The NHL Draft has always been a tough exercise. Projecting what will happen with 17-year-olds is a tough exercise even for the most talented players of that age.
A lot can happen, and a few months is critical at that age to see development. With the announcement that the scouting season for the 2020 NHL Draft may be essentially over — all three Canadian Hockey League regular seasons, most of Europe, and the World Under 18 championships have been cancelled — there is less tape on these prospects, and perhaps more importantly less late tape.
A few months can be significant in development. It is often cited in terms of the age of a prospect because of the difference months can make.
For an example of this, you can look at the 2018 NHL Draft. Near and dear to Montreal Canadiens fans is the late rise of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, mainly due to his performance at the World Under 18 championships. He went from a prospect in the top 10 to a prospect getting buzz in the top five. In tracking draft rankings, there was a clear divide in terms of rankings that came out earlier due to publication deadlines, and those that came out later (regardless of how you feel about the actual selection). The final ranking from Bob McKenzie, typically the final set to be released, had Kotkaniemi at fifth.
The rise for Kotkaniemi started even earlier. In the mid-season rankings he was the ninth European skater and was sixth when the final rankings came out. He wasn’t the only first-round pick to see an increase.
Ty Dellandrea was ranked 76th in North America by NHL Central Scouting in their mid-season ranking. In the final ranking, he was 25th — a jump of 51 spots. At the Draft, he was selected 13th overall by Dallas.
That wasn’t even the biggest rise of the 2018 Draft. Liam Foudy was 91st at midseason and turned that around to 19th in the final ranking. He was then taken 18th in the NHL Draft. Other big risers taken in the first round were Nils Lundkvist and Jacob Bernard-Docker who both moved up more than 20 spots. Ryan Merkley dropped 24 spots.
This isn’t a foolproof method, and late rises have already started (the CHL in particular only cancelled a handful of regular season games per team) but the ability for a player to make a name for themselves with a playoff, Memorial Cup run, or U18 appearance is unlikely if not already cancelled.
That means that teams need to project even more than they have to in normal circumstances. Team combines like the ones the Canadiens hold in Quebec and Europe — if they are even held — will hold more importance. Likewise with the NHL combine. If they are cancelled, it increases the guesswork.
In a draft that is important to the Canadiens, having more darts to throw at the board is even more beneficial than it would be under normal circumstances. They can take a chance on a player they like a little higher, or pounce on a player who is dropping due to any kind of uncertainty. It puts more pressure on scouts, some of which stopped going to games even before the shutdown was implemented.
Montreal has nine picks in the first four rounds, and 14 overall. If there was any draft where that is more important, given the circumstances, it is this one.