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. With forwards drafted out of North American hockey leagues between 2005 and 2015, in the first round, covered, let’s shift to forwards drafted out of Europe.
NHL Player Development Of Top-Ten Picks
In the span of 2005 through 2015, there were 10 players selected within the top-ten out of Europe. Within that grouping, there were four players who made their NHL impacts (15+ games in a single season) in their DY+2 season, or, in other words, after one year of development following their selection in the draft. Those players were Nicklas Backstrom, William Nylander, Mika Zibanejad, and Magnus Paajarvi. Today, let’s look at Backstrom and Nylander.
In these pieces, Last Word will be using Even-Strength Offence Goals Above Replacement (EVO), Even-Strength Defence Goals Above Replacement (EVD), Wins Above Replacement (WAR) and Goals Above Replacement (GAR). All those analytics come from Evolving-Hockey (paid subscription required).
NHL Player Development Of Nicklas Backstrom
Backstrom, drafted fourth overall by the Washington Capitals in the 2006 NHL draft, came out of the Brynas organization in Sweden. In his DY-1 season, he played primarily in the J20 SuperElit league, where he scored 17 goals and assists for 34 points in 29 games, for 1.172 points per game. That ranked fourth amongst the aforementioned 10 forwards in DY-1 production. Following that season, he was promoted to the top Swedish men’s league, where he played his entire season. There, he scored 10 goals and 16 assists for 26 points in 46 games, for 0.565 points per game. That ranked fifth amongst those same 10 forwards in DY production.
After being drafted, Backstrom would play one more year in Sweden, where he was promoted to assistant captain for the top men’s Brynas squad. He went on to score 12 goals and 28 assists for 40 points in 45 games, for 0.889 points per game. That ranked fourth out of the eight forwards still outside the NHL in DY+1 production.
How Backstrom Was Used
Immediately following the move to North America, Backstrom would become a full-time NHLer. As a rookie, he played all 82 games, and averaged 19:00 time on ice per game. For a rookie, that is incredibly impressive. With that role, he scored 14 goals and 55 assists for 69 points. Backstrom finished second in Calder Trophy voting, falling short to the American phenom, Patrick Kane. His advanced stats were elite as well. His EVO (12.4) was fantastic, while his EVD (3.8) was one of the best numbers for a rookie since Last Word started this series. With those fantastic even-strength numbers, his WAR (4.7) and GAR (26) were absolutely unreal.
After one of the best rookie seasons in the modern-era, Backstrom would be even better as a sophomore. He played another full 82-game season, averaging 19:57 per game. With that larger role, he produced even more, with 22 goals and 66 assists for 88 points. However, his advanced stats took a pretty hefty step back. His EVO (5.3) and EVD (-1.6) dropped fairly significantly. Alongside those stats, his WAR (2.3) and GAR (12.9) were no longer elite numbers, though still solid.
Backstrom’s Return To Elite Status
The following season, Backstrom would score even more points. Once again, playing all 82 games, he would score 33 goals and 68 assists for 101 points, while averaging 20:27 per game. Not to mention, his advanced stats skyrocketed back up into elite status. His EVO (15.2) and EVD (4.3) were both new career-highs, while his WAR (5.5) and GAR (30.2) were insane numbers.
However, Backstrom would never return to the 100-point club in his career, at least not yet. His next highest point total following those explosive first three seasons was 86 in 2016-17. Overall, since that third season, he has played 833 games and counting, all as a Capital. In that span, he scored 198 goals and 565 assists for 763 points. Backstrom is still a player that was considered an elite, or at least high-end, player in his prime. Unfortunately, injuries have hampered him the last few seasons. He has just played 21 games this season, with 10 points. It’s hard to argue that, after a Stanley Cup ring, around 20 goals a season and 70+ points a year almost consistently in his prime, plus his incredible leadership skills, the Capitals are stoked with the NHL player development path that Backstrom took and succeeded in.
NHL Player Development Of William Nylander
Nylander, drafted eighth overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2014 NHL draft, came out of the Sodertalje, Rogle BK and MODO Hockey organization in Sweden. He primarily played in the J20 SuperElit league in his DY-1 season. There, he scored 15 goals and 28 assists for 43 points in 27 games, for 1.593 points per game. That ranked second amongst the aforementioned 10 forwards in DY-1 production. The following year, Nylander would primarily play on a loan, split between Rogle BK and Sodertalje, after he became a part of the MODO hockey program, in the Allsvenskan. In total, he played 35 games, and scored 15 goals and 12 assists for 27 points, for 0.771 points per game. That ranked third amongst those same 10 forwards in DY production.
After being drafted, Nylander would play most of his games in North America at the AHL level with the Toronto Marlies. He scored 14 goals and 18 assists for 32 points in 37 games, for 0.865 points per game. That ranked third amongst the eight forwards still outside the NHL in DY+1 production.
How Nylander Was Used
In his first year playing in the NHL, he was not a full-timer. Instead, he would play mostly in the AHL. There, he scored 18 goals and 27 assists for 45 points in 38 games, a solid statline for a young player. That earned him 22 NHL games, in which he averaged 16:20 per game. With that role, he scored six goals and seven assists for 13 points, a pretty solid statline. Nylander’s advanced stats did not jump off the page, but his EVO (1.2) and EVD (-0.7) were not terrible. Meanwhile his WAR (0.1) and GAR (0.4) were at least above replacement level.
The following season, Nylander would become a full-time NHL player. Playing in 81 games, he averaged 16:01 per game. With that, he scored 22 goals and 39 assists for 61 points, a pretty impressive production line. His advanced stats left a bit to be desired despite the production, but his EVO (1.4) slightly improved and his EVD (-1.4) dropped a bit, but not substantially. Meanwhile, his WAR (0.7) and GAR (3.6) both improved.
Nylander’s Underlying Breakout
In his third NHL season, Nylander would play a full 82-game season, where he averaged 16:41 per game. With his second full season, Nylander would not take a big stride in raw production, as he scored 20 goals and 41 assists for 61 points, which was the same number of points as the year prior. However, his underlying stats were impressive. His EVO (16.2) was miles better, while his EVD (-3.5) continued to drop, due to his more offensive-oriented style. Overall, his WAR (3.4) and GAR (17.3) were bordering on elite status.
Those underlying numbers were a hint of something more to come from Nylander. Following that third season, in 2017-18, he played four full years and part of a fifth year (this season). Nylander has played all those games with Toronto. In that aforementioned five season span, he has scored 122 goals and 160 assists for 282 points in 317 games. Last year, in 2021-22, Nylander hit the 80-point mark for the first time in his career. Thus far this season, he has 33 goals and 41 assists for 74 points in 63 games, putting him on pace to surpass last season’s totals. Safe to say the Maple Leafs did a very good job with Nylander’s NHL player development, and Nylander made the most of his early opportunities.
Main Photo: Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports