Thursday, January 16, 2020

Which cap era draft class could produce today’s best 6-man lineup?

One of the nice things about carving out a reputation as the hockey writer who spends way too much time on hypotheticals and random thought experiments is that people come to you first with their weird ideas.

That happened to me last week when a Puck Soup listener wrote in with a mailbag question: Which draft class from the cap era could assemble the best lineup right now? In other words, which class gives you three forwards, two defensemen and a goalie that would win a tournament held today?

Note that that’s a very different question from wondering which draft class was actually the best. A great draft class produces lots of good players, at every position. For this exercise, we just need six stars at the right spots. A draft class can be top-heavy but otherwise awful and score well; it’s also possible for a deep class to end up with just an OK starting six. If you want insight and expertise into which draft classes were the strongest overall, follow Corey Pronman’s work. If you want to keep it simple and get a bit silly, you’re in the right place.

A couple of quick ground rules:

  • As usual, we’ll go with three forwards, two defensemen and a goaltender, but won’t worry too much about having forwards in the right position or which hand a guy shoots with. If you’re good enough to make the team, you’re probably good enough to move around the lineup if you need to.
  • Imagine this tournament is being played today. We’re not interested in how good a guy was at his peak years ago, or how good he might be someday. This is about right now. And we’re going by how a player has performed in the NHL, meaning they need to have some significant big-league experience. Lighting it up in the minors or junior doesn’t impress us here.
  • That said, everyone is magically healthy, rested and motivated. Also, contracts and cap hit don’t matter. And while we’re focused on each team’s starting six, we’ll break ties by considering depth.

Before we start, we have one tough question to figure out: How far back do we go? We obviously can’t use the 2019 Draft, since they couldn’t even ice a team; there are only three players from that class seeing anything close to regular NHL duty this season. But where do we draw the lines?

As it turns out, that ends up being an easier call than you might think: We start with 2016, because neither 2017 or 2018 have produced a goaltender with more than a couple of games of NHL experience. So they’re out, which happily leaves us with an even dozen draft years to consider.

We’ll count this down from the worst starting lineup to the best.

No. 12: Team 2007

This one hurts because the forward group is loaded. And the defense is decent, if a little painful for Habs fans. But the danger with this sort of game is that one position can blow your whole team up, and that’s what happens here.

Forwards: Patrick Kane, Logan Couture, Max Pacioretty

We’re led by Kane, a Hart Trophy winner and likely Hall-of-Famer. He’s got to decent linemates, with Pacioretty edging out Jakub Voracek and former Art Ross winner Jamie Benn for the last spot based on their play this year. It’s not the best front three we’ll see, but it’s a solid start.

Defense: Ryan McDonagh, P.K. Subban

This pairing would have looked better a few years ago, but it’s not bad. They’ll probably be fine as long as the goaltending isn’t a total black hole, he said, engaging in a little ironic foreshadowing.

Goaltending: Scott Darling

Yeah, I know. But here’s the thing: Darling is by far the best goalie from this class. Only three other goalies even made it to the NHL, combining for four wins, and you probably haven’t heard of any of them. (They’re Allen York, Jeremy Smith and Timo Pielmeier, if you’re wondering.) That leaves Darling, who did have some decent years in the NHL and is still active in Europe, or we disqualify Team 2007.

Depth: The forwards are decent; in addition to Benn and Voracek, we could use David Perron, James van Riemsdyk or Wayne Simmonds. The blue line has Jake Muzzin, Alec Martinez or Kevin Shattenkirk. Goaltending … nope.

Overall: They’d be in the running for a middle-of-the-pack finish with a goalie, but it was not to be. What a weird draft year.

No. 11: Team 2006

Another team with a strong forward group that’s going to have trouble keeping the puck out of their net. Although this time, it won’t all be the goalie’s fault.

Forwards: Nicklas Backstrom, Brad Marchand, Jonathan Toews

Remember, we’re looking at who’s at the top of their game right now, which is why somebody like Marchand makes the cut even though in career production he’s well behind guys like Claude Giroux and Phil Kessel. Let’s just hope there are no shootouts.

Defense: Erik Johnson, Jeff Petry

Yeah, the blue line is an issue. Johnson is widely remembered as a bad pick at No. 1, and maybe even a bust, but on this team he’s a no-brainer. Petry kind of is too. Do you know who ranks third in NHL games played among defencemen from the 2006 class? Andrew MacDonald. Yikes.

Goaltending: Semyon Varlamov.

(Double-checks blue line.) Good luck, Semyon!

Depth: Poor. The forwards really only offer Giroux and Kessel, then maybe Jordan Staal. The blue line’s got nothing, and the goalies offer James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier and not much else unless Steve Mason makes a comeback.

Overall: Maybe it’s not surprising that the 2006 and 2007 teams struggle. It’s a young man’s league, and as much as I hate to say it, these guys are getting up there. (The 2005 team might finish a little higher, though – I hear they had a top pick who’s still pretty good.)

No. 10: Team 2014

Imbalance strikes again, as two weakish positions drag down one of the best units we’ll see.

Forwards: Leon Draisaitl, David Pastrnak, Brayden Point

That’s a ridiculous line, right? I’m stunned to see this squad so low on the list. But as it turns out, this class doesn’t have all that much else to offer.

Defense: Aaron Ekblad, Anthony DeAngelo

Ekblad has been a minor disappointment as a first overall pick, and we can quibble with his contract, but on this team, he makes the cut without breaking a sweat. DeAngelo is probably our next best option, beating our Brandon Montour.

Goaltending: Elvis Merzlikins

It’s either him or Thatcher Demko, and we did say this was being played right now, so we’ll go with the hot hand.

Depth: Nothing in goal besides Igor Shesterkin, and not much on the back end. There are a few options up front, including Dylan Larkin, Willian Nylander, Viktor Arvidsson and Nikolaj Ehlers, but nobody that gives our big three a serious run for their money.

Overall: They’d score a ton. They’d probably need to. If I have to buy tickets to watch a team, these guys are high on my list. If I have to bet on someone to win it all, not so much.

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