5 low-risk picks at the 2016 NHL Draft

Though I’m sure we would love if each of the Leafs’ picks in the upcoming entry draft turned into regular NHLers, that likely won’t happen.  

Players with high ceilings often come with greater risk value.  There are usually glaring question marks surrounding their games- whether that be talent wise (for example, an offensively gifted player who can’t defend if his life depended on it) or character wise (attitude issues being the most common).  

On the other end of the spectrum, teams may opt to draft players with a lower risk value.  Though these players may not have the highest ceilings, they are appealing to GMs in such a way that they have a decent shot of making the NHL or even the AHL.  They aren’t the types of players to fall off the face of the earth. Though they may not turn into NHL superstars, players like this often find themselves playing third or fourth line minutes.   

The first overall pick comes with an almost zero risk factor.  Picks in the top 5 are kind of hard to screw up. Once you begin to move past the top 15, picks become more interesting and complex.  The types of players teams select says a lot about an organization’s mindset and where they see themselves in the next 5 years or so.  That being said, let us take a look at the characteristics of a low-risk pick, a few “safe” picks in this year’s draft and whether or not the Leafs should take a flyer on any of these players.  

Characteristics of a low-risk pick 

Typically, taller/bigger prospects whose frame and body weight match their height are safe bets in terms of size.  For argument’s sake, we’ll say a player who is between 6’0 and 6’3 and over 180 pounds is physically developed.  

In regards to style of play, defensive-minded players typically fall into the low-risk category.  These players usually have an above average understanding of how the game works; they are positionally sound and reliable players.  They may not be offensively gifted and often play on the penalty kill rather than the power play (though not always).  There are no glaring holes or areas of their game that need significant improvement.  

Though not the most reliable stat, NHLe provides us with a basic understanding of league comparisons and can be a useful tool in comparing draft eligible players.  As NHLe numbers rarely top 45, it is important to keep this number in context.  For the sake of comparison, we will say our low-risk prospects must have an NHLe of at least 10.  (By the way, if you’re looking for more NHLe stats, Shawn Reis provided the numbers for many of this year’s top prospects in this post)

Yes, Auston Matthews is a low-risk player.  The first overall pick is almost always the pick with the lowest risk factor in the draft. Pierre-Luc Dubois is another low-risk high-upside type player. For the purposes of this article, we’ll be taking a look at players outside the projected top ten.  

Using these above criteria, here are just a few players who fall into the low-risk category for the upcoming draft: 

Brett Howden

A player I profiled for #AfterAuston, Brett Howden is a 200-foot center who excels in both the offensive and defensive zone.  At 6’2 and 190 lbs, he is a big body who uses his size to his advantage in play.  He scored at just under a point-per-game pace this year with the Moose Jaw Warriors (0.97 PPG) and plays a very simple game.  Howden was the second line center in Moose Jaw this year behind WHL superstar Brayden Point, and will likely see a bigger opportunity next year as Point’s junior eligibility came to a close in April.  Howden had an NHLe of 21.

Here’s how Howden ranked across several draft sources:

Draft Source Bob McKenzie  McKeen’s Future Considerations Corey Pronman NHL CS

(NA skaters)

Howden’s Ranking 24 26 32 32 22 20

Howden’s game should translate relatively well into the professional leagues.  Though he may not be exceptional offensively, Howden is a good two-way center who can play both special teams and score goals when necessary.  

Frederic Allard

Frederic Allard of the Chicoutimi Saguenéens (QMJHL) is a defenceman with great advanced numbers, who has fallen under the radar of many draft sources/scouts this year.  Allard, measuring in at 6’1 and 179 lbs, technically shouldn’t have made this list, but 1 pound isn’t a big deal.  

Future Considerations had this to say about Allard: 

He plays with an edge and ease that is uncommon for an 18-year-old, showing solid maturity and ability to manage and control the game from the back end. He is, in our opinion, a defenseman with a very complete game, which makes him a low-risk pick for any NHL team 

Allard also had an NHLe of 20.  Here’s how his numbers stacked up against those of Jakub Chychrun:

Finally, here’s how Allard ranked across several draft sources:

Draft Source Bob McKenzie McKeen’s Future Considerations Corey Pronman NHL CS 

(NA Skaters) 

Allard’s Ranking NR 84 49 54 32


Allard’s ranking of 158 by ISS is surprisingly low considering he’s actually a pretty good defenceman.  Allard is an intriguing prospect who’s upside may be higher than previously thought.  He is a low-risk pick in that there are no significant flaws in his game.  Though his skating could be better, he shows a lot of upside for a player whose potential draft position could fall anywhere between 50 and 150.  

Michael McLeod

Michael McLeod is a player who typically ranks between 10 and 20 on most people’s draft lists.  The Mississauga Steelheads centerman measures 6’2 and 185 lbs, and tallied 61 points in 57 games in the OHL this season. Described as a power forward, McLeod is an elite skater with above-average puck skills and vision. He is competent in the defensive zone and is a decent two-way centre as well. McLeod’s NHLe this season was 28.  Though many people are high on McLeod, some question how high his ceiling really is, including ESPN’s Corey Pronman

The main concern for McLeod is how high his
offensive upside is, and if his instincts, vision and overall IQ are high­end
enough to create enough offense without his big speed advantage once he
reaches the NHL. 

Here are a few of McLeod’s projected draft positions:

Draft Source Bob McKenzie  McKeen’s Future Considerations Corey Pronman NHL CS

(NA Skaters)

TLN’s Rankings
McLeod’s Ranking 15 7 15 20 13 11

McLeod is a modern-day power forward; he possesses the skill and tenacity to play at a high level of hockey but may not have the highest potential.  I believe his style of play will translate well into the pro leagues, though a few more seasons of junior hockey would do McLeod no harm in polishing his game.

Taylor Raddysh

Erie Otters forward Taylor Raddysh had a fantastic season in the OHL, though many say this due to the fact that he played on a line with Arizona Coyotes draft pick Dylan Strome and potential first rounder Alex DeBrincat. The 6’1 and 203 lb forward tallied 73 points in 67 games and had an NHLe of 29.  

Raddysh has a high hockey IQ and is able to read the play well.  He is a power forward who works hard every shift but still possesses good puck skills and playmaking abilities.  He is a very consistent player who is useful on the PK and can play tough minutes.  

Here’s a look at Raddysh’s advanced numbers compared to those of Michael McLeod:

Raddysh has surprisingly good advanced numbers, which makes him a slightly more appealing player in the 35-50 range.  Here are Raddysh’s rankings across several draft sources:

Draft Source Bob McKenzie McKeen’s Future Considerations Corey Pronman NHL CS 

(NA Skaters)

Raddysh’s Ranking 42 44 58 48 36 28

Raddysh is a decent prospect whose upside may not be the highest.  He plays a solid and simple game and I would be surprised to see him fall beyond the second round. 

Luke Kunin

The NCAA’s Luke Kunin could be selected anywhere in the 10-20 range.  Kunin, weighing in at 195 lbs and measuring 6’0, tallied 32 points in 34 games as a Freshman at the University of Wisconsin this past season. Widely considered his team’s best player, Kunin had an NHLe of 27.  

Kunin is a very well-rounded player who plays a complete game.  He is a shoot-first type who excels offensively and plays a physical style of hockey.  He is a gifted offensive player who plays with a lot of jump and energy.  He can play a bit of a risky game at times, but overall has solid two-way potential as a center in the NHL.  

Here are a few of Kunin’s rankings:

Draft Source Bob McKenzie  McKeen’s Future Considerations Corey Pronman NHL CS 

(NA Skaters)

TLN’s Rankings
Kunin’s Ranking 20 16 19 16 11 17

Though Kunin is a little bit of a riskier pick than the other players listed above, he still shows a decent amount of upside.  I really like his style of play and I believe he will fit in well at the NHL level, especially after a few more seasons in the NCAA.

Should the Leafs be interested?

Here’s the thing: these players are not risky.  There isn’t much to dislike about them.  The argument one could make against selecting players like this lies in their projected NHL potential; how high can their ceilings really be?  

If they do make the NHL, many of the players named above will likely play a lot of PK minutes, and many of their shifts will begin in the defensive zone.  These are not diamond-in-the-rough type players who may pan out to be superstars.  They will likely become third line forwards or second pairing defensemen (at best). They are very good supporting players with good statistics and a reasonable upside.  

If you’re looking to make a splash at the draft, selecting players of higher risk may reap greater rewards. Players like Vitali Abramov, Alex DeBrincat and Dmitri Sokolov have higher ceilings and may turn into first or second line players.  Obstacles stand in their way, though; things like height, work ethic, and consistency are hurdles that young players need to overcome in order to succeed.  

It is much easier to justify selecting a player from the above list then it would be to justify selecting, let’s say, Tyler Benson.  Would I be disappointed to see the Leafs select Brett Howden or Taylor Raddysh? No.  

What will hurt is when one of those higher risk picks- the ones passed upon because of their downfalls- turn into NHL superstars.   

  • Jess Pincente

    these are not the type of player the Leafs are looking for [except Kunin, who does not belong on this low ceiling list, he scored 6 goals in 6 games and lead in face-off % at U18, as a 16 year old], and Howden and McLeod will be gone before Leafs pick at 31. The type of player you are describing, is what Benning has been drafting, players with the lowest ceiling, but already NHL size, shot, skating, to fit the Canucks”win now’ position. but still, he hopes they will be top six (Boeser), not bottom six (Vertanen, Howden). Leafs need size up front, a power forward like Jones, and Babcock considers grinding, like Katchouk, a skill. Scoring is at a premium in today’s NHL, so I hope Leafs take Mascherin or Dahlen at 31. It’s very probable that Benson recovers from surgery to become a top-10 talent. but there is risk, so I would say Mascherin, then Benson then Dahlen. Finally, Chychrun is still the best d-man in the draft, but has fallen because he is considered to have the lowest ceiling, so don’t be surprised if Benning takes him at 5th.

    • Jess Pincente

      The list is low-risk/safe picks, not players with low ceilings. I agree that Kunin has a higher ceiling than others on the list- he’s a very creative player who shows flashes of elite goal scoring ability. His two-way potential and overall game is what makes him a safer pick– there are no gaping holes in his game.

  • Drapes55

    What are your thoughts on Sean Day? I’ve never seen him play personally and I know there have been questions about his commitment to training but at 6’2″ and 230 with his skating ability would the Leafs not maybe look at him in a later round? He was granted exceptional player status into the OHL and it sounds like he has the ability to be a top 4 defenseman if he commits to his offseason training. Could be the steal of the draft from what I’m hearing.

    • Gary Empey

      Rumor has it Wee Sean Day likes a drop of the hard stuff…… for breakfast.

      Look for Burke to grab him in the later rounds as he also likes to start his day off with a couple of jars of Jameson Irish Whiskey. Mmmmm

  • Jeremy Ian

    Nice piece. So, Jess, what would you recommend for an overall strategy? Does one pick all high-risk/reward candidates?

    There’s a hint here that you are a risk-taker. Double negatives like: “There isn’t much to dislike about them.” Or rhetorical questions like: “how high can their ceilings really be?” all suggest you want the Leafs to opt for risk over security.

    Why? That’s an assumption I need to understand from you.

    Personally, I think a mixed approach is better once you are past the top 10. But that’s just my personal view. Great teams have great mixtures, and turn their diversity into more than the sum of parts. (And that includes managing the diversity of your payroll — because not everyone on the team can make high-end salaries, so you have to build in inequities into the salary structure of the team).

    • Jess Pincente

      Hi Jeremy,
      I think it’s important for the Leafs to get a mix of both. I also think it takes a lot of trust from a team’s personel to select players of the riskier variety- scouts and management need to have confidence that the particular player can work out their issues, whatever their issues may be, and reach their potential. If that trust and confidence isnt there, I would take a pass on those players. Often times, these types of issues (that make players “high risk”) can be corrected– work ethic can be developed, defensive positioning can be taught. Hockey IQ and a strong skillset is something that can’t be taught. That’s why I would prefer high risk players, but only if management has complete confidence in them.
      I also would prefer the leafs to draft skill instead of size/grit, which is a philosophy the leafs have been following in their recent drafts. It is also possible to have low-risk players who are very skilled- Kunin being an example.
      So basically, my draft philosophy is draft skill first. If there’s a player available who is of the riskier variety but has the confidence of management, draft him. If not, safer picks work as well, so as long as they have a decent amount of skill.

  • Drapes55

    Jeremy Ian: I think I agree with your approach. I think a team’s criteria has to change as they go lower in the draft. The search for stars should end after about pick 22. 22-44, even lower round picks, should not be boom or bust, because there are ‘safe’ picks with a high floor, and the ‘cap era’ dictates that only a few stars can be on any team. Also, too many chefs [big and awkward, small and skilled] spoil the broth. A team has to be like an army, with a navy, airforce, artillery and infantry. The only ‘steals’ I see, are players whose season was lost to injury – Benson and Rubins – not someone like Day. With goals at a premium in today’s NHL, I would take Mascherin or Dahlen, even around the same place as Bellows and Gauthier. With Mascherin’s commitment to improving, and Dahlen’s father as Ulf, they are safe picks. Then, instead of grinder Kathchouk in the 1st, Bjorkqvist in the 4th or 5th. Instead of smart Howden in the 1st, Wahlgren in the 4t or 5th. Instead of Stanley in the 1st, Greenway in the 3rd, Rubins in the 4th. These players are not 1st unit stars in the NHL, but neither are the ones mentioned as 1st round picks [23rd-30th], and these players are not only good ‘complementary’ to Leaf stars, but their ‘floor’ includes league-leading U18 age player scoring, and international tournament standout (as a role player). the latter includes Somppi [3rd round] and Rykov [5th or 6th round].

  • Drapes55

    I don’t agree that players that are defensively sound and big are “low risk”. To me, the objective of drafting a player is for them to be good enough to make an impact at the NHL level. Players that are creating shooting opportunities (the most difficult skill to possess) at the junoir level are more inclined to make an impact at the NHL level, just because they can score, doesn’t mean they are high risk. It’s actually the opposite.

  • Gary Empey

    I found this obscure comment from Hunter yesterday.

    He says he now always drafts for best player available.

    In the past whenever he has drafted for position it has never worked out.

    Naturally Hunter’s opinion on who the best player available is, often differs from the the scouting reports we have access to.