With their (at the time) first 1st round pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft in Philadelphia, the Tampa Bay Lightning went a little "off board", at least in terms of what most publications were projecting, selecting defenseman Anthony DeAngelo of the Sarnia Sting 19th overall.
With two 1st round picks at the time, it was common speculation that GM Steve Yzerman and Director of Amateur Scouting Al Murray would opt for a forward, or that a forward would likely be their best player available at 19 given how the draft played out ahead of them.
Touted forwards like Robby Fabbri, Kasperi Kapanen, Nikita Scherbark and Nikolay Goldobin were all still on the board and seemed like good picks at 19 and with the 28th overall pick (via the New York Rangers and the Martin St. Louis trade) in their backpocket, the option to take a defenseman later seemed like a solid plan.
Of course, that's an awful lot of 'seemed like' and 'looked like' and 'seemed likely', so of course, Yzerman and Murray surprised, taking the most offensively skilled blue-liner available in the draft in spite of significant red flags.
Here's how the panel ranked DeAngelo:
|Kyle Alexander||John Fontana||Clare Austin||Mike Gallimore||Clark Brooks|
Obviously, Mike Gallimore's ranking pulled DeAngelo up the list a bit. Here's his explanation for that decision:
Anthony DeAngelo was one of a number of selections at this summer's draft that bolstered the Lightning's stable of defense prospects. What separates the recent first-round pick from the pack is his high-grade offensive ability, which is largely why I'm so bullish on his future with the Bolts. In a league where mobility and efficient puck-management are now near-standard expectations, rearguards that thrive on the attack are particularly intriguing and DeAngelo is certainly comfortable in the offensive-third. Tampa Bay hasn't had a truly dynamic offensive presence from the back-end, especially on the power play, since Dan Boyle; DeAngelo has the potential to be something of a second-coming. It's also with noting that this upcoming season will be DeAngelo's fourth in Canadian juniors if he is returned, as expected, to the Sarnia. This means DeAngelo, who has an October birthday to boot, will be eligible to and might very well join the AHL affiliate in Syracuse as soon as the Sting's season ends next spring, though his professional career will really launch in the fall of 2015. So, in short, DeAngelo looks headed for the fast track and deserves, in my opinion, to be seen as a blue-chipper, one presently without much competition in terms of the role he'd likely fill with the big club one day in the perhaps not so distant future.
DeAngelo's point totals are gaudy, sure:
But his plus/minus has given some pause, as questions of his defensive ability have been raised. A career -54 in the OHL does raise some eyebrows, but as always, crediting (or blaming) a skater for the play of the goaltenders behind him is troublesome at best.
Here's a quick chart to display what I'm talking about with DeAngelo specifically in regards to his year-by-year plus/minus and the save percentage of the goalie with the most starts for the Sarnia Sting each year:
Unsurprisingly, as the quality of goaltending behind him went down, so too did DeAngelo's plus/minus number. JP Anderson was the starting goaltender for Sarnia from 2011 until 2013, and his .908 and .905 helped keep DeAngelo's plus/minus rating in a respectable range. Anderson aged out of the OHL, however, before the 2013-14 season. He spent last season in the Sharks organization, with the San Francisco Bulls of the ECHL before they folded, and then with the Ontario Reign, presumably on loan.
The huge drop-off to -34 in DeAngelo's draft season doesn't indicate a mysterious and sudden failure in ability or void of defensive acumen; rather, as Anderson was replaced in net by Taylor Dupuis, the Sting were giving up goals (and shots) at a much higher rate. The Sting as a team went from giving up right around 32 or 33 shots per game to 38 per game -- an additional burden that can't possibly be attributed entirely to DeAngelo. Furthermore, DeAngelo's personal plus/minus (-34) pales in comparison to the team's -130 goal differential overall. Bottom line: Sarnia was bad. Everyone who played for Sarnia had a bad plus/minus, so making judgements on individual players becomes extremely difficult with significant team effects to consider.
Taylor Dupuis and his .890 SV% in 48 games was actually the better goaltender for Sarnia, as back-up Brodie Barrick sported an .865 SV% in his 25 appearances in 2013-14. In the two seasons with Anderson in net (2011 through 2013), Sarnia back-ups posted save percentages in the .870 - .899 range. Five extra shots against per game with a save percentage a full 15 points below what DeAngelo saw the year before more than explains the drop-off in plus/minus and should put to bed some concerns.
To further illustrate this idea of team effects, consider the case of another flashy Lightning defense prospect, Slater Koekkoek, who went from the talent-deprived Peterborough Petes (-62 in 131 games with the Petes) to a much more well-rounded and competitive Windsor Spitfires club (+44 in 62 games with the Spitfires). It's certainly possible that Koekkoek suddenly developed a more efficient, effective two-way game, but what's more likely happening is a talented player isn't being asked to carry a bad team any more. Playing within the structure of a team that isn't competitive means you're often trailing and forcing offense, further muddying what little (if any) clarity plus/minus might offer.
Building off that thought experiment, consider this: if DeAngelo had played for a junior hockey juggernaut (say, maybe, Halifax?) instead of bottom-feeding Sarnia, what might his plus/minus tell us then? Probably still not much, which really tells you all you need to know about the statistic itself and why it has largely fallen out of favor.
Lastly, while it has been studied exclusively at the NHL level, there's been a lot of good work done that shows defensemen have very little, if any, control over save percentage, so criticizing DeAngelo for something he ultimately had little to no control over is unfair.
Of course, all of this isn't to say there aren't still holes in DeAngelo's game -- there are -- as the staff at Bolt Prospects recently pointed out in their 2013-14 Supplemental Rankings:
In the defensive third, though, DeAngelo has as much maturation to do on the rink as he does off it ... His positioning, strength, and attention to detail in that end of the rink are as concerning as any of the other red flags that have been floated, but if he can grow his game to overcome them, he could be a big-time point producer in the NHL on a team that has Steven Stamkos camped out in the left wing circle waiting for one-timers with the man-advantage.
In this instance, the scouting observations regarding DeAngelo's deficiencies are quite illuminating, and absolutely trustworthy -- much more so than plus/minus is in supporting such observations.
DeAngelo has another year in Sarnia to work on filling some of the holes in his game, but don't be alarmed by another bad year in plus/minus without checking the context first. He'll turn pro -- likely with the Syracuse Crunch in the AHL -- in 2015.