During the recent Thrashers prospect camp, Mark Hartigan and Brad Tapper both played well and distinguished themselves from their fellow prospects. They looked poised and skated well. Based simply upon their play at the camp, an observer might come to the conclusion that they have the best chance of the group of becoming productive NHL players.
Consider, however, that there was an amazing seven year difference between the oldest guys at the camp (Tapper and Hartigan) and the youngest players (Boldt and Manson). This simple fact puts the superior performance of Tapper and Hartigan into context. This difference in age is important because success in hockey requires the development of skills over a long period of time. Players generally continue to improve and refine their skills until they hit their physical peak between the ages of 27-31. A player may improve his skills after age 31, but improvement begins to be offset by an aging body.
A quick glance at the date-of-birth for each player in camp might cause us to reconsider our evaluation of some prospects. For example, despite the name “prospects camp” some players are getting a little long in the tooth. I thought it would be interesting to examine Thrasher prospects and players by their date-of-birth as a way of comparing how various prospects stack up against their other players in their same age cohort. The table below lists Thrashers prospects and players who are 26 years old or younger. The players in red have already made it to the NHL as full time players. The chart lists where each player played hockey and an estimate of where they will likely play next season.
Year Draft Eligible
|2001-02 level||likely 2002-03 level|
|Vigier||9-11-76||RW||1994||FA||AHL/NHL (15 games)||AHL/NHL|
Age and NHL debut seasons
How much weight should we place on age? Is date-of-birth really that important in evaluating prospects? What about late blooming players who are not drafted high but go on to have a great NHL career? My assumption was that impact NHL players probably start playing at a young age in the NHL (18-22) while late bloomers start their NHL career at a latter age (23-27). In order to test this assumption I looked at the “debut” age of the players on the Thrashers current NHL roster. I define a “debut” season as the year in which a player dressed for over one half of the season (41 games played). The average debut age of the current Atlanta Thrashers is 23 (F. Kaberle, who didn’t come over to North American until he was 27, was excluded from this average).
Since the Thrashers are a recent expansion team, their “debut” age is quite likely to be older than the league average because they are hard up for talent and may take a chance on potential late bloomers in their effort to stock the NHL club. Therefore for a comparison I also calculated the debut age of players for the Detroit Red Wings, New Jersey Devils and Washington Capitals. As I expected, the average debut age for the other clubs was considerably younger than the Atlanta Thrashers. The Red Wings averaged 20.8 years old, New Jersey 21.1, and Washington 21.2. (*Excluded from these averages are three Russian players who were not allowed to come to the NHL by the Soviet government: Larionov, Kamensky, Nemchinov)
|Thrashers||Age of “debut”||RedWings|
Even “late bloomers” like Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille, who were drafted relatively low, entered the NHL at ages 23 and 20 respectively. Surprisingly even checkers like McCarty, Draper and Maltby debuted in the NHL very early in their career (21, 23, 21 respectively). It is interesting to note that the oldest players to make their debut season in the NHL (Draper, Holmstrom and Hull) on the Red Wings came up at age 23–which is the average for the Atlanta Thrashers.
In fact, of the 57 players found on these three NHL clubs, an astonishing 75% of the players made their NHL debut season at 22 or younger. By age 23 the percentage climbed to 85% and at age 24 it rose to 90%. This is interesting because it would appear to confirm the Hockey’s Future prospect criteria that after age 24 a player is no longer a NHL prospect.
Age Cohort Methodology:
In order to make some comparisons between players of the same age group, I created age cohorts based upon when players were eligible for the NHL draft using their age alone. There are a significant number of discrepancies between a player’s draft eligible year and his actual draft year. These discrepancies are caused by a number of factors. Most college players must wait one year to enter the NHL draft in order to comply with NCAA rules. Players must also choose to “opt-in” to the NHL draft, if a player has an injury or a bad pre-draft year they may choose to wait one more season before making themselves available to be drafted. Thus, the draft eligible cohorts I have listed often do not match the actual draft years. For example, both Heatley and Stefan where eligible by age for the 1999 NHL draft. However, age is an important variable when we assess the development of players so I have chosen to group Thrasher prospects by their date-of-birth draft cohort and not their actual NHL draft year.
The first draft in Atlanta Thrashers’ history took place in 1999. However the team has a number of prospects in their system that were draft eligible prior to 1999. These players were acquired three different ways. A) they drafted later as over-age players in the NHL draft (examples: Levokari, Santala, Smid); B) they were signed as unrestricted free agents following the completion of their college career (examples: Tapper, Hartigan, Weaver) or C) they were drafted by another organization and acquired via trade (examples: Butsayev, Lessard, DiPenta).
Class of 1994: J.P. Vigier
J.P. Vigier was first eligible for the NHL entry draft in 1994, over eight years ago. He was born in the same draft year as current Thrashers Lubos Bartecko, Yannick Tremblay and Daniel Tjarnqvist. By comparison, Bartecko and Tremblay have been playing in the NHL for four years. The fact that J.P. has only played a handful of games in the NHL suggests that he is unlikely to be an impact player in the NHL. At age 26, Vigier is very near his peak as a player and should not be expected to make dramatic improvement.
Class of 1995: Brad Tapper
Brad Tapper is the only member of this class. Other players on the Thrashers’ NHL roster who were also eligible for the 1995 draft are Jeff Cowan and Tomi Kallio. Like Vigier, Tapper is rather far along on the development curve and dramatic improvement is probably not in the cards. If Tapper is ever going to make it in the NHL he needs to make it right now.
Class of 1996: Mark Hartigan, Pauli Levokari, Dan Snyder, Mike Weaver, Ben Simon
Most of this class has already turned 24 this year and thus the clock is ticking for them as well. The good news is that several of these players have a solid chance of making the team at some point next season. If Hartigan doesn’t break camp with the NHL club, he will likely one of the first call-ups. Snyder will probably make the team out of camp. At this point Weaver and Simon appear to be depth players who will only see action if the NHL club is hit by a rash of injuries. The signing of two veteran NHL defensemen and the acquisition of Kirill Safronov have bumped Weaver down the depth chart significantly. Levokari has great size, but will likely need a season in the minors to adjust to North American hockey–he doesn’t have much time to make the team because the Thrashers are loaded with minor league defensive prospects.
Class of 1997: Yuri Butsayev, Kamil Piros, Joe DiPenta, Francis Lessard, Tommi Santala, Yuri Dobryshkin
The players in this age cohort have turned 23 which is the age when most of the current Atlanta Thrashers have made their NHL debut. The first three players listed above all have a shot at making the team out of training camp. Butsayev has already made his debut playing 59 games for Detroit in the 1999-2000 season. Piros and DiPenta both played key roles for the AHL Chicago Wolves and will likey be among the first call-ups in the event of injuries or traded-created vacancies in Atlanta. Lessard will probably only be in Atlanta if enforcer Jeff Odgers is hurt. The fact that Santala lost most of last season to injury is distressing because it took one year out of his development at a crucial time. The Thrashers drafted Santala fairly late in the 1999 draft as an over-age player with good size and budding offensive skills. However, because he was over-age Santala has a smaller window of opportunity than most of the other 1999 draftees. Hopefully, he can regain the scoring prowess he displayed last year in the Finnish Elite League. Dobryshkin is a good two-way winger, but he probably needs to come over soon if he is to have a realistic chance of making the NHL.
Class of 1998: Mario Cartelli, Stephen Baby, Zdenek Smid
These players are about 22 years of age. Cartelli struggled last year and is unlikely to ever put on a Thrashers jersey unless he buys one for himself. Baby will complete his senior year of college and then he will likely turn professional. He has some good skills but he doesn’t appear to be a top six forward and his skating isn’t what you would want in a checking player. Smid didn’t get much playing time last year which is really unfortunate for him. While it is true that goalies take longer to develop, his position on the depth chart has dropped considerably with the addition goalies Michael Garnett and Kari Lehtonen in the last two NHL drafts.
Class of 1999: Patrik Stefan, Jeff Dwyer, Simon Gamache, Zdenek Blatny, Milan Gajic, Kirill Safronov, Dany Heatley, Matt McRae, Mark McRae, Luke Sellars, Evan Nielson, Sami Isosalo, Derek MacKenzie, David Kaczowka, Garnet Exelby
1999 was the first entry draft for the Atlanta Thrashers. This age cohort is turning 21. By this age, most impact NHL players are making or have already made their NHL debut. Within this age cohort, Patrik Stefan has already made the NHL. Whether he will ever be an NHL impact player remains to be seen. Interestingly, if Stefan had been born one day earlier, he would have been eligible for the previous NHL draft. Another perspective on Stefan is that if he had been drafted by a deeper club, this coming year may have been his rookie season.
The other impact player from this cohort to make to the NHL is the 2002 Rookie of the Year Dany Heatley. Despite the fact that they were the top forwards taken in consecutive NHL drafts, Heatley and Stefan are less than four months apart in age. Heatley was eligible for the 1999 draft based upon age, but because he played to attend Wisconsin, he was forced to opt out of the 1999 draft by NCAA regulations. Heatley’s breakout rookie campaign and his debut at age 21 is consistent with the projection that he will be an impact player in the league.
So how close are the other Thrasher prospects in this cohort to making the NHL? Kirill Safronov and Garnet Exelby are both knocking on the door and one or both will likely start the season with Atlanta if they have a good camp. The fact that Exelby is close to making the NHL is probably the biggest surprise from a disappointing 1999 Thrasher draft. (Exelby was eighth round pick in that draft.) After that, the list drops off dramatically. Luke Sellars, Zdenek Blatny, Simon Gamache and David Kaczowka all played in for the ECHL Greenville Grrrowl. The fact that any of them saw icetime in the ECHL is a sign that if they make the NHL they are unlikely to be impact or star players. Sellars in particular has been particularly disappointing for a player taken 31st overall in 1999.
Another large block of players from this year consist of collegians (Jeff Dwyer, Matt and Mark McRae, Milan Gajic, Evan Nielson). Of this group the two defensemen, Dwyer and McRae, have potential. Both are offensive defenseman, both are undersized for their position in the NHL. Gajic had a solid rookie season at University of Michigan, a school that has developed many NHL players. However, he was only making his college debut when at the age when impact NHLers usually are making their NHL debut.
Derek MacKenzie had decent professional rookie year in Chicago after showing strong leadership and decent good scoring skills in junior hockey. He will probably need several more years there. Like Snyder, he may not make the NHL until he is 23 or 24. European Sami Isosalo is a project, who like Santala, lost most of last year to injury.
Class of 2000: Brian Sipotz, Kurtis Foster, Ruslan Zainullin, Libor Ustrnul, Colin Fretter, Ilya Nikulin, Colin Fitzrandolph, Paul Flache, Colin Stuart.
The average of a player in this cohort is 20. This cohort has several promising defensemen: Ilya Nikulin, Kurtis Foster, and Libor Ustrnul. This is a key year for each of these players. Unfortunately, it appears that Nikulin is not coming to North America this season. Both Foster and Ustrnul need to have outstanding AHL seasons so that they can earn a roster spot in Atlanta the following season. The most promising forward in this cohort, is the recently acquired Ruslan Zainullin, who also is not coming over to North America. Another player in the “maybe” catagory for this age cohort is Sipotz (who like Stefan missed being eligible for the previous draft by only one day). He is a big defenseman with absolutely no scoring ability (2 assists total over two college seasons).
Class of 2001: Michael Garnett, Jim Slater, Nathan Oystrick, Matt Suderman, Patrick Dwyer, Ilya Kovalchuk, Karl Stewart.
Ilya Kovalchuk made the NHL as an 18 year old and he clearly has superstar potential. Jim Slater and Michael Garnett are the other two potential impact players from this age cohort. Garnett has turned pro and will start in the minors this season. Oystrick also shows promise.
Class of 2002: Kari Lehtonen, Tyler Boldt, Lane Manson, Brad Schell
Obviously Kari Lehtonen the #2 overall pick has great potential to be a star player. Manson and Boldt looked rather raw at Prospect Camp, but the good news is that they are only 18-19 and thus have some time to develop.
Two surprising elements emerged during research for this piece. The first is that most good NHL players start playing in the league within five years of their 18th birthday (18-23). The wait to get in the NHL is amazingly short. Presumably good players are simply too attractive for their teams and they are not returned to Canadian juniors or European leagues. The data also suggest that management might be wise to make decisions to cut slow prospects sooner rather than later, especially if the slower prospects are blocking younger players from valuable ice time at the NHL or AHL league level. The developmental window of opportunity is shorter than I expected and thus younger players with a real shot at making should not be denied their opportunity to develop.
The second surprising fact is just how many Thrasher draftees were over-age players. The advantages of taking over age players is that they are further along in their development and thus presumably scouts can make a more accurate projection of their potential. The downside of over-age players is that they have less of an “upside” in their development trajectory. In addition over-age players have a small developmental window before they hit their physical peak at age 27-31.
Comments and questions welcomed on the HFBoards Thrashers Board . Holly Gunning contributed to this article.