In a short few weeks, the Columbus Blue Jackets will have the opportunity to select a valuable prospect with the fifth overall pick in the 2021 NHL Draft.
We've already established that picking at number five doesn't guarantee a franchise-altering player, but the point remains that the organization can expect to mine at least an NHL-caliber player from the draft.
But philosophically speaking, it will be interesting to see what route the Blue Jackets choose to take with that pick. On the one hand, this franchise is in dire need of high-end talent, and regardless of position, picking the player with the highest ceiling makes a ton of sense. On the other hand, this organization cannot afford to whiff on such valuable draft capital. Picking a player with a higher floor, but with a potentially lower ceiling, may also be the move, in the sense that adding a surefire player that can contribute may take priority over a 'wildcard'.
The Blue Jackets have gone in both directions in recent years with their first-round picks. Liam Foudy, for example, may be the epitome of a high-floor, low-ceiling player. Having never been a high point-producing player, but with elite speed/penalty-killing/acumen, Columbus picked him 18th overall in 2018. Three years later, he has 0-5-5 in 26 regular-season games (who could have seen it coming?!) in his NHL career but is expected to become more of a contributor this season. Even still, his ceiling probably tops out at second-line center, and even that is pollyannish.
On the other side of the coin is last year's first-round pick, Yegor Chinakhov, who was taken "off the board", as the below video from Sportsnet's draft coverage hilariously suggested.
This is hilarious. pic.twitter.com/WOS4fm5kk8— NHL Watcher (@NHL_Watcher) October 7, 2020
Fast forward one year and the 20-year old was named the KHL's rookie of the year and is expected to compete for playing time in Columbus this season. After being passed over in his first year of draft eligibility, Chinakhov is the definition of a low-floor, high-ceiling player.
Even in a non-COVID-19 season, drafting is a funny business. Scouts and teams are tasked with projecting years out into the future, and every 17/18-year old is on his own individual developmental path, playing in his team's unique system in leagues that are difficult to compare. Hell, some are playing against 16-year olds, others against 36-year olds. And in this past season, with fewer games, less in-person scouting, and obvious extenuating circumstances for all players across the world, an added monkey wrench makes the ranking process all the more difficult. All that is to say that organizations may treat this draft class differently than they had in the past.
In a recent post, The Athletic's Corey Pronman interviewed scouts and executives off-the-record about some of the top prospects in the 2021 draft. Here's a quote from an anonymous scout:
“He’s the safe guy for everyone in this draft. He’s going to play, he’s going to be top-four, no question in my mind. I would be surprised if in 10 years you told me he ended up the best player.”
That quote is about Owen Power, the projected first overall pick. In other words, even the consensus (though that word may be too strong) top player in the draft is seen as a high-floor, low-ceiling type of player. We've seen this before, with Nolan Patrick going second overall, then Cale Makar and Elias Pettersson going fourth and fifth overall, respectively, back in 2017.
A player that has been linked to the Blue Jackets at number five, Simon Edvinsson, could also fit that billing. This quote, in particular, supports that:
“I think he has the lowest ceiling among the big four defensemen (Power, Brandt Clarke, Luke Hughes and Edvinsson) but also the highest floor. I’m not sure you’re getting a lot of offense but I think he’s top-four for sure.”
Other players, like Kent Johnson and William Eklund, are viewed by some as riskier options with a higher ceiling and (potentially) a lower floor. Might they become elite players in the NHL? It's possible, but there are enough concerns in each of their games to prevent them from being the 'can't miss' type of prospect we sometimes see at the top of the draft.
How the Blue Jackets choose to proceed at the 2021 NHL Draft will tell us not only how they feel about this draft class, but also about their organizational philosophy, as the team looks to add to their depleted prospect pool.