The Penguins liked Brayden Yager enough to select him 14th overall, and enthusiastically so over several other options and even higher ranked players in the pre-draft process.
What’s the deal with that and why was Yager the guy? Let’s try to dig into that and also get to know him a bit.
Here’s a McKeens scouting report on Yager:
McKeen’s draft report on Brayden Yager: “Yager is a sturdy two-way pivot who would be a welcome addition for all 32 NHL organizations. He's a trustworthy workhorse that a coach can send over the boards and rely on in any situation and is already playing as the first-line center…— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) June 29, 2023
Red Line gave this summary:
NHL Central Scouting ranked Brayden Yager 11th among North American skaters. Here’s what the independent scouting service Red Line Report had to say about the forward: pic.twitter.com/aiOX5JJUQQ— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) June 29, 2023
Corey Pronman from The Athletic had Yager ranked 16th overall, praising his compete and especally high-end shot:
Yager is a player with a pro-style game. He plays with a lot of speed and energy, showing the ability to carry pucks up the ice and make skilled plays with pace. He’s not the biggest center, but Yager plays hard, showing a commitment to making plays without the puck and winning a lot of battles even though he’s not overly physical. His main offensive weapon is his shot, which is high end due to his great technique and accuracy, but he does have the slick hands and vision to beat defenses in other ways. He didn’t score goals this season like I thought he would with his shot, but I believe he will in future seasons. At his size there will be questions about whether he’s an actual NHL center despite his skating and effort. My comparable for him is an NHL wing, reflecting the risk in his projection at that position, but I see a reality where he turns into a Vincent Trocheck type.
Scott Wheeler, similarly, had Yager ranked 15th and wrote in part about him:
Yager plays a threatening, attacking, puck-dominant game with skill in straight lines and in cutting sequences in transition. He’s got smooth skating mechanics. He’s also dangerous inside the offensive zone from the top of the circles in with a quick-release wrister (one of the faster releases in the draft) that comes off of his blade hard and with a slight, goalie-fooling adjustment pre-shot; good puck skill in congested areas; an ability to attack in bursts and make something happen out of dead plays; and an equal ability to play off of coverage and make himself available for his linemates.
He’s a natural scorer and creator who plays a direct style, but he’s also got plus vision and deft touch (though I wouldn’t say his creativity is necessarily a strength). I like the way he supports the puck defensively as a centreman, too, though he’ll need to get stronger to be as reliable defensively at the NHL level as he is in junior. He is very intentional with his routes, offensively and defensively, which should help him stick at the centre position long term. I don’t think he’s going to become the kind of star you’re hoping to get out of a top-10 pick, but he’s got 2C, PP1 upside if he can fill out his frame and continue to add dimension.
Bob McKenzie at TSN had Yager ranked 15th as well, and noted that one scout he surveyed had Yager in the top-10.
Once outlet that didn’t like Yager as much was Dobbers Hockey, which ranked him 33rd, noting a draft-year slump and saying in part:
Highly skilled offensive threat with elite shooting ability and great hockey sense. Needs to add strength and quickness but should eventually grow into a top-six goal scorer who can provide solid defensive value at the NHL level.
Yager didn’t impress in 2022-23 for his draft year, producing only 28 goals in 67 games (after scoring 34 times in 2021-22), which will lead to wanting to see more in the WHL next season.
#LetsGoPens select Brayden Yager 14th overall. I ranked him 24th overall.— Patrick Bacon (@TopDownHockey) June 29, 2023
Yager's scored at solid, but not elite rates in the WHL over the past couple years. He's a very valuable prospect, but feels like a bit of a reach compared to the level of other players available here. pic.twitter.com/72VBRkgQnK
At the end of the day, like most mid-first round picks, this is a projection shot by the Penguins that Yager will add some size and develop into a quality professional player. Like anyone available at 14, it’s no absolute slam dunk or guarantee that will happen, and as Yager, who will likely take two or three years before he’s ready to compete at the NHL level.
Still, when you draft a player in the first round, he better have some talent and upside. Yager offers that, especially with getting some mustard on a shot that can help him moving forward.