Prospect Ramblings: Less-Heralded WJC stars; Writers vs. Scouts; Meh-rkley requests trade

Ben Gehrels

2023-01-05

Cover image credit: AHL.com

Two less-heralded forwards on Team Canada at this year’s WJC who have caught my eye are Zach Ostapchuk (OTT, 2021 #39) and Nathan Gaucher (ANA, 2022 #22). Neither interested me much in their draft years from a fantasy perspective because their skill sets lay more on the defensive side of things. 

While they have played a similar grinding role for Canada this year, both players have provided important depth scoring and looked like surefire future NHLers in the process. Gaucher (four points in five games) has been their most reliable face off man—which is saying something on a team with Logan Stankoven and, more recently, Owen Beck. And Ostapchuk (three points), with his long reach and confident puckhandling, has looked a bit like Tage Thompson at times, pulling slick moves through defenders’ feet to turn multiple one-on-ones and even one-on-twos into legitimate scoring chances. He could easily have a few more points.

What we are seeing from Ostapchuk—at both the 2022 and 2023 WJCs—is him taking a step forward in the combination of size, speed, and physicality that Brock Otten references in this clip from his draft year. Also referenced is his difficulty finishing at times, and we have also seen that at this year’s tournament.

I am not a Sens fan but I love what they are building over in Ottawa, and Ostapchuk fits that score-and-bang approach perfectly. Just imagine him racking up hits and points alongside Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stutzle, Drake Batherson, and company. For his part, Gaucher looks capable of providing the ideal two-way depth to compliment the high-octane offence of Trevor Zegras and Troy Terry—just what the basement-dwelling Ducks have been missing—and he will provide an added bonus in leagues that count face off wins.

Sticking with the WJC for a moment, here are the game scores for the top players from the group stage (does not include the medal round) from Elite Prospect’s Head of European Scouting, Lassi Alanen. The future of teams like the Canadiens, Devils, Coyotes, and Sabres is looking bright indeed.

In case you missed it, I want to highlight one of the more interesting hockey threads I have read on Twitter in a while. Even at the highest levels, Team Canada just does not have the depth in net anymore that they have boasted in the past when they were backstopped by legends like Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo, Ed Belfour, and Curtis Joseph. Off the top of your head, who would be in goal for Team Canada if the Olympics started tomorrow?

This situation didn’t happen in a vacuum and it of course relates back to how we develop goalies in this country. Rob makes some excellent points about how we can improve our systems in Canada. I imagine his comments apply to other contexts as well.

Those of you still clutching your gradually disintegrating Ryan Merkley (SJS) stocks have probably heard by now that he recently requested a trade after spending all of 2022-23 with the Barracudas (AHL). Merkley has 14 assists and no goals for the farm team in his Draft+5 year and has largely struggled to transition his prolific junior production to the pro level. San Jose is currently exploring trade options.

It is hard to imagine either that Merkley will fetch much of a return or that his new landing spot will result in a meaningful change in his fantasy trajectory. Most teams have at least one high-end offensive blueliner and many have several; if he cannot hack it with the lowly Sharks, with whom he played 39 games last year, he is not likely to get a better opportunity elsewhere. 

The deal with Merkley all along, however, has been tantalizing offensive upside impeded by rumoured attitude problems and a one-dimensional game. My feeling has been that if you’re rebuilding your prospect pool and looking for home-run-swing type players, Merkley is a great stash. I am starting to cool on even that assessment but will withhold final judgement until he has a chance to acclimate to his new team’s system.

Merkley, 22, feels a lot like another Erik Brannstrom or Juuso Valimaki. Brannstrom, 23, has had (brief) moments of brilliance but still has only three points in 33 games and is blocked indefinitely by Thomas Chabot and Jake Sanderson. Valimaki, 24, is having a bounceback year of sorts with Arizona but is still only at a 26-point pace. 

If Valimaki is a best-case scenario for Merkley, let that temper your expectations for his eventual upside—if you are somehow still holding out hope, that is. Valimaki still needs a full season to hit his Breakout Threshold but is an offensive powerplay specialist on a team already featuring Jakob Chychrun, Shane Gostisbehere, and J.J. Moser. He has been eking out points at a decent clip, but unless he can reinvent himself to play a more effective shutdown role (which it actually looks like he is doing, by the way), Valimaki faces a steep uphill battle for sustained success. 

Merkley is even further back, as he was heavily sheltered and given offensive zone deployment in his 39 games with the Sharks last year. Let’s see where he ends up but do not cross your fingers.

There has been some buzz online lately about who should be able to call themselves a “scout” in hockey. There is a wide spectrum of people who watch, engage, and work in the industry—from casual fans to writers for websites and publications to scouts employed by teams at all levels of the sport.

An inspiring part of this spectrum for me is that there are countless examples of people who have moved all the way from one end to the other, leveraging their lifelong passion into a career. Many of the folks who pioneered the earliest forays into hockey analytics, like Daryl Metcalf of ExtraSkater.com, who was hired by the Maple Leafs in 2014, and the co-creators of War On Ice—Sam Ventura, Andrew Thomas, Alexandra Mandrycky—who were hired shortly after by the Penguins and Wild. Mandrycky is now the Assistant GM for the Kraken. Here at Dobber Prospects, we have had writers leverage their work into full-time jobs too—like Jokke Nevalainen, our former Head of European Scouting, who was hired by the Carolina Hurricanes a couple years ago.

One thing that most of us have in common is that we are constantly trying to learn more about the sport and get better at what we do. For those of us in the prospects world, that involves trying to learn how to recognize the presence and absence of certain skills in order to project which players will excel at the next level. Some use analytics to discern trends and skill sets and rarely watch players in action; others prefer “the eye test” and prefer to base their judgements on what they see players accomplish on the ice; most use a combination of both.

Gatekeeping who is and is not a “scout” seems misguided to me because the process of assessing players—whether that is called scouting, evaluating, whatever—also has a spectrum. People who scout professionally with media passes, InStat access, etc will likely have a much stronger grasp on what skills a certain player possesses and how those skills will translate to the NHL. Those who simply base their judgements on season-long totals will have a weaker understanding of how a player accumulated their points and whether they will be able to replicate that performance against more difficult competition. And again, there is a group in the middle (such as myself) who do a bit of both.

In the scrum of opinions that is Hockey Twitter, people are constantly offering their takes. My take? Go watch hockey, play fantasy hockey, read what people write about hockey… whatever you want to do. Don’t worry about sorting out who is and is not a “real” scout. Just focus on your own passion and motivations for being involved in hockey—especially because it is often a demanding, meticulous, and grinding profession. Look no further than this story (paywalled) from The Athletic about Corey Sznajder, who manually tracks stats to generate useful data. Find his awesome Patreon here.

Thanks for reading! Follow me on Twitter @beegare for more prospect content and fantasy hockey analysis.

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