Lawson Crouse a high-risk, high-reward prospect

Lawson Crouse finished second in Kingston Frontenacs scoring with 62 points in 49 games. (Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

For all the discussion on the correct use of analytics vs. the value of old-fashioned scouting, the truth is that even those people at the extremes of either camp largely agree on which individual players are good. Ask both camps about Sidney Crosby or Drew Doughty or Carey Price and the evaluation isn’t likely to change much, although the reasoning behind it may differ.

That’s what makes Lawson Crouse so interesting. A top prospect in the deep 2015 Draft, Crouse is incredibly divisive. Scouts praise myriad qualities that don’t show up on the score sheet, including his strong defensive play. The obvious counter argument is that the things which show up on the score sheet matter, too, and Crouse is noticeably shy in that department.

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The best way to illustrate the dilemma might be with a simple comparison. Crouse, who is listed at No. 5 on NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings, is a 1997-born winger who led a middling Kingston Frontenacs team in scoring in his second year in the OHL. It’s interesting to compare his production with that of Nikita Korostelev, a fellow 1997-born winger with two years of OHL experience who also led a middling team (Sarnia Sting) in scoring this year. Korostelev is a good prospect and sits No. 50 on Central Scouting’s final list.

• Lawson Crouse, 2013-14: 63 games, 15 goals, 27 points (0.24 goals- and 0.43 points-per-game)
• Nikita Korostelev, 2013-14: 60 games, 17 goals, 38 points (0.28 goals- and 0.63 points-per-game)

• Lawson Crouse, 2014-15: 56 games, 29 goals, 51 points (0.52 goals- and 0.91 points-per-game)
• Nikita Korostelev, 2014-15: 55 games, 24 goals, 53 points (0.44 goals- and 0.96 points-per-game)

It’s comparisons like that which make valuing Crouse inside the top-10 problematic. And sometimes the comparisons the scouts make only serve to muddle the issue.

“I don’t know that numbers and the stats are going to define the players in this range here,” Central Scouting director Dan Marr told 630 CHED’s Bob Stauffer shortly after the final rankings were released. “Lawson Crouse is arguably the strongest player in this draft and he’s such an excellent skater for his size. The thing we like about him is that every game, every shift, he’s doing something, you notice something… He’s this generation’s Cam Neely, and that’s what he can bring to a team.”

Obviously, Marr was comparing physical tools, because in terms of production Neely was putting up 120 points in junior during his draft year, which is miles ahead of Crouse. Even after compensating for the scoring levels of that era, Neely’s per-game offensive production was 24.3 percent higher than Crouse’s. That’s a significant gap.

Some of the best work publicly available on projecting prospects based on their junior production has been coming out of the Canucks Army website. They recently ran an analysis on Crouse based on his age, size, point totals and a massive historic data set. Their list of comparable players included names such as Todd Bertuzzi and Benoit Pouliot at the top end, but also players such as Dwight King and Chris Thorburn. That’s quite the range, and when a team spends a top-10 pick on a player it generally doesn’t like to see names like “Chris Thorburn” showing up as comparables.

There are, however, reasonable counterarguments.

One critical item worth noting is that there are massive chunks of the game not captured by point totals, particularly over a span of 50-odd games. We can likely all think of exceptional two-way NHLers who play tough opponents and start lots of shifts in the defensive end of the rink and yet somehow manage to generate more scoring chances than they surrender. Point totals don’t always do a good job of capturing two-way play, and they don’t show us context at all. Given the number of scouts who have praised Crouse’s two-way ability, this point shouldn't be ignored.

The other, perhaps more relevant argument, is on the difference between performance and projection. Point totals have some value for placing draft-eligible prospects, but they only tell us what the player is doing right now; they are snapshots in time. This is a massive limitation, particularly when dealing with 17-year-olds, who will generally see massive improvement over the next decade of their careers. There’s no element of projection to point totals.

Scouts don’t own crystal balls, and there are plenty of examples of players who were highly-touted but never panned out. However, the focus on a player’s tools and raw potential means that the scouting community can be more effective at spotting the players with massive potential to improve from where they are in their draft year. Crouse seems to have all the tools, winning praise for his size, speed, smarts and ability with the puck.

Milan Lucic is a great example of a player who dramatically outperformed his draft-year scoring. In 2006, Lucic put up just nine goals and 19 points in 62 games for the WHL’s Vancouver Giants. Boston took him in the second round, despite totals that probably would have left him undrafted in a league ruled by the spreadsheet. Now he’s 500-plus games into an NHL career as a top-six power forward.

But it’s not enough to just shrug and assume the scouts know best, either. Keeping with the Vancouver theme of Neely and Lucic, we can look at Alek Stojanov, a 6-foot-4, 232-pound forward who had eerily Crouse-like numbers and went No. 7 overall to the Canucks in 1991. He’s most famous these days for being the player Vancouver sent to Pittsburgh in exchange for Markus Naslund, and rightly so; Stojanov’s career featured just two NHL goals and quietly ended with the CHL’s New Mexico Scorpions in 2002.

There’s simply no way of knowing for sure what kind of NHLer Crouse will end up as at this point. The scouts have made it clear he’s a potential high-reward pick, and justifiably he’s going to go early in this summer’s draft.

The numbers make it equally clear that he’s a high-risk pick. That should absolutely lower his draft position and knock him behind safer bets with equally high ceilings. It’s all about balancing the risk and reward.