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2023 NHL Draft: “Off the board” type of high risk candidates for the Penguins

Taking a look at some risky, but potentially high pay-off picks that the Pens could take

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NHL Top Prospect Fitness Testing Photo by Joe Hrycych/NHLI via Getty Images

The Penguins find themselves picking 14th at the draft this season, their highest pick in over a decade. 14th is something of an uncomfortable place to be: the elite players of the class will get picked through, but the selection is high enough to still get a young player with a very promising future.

What makes it even more unpredictable is that around this point of the draft, rankings and opinions of players can very greatly. What may be the 13th best prospect on one observer’s board (as Andrew Cristall is for The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler) could be No. 68 for another (as Cristall is for The Athletic’s other prospect guru, Corey Pronman). That kind of drastic difference of opinion isn’t the norm, but isn’t unusual either.

Which leaves a team like the Pens in an interesting spot in the draft. Assuming they keep the pick, they could do something fairly “safe” like take a player that most have in the 15ish range — usually a player with a perceived higher floor but less of a ceiling. Or, Pittsburgh could roll the dice and bet on a prospect that some really like, where as others see too much risk.

That’s where we land today, profiling some of the potential choices that are a little more over the map and might make for a home run....Or end up as a strike out swinging.

Andrew Cristall

Mentioned above as our poster boy for polarizing figures in the 2023 NHL entry draft, Cristall has to be the top candidate for this exercise as far as players with a vastly different projection depending on who the scout is.

This above shows the strong points of drafting Cristall: his production to this point is strongly suggesting that he has a very good shot of becoming a player who will score points at the NHL level.

But despite those encouraging strong points, as you can see from his scouting entries on Elite Prospects, Cristall is all over the place. Some scouts are all in and rank him around 10. Others, like Pronman are less convinced due to frame and skating concerns. Here’s what he recently wrote about what he doesn’t see that many others do:

That player-type hitting is rare. The barely 5-foot-10 one-way wing without great speed with a technically flawed stride and a lot of skill sense and scoring ability. Adam Mascherin, Jeremy Bracco, Jonathan Dahlen are all recent comparables that come to mind. Cristall is arguably better than all of them at the same age. You have to respect the great things he’s done in the WHL and what he can do inside the offensive zone. But I don’t see anyone in the NHL who looks like him, never mind a team in the summer. If Bobby Brink hits it could change that discussion though.

That gets to the million dollar question about Cristall: is he going to become something along the lines of the next Jeremy Bracco, or potentially into something more higher-end as a future version of a Jonathan Marchesseault?

Wheeler, who does see a lot of upside and talent in Cristall, included part of the following in a draft profile:

Still one of my favourites in this class even after a first-round WHL playoff series and U18 worlds that underwhelmed many, Cristall is a creative, crafty playmaker who isn’t afraid to try things and possesses a rare ability to play in small areas, pull eyes and bodies toward him, and then expose opposing structures to the weak side of coverage.

...

Despite his diminutive size, he’s also a smarter player off of the puck than he gets credit for and I’ve been struck by how often he’s in the right position above the puck to hold play inside the offensive zone. He’s as fun to watch with the puck on his stick as almost anyone in this draft. When you think you’ve got him trapped, you usually don’t. He’s just a natural creator for himself and others who manufactures offence in a variety of ways. And while his speed in straight lines is a definite barrier, his skating is adjustable in tight spaces. He can also stickhandle himself into trouble at times, but he does such a good job holding onto pucks until his options open up that you’re OK with the odd offensive zone turnover. Despite his size, he also does a good job tracking pucks to the net so that he can be opportunistic.

As our pals put it at Habs Eyes on the Prize:

Despite all of the vision and skill, there is a question to whether his biggest skills will be able to translate to the NHL because of [size and skating questions]. If he doesn’t win the puck, and he can’t skate it into the offensive zone himself, his greatest skill is limited in its use. It’s like a great base stealer in baseball who isn’t able to show off his speed, because he isn’t a good enough hitter to get on base in order to run.

The Pens have done their due diligence, but do they see a future star? If so, he might hear his name called at No. 14 — assuming no one ahead of them feels the same.

Quentin Musty

Musty doesn’t quite have Cristall-like volatility in rankings, but around 14 might be a good time for him to come off the board based on some of the outlooks on him, from Elite Prospects:

Unlike many of the players in today’s profile, Musty is not a diminutive player with questions about his size or frame at 6’2 and almost 200 pounds.

Musty is tagged with questions in some spaces about his skating ability at higher levels and while he has a lot of potential, he was a bit slow out the gates from what might have been expected out of a No. 1 overall pick in the OHL. That leads me to believe scouts and people wrapped up in junior hockey had high expectations right away with that type of reputation proceeding him, and Musty (one of the younger players in the draft class) might have taken a little more time than they might have liked after an initial somewhat slow first impression.

NHL teams might well like Musty more than the 17-30ish range that you see above with his size and skill. So while that might not be a name you see in many mock drafts in the 12-20 range, the possibility of Musty being picked fairly high in the teens is bigger than it might appear.

Zach Benson

Unlike everyone else on this list, who could be considered something of “reaches” or at least a little off-the-radar choices to be picked at No. 14 in the draft, Benson is the opposite. Almost all scouting services are going to have him ranked in the top 10 of the draft.

But not all. Pronman only has Benson 17th overall, and explained why (with portions omitted for brevity, but do encourage checking out the article:)

With guys who are of the smallish variety on wing, especially if they are not an elite skater, the question I come back to is whether they are a special small wing, or a more routine variety. The special guys help NHL teams. The routine ones tend to fade into the background and end up in Europe. I rated Cole Caufield and Lucas Raymond very highly. In Caufield, I saw special skill and a special shot, and in Raymond, I saw a special combination of skill/hockey IQ. For me, Benson does not rise to that level. He has excellent hands, vision and competitiveness but I don’t think any of those traits rise to the special level from my viewings.

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It’s why in the last 20 or so years there’s been something like 10 players who have played NHL games and been a first-round pick after being a 5-foot-9 guy or smaller. One of those guys is Sergei Samsonov, who was a dynamic skater and incredibly skilled and his size still caught up with him. There’s a lot of risk that you’re picking Tyler Ennis, Jordan Schroeder or no player at all in the top 10. We’ll see what Marco Rossi’s career trajectory ends up being. You’re basically hoping for Daniel Briere or Caufield. That’s the end of the recent comparables at that size in the draft in the first round. I would want less risk in the top 10.

If teams share that risk aversion, the 5’9”, 165 pound Benson just might fall towards the Penguins picking at 14, much like the aforementioned Cole Caufield fell to getting picked 15th overall by Montreal in 2019.

Wheeler, who ranked Benson 6th, obviously favors and projects him to pan out with a different chance of making it:

He’ll make plays to the inside from the perimeter on one shift, and then go right to the guts of the ice to make something happen in a congested area the next. When you package all of that skill with a dogged work ethic that keeps him around pucks all the time, you’ve got a tremendous player. If he were a little bigger, he’d be a scout’s dream. I think he’s going to be a top-of-the-lineup player regardless.

Between Caufield, Marchesseault, Clayton Keller, Johnny Gaudreau, Brad Marchand, Jesper Bratt, Alex DeBrincat (among others), there’s ample evidence that smaller wingers can thrive in the NHL today if they have enough skill and jam to make it. Along those lines, it’s probably worth a side thought that Benson would actually be bigger than Jake Guentzel was on each one’s respective draft day. But size will often be a hurdle, and no team wants to be left with a Rocco Grimaldi or Tyler Ennis as a super-high draft pick if it doesn’t work out — the optics on that don’t quite feel the same if the choice is a smaller player or a bigger one.

Could Benson slide all the way to 14? Feels unlikely, but unlikely occurrences can be common on draft night.

The Penguins could trade the pick, or stick to someone relatively “safe” in terms of a pick that is almost universally well-liked or ranked fairly consistently across the board, like candidates such as Nate Danielson, Matthew Wood, Tom Willander or Samuel Honzek — where no one would blink twice if they are picked at 14th overall.

But if Dubas and the Pens are feeling frisky and looking to take a big swing, a name like Cristall, Musty or if they’re really lucky, Benson could be the pick that they’re looking to make.