2022 NHL Draft: The “higher risk, higher reward” candidates for the Penguins

As part of the meandering series of NHL draft previews on Pensburgh, here’s some of the previous work to get up to speed about the upcoming entry draft:

The NHL’s legendary 2003 draft class
Examining possible US National team products for Pittsburgh at pick 21
Logan Cooley is raising the bar for Western PA hockey players
Ron Hextall’s historical first round drafting tendencies

Today, our focus shifts to an exciting angle – players that could be available at or around pick 21 for the Penguins that have a lot of potential and could exceed value. Occasionally at this level, teams can find a David Pastrnak (25th overall in 2014) or a Brock Boeser (23rd in 2015) or a Robert Thomas (20th overall in 2017) or a Shea Theodore (26th in 2013).

The difficulty is that it is tough to know why to draft Pastrnak instead of, say, Conner Bleackley (picked two earlier at 23, zero career NHL games) or know who is going to be the “Pastrnak” and who is going to be the Nikita Scherbak (selected one pick after Pasta) at the time of the draft.

One such way would be to take a home run swing on a player that projects to have top-line upside, but has too many warts to be a top-10 or 15 pick on draft day. That looks great when a few years later a team has a Brandon Saad-type player who fell in their draft year … But not so much when they selected a player who fell to them like Angelo Esposito that never put it together for one reason or another that couldn’t possibly be foreseen on draft day. (In Esposito’s case, future knee injuries).

Still, being aggressive and looking for the biggest upside and skill is a good strategy. Sure, the Pens could nab a perceived “safe” prospect that has a great shot of developing into a third line forward or lower-lineup defender, but what would really make an impact is swinging for the fences and actually pulling it off, be the success coming through some good fortune or good scouting.

Here are some candidates in 2022.

Brad Lambert

Photo by Codie McLachlan / Getty Images

Elite prospects ranking tracker:

There is a fairly good chance that Lambert will be taken off the board in the first 20 picks. He was considered as high as a top-3 or top-5 potential pick earlier in the pre-draft process, but has slumped in the rankings after a disappointing draft season. His production fell in 2021-22 the Finnish league from a really sensational 2020-21 age-17 season competing against pro players.

Lambert is considered one of the best athletes in the draft. He is an elite skater with a ton of offensive skill. Why might he be around at 21? The answer is that Lambert has been marked with one of the most damning scarlet letters that a hockey player can acquire: the NHL scouting world is questioning his level of effort. At best, he had an inconsistent season. As a more condemning outlook, he floated and didn’t always apply himself on the ice.

As Corey Pronman of The Athletic summed it up, “He’s full of potential, even though I’ve seen him take a lot of nights off. I think he will be a top-six winger in the NHL but he may frustrate coaches. ”

Since draft day has been one of the rare times that Hextall is an active in making trades, should Lambert fall to 16, 17, 18, perhaps the Penguins would swing a deal to move up a few spots if they are interested.

Ivan Miroshnichenko

Lausanne 2020 Winter Youth Olympics - Day 13

Photo by RvS.Media/Robert Hradil / Getty Images

Elite prospects tracker:

It remains to be seen how NHL teams will handle drafting Russian-trained players in the draft. A handful of teams are expected to wipe all players off their board completely. Most will be at least weary. Miroshnichenko can’t control where he was from, and he has an even bigger concern anyways: his health. In January he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Indications are that his health is on the upswing with him completing treatments recently and being cleared to practice again. But any NHL team looking for an excuse not to use a high pick on him has an obvious out. However, getting past the troubled areas is a player who could be one of the best players on the ice, as seen by TSN’s Bob McKenzie’s No. 6 ranking at mid-season before his disease and the Russian factor became troubling to bigger degree.

Pronman’s glowing assessment of Miroshnichenko included:

Miroshnichenko is a player with all the attributes you want in a top NHL winger. He’s got good size and strength. He’s a strong skater. He’s highly skilled. He can make plays and he’s highly competitive. His shot is a bullet and can be a weapon from the flank on a pro power play. He can beat defenders with speed, he can put pucks through legs, he can create at even strength and on the power play. He has a bulky frame and can play a powerful style of game.

When it comes to high risk with the potential for a high reward, Miroshnichenko is a fascinating case study. In a hypothetical world where the 2022 NHL draft was held in January instead of July, he almost certainly would have been a top-10 pick (as you can see in the screenshot above for rankings, all the very high rankings are pre-season or mid-season before his illness was diagnosed).

But in the reality of what has happened since then, he might actually be drafted 15th or he might go 35th, or anywhere in between. Some teams with multiple high picks may be in a better position to take a flyer on him, but if available at # 21, the Pens would surely have to at least have a risk / reward debate on the viability of selecting him.

Perhaps more than any other player selected in the back-half of this year’s first round, Miroshnichenko could be something like the next David Pastrnak (first line productive NHL forward), but yet he could also be the next Angelo Esposito (zero career NHL games ). And in the fog of draft day, it’s impossible to know which path he will end up on.

Danila Yurov

2021 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championships - Final

Photo by Tom Pennington / Getty Images

(The only picture in Getty’s photobase, sorry Danila!)

Elite prospects tracker:

Yurov is also a player that in a more “normal” time would probably be selected in the top-half of the first round. He played with Magnitogorsk last season, famously Evgeni Malkin’s hometown club. He also had an extremely limited amount of ice time and almost a non-existent role of about 4 minutes per game.

Winged wheel podcast wrote:

Yurov is a dual-threat who gets to good spots when shooting and finds teammates all over the offensive zone. When given room to run, he can be a handful at times. He plays with physicality and skill, a blend that attracts NHL squads. How far will he fall because of the mess in Russia’s politics? That’s the biggest question when it comes to Yurov’s evaluation. He’s a first-round talent that could wind up being excellent value to some team willing to take the risk.

Pronman also cited Yurov as “one of the best stick handlers in the draft” and with a high compete level at both ends of the rink. He could well be gone in the first 20 picks (especially with a team like Washington picking at 20 with no shortage of taking gambles on talented Russians in the first round), but should he still be on the board for the Pens, it would again make for an interesting debate. Simply as a player, there probably aren’t 21 better draft eligible choices out there. Miroshnichenko might have a slightly higher ceiling, but his health questions would make Yurov a “safer” choice as more likely to become a top-six forward in the NHL.

Pavel Mintyukov

2022 CHL / NHL Top Prospects Game

Photo by Chris Tanouye / Getty Images

Elite prospects tracker:

Though Russian born, Mintyukov played in the OHL last season and does not have the worry of a KHL contractual entanglement hanging over him.

If there is a rush on defensemen in the first round, as often seems to be the case, he might be off the board by No. 21 as well. However, if he slips to the Penguins, this is another player that should draw their consideration as one with the potential to be a second pairing (or even higher) defenseman who could not just be a player on an NHL team, but make an impact on games with his ability.

Winged Wheel had him ranked 21st, right in the sweet spot, but even admits in the analysis this could be a player who goes higher or out-performs his draft position:

As an offensive player, the Russian defender is a wicked playmaker. He with dipsy doodle all day at the blueline, embarrassing opponents with his hands and quick feet. His passing ability is quite impressive and because he is always pushing deep into the offensive zone, he gets shots off from quality scoring areas. There will need to be a ton of refinement but if he can work out the kinks, oh boy am I going to look like an idiot for having him this low.

The knock on Mintyukov right now is that he is too active at jumping up in plays and needs more structure and defensive development in his game. But he undoubtedly has a lot of skill and is an aggressive player. Is it better to bet on reigning in a talented and active player rather than trying to hope a less skilled but more sound player will end up being better? That will be a question teams will have to answer on draft day when it comes to Mintyukov.

Picking in the 20’s is not without risk, yet teams can still find NHL players at this point. If they are willing to take a chance or bet on development, sometimes that gamble is rewarded with a player who in a few years ends up being one of the better players in the draft. Pittsburgh will likely have the opportunity on at least one of the names above, the question just shifts to how much the “juice is worth the squeeze” in these cases.

That’s the toughest question on draft day, with so many unknown future factors in play, but also part of the fun in trying to dig up what could become an impact player for years down the road.

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