All eyes will be on Logan Cooley and Juraj Slafkovsky tonight in the first matchup between the first two forwards selected in the 2022 NHL Draft.
Cooley has gotten off to a more productive start to the 2023-24 season, and for many impatient Habs fans, this is unacceptable and signals that the Canadiens picked a bust in Slafkovsky. Cooley, after all, was selected after Slaf, so much like the first three years after Montreal had chosen Jesperi Kotkaniemi over the more productive Brady Tkachuk, the fan base is already up in arms and panicking about the Slafkovsky pick.
More than eight years have passed since the 2015 NHL Draft, and if one wants to use it as an example of why it is foolish to be judging two players 17 months after they were drafted, it is a perfect one to revisit.
The day that Mikko Rantanen turned 20, he had yet to pick up an NHL point in 11 career NHL games. He wouldn’t score a goal until his 17th NHL game on Nov. 11, 2016, more than 16.5 months after he was drafted.
The third overall selection in the 2015 NHL draft, Dylan Strome, did not score his first NHL goal until December of 2017; more than 29 months after he was drafted. Four years after he was selected 20th overall in the same draft, Joel Eriksson-Ek had 16 goals and 37 points in his NHL career.
What did those three have in common besides being high picks in the 2015 NHL draft? They were all 6-3 or 6-4 forwards who needed time to adapt to the speed of the NHL game. Last season, the three combined for 231 points, and so far this season, have 30 points in 26 games combined.
Even Pavel Zacha can be cited when it comes to that draft class. Chosen sixth overall in 2015, the 6-3 Zacha never topped 25 points in an NHL season four years into his career. Today, he’s a top-two center on an undefeated Boston Bruins team coming off a 57-point season.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi is another big European forward who did not display his full potential production-wise in his first few seasons…as Habs fans know all too well. In his second NHL season, KK had just three points in his first 17 games. Today, he is averaging a point per game at the age of 23. He needed time to mature physically and adapt to the NHL rinks, size and speed.
All five are prime examples of the five-year rule of thumb most scouts utilize when it comes to prospects. You don’t start to judge a draft pick seriously until at least five years after they were drafted. So to see fans agonizing over the 2022 draft class fewer than 18 months later borders on the absurd.
Four years after the Ottawa Senators chose Colin White with the 21st pick in 2015 right after Eriksson Ek, would they have been happy if he had been swapped for the big Swedish center? They’d have rioted on Rideau Street. White was coming off of a 41-point season (in 71 games) and looked like he could develop into a solid, all-around top-two center. Eriksson Ek had just 37 points in 138 career NHL games at that point and didn’t look to the average fan like he would ever become a top-two NHL center.
Eriksson-Ek was a 6-3 center still filling out and adapting to the North American game and speed while the White was a 6-0 American center that was peaking at an early age, having come through the US development program and college systems.
Sound familiar? You bet. Hockey fans are already surmising that 5-11 American center Logan Cooley was a better selection than 6-3 Slovakian winger Juraj Slafkovsky because…17 months after they were drafted….Cooley is outscoring Slafkovsky through the first month of the NHL season.
I recall stressing the same thing two years into Kotkaniemi and Tkachuk’s careers – that it was far too early to be making judgments on them. A gangly European versus the physically mature son of a former NHLer who had been through the US development program and played college hockey. Today – both are fine hockey players. The edge still goes to Tkachuk, obviously, but it would not shock me if, for the rest of their careers, the two have similar point totals.
Maybe Cooley will have a better NHL career than Slafkovsky. Who knows at this point? He was drafted in the top three for a reason – he’s a damn fine young player. He’s also much more adapted to the North American game having played on NHL-sized rinks his entire life in North America.
Moreover, Cooley has an offensive role and a spot on the first power-play unit. Slafkovsky has not been afforded the same opportunity yet, and we must also consider that he has only played nine games in the past nine months while Cooley played on a Minnesota college team that advanced to the NCAA finals last season.
It should shock no one that, because of all of those factors, Cooley has been more productive at the start of this season. It’s entirely possible that he outscores Slafkovsky in 2023-24. Does that mean he will have a better career? Maybe. Maybe not. The 2015 draft should be a reminder to all of us that it’s folly to reach conclusions on prospects who are still in their teens.
Even Leafs fans know that a highly-regarded prospect can take time. Two years after being drafted eighth overall in 2014, William Nylander had 13 career NHL points and played 75 games in the AHL. For the past three seasons, he’s been better than a ppg scorer. Toronto was wise to be patient with him, and that patience paid off.
Both Kent Hughes and Jeff Gorton have maintained that they took Slafkovsky first overall because they felt that he would be the player best suited to helping them win five years after he was drafted. That is how NHL teams approach an NHL draft. It’s also what Habs fans should be doing.
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