overall by the Minnesota Wild in the 2007 NHL draft, came out of the Saskatoon Blades organization of the WHL. In his DY-1 season, he scored six goals and assists for 12 points in 63 games, for 0.191 points per game. That ranked 83rd among the 84 forwards in DY-1 production. The following season, Gillies scored 13 goals and 17 assists for 30 points in 65 games, for 0.462 points per game. That ranked 81st out of those same 84 forwards, in DY production. Upon getting drafted, Gillies would play one last season in the WHL before heading to the professional ranks. 

In his final WHL season, Gillies scored 24 goals and 23 assists for 47 points in 58 games, for 0.81 points per game. That ranked 56th out of the 82 forwards still outside the NHL in DY+1 production. After this season, he would join the Wild’s NHL squad for the 2008-09 season. 

How Was Gillies Used

In his first professional season, Gillies would play primarily in the NHL. Overall, he played 45 games, averaging 8:14 per game. In that small role, he would score two goals and seven total points. Analytically, he didn’t show much better. Everything was below replacement level. His EVO (-1.6) was bad, while his EVD (-0.1) was good for a rookie, but still under replacement level. Thus, his WAR (-0.3) and GAR (-1.8) were poor. 
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With that abysmal rookie season, Gillies would only play at the AHL level the following season. Playing 72 games with the Houston Aeros, the Wild affiliates at the time, Gillies would score seven goals and 13 assists for 20 points. Not great production from a player who didn’t produce a whole lot in junior leagues either. 

Year Three Was More Of The Same

In year three, Gillies would see some NHL action but mostly stuck down in the AHL. Again. He would play 64 AHL games this time, scoring 11 goals and 15 assists for 26 points, a modest production at best. Meanwhile, with the Wild in the NHL, he played just seven games and averaged 10:22 per game. In that slightly larger role, in a smaller sample size, Gillies would score just one goal. His analytics were improved from his rookie year, but again, he played just seven games, and they still weren’t “good.” His EVO (-0.7) was still bad, and his EVD (0.4) was solid but not enough to prove value with an EVO that poor. That lack of value is evident in his WAR (-0.1) and GAR (-0.3) still being below replacement level. 

Since that third season in the 2010-11 season, Gillies would play 102 NHL games over the course of the following two seasons. He scored 10 points in that span, split between two teams: the Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets. After those two seasons, he signed with the Buffalo Sabres for the 2013-14 season where he played exclusively in the AHL. He would then join the New York Islanders AHL squad the following year, failing to crack an NHL spot. After those AHL seasons, Gillies left for Europe. After leaving, at the start of the 2015-16 season, Gillies played in Slovakia and Russia (KHL). He has since retired, with his last season of professional hockey coming in 2019-20 with Dinamo Riga in the KHL. 

Gillies Was The Wrong Pick, And Wilson Was Risky

Neither one of Gillies nor Wilson were impressive in terms of production at the junior levels. The difference between the two is Wilson had a bigger DY+1 and adapted to the NHL better, with a better situation. That situation was Alex Ovechkin becoming his linemate. As for Gillies, there were better options both at the time and in hindsight. Max Pacioretty went six picks later than Gillies in that 2007 draft.

Pacioretty averaged over a point per game in both the USHS levels and USHL levels in his DY-1 and DY seasons, respectively. He then went to the NCAA level, where he again was over a point per game, before making it to the NHL, where he is a top-six calibre player. The NHL player development for Gillies wasn’t great, but he also never gave the Wild a reason to give him a better chance. He simply was not the right choice on draft day in 2007. 

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