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The Perils of a High Pick in This Year’s NHL Draft

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With the number of issues related to scouting this season, we look today at how this might affect our New Jersey Devils’ (or any NHL team’s) ability to get a true look at the available 2021 draft prospects.

2019 NHL Draft - Portraits
Jack Hughes was an easy choice when the Devils selected him first overall in 2019. Will any team have the same ease with their first round selection this year?
Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images

The NHL Draft lottery is, at the time of publishing this article, just under a week away; on June 2nd, fans of the team that did not make the playoffs, including our New Jersey Devils, will find out where their team will draft come late July. Slated to draft fourth (due to the Seattle Kraken joining the league), the Devils sit tied with the Kraken at 10.3% in terms of odds to land the first overall choice.

Another first overall pick to join recent selections Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes would be nice for a team that has fallen on hard times for the better part of the last decade. However, as we all know and have seen, hockey is a team game, and one mere first overall pick (no matter how talented) won’t fix all of your woes. A high draft pick for a rebuilding team can be a step in the right direction though, and the Devils having some good young players in the organization already, need another to help them take the next step forward towards being relevant again.

Hitting or missing on draft choices can help to rebuild a team sooner, or to stay stuck spinning their wheels for more years to come. A higher choice, with arguably more talented players available, means that teams in those early slots have to get it right.

But this year, it may be a bit difficult to get it right.

The continuing Covid-19 pandemic has affected the sports world in many different ways. Safety protocol changes, condensed schedules, and players missing from the lineup due to possible/confirmed exposure were just a few of the regular occurrences this past season. There were, however, some others that flew a bit under the radar, namely scouting issues and (maybe a bit less under the radar) leagues that did not operate.

While the NHL and other leagues found ways to complete a truncated season this past year, part of how they did so was by limiting the number of people in the building. For games in Canada (where most of the teams in the three major junior leagues play) only staff of the playing teams were allowed into games. That means no scouting of players in person; rather, scouts would have to rely on footage provided, rather than focusing on certain players in person.

Trying to have eyes on certain players digitally is difficult enough, as the puck, rather than individual players, is usually the focal point of a hockey recording. So scouting for speed, intangibles and doing the right thing when off the puck just got a lot harder. What about players being unavailable to see entirely? How is that even possible?

Well when a league doesn’t have to ability to get a season in due to multiple factors, there’s going to be certain draft eligible players that now there is less footage of. Such was the case for the OHL this season; while they were the only major junior league that was unable to play a season in 2021, it still means there’s now a crop of talent that there’s even less footage of, after already losing time at the end of the 2019-20 season.

So with less footage, much less in person scouting, and all of the other necessary impediments from this past season, the draft this year is much less of a certainty. Sure, there are still players who have already garnered a positive reputation from earlier parts of their junior career that will go in the first few slots (so the hope is the Devils maintain a high pick), but beyond that, there may be more interchangeable parts, less sure things and (even worse) possible busts that while talented just do not see said talent translate to the NHL game.

I don’t envy pro scouts and their job during a typical season; I have to close today by saying I certainly don’t envy them now with the past season that they’ve had and the draft that is to come in roughly two months.

What are your thoughts on the draft and scouting from this season; are you concerned that even the top picks could be misses rather than hits this year? Do you think that this risk is always present, not just in a year where scouting is compromised? Do you believe that scouts were still able to effectively do their job this year just because they know what to look for even on video? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!