Will Cuylle (#13) and Donovan Sebrango fight each other at the CHL Top Prospects Game (Photo Courtesy of the CHL)
With speed and skill becoming the hottest commodities in the modern-day NHL, the ‘skilled pest’ has become a bit of market inefficiency. Players like Tom Wilson and the Tkachuk brothers have become rarities in today’s game. They have the skill and offensive prowess to play on their team’s top lines. They also bring the grit and physicality that bring back memories from days gone by.
That combination of skill and physicality, scoring goals and starting scrums, allows these players to take advantage of less physical players and create havoc for the opposition’s best player as well. The lack of players who truly meets the criteria for projecting as a top-line player who can be a bit of a best is short. This year’s draft doesn’t have any obvious candidates. The players who play with an edge don’t have the same sort of offensive upside that players like the Tkachuk’s have.
The three types of pests that the NHL has can be summarized using a few different players as the archetype. Tom Wilson is the ultimate compliment as a physical force who is offensively capable and has the ability to play with the top players. The Tkachuk’s, both Brady and Matthew, are a bit more offensively driven and can push the pace of play. They can help drive their lines and contribute a bit more on the scoresheet. The final of the three main archetypes for ‘skilled pests’ is the rat. Also known as Brad Marchand. If he’s on your team, you love the guy. If he’s on the opposing team, you need to watch out for his tongue. Marchand is his the ability to put up offensive totals that sit around the top of the leagues scoring list and aggravate the opposition to no end. He may not fight all of his own battles but that just infuriates his opponents more.
The ‘Tom Wilson’ Archetype: LW Will Cuylle – Windsor Spitfires
Will Cuylle and Tom Wilson play a very similar style of game in terms of having an above-average shot and a big body that they enjoy throwing around. While Cuylle didn’t put up the same PIM numbers as Wilson did in junior, he has outscored him to this point. Cuylle plays a power game and is at his best when he is relied upon as a triggerman and can allow his teammates to do the bulk of the work in terms of carrying the pucks and driving the play.
Cuylle has ramped up his physicality this season and has shown a willingness to throw hands at times. He is a good but not great skater, similar to Wilson. This season he has begun to get under opponents skin, often starting scrums after the whistle. The reality of Cuylle’s game is that he was a highly regarded offensive player who hasn’t seemed to reach his full offensive potential. He has adapted his game and has become a bit more efficient as a two-way player and his physicality took a big step. If Cuylle can carve out a career that resembles Wilson’s, his hockey career will be a resounding success.
The ‘Tkachuk” Archetype: LW Jake Neighbours – Edmonton Oil Kings
Jake Neighbours may not reach the offensive ceiling that Matthew Tkachuk has but he certainly has the skill and play style to get there. He has a big frame and plays bigger than he is. He is strong on the cycle and has good hands in traffic. His shot is a major weapon but he doesn’t use it in dangerous areas as often as one would like because he is always willing to throw a shot on net. Like Matthew Tkachuk, he does an excellent job of using his physicality to make a play and chooses his spots well. He rarely throws hits just to throw hits.
His offensive game is predicated on his ability to see the ice and make the appropriate play. Whether that be completing a pass through traffic or driving to the net and sending a backhander top-shelf, Neighbours is able to produce points at a high level and when he starts using his shot more, his goal totals will rise as well. He has an NHL ready shot already but needs to use it from better locations, shooting from the slot and net-front area. He likes to fire shots from unorthodox angles and beats netminders with interesting shot selection. If he can improve his shot selection, he has a real shot at becoming a top-six winger who can get under the opponent’s skin and then score the OT winner.
The ‘Brad Marchand’ Archetype: C Marco Rossi – Ottawa 67’s
The ‘Rat’ archetype is one that is a bit more difficult to put into perspective. Like Marchand, Marco Rossi has been known to make some questionable decisions on the ice when it comes to utilizing some dirty tactics in the same game that he puts together a multi-point effort. Suspended once this season for a slew foot, Rossi was under the microscope of the OHL’s disciplinary microscope on at least three occasions this past season. He had a second, less egregious, slew foot incident as well as a hit from behind that easily could have warranted a suspension. Rossi is a bit undersized but he has a strong lower body and plays a strong game where he holds onto the puck at will at times, similar to the way the undersized Marchand’s offensive game has developed in the last half-decade.
The key here is that both Rossi and Marchand are impressive offensive performers who can drive their line and rack up big totals on the scoresheet. The reason Marchand is so effective as the NHL’s ultimate pest is that although he does a lot of dumb things and toes the line, he also puts up massive point totals. A headache is less of a headache when they produce and Marchand and Rossi both do that. Chirping other players on the ice, giving the extra shot in a scrum, and putting up points, just a few of the things that the diminutive pests both do on the ice.
The biggest issue with finding the ‘Elite Pests’ is that they really are few and far between. When you look around the NHL, there are about the same amount of players who fit the ‘Elite Pest’ mold as there are players scoring 40-goals year in and year out. Not every draft has one of these players and finding them in this draft was stretch to be honest. Players like Cuylle and Neighbours fit the mold but aren’t likely to live up to those expectations. There is a chance that Cuylle becomes more of a physical presence and plays in a team’s bottom-six. Neighbours may wind up settling in as a second-line scorer who doesn’t have the edge after the whistle.
Rossi has a legitimate chance at becoming a bit of a rat in the mold of Brad Marchand. That would require Rossi to not only become a fairly wide regarded top-15 player in the NHL while also continuing to give the extra shot after the whistle or chopping at the back of an opponent’s legs as he skates by them in the offensive zone.
The reality of the situation is that we won’t know who the best pest from this draft is for a few years if there even winds up being a skilled pest from this year’s class. The ‘Elite Pest’ is a breed of player that has become endangered and when your team is able to get their hands on one, they should do their best to keep them. There is a better chance that one of these players becomes a Zach Hyman rather than a Matthew Tkachuk and let’s be honest, that’s still a very valuable player who plays a disruptive style and can play higher in the lineup.
I appreciate you tagging along while I took a look at the pests in this draft class, even if the fits aren’t always perfect. Only time will tell who the best pests in this draft may be. If you have a pest that I missed, let me know! I am always available there, you can find me at @TheTonyFerrari! Check out the Easter Monday Mock Draft from last week where I used Tankathon to simulate the lottery and mocked the top-15 picks for the lottery teams.
Be sure to check out the March Draft Report where I dive into what scouts and draft analysts do now, the All-Overage Team, and a profile on defenseman Eamon Powell. Also, check out the full Dobber Prospects 2020 NHL DRAFT PAGE! There are over 60 player profiles and a ton more draft content including the January Mid-Season Draft Report with a full breakdown of my Top-100 Rankings with video and analysis on 60+ players including nearly every player in the top-40!