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What Is a Prospect, Anyway?

It's a winter tradition, as inevitable and as inaccurate as watching groundhog shadows. It's hope for the future, it's blind optimism and naive dreaming, it's a few thousand words of crossed fingers. It's the great prospect rankings that Oiler fans everywhere and back again shovel out the door during slow news weeks to try and get some cheap hits use to analyze the future of this team as comprehensively as we analyze the present.

Which is handy when the Oilers' present is as miserable as it currently is.

It sounds so simple. Take the Oilers prospects, rank them one through twenty, insert some sarcastic comments, talk about how they're all potential All-Stars, and head out onto the patio with a cup of coffee secure in a job well done. But there are complications, and some of them are more serious than figuring out whether William Quist is really a better prospect than Kyle Bigos.

For example, there's figuring out what a prospect is.

This is Sam Gagner. He's currently in his third full NHL season. He's played over two hundred games in the show and picked up over a hundred points. He's also twenty years old. When we talk about Gagner, we're talking about him as a prospect: he's really developing into a second line forward, he might be a legitimate first-line centre in a couple years, with luck and development perhaps he becomes an All-Star.

But are you going to see him on a single one of these prospect lists? He's got more developing to do than the older Ryan O'Marra. But O'Marra will be on the list because you can count his career NHL games on his fingers, and Sam Gagner's won't because he's played two hundred of them, and nobody will really say boo about this.

It's really weird.

Most prospect lists have a couple of cutoffs: if you're too old you don't get on no matter how crappy your career has been (hello, Colin McDonald), but if you've played too many NHL games you won't get on either (the Gagner factor). This makes sense on a couple of levels, both philosophical and rather prosaic: once you are in the NHL, even if you have a long way to improve, you have arrived; you have on some level ceased to be a prospect based on that alone. Somebody playing in the AHL has a lot further to come on their hockey journey pretty much by definition.

Less interestingly, well, if your team was in thirtieth place and you were reading an article on its future, would you really want to read yet again about the young idiots you've had to watch all year?

It's clear we have to draw the line somewhere. Any prospect list that begins "1. Ales Hemsky" isn't going to get too much respect. But, even in conversation, determining when one has gone from prospect to player is more a matter of half-baked opinion and guesswork than rigorous statistical analysis. Sometime last year, Tom Gilbert wasn't a prospect anymore, but Denis Grebeshkov still kinda is. Devan Dubnyk is a prospect, Jeff Deslauriers is a suspect. Sam Gagner is the Crown Prince of Prospects, but Andrew Cogliano is Jason Chimera, and nobody knows what the hell Marc Pouliot is anymore. How does one base a list on arbitrary approximations?

Okay, the entire concept of ranking prospects is based on arbitrary approximations. I'm trying to apply rigorous logic to an inherently unrigorous activity. I know. Bear with me, here.

It may be that there is no better way to come up with who is a prospect and who isn't than devising a set of rules and sticking with them through thick and thin. But, dammit, it feels like there should be. This has been bugging me for five years and there's still no solution. Are there any brilliant ideas from the commentariat? Or must this simply be one of those things that vaguely irritates me every year, like Steve Tambellini making a trade?