Why it's probably silly to stress over Bruins draft 'reaches'

Why it's probably silly to stress over Bruins draft 'reaches'

In the NHL draft on Friday, the Bruins used the 18th overall pick on Urho Vaakanainen, a Finnish defenseman who was not a consensus first-round prospect. What idiots. 

Oh, not the Bruins. Well, maybe. Who knows? But the for-sure idiots are people who are inclined to lament the pick. 

This isn’t because I’m necessarily a big fan of Vaakanainen. Like you, I’ve not watched full games of him. It’s because if you blindly criticize an NHL draft pick past the middle of the first round, you are an absolute maniac.

The NHL draft might be the most difficult draft in professional sports. There are sleepers in every draft, but no draft lends itself to going off the board more than hockey. Maybe baseball. Maaaaybe. 

Why? Because players are so hard to project that the best talent evaluators in the world are often incorrect in the long-run. There’s so much projection involved that the 18th-best player at the time of the draft could very well be a nobody at the next level. We cling to the pre-draft rankings for dear life, but Craig Button’s final list is far different from Todd McShay’s big board. This isn’t because McShay is any smarter than Button; it’s because projecting teenagers who haven’t grown into their bodies for a job when they’re 22 is a heck of a lot harder than projecting a 22-year-old for a job when they’re 22. 

Scouts and a lot of media know to a tee what these players are now. There's no questioning their knowledge. Yet what makes the draft so fascinating is that, unlike a draft like the NFL and, to an extent, the NBA, it's more of a question of what they may be. 

Case in point: As part of a piece I wrote for back in 2015, I attempted to quantify what a “hit” and a “miss” was in the first round of the NHL draft. The explanation is in the story, but for our purposes “hit” means NHL regular or close to it. I looked at a seven-year sample and these were the findings: 

Picks 1-10: 62 hits, eight misses
Picks 11-20: 29 hits, 41 misses
Picks 21-30: 20 hits, 50 misses

This isn’t to suggest that teams should throw darts at a board. That would sell short the importance of having good players on entry level contracts, which is critical in today’s NHL. It would also foolishly suggest the work done by scouts isn’t equally critical. 

Yet where the Bruins picked on Friday, they were in the range where they’ve got less than a 50-50 chance of the guy panning out. Taking a risk on a guy they like rather than a bigger name (like there is a “bigger” name than Vaakanainen; just a little name humor) with whom they're not enamored is a totally respectable approach. 

Under Don Sweeney, the Bruins go off the board regularly. Jake DeBrusk was considered a minor reach at 14th overall in 2015; Zach Senyshyn was considered a major reach with the very next pick. Those picks were easier to question considering a presumed top-10 pick was still on the board in Kyle Connor. If they end up being wrong on that, they'll deserve criticism just like anyone who took someone who proved to be a lesser player before the 17th pick. 

A year later, the B’s took Trent Frederic in the first round when there hadn’t been a peep about that kid being a first-round pick. The jury is still out on all of these guys, but they’ve developed well since their selections. 

But going by the book isn't a clear-cut recipe for success, and the B's know it. The 2012 draft wasn’t great. Go look at the late first round of that draft; Tanner Pearson is the exception, not the rule, given that he became an NHL regular. Picking in that range, the B’s took a player ranked in that neighborhood: Malcolm Subban, who has yet to become a starting NHL goalie and may never do so. 

The Bruins would have received a whole lot of what-the-hell-are-they-doings had they taken a lower-ranked goalie in that spot. Yet Matt Murray was in that draft and he ended up becoming a starting goalie as a third-round pick. They’d also have been panned if they took Shayne Gostisbehere, who went in the third. 

Like any draft, guys drafted in later rounds can become great players. Yet the NHL draft usually isn’t going to give you a star in the first round the way the NFL draft does, so you might as well take the guy you like where you want. That’s what the Bruins do, and it’s really not as silly as it sounds. 

Morning Skate: Donato's stock rising with each Olympic victory

AP Photo

Morning Skate: Donato's stock rising with each Olympic victory

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading, while Team USA continues its uphill journey toward an Olympic medal.

*Ryan Donato potted a couple more goals in a decisive win for Team USA over Slovakia in elimination play and has been one of the top American hockey players at the PyeongChang Winter Games in South Korea. Donato showed a little bit of everything in the performance with a sniper shot off a loose puck, another goal off the rush and he played through a nasty hit up high that appeared to bloody his nose. It’s no exaggeration at this point to say that Team USA goes as Donato goes after he’s secured two-goal performances in each of their victories.

Even better, Donato did it after a surprise visit from his old man, former Bruins player and current Harvard coach Ted Donato, after it was up in the air whether he’d be able to get away to South Korea to watch his son play. From a Bruins perspective, it’s all good things watching Donato score and lead the Americans on a large, global stage while his prospect profile grows with each play that he makes. It’s clear he’s going to sign with the Bruins and go pro shortly after the Olympics, with the only question being whether it makes a quick detour back to Harvard to finish up his college season prior to signing with the Black and Gold.

What’s less clear is the immediate future for Donato, 21. He continues to show high hockey IQ and a scorer’s toughness that’s allowed him to basically be a goal-per-game performer for the Crimson this season. Those will serve him well in the pros. But it would be unrealistic to think that Donato can jump right in and play for the Bruins at this late point in the season. It’s far more likely that he instead spends some development time in Providence after finally inking his entry-level deal.

The Bruins may have to burn off the first year of the entry-level deal when they sign Donato as has become customary with many of the college prospects, but it would be in his best interest to gain experience in Providence rather than sitting and watching as Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson did last season. That experience has done him little good as he’s spent this season in Providence working up to being ready for his shot in the NHL.

What Donato could do for this year’s Bruins team is something else, however. His mere presence as a prospect about to join the pro ranks would allow the Bruins to part with one of their young players on the wing in a deadline deal trade. Anders Bjork would be the NHL-ready prospect most likely to move if the B’s had to give up one of their best and brightest in a big deadline move.

Bjork has speed and skill in large amounts and showed it in flashes when he was in Boston earlier this season, but the Bruins are dealing with a massive surplus of skilled wingers and left-shot defensemen in their prospect ranks right now. You can’t play them all in the NHL and Donato’s presence could and should allow Don Sweeney to deal one of them away ahead of Monday afternoon’s deadline.   

*Petr Mrazek is officially now in the playoff chase and also the newest goalie hope in Philly after getting traded to the Flyers from the Red Wings.

*Mat Barzal has overcome any bitterness about his previous experiences in pro hockey to become a Calder Trophy favorite with the Islanders.

*Interesting look at a typical practice with the struggling Montreal Canadiens from FOH (Friend of Haggs) Arpon Basu, who sees meaning in the mundane daily ritual.

*Larry Brooks seems to be dreaming of a lottery pick for the New York Rangers, who have not had one at the very top in a long, long time.

*Women’s Olympic Hockey will be expanding from eight to 10 teams for the next Winter Games, which is great news.

*For something completely different: Kurt Cobain would have been 51 today. Wow, that makes me feel wicked old.


Bruins trade for defenseman Nick Holden from Rangers

USA TODAY Sports photo

Bruins trade for defenseman Nick Holden from Rangers

Bruins general manager Don Sweeney was active and out ahead of the pack with the NHL trade deadline looming next week and he’s made his first move. The Bruins have sent defenseman prospect Robbie O’Gara and a 2018 third-round pick to the New York Rangers for left-shot defenseman Nick Holden, who fills one of the big needs that the Black and Gold had entering this month.

Holden, 30, has been a solid player for the Rangers and Avalanche the past couple of seasons with career highs of 11 goals, 24 points and a plus-13 rating last season to go along with 20:38 of ice time per game for the Blueshirts. Holden has been a little less effective this season with three goals, 12 points and a minus-3 in 55 games for the Rangers, but he’s been a solid top-four, two-way D-man for the past few seasons.

This kind of move gives the Bruins exactly the kind of depth they were looking for on the left side of their back end and adds somebody else on the left side who can play penalty kill and shutdown-type roles behind Zdeno Chara. It also would seem to preclude them from being in the mix for any potential blockbuster for Rangers D-man Ryan McDonagh, but that’s a good thing given that the Bruins didn’t give up anything from their NHL roster to make this deal.

One interesting thing about Holden is that he can play either on the left or right side as a left shot D-man, so it adds flexibility to Boston's back end while also potentially opening up some of their other, younger D-men for corresponding trades if that's the direction Sweeney wants to go. 

O’Gara, 24, is a solid, stay-at-home prospect for the Bruins who's played in 11 games in Boston the past two seasons, but wasn’t the kind of battle-hardened veteran that the B’s were looking for in a playoff run. It also gives O’Gara, from Massapequa, New York, the chance to play for one of the teams he grew up watching and rewards a prospect who has done absolutely everything the B’s have asked of him since he was drafted in the fifth round in 2011.

Presumably, this move will allow Holden to slot in on a pairing with Charlie McAvoy and gives the Bruins the possibility of reuniting Zdeno Chara and Brandon Carlo as a shutdown pairing that enjoyed all kinds of success holding down other team’s top offensive players. It gives Bruce Cassidy the versatility to mix and match those four D-men to find the best combos and it should drop Torey Krug down to the bottom pairing where he’s probably best suited as an undersized power play maestro.

The bottom line is this gives the Bruins some back-end depth if injuries hit them hard as they did toward the end of last season. It also addresses a big need without giving up anything from an NHL roster that’s vying for the President’s Trophy. The price was a reasonable one for a player the caliber of Holden and could actually be much less than some other GMs pay for D-men closer to the Feb. 26 trade deadline. Sweeney deserves some credit for being an early bird and a tone-setter when it came to making this deal.