Part 1: Branislav Mezei
Boston. June 26th, 1999. It's Draft Day, and the Islanders are partying like it's... well 1999. They've 3 picks in the top 10 and, unwittingly, will end up selecting the 2 best players not named "Sedin" within: Tim Connolly - 5th overall - and Taylor Pyatt - 8th overall. Their luck runs out with the 10th pick however, as they select big, bruising Slovak defenseman Branislav Mezei, who would only play 60 games for the team before being moved to the Panthers, where he'd spend five more seasons as a 6th, 7th defenseman before heading back to Europe, finishing his NHL career with a whopping 24 points.
... Jolly good, but what does Branislav Mezei, of all people, have to do with the 2022 NHL Draft, you ask? Well, first off, what's up with the British accent? And secondly, everything.
You see, Mezei is still playing in the top Slovak league and, at 41, playing the best hockey of his life. He captained cup finalists, putting up, in their final 5-2 loss, a goal and an assist for a rare +2 in 20 minutes of ice-time. A surprising offensive output for the enforcer, but one he had been consistently achieving for the last two years, after suddenly turning around and doubling his ever-decreasing 0.2ppg pace of years prior.
So what happened? Did he discover some sort of fountain of youth!?
... Well kinda. He discovered a fountain of points in the form of a youth, his "literal" right-hand man, Simon Nemec, who I contend the Habs should select first overall as the draft's best player, playing the NHL's most coveted position to boot. Nemec, I argue, possesses all the traits which render the current debated first-overall picks so tantalizing for the Canadiens' fanbase. He's the size and big-game production of Slafkovsky, with the skills and speed of Cooley and the proven track record and positional premium of Wright.
Part 2: Statistical Unicorns
Only 25 players under 16 years of age have ever played in a professional league in the modern era. I'll go in order of approximate league strength: None in the NHL or AHL (duh), none in the KHL (makes sense), none in the SHL (all those big names your thinking of, they started U17), 2 in the Liiga (Aleksi Saarela and Mikko Kokkonen for a grand total of 3 games), 1 in the DEL (Christian Wendler, for 1 game yet 12 goals allowed), 4 in the Swiss NL (although only 2 played more than 1 game), 11 in the Czech Extraliga (Jiri Hudler shines brightest with an incredible 1 point in 2 games) and 7 in the Slovak Extraliga (Good old Gaborik with 1 game and 1 goal).
How many of those actually got their name on the scoresheet? Only 7.
Filter out those who played less than 10 games, and you're left with 3.
Kick out Michael Riesen (14th overall pick by Oilers in 1997) for being old and not supporting my narrative, and you're left with 2.
Dalibor Dvorsky, Slovak phenom and projected top-10 pick in a stacked 2023 draft who played 20 games at center for 4 points.
And Simon Nemec, only defenseman in this list to have ever put up a point, let alone 3, in 12 games, a better PPG than Dvorsky, who otherwise would have the best PPG (over 4+ game sample) of the whole bunch.
So what's the catch? Did he just tag along on a strong team? No, quite the opposite. His team finished at with a -12 differential and did not make the playoffs. Nemec however, was +2 in his 12 games, near the very top of his team. Was the season a fluke, a lucky one-off? Well, also no, considering the next year he would put up 19 points in a full 37 game season, good for a 0.51ppg pace, as a defenseman, and highest U17 total in the league since Marian Gaborik (0.61) in 1999. For comparison, fellow potential 2022 slovak first-rounders Filip Mesar and Adam Sykora put up 14 and 2 points, respectively.
Well, perhaps it's simply a high-scoring league! Unfortunately, wrong again. This past season Nemec put up 26 points in 39 games (0.67ppg), 8th-highest amongst defensemen (although 2015 Sharks 2nd-rounder Jérémy Roy is the only one younger than 25 above him on that list). And in the playoffs? 17 points in 19 games (0.90ppg) 3rd best amongst all skaters, best amongst defensemen (teammate Willie Raskob is 2nd with 0.50ppg) and best amongst defensemen having played more than 10 games in league history! In fact, he's the only defenseman to score more than 10 points during the playoffs in league history... and he almost doubled that score!
So if I were to ask you who scored that goal Branislav Mezei assisted on and assisted on the goal Branislav Mezei, combining for all of team's offensive output in that final game? Well, you guessed it, Branislav Mezei's defensive pairing partner, Simon Nemec.
Cheerio, that's a lorryful of words, but what does it all mean, you say? Well, I don't know what's going on with you and that British accent, but luckily for you, smart people came up with an algorithm and a graph to contextualise all this unprecedented production, and it looks somewhat like this:
And here's the inevitable comparison with top 2022 Draft defenseman David Jiricek:
Here's the same comparison, but using Top Down Hockey's algorithm based on WAR (wins above replacement) instead of Hockey Prospecting's (NHLe, NHL equivalency score)
But Scotty ol' chap, you say! These charts also make David Jiricek look exceptional and, if I'm not mistaken, he also started his pro career 2 years ago like Nemec (2019-2020), playing 4 games in the Czech Extraliga. No points, but isn't that a tougher league? Why Nemec over Jiricek? Great question! Still not a fan of the British accent, but nonetheless, you bring me to part 3...
Part 3: Nemec v. Gore
Drafting is not an exact science. Much like counting chads on a punch card, two people can look at the same thing and come to radically different conclusions. What matters most is not the quality of your opinion, but rather the relevancy of it. For instance, in the last few drafts, the Habs have drafted numerous quality defensive prospects. The team's draft evaluations, while very astute, were biased towards defensive qualities, which yielded the team perhaps the best defenseman available, but not the most effective or useful defenseman available in today's NHL. A player can be the best in his class at a certain skill, if that skill is rendered irrelevant, so goes the player's effectiveness. Ben Chiarot and clearing the front of the net (crosschecking) is a prime example, but ramifications can be much wider-reaching such as the shift from standing to hybrid and butterfly goalies from Roy onwards.
A controversial example of this drafting philosophy in action would have the Habs draft Sean Durzi 38th overall in 2018 instead of Alexander Romanov. Was Romanov the better prospect? Yes. Will Durzi be the more effective player? Well, data from both their budding careers indicate Durzi's skills (transition, shot generation, PP quarterbacking) will prove more useful to his team's success than Romanov shot suppression and physicality. Romanov is still an excellent young defenseman however and the Habs may be to blame for limiting his offensive and transitional development.
All this leads me to explain how I see greater NHL value in Nemec's skillset versus Jiricek's. I'll go through a list of skills and identify which defenseman projects best in that area:
- Shot: Jiricek
- Skating: Jiricek
- Passing: Nemec
- Vision(IQ): Nemec
- Rush Defense: Jiricek
- Rush Offense: Nemec
- Defensive Transition: Jiricek
- Offensive Transition: Nemec
- Puck Carrying(Hands): Nemec
- Puck Retrieval(Board Play): Jiricek
It's immediately apparent that Jiricek is the better defensive prospect, while still possessing the skills to contribute offensively, while Nemec thrives from the neutral zone out. A professional and in-depth analysis of each player's style can be obtained through the following links:
And here's the take: Nemec's shifty puck-carrying transition and intelligent O-zone activation and puck distribution make him a better prospect for today's NHL than Jiricek's explosive straight-line transition and powerful perimeter shooting threat. In many ways, these players profile similarly to Durzi and Romanov, respectively, and the conclusion is mirrored. This year saw a continued increase in scoring, remarkable offensive playoff duels between the Oilers, Avalanche, Leafs and Lightning and a common narrative of shifty, mobile, distributing defensemen (Fox, Makar, Sergachev) affecting game outcome more considerably than their counterparts playing a more defensively-tuned game (Muzzin, Bouchard, Ekblad). I expect and hope for this trend to establish itself as the NHL norm in the years to come, as hockey is more entertaining with it.
Part 4: Centers Win Cups
Would the Habs benefit from a #1 C to shift Suzuki into a more natural second line role? Yes. Would they benefit even more from a #1 RHD to shift Barron into a more natural second pairing role? In my opinion, yes. The Rangers would be at a greater loss without Fox than without Zibanejad. The Avalanche would be at a greater loss without Makar than without MacKinnon and the Lightning would be at a greater loss without Hedman than Stamkos. Indeed, for each pairing mentioned (and the majority of #1D vs #1C pairings in the NHL, the defenseman is the player with the greatest Point Shares, or PS, which roughly defines the number of standing points contributed to a team by any given player, with Cale Makar contributing a record 15.2 points this season. In fact, one has to go back to the 2015-2016 season to find a player who had a greater positive impact on his team's success. And that player just so happens to be Carey Price.
Now yes: Nemec is neither a Makar, nor a Heman; but it goes without saying that Cooley and Wright are no MacKinnon and Slafkovsky is certainly not a Kucherov. Although my examples may appear cherry-picked they are in fact representative of a larger statistical trend. I've combed PS data from all 31 teams (Seattle didn't Krack the list) since Vegas' inaugural season in 2017-2018 and defensemen were the only skating position to lead their team more than a third of the time. It was also interesting to note that wingers more often led their teams than centers. Leaving centers as, theoretically, the least impactful position for high-end players.
Now, one can raise many objections to such a conclusion. First off, D-men generally play more minutes than forwards, so they have a greater statistical chance to accrue Point Shares. This is true, but actually touches upon another advantage elite D-men have over elite centers: they spend more time on the ice, and therefore can spend more time positively influencing the games' outcome for their teams. Much is said about hockey stars not being able to influence games to the degree of their basketball and quarterback counterparts due to their limited game time. While this is true, my data shows that when examining only the teams that made the Conference Finals over the last 5 years, the percentage of those teams led by d-men in point shares jumps from 35% to 50%. Coincidentally, it is often during the playoffs that defensemen see the most ice time. Coincidentally, Nemec happens to be the most highly-utilised player in the upcoming draft, always receiving upwards of 20 minutes of ice time and sometimes up to 28 minutes of ice time in regulation. In a professional league to boot! Playoffs? His ice time went up. Overtime? His ice time went up. It has been well noted by scouts that Nemec possesses one of the beter motors of the draft, but this is even more apparent when contrasted with Wright's limited playoff ice time, Slafkovsky's limited Liiga icetime and Cooley's limited ice time on a USNDTP squad which likes to roll all four of its prospect-laden lines. And for all that has been made of Slafkovsky's increased role for Slovakia on the international stage, the same can be said for Nemec, who put up similarly impressive numbers and earned similar accolades (Hlinka-Gretzky Cup MVP) throughout the year.
In Nemec, you therefore have a defensive prospect whose skillset is perfectly tuned for the NHL of today and tomorrow and who may possess both amongst the draft's highest ceiling (according to Will Scouch ) and the draft's highest floor (according to Cam Robinson ). You have a proven performer who has stepped up his game on the international stage this year, and shown constant improvement on a professional level over the last 3. For the Habs, he would prove a dynamic and entertaining cornerstone piece on the ride-side of the defensive core, able to ensure the constant elite presence required to carry a team, even contenders, through the playoffs, and to our very goal.
The prize on which we all have our eyes...
A 25th cup.
Hope you enjoyed this little essay! Cheers and here's to smashing first draft of HuGo era on July 7th!