The NHL Entry Draft wrapped up last Saturday evening, but the reactions to the draft are just getting started. Despite the fact that everyone recognizes the need to wait a few years before determining how well each team did (well, each team that didn't have a top-two pick in the draft), we fans all feel the need to weigh in on the picks our team made. From our comments to the Mailbag questions, it's on everyone's mind, so here's my take.
The 2015 Capitals draft was a unique draft in recent history, with only four players being selected, and it left a lot of room to critique. My main complaint is in using their first round pick on a goalie. Ilya Samsonov could end up being a very good NHL goalie, but even assuming he ends up as an above average NHL goalie, I still don't like the pick.
I'm on board with the idea of drafting the best player available, and definitely not drafting for need. Remember how many fans were upset that the Caps took a wing in the first round last year because they needed centers? Well, today the Caps are looking for help in their top six wings and look to have found some answers down the middle. Organizational depth charts change quickly, certainly before the majority of first round picks are ever going to sniff the roster. The concern with picking a goalie in the first round has nothing to do with the Capitals' organizational depth, and everything to do with the general goaltending market.
As JP and I recently discussed, the goaltending market is deeper than it's ever been. There are quality goalies on the free agent market all the time, and teams can ensure a steady stream of cheap prospect goalies without having to use prime draft assets on goalies. Braden Holtby and Phillip Grubauer, for example, were both fourth-round picks. Goalies are also unpredictable, and while any pick outside the lottery has some uncertainty to it, that uncertainty is greater at the goaltending position.
Caps 2015 NHL Draft
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Between the uncertainty and the relatively well stocked goaltending market, the risk-reward calculation doesn't make sense for a goalie in the first round.
The position that is hardest to fill, scoring forward, is almost fully stocked with first-round picks, and teams don't generally move those players for anything more than a king's ransom - so if you haven't addressed your scoring through the draft, it's almost impossible to do it without a substantial overpayment. Even quality defenders are hard to find on the free agency or trade market. They aren't necessarily all first-round picks, because their longer development arc is harder to predict than a forwards' development arc, but the majority of high-quality defenders were picked in the first two rounds of the draft and stay with their team at least until their UFA years.
But goalies move around much more frequently, and at a lower cost. Sure, Lehner just pulled in a first round pick for Ottawa, and Talbot pulled in an early second round pick for the Rangers, but those trade returns aren't as high as the ones that involve getting young forwards or defensemen, instead. You only have to look at how Boston is being roundly panned for "only" getting back a first round pick and two second round picks for Dougie Hamilton to see how returns are valued.
So while it's true that you'd rather have a great player at a position of lesser need, and you can always trade from a position of surplus, the best-case scenario for Samsonov is that he develops well and the Caps flip him for another first-round pick down the line... which is what they paid to get him just last week. Of course, the other "best-case" scenario is Samsonov comes in to replace a faltering Holtby, which doesn't sound so "best-case."
The other major critique we've heard about the Caps' draft is that they traded a pick to move up five spots and grab Jonas Siegenthaler. The critique there is twofold: first, they shouldn't be burning a later draft pick just to move up and get a guy; second, they shouldn't be targeting a defender with no offensive upside.
I'm not on board with either critique. The Caps burned a low-value asset, one that had a small chance of ever turning into an NHL player, so that they could move up and draft a guy they believe was a top-twenty player in the draft. If you think you have a chance to get a top-twenty guy at the 57 spot, you've got to take that shot. The problem with the trade is never going to be that they gave up a fourth-round pick. The wisdom, or lack thereof, is always going to hinge on the player evaluation. If Siegenthaler is indeed a top-twenty guy, or close to it, then moving up will eventually be seen as a huge win; if he's not, then it'll be a problem, but it will be as much a problem because of what it says about their player evaluation as what it says about their approach to combining draft picks to move up.
I will note that the Caps have moved up to draft a guy three times in the last two years. That isn't a sustainable pace, I don't think. At some point you need to sit where you are and accumulate picks. Nobody is great at drafting after the second round, but that's where the Caps found Holtby, Grubauer, Connor Carrick, and Riley Barber. If they continue to burn all their later round picks, those kind of guys won't be in the future prospect pool.
In this specific case, however, where the Caps had one draft pick in the first two rounds, I'm okay with them moving up to get another swing in the second round, and using it to draft a guy they believe is a top-twenty prospect from the draft. Drafting an impact top-four defender in the second round can change the look of an organization in a way that no number of Riley Barbers can.
As far as Siegenthaler's upside, let's remember he's a kid and he started playing in a professional league with men at age 16. This isn't the same as Karl Alzner failing to rack up points in the CHL against clearly lesser competition. It's impressive that Siegenthaler can even hang in the top Swiss league as a 16-17 year old, so I'm not going to worry about his offensive output. This isn't Dylan McIlrath beating up on physically immature teens and failing to do anything with the puck. Siegenthaler is by all accounts very mobile, and as a teen is handling the physical side of the game against full grown men. It's a qualitatively different situation.
No, his three points in his draft year don't scream "offensive talent," but it's really hard to create offense from the blue line when you're a little in over your head physically and mentally (look at what Jakub Vrana produced as a scoring forward in the SHL in his draft year). His size, mobility, and hockey sense sound like an NHL combination, so let's be patient and see how he puts it all together.
After all, Roman Josi was drafted in the second round coming off an 8 point season in the same league and he's turned out alright. Even if the offense doesn't come, drafting another Alzner at 57 overall is better than drafting an Alzner at five overall.