The Top 25 Under 25 series continues with a troika of highly-drafted young guns. Defenseman Alex Plante and centre Riley Nash were both first-round selections in 2007 (and were both born on the exact same day!). Swedish forward Anton Lander is a more recent selection, going in the second round of the 2009 draft. All three players got snapped up no later than 40th overall, so the pedigree is there. If they were radio songs, Rick Dees would have played them all. And nothing says quality hockey player like Rick Dees and the
Weekly Yearly Top 40.
Yet despite their good draft pedigree, Plante, Nash and Lander took quite different paths to the draft and their hockey experiences since have been very different. Plante played junior hockey in the WHL with the Calgary Hitmen, got in a huge fight with his head coach that saw him demand and then undemand a trade before moving on to playing in the AHL this season with the world's best AHL team. At least that's what it was if you asked Kevin Prendergast in the summer. Nash, meanwhile, played for Salmon Arm's Silverbacks in his draft year. For those of you who haven't memorized the CHL's 60 junior teamss, Salmon Arm isn't one of them. No, the Silverbacks play one level down the totem pole which enables players to retain their NCAA eligibility. Nash parlayed that eligibility into at least three years at Cornell University where a full season is about 36 games. Finally, Lander was taken out of Europe. And not just Europe, but one of the best European leagues in the world, the Swedish Elite League. Since being drafted Timra has put an "A" on his chest and given him a bunch more minutes. Despite smaller offensive totals than you'd expect from an elite prospect, it seems that the Oilers found themselves a hockey player. One has already played in the NHL, another probably would have if he had left school early and the last has played with men since he turned 16.
So naturally we rank them below the top ten.
Well below the top ten.
If you haven't seen the other rankings in the series so far, you can catch them here. Although, really, what have you been waiting for?
by: Benjamin Massey
What are we to make of young Alex Plante? He is perhaps the greatest enigma in the Oilers prospect crop. He was drafted too high, perhaps, boosted by the performance of junior teammate Karl Alzner who went fifth overall that year. But perhaps he did not go early enough, his size, skating ability, and all-round promise hidden by the wide shadow Alzner cast. He lacked conventional offensive punch and wasn't that big; he was, essentially, a young Steve Staios, who was many things but not a fifteenth overall pick. But he was also a stalwart defender on a level the Oilers haven't seen enough and enough of an offensive threat to pick up fifteen points in eighteen playoff games to finish his junior career.
Injury has hurt Plante; in the 2007-08 season, a nasty series of injuries caused him to miss most of the year and spend too much of 2008-09 just catching up. Back problems in training camp hurt him to start his professional career, and earlier this week an accidental collision with Kip Brennan in practice knocked Plante out with a concussion. Marc Pouliot could tell him that all the potential in the world doesn't mean much if he can't stay on the ice.
But on a Springfield defense ravaged by injury and mediocrity, the first-year pro has been the only one to actually beat expectations. Even seasoned professional veterans like Dean Arsene and Jake Taylor have fallen behind Plante, and other alleged prospects like Taylor Chorney and Cody Wild have been powerless as Plante has eaten their lunch. Only Theo Peckham, older and wiser (and higher ranked), has clearly been Plante's superior on the blue line this year. Johan Motin has an argument, but given their quality of minutes and Plante's offensive superiority, only an argument.
The oft-injured Plante can play through adversity and has managed to appear in 53 games this season; only 2007-08 in the WHL stands out as particularly tormented. When he's on the ice, and he's usually on the ice, he can deliver. All the physical ability is there, and the results are building up fast. Even in his brief NHL shot he looked good, not necessarily because he's an NHL player yet but because he has the intelligence and the poise to know which play he's capable of making and then making it. A good brain and a good body are an awfully attractive duo for a young defenseman.
Health is a question mark, as is continuing to steadily improve on the woeful Falcons. But Plante may be able to crawl up these rankings a little further yet.
by: Benjamin Massey
Anton Lander plays a regular, effective shift in one of the five best hockey leagues in the world and doesn't turn nineteen until April. That's an endorsement right there.
Lander and others like him are the anthropomorphic personifications of trusting statistics rather than "seeing him good". Even in this marvelous world of twenty-four-hour hockey coverage, you won't see many Timra IK games on Sportscentre. What we know about Lander comes second-hand, from coaches and scouts and statistics, and from those brief glimpses we catch in tournaments like the World Juniors where Lander joined Magnus Paarjavi-Svensson on a disappointing run for a strong Swedish team.
That World Junior experience was pretty bad. Oiler eyes locked on Paarjavi-Svensson, who looked brilliant (Jani Rita-esque, even) and then fell to Lander, mouths creasing into a thin line of vague disapproval. "Is that it?" He plays smaller than his size, which is some trick when you're only 6'0". His puck-handling skills aren't all there. He's a cerebral player and he's not exactly slow, but there's not a lot there to hang your hat on, not much that makes you say "wow".
Then there's the instinctive distrust and unfamiliarity of the Swedish Elitserien. We all know Peter Forsberg and Marcus Naslund and the great, great players to come out of Sweden, but the SEL seldom gets the credit it deserves in these parts. It's an understandable reaction for an Oilers fan, really. After all, the last player the Oilers drafted out of the Swedish first division who actually played an NHL game was a left-winger by the name of Peter Eriksson out of HV71, who squeezed into twenty games for the Oilers and recorded six points. Don't remember him? Also understandable, since we drafted him in nineteen-eighty-fucking-four.
Like any league, the SEL produces its share of busts, but there hasn't been much second-round talent out of them in recent years. Carl Soderberg, a centre, went 49th overall to St. Louis out of Malmo in 2004 and is currently a point-per-game player. Unfortunately he's a point-per-game player in the Swedish Allsvenskan, their second division. Detroit picked winger Dick Axelsson 62nd overall in 2006, and his offense has if anything been a little better than Lander's but he's already washed out of the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins. There aren't a lot of clear-cut hits.
On the other hand, nineteen years old and playing in the SEL! Playing well, too! This year with Timra, Lander has fourteen points in forty games and is -2, which ain't no holy hell but certainly ain't bad. He's the youngest player in their lineup, twelve days younger than some guy named Magnus, and is the eighth-leading scorer on not a bad hockey team. To put that in perspective, our eighth-leading scorer in Edmonton is Ryan Potulny, another guy with no real flaws but no real strengths beyond hard work and a cerebral attitude.
I bet we could all live with a Swedish Ryan Potulny fortieth overall.
by: Scott Reynolds
I am one of those people who takes a while to move a prospect up or down a list. Last summer Derek and Jonathan handled the prospect rankings and if you remember those (or check on the side-bar) you'll notice that Riley Nash was the third best prospect in the organization. The methodology was different at that time but if you look at the list and compare it with who hasn't shown up yet, in our current rankings he's been passed by Ryan Stone, Jeff Petry, Linus Omark, Teemu Haritkainen and Jordan Eberle. Now, I agreed with the top-three ranking of Nash at the time (note: Theo Peckham, not so much) and he's played exactly 22 games since then. As far as I'm concerned, unless something is substantially changed, if you liked him in the summer, you should like him today! More than anything, that ranking of 7th overall is a reflection of my liking him in the summer, not being blown away by the guys I had behind him and not believing Nash has been so bad over 22 games that he deserves to get curb-stomped down to... oh, I don't know... 15th. So I saved his ass and now he's 14th. You're welcome Riley!
Before we move on, let's take a look at his statistical performance in his three years at Cornell:
So the production hasn't really increased since Nash was named ECAC rookie of the year after his freshman season. He's consistently stuck around that point per game mark for a while. After sifting through the box scores we can take a deeper look at some of the other statistics that might help us to further explain his performance:
One thing to note on the above chart is that there was one game in both 2007-08 and 2009-10 where the boxscore did not include shot totals, so the shots numbers would be in 35 and 21 games respectively. There has been some suggestion that Nash's "poor" performance so far this season has to do with less time on the power play. If that's happening (it might be) it isn't showing up in his numbers, as Nash is still tallying a large percentage of his offence there this season. In fact, the percentage of his offence coming from the PP is up this year as compared to last:
So there is a very real element of Nash running in place offensively. If we were trying to look for reasons we could point to a four-game stretch that he missed earlier this year - he didn't play from January 29th through February 6th - and call it an injury. I wasn't able to find any confimation, but it does seem like the most plausible reason for him to miss those games. In the four games since he got back he's had 2 goals and 7 assists with 12 shots on goal. It could be a hot streak, it could be Nash getting healthy, or it could be both. Another place to find improvement is his improving shot rates season over season. In his rookie year Nash had 2.47 shots per game. Last season that went up to 3.09 and this season that number has further improved to 3.48. Maybe he's just shooting more often and from worse angles (his shooting percentage is down) but it seems equally plausible that Nash is taking steps forward in generating chances and just hasn't been able to cash at the same rate as in his rookie season.
When it comes to players drafted in the first round, if there's a reasonable conclusion that shows the player doing well, I tend to go with it. The players are usually drafted that high for a reason. They also tend to get more opportunities than other players. If Riley Nash and Chris VandeVelde are fighting for the same roster position, Nash has a built in advantage as the higher draft pick (just ask Cody Wild).
The last thing I wanted to mention - it almost seems an obligation if you're writing about Nash - is the organization's view of his decision to stay at Cornell. Here's Kevin Prendergast in a piece from the Oilers website (emphasis mine):
"He got off to a little bit of a slow start. It’s starting to wear on him a little bit. He’s going to sign a pro contract which wears on kids. Over the last three to four weeks he’s picked his game up. He’s an intelligent player. He’s smart, he’s got great hands, and he does all those little things well... We’ll talk to him, he’s well aware of what our thoughts are and where he should be. As we get to the end of the year when we have our organizational meetings, we’ll sit down and figure it out. Maybe it’s time to take him out and bite the bullet a little bit with him or should we just let him go for his fourth year next year with Cornell. Overall, he’s starting to play a lot better now."
The bolded parts suggest to me that the Oilers feel Nash should turn pro this season and that the Oilers have generally been happy with his performance over the last several weeks. I think he signs the summer.