June 25, 2013

Sean Monahan, Safe Pick in Unpredictable Draft

A partially-locked out NHL campaign was cause for an unpredictable 2012-13 season, and subsequently could lead to an unpredictable NHL draft.  If anything is predictable, it’s the character, skill and compete level that one team is going to receive when they select Sean Monahan in June.

Ottawa’s captain is ranked ninth by International Scouting Services for the upcoming entry draft, while Central Scouting Services has him ranked fifth.

Every scouting service and draft ranking seems to differ, so much more so than in other years, it’s hard to anticipate who goes where.  It’s even more unpredictable when, in some cases, teams might not know what they’re getting in a player, on or off the ice.

The majority of players who come through the draft nowadays are encouraged by agents to play where they’re drafted, and it’s been years since a high-profile draftee didn’t report to their team.  But if any draft could be the exception to the rule, it would be 2013’s.

Of the two players expected to battle for the top position in the draft, neither one wanted to play where originally drafted in the CHL. 

Nathan MacKinnon was openly upset when he was selected first overall in the QMJHL draft, and refused to report to Baie-Comeau Drakkar camp until he was traded to his hometown team in Halifax.

Seth Jones similarly refused to play for the Everett Silvertips of the WHL.  His future in the NHL could be even more controversial, as he’s expected to sign with Roc Nation Sports, a player agency that has caused several rifts between players and teams in basketball and baseball.

MacKinnon’s teammate in Halifax, Jonathan Drouin, is expected to round out the top-three in the draft.  He told the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies not to draft him in 2011, and that he wouldn’t report to them if he did.

The issue of players not reporting doesn’t stop in the top-three, either.  Max Domi tried to circumvent the draft by saying he would play in the NCAA.  When the Kingston Frontenacs selected him, he held out and demanded a trade to London.

Russian draft-eligible forward Valeri Nicushkin caused a stir of late when telling media outlets that he would refuse to play minor-pro or Major Junior hockey in North America, and that he’d only come overseas if an NHL team wanted him to jump into the lineup.

Hopefully, all of these players are told by agents to kick their bad habits to the curb, as high-end draftees typically do, but if ever there was a draft where a team could end up with a bad apple in the first round, chances are it’s going to be this one.

And then there’s Monahan.  The center who played for a last-place team and didn’t gripe about it.  Not only did he not gripe about it, he played through being on a bottom-feeder, played injured and overcame a 10-game suspension and a snubbing at the hands of Hockey Canada’s Under-20 program to put up one of the more impressive offensive seasons in this year’s draft class.

The Brampton native matched his 2011-12 totals in 2013 with 78 points, albeit in less games, averaging 1.34 points per game, on the 20th-placed team in the OHL.

While the 67’s didn’t hold a playoff spot at any time during the 2013 season, Monahan’s 10-game suspension seemed to be the breaking point.  Everybody knew the team was struggling, but mid-December was when fans got the sense that the playoffs were a near-impossible goal.

His first game after the suspension and being cut from Team Canada was against Peterborough, where he scored a goal to help Ottawa to a 5-2 win.  As the roster quickly became thinner with trades, and the rest of the league began to distance themselves from the Barberpoles in the standings, he added 18 more goals and 23 assists in the final 33 games.

In February, draft services started to put less stock in Monahan.  Where he was ranked third in the 2013 draft by some at the start of the season, ISS dropped him to ninth.

The day those rankings came out, he had Ottawa’s lone goal and 12 of their 37 shots on goal in a 5-1 loss to Peterborough.

“If I'm getting ranked lower, I guess I've got to play better or do whatever I can do,” he said after the game.  “I try to play the same game and just try and build on that, I'm trying to get better every day.

A week later, Monahan went awkwardly into the boards in Oshawa and injured his back.  With everyone expecting him to sit out for a while, equipment managers not even bringing his equipment to the rink, he showed up at the next game, a home game against Belleville, and insisted that he be put into the lineup.

Ottawa dropped another decision that day, 6-3 to the Belleville Bulls, but Monahan helped keep them in the game with two powerplay markers.

“We talk about compete level and hard work and he leads us in those categories,” said head coach Chris Byrne after the Belleville loss.  “Many fans don't know how sore he was going into today's game.  Give credit to him and how much he wanted to play.”

Monahan proved he could provide offence for his team as an alternating second-and-third line center as a rookie, took over as center on the top line as a sophomore, and provided the bulk of the offence for a bottom-feeder in his draft year.

While there’s no questioning the amount of high-end talent in the draft, you have to wonder if and how some players would have panned out differently had they taken the high road like Monahan, and stuck by the team that brought them into the league.

NHL Comparables

Plenty of comparisons have been assessed to certain aspects of Monahan’s game, from Jordan Staal, to Anze Kopitar, to Jonathan Toews

It’s tough to come up with a current NHLer to project his future growth, but his skill set is very similar to that of Minnesota Wild forward Mikko Koivu.

Like the younger Koivu brother, Monahan puts up his best numbers when he plays alongside goalscorers with a quick release.

Koivu spent the better part of the last two years playing with snipers Zach Parise, Dany Heatley and at times, Devin Setoguchi.  Similarily, Monahan was most dominant playing with OHL goal leader Tyler Toffoli and Shane Prince, who played a similar role in the OHL as Parise does currently.

Both Koivu and Monahan are equally dominant in the offensive and defensive zones, and although his acceleration isn't there yet, Monahan is a very strong and similar skater.

While it's hard to come up with a current NHLer to make a perfect comparison with Monahan, a pair of retired players are a lot easier to draw comparisons to.

Monahan's skating style, ability to find open space without the puck, play in his own end and make quick, smart plays along the boards looks identical to the way Barrie Colts head coach Dale Hawerchuk played as a member of the Winnipeg Jets and Buffalo Sabres.

Long-time Minnesota/Dallas Stars center Mike Modano is also a player that Monahan's reminiscent of.  Modano didn't have a hard shot or blistering speed, but could dominate the game at both ends and knew how to get open in the attacking zone.

Best NHL Fit

It's hard to believe that a team will pass on Monahan if he drops far enough down the draft, but surely some teams see him as a better fit and will have him higher on their list.

Nashville (4th overall):  Known as a team that keeps prospects in the system as long as possible before introducing them to the NHL, Nashville would likely assure that Monahan spend the next two years in the OHL until he's ineligible, similarily to Jets prospect Mark Scheifele who would have been the OHL's playoff MVP if it weren't for injury.

Aside from perhaps Colin Wilson, Nashville doesn't have a center that would be likely to play top-line minutes five years down the road.  Austin Watson is a top prospect, but would be a better fit as a second- or third-line center.

Calgary (6th overall):  Having traded away their captain and top defenceman at the trade deadline and having their goalie announce his retirement today, the Flames are left picking up the pieces as they try to end a four-year playoff drought.

Calgary isn't neccessarily lacking at the center position moving forward, as youngsters Mikael Backlund and Roman Cervenka seem to be players that the Flames see as mainstays, and having recently drafted long-term projects Mark Jankowski and Max Reinhart

What Calgary does lack is size down the middle, and while Monahan isn't the biggest player, he's grittier than their current top-end centers and brings a little more size.

The concern among many is that Calgary seems like the sort of team that would rush Monahan into the NHL too quickly, especially given their struggles of late.  To get the most out of a prospect like Monahan, he should be sent to the OHL for at least one more year, if not two years.

Edit:  After writing this, Flames management mentioned Monahan by name and stated that they had interest in him if he's still available at the sixth spot.

Edmonton (7th overall):  The Oilers brass have admitted that they're looking at a center with their first pick, and Monahan could fit the mould.  However, it's also rumoured that Edmonton is looking to move their pick, and for a team with so many blue-chip prospects up front, they could also go with a defenceman.

While team draft best player available, it's possible that there won't be a need for another future top-six center anytime in the future, given that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins projects to be a superstar, and if restricted free agent Sam Gagner signs a long-term deal, any other prospect would likely fall to a third line role.

Monahan would also push former teammate Ryan Martindale further down the prospect depth chart if selected by the Oilers.  But with a team that boasts so many explosive star forwards, it'd be interesting to see Monahan in the fold, a less energetic player who can slow down and control the game at times.

Dallas (10th overall):  Every season, Dallas seems to lose a top-line center.  Modano left and signed with the Red Wings in 2010, Brad Richards left to join the Rangers in 2011, Mike Ribiero was traded to Washington in 2012 and Ottawa native Derek Roy only played 30 games in Dallas before being traded to the Canucks in 2013.

The latter three of those who departed from Dallas were all brought in via trade, and it hasn't been since Modano was selected first overall in 1988 that the Stars have homegrown a star center.  They did take Radek Faksa last season, but Monahan would be a nice piece to continue building for a team that's struggled so mightily down the middle.

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