Here’s a hot take for you: The best pure goal-scorer in the 2016 Draft not named Patrik Laine wasn’t taken until the second round. For as much as we bemoan how the Chicago Blackhawks somehow always seem to find ways to win, maybe it’s time to acknowledge the fact that the rest of the league seems to let them get away with things like: Drafting a first round-calibre player despite not having a first round pick because Alex DeBrincat got passed over 38 times before the Hawks finally had their first pick of the 2016 Draft.
For most NHL GMs, size is always going to matter to a certain extent. After all, playing in the NHL is a grind. It’s physically grueling, and common sense seems to tell us that a 6’2 body is more likely to hold up in the long run than a 5’9 body. Still, there’s room these days for smaller skaters, and we’ve seen some serious offensive firepower from undersized forwards. All the same, teams seem to be less willing to take a chance on smaller players in the draft.
(All this is to say: Patrick Kane going first overall to the Blackhawks in 2007 is the exception, not the rule.)
Alex DeBrincat is no Patrick Kane. For one thing, he’s even smaller. The Erie Otters roster has him listed at 5’7, 160 pounds. For another, his style of play is more in the mold of, say, a Brendan Gallagher than a Kane or a Gaudreau or even a Marner. (It’s worth noting that DeBrincat’s offensive ceiling is higher than Gallagher’s, and it’s not like Gallagher is lacking in that department.)
Going into the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, DeBrincat was projected as a late first-rounder or early second-rounder. He ended up going 39th to the Chicago Blackhawks, and probably should have gone higher — it’s bizarre that so many teams would pass on a two-time 50-goal scorer in the OHL. But what’s done is done, and this year is a big one for DeBrincat, with no shortage of pressure to go around.
That’s okay, though, because he hasn’t fallen short of expectations yet. In fact, he’s far exceeded them — Erie’s smallest forward packs an awfully big offensive punch.
In his first year with the Otters, DeBrincat exploded onto the scene, posting 51 goals and 53 assists in 68 regular season games. In the process, he took home OHL and CHL Rookie of the Year honors and set a new rookie points record.
The previous record holder? That’s right — his teammate and linemate, sometimes referred to as The Next One, Connor McDavid.
The following season was DeBrincat’s draft year, and once again, the pressure was on: DeBrincat had been astonishingly productive his first year, but surely much of that was due to the fact that Connor McDavid had been centering him.
This time around, DeBrincat would be without Connor McDavid, but he still had an elite center. Dylan Strome made it to the last day of Coyotes training camp, but was ultimately sent back to Erie for the season, and DeBrincat once again put up monster numbers, scoring 51 goals (again) and racking up 50 assists in eight fewer games.
(It should have been good enough to go higher than 39th, and he was probably disappointed not to go in the first round. Still, 39th overall is a far cry from going undrafted altogether in the OHL, and he should be proud of what he’s done so far with the Otters.)
There’s no doubt that DeBrincat benefited from playing with the linemates he’s had the last two seasons, but that goes both ways. In addition, that doesn’t mean that DeBrincat can’t replicate the results without them. Simply put, DeBrincat drives possession and offensive production. He’s been able to capitalize more often than not playing on the lines he has, but his playmaking ability and his deadly shot won’t go away just because his linemates do.
What’s more, he’s smart with when he shoots. Take a look at these heat maps of his shot and goal locations from the 2015-16 season, courtesy of Prospect-Stats.com.
As you can see, the majority of his shots are high danger ones, taken from below the hash marks. It follows, then, that that’s where most of his goals are scored, too. DeBrincat won’t maintain a 30%+ shooting percentage as his career advances, but the fact that he tends to shoot mostly from those high danger areas rather than from the perimeter bodes well for his future goal-scoring.
That’s not the only thing to like about DeBrincat. Here are some more numbers for you to chew on:
Last season — his draft year — was another standout year for DeBrincat. Even at a surface level, his stats catch your eye — 101 points in 60 games, 51 goals. He matched his goal total from his rookie year in eight fewer games. (He missed those games while he was at World Juniors, which wasn’t his best showing — a suspension and an injury marred his time there, but he’ll get a second crack at the tournament this year.)
Of the OHLers who were up for the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, DeBrincat was the only one to finish in the top ten in the league in goals (51), points (101), and goals per game (.85). If you ascribe to the theory that secondary assists are largely random, then you’ll also be interested to know that DeBrincat ranked sixth in the league in primary points per game (1.317). He led his draftmates in that category as well, with only London Knights forward Matthew Tkachuk (6th overall to the Calgary Flames) breaking into the OHL’s top ten in primary points per game with a 1.158.
This season, DeBrincat got off to the best start of his junior career and has registered 58 points (29 goals, 29 assists) through 27 games. And to those detractors who believe DeBrincat’s success has been built on the backs of Connor McDavid and Dylan Strome: With Strome in Arizona to start this season, DeBrincat spent time centering the Otters’ top line and proved himself more than capable of the task. In the twenty games before Strome’s return to the Otters in late November (a full third of the regular season), DeBrincat tallied 20 goals and 21 assists.
His most common linemate this season has been Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Taylor Raddysh (taken 58th overall in this year’s draft), and their chemistry has been off the charts. Raddysh enjoyed a solid year in 2015-16 (24-49-73), but has ramped it up offensively this season playing with DeBrincat, with 23 goals and 38 assists for 61 points in 28 games played.
Raddysh and DeBrincat are currently one and two respectively in the OHL in points, and if you don’t count Dylan Strome, who’s only played seven games so far thanks to his stint with the Coyotes, are one and two in points per game as well.
Alex DeBrincat, who’s set to take center stage later this month for Team USA alongside the likes of Brock Boeser and Clayton Keller, has come a long way since being passed over for the OHL Draft as a sixteen year-old. He still has a long way to go. But honestly? Let’s all stop pretending that DeBrincat’s success stems from his linemates. DeBrincat is a star in his own right, and that’s never been clearer than it is right now.
Don’t be surprised when DeBrincat keeps defying expectations. And don’t be surprised when DeBrincat is boosting an aging Jonathan Toews’ numbers at some point in the future. (And when that comes to fruition? Remember, you heard it here first.)