There isn't a more polarizing prospect in the 2015 NHL entry draft than 6'4", 212-pound Kingston Frontenacs winger Lawson Crouse. Scouts love his NHL-ready size and abrasive style of play and that's reflected in the rankings; the two major scouting agencies have him ranked in the top five, ahead of the far more talented Mitch Marner. On the other hand, Crouse failed to average even a point per game this season and tallied just 27 points in 63 games last year; the statistically inclined aren't as convinced he's a great bet to become a star at the next level.
Of no fault of his own, Crouse has become a flashpoint for a broader argument about how prospects should be evaluated. The truth here lies somewhere in the middle. Crouse certainly isn't a top-five prospect in this draft class but he also isn't the low first round pick his raw numbers alone might suggest. Let's take a closer look.
What do the scouts say?
There's no doubt that Crouse is a big kid and, as much as smaller players have been enjoying a lot of success of late in the NHL, a massive teenager whose skating isn't a liability is always going to be viewed as a tantalizing prospect. From Future Considerations:
A big-bodied forward who gives opposing defenses headaches with his effort on the forecheck…tough to contain with his huge frame and strength…impossible to separate from the puck and consistently is successful winning pucks and generating scoring chances through his hard work…moves the puck well with good vision and passing skill…a strong net-front presence… has decent speed for his size, though he could improve his quickness…plays hard on defense; forces plays and takes away angles…uses his size to play physical, including laying some devastating hits…is a moose along the wall down low…tremendous potential going forward.
Ben Kerr of Last Word On Sports ranked Crouse 11th, which seems far more reasonable than where Central Scouting and ISS have him, and highlighted the physical attributes that have teams excited about him along with discussing the likelihood that he tops out as a good middle-six forward at the next level:
At 6’4″ and 212 pounds Crouse is a budding power forward. He has a powerful skating stride, but could work on his first step and acceleration. That good power allows him to fight through checks and get to the net. He loves to get in the forecheck, and finishes his hits along the boards. He is very good in protecting the puck in the cycle and in winning battles along the boards. Crouse’s could improve on his agility going forward, to be able to avoid defenders instead of always trying to skate through them. Adding some more variety to his game would go a long way towards making him a more dynamic offensive threat.
Some say that Crouse has the potential to be a top line winger, and he could get there, but will need real improvements in his offensive game. It is more likely that he becomes a very good second line player. Even if the offense doesn’t improve, Crouse has the size and defensive game to be a third liner, and so is a very safe pick. At his best Crouse’s game resembles an Andrew Ladd, however this is a stylistic comparison and not a talent one.
What do the stats say?
Scout Mark Seidel was interviewed by the National Post last week for a piece on Crouse and said of the left winger, "he’s one of those guys that analytics isn’t going to be a friend of, but if you watch him play and watch the things he does, that’s why I think he’ll go so high." Ironically, from watching Crouse play, I think it's hard not to get the impression that he is a player hockey's newer analytics would be a friend of, if those numbers were actually available at the CHL level. Even basic advanced stats like shot attempt differential would likely paint a very favorable picture of Crouse's draft year; he's surprisingly effective at backing off defensemen in the neutral zone to create easy entries and he's just as monstrous along the boards as you'd expect given his frame.
And while I can't prove that by citing Crouse's Corsi For% or anything of the like, it is worth noting that 58% of the goals that were scored with Crouse on the ice at even-strength this year were in Kingston's favor while that number dipped to just 47% with Crouse on the bench. That 11% relative even-strength Goals For% ranked fourth among draft-eligible OHLers after Connor McDavid, Dylan Strome and Marner. While Crouse's offensive skillset will never be confused with that of those three players, the fact that he was in their neighborhood here speaks to Crouse's two-way effectiveness and ability to keep the puck in the right end of the rink. When scouts talk about Crouse being defensively responsible, it isn't just because he's a big body.
Crouse's pedestrian offensive numbers should also be taken with a few grains of salt. With Sam Bennett injured for most of the season, Kingston was a weak offensive team this year. Crouse ended up scoring 17% of the Frontenacs' goals in 2014-15--only McDavid accounted for a greater percentage of his team's offense among draft-eligible OHLers. Crouse is also one of the younger players in this draft class as he just turned 18 today. Another prominent OHLer with a mid-June birthday named Rick Nash scored just three more goals back in his draft year than Crouse did this season before developing into one of the deadliest power forwards in the NHL. It's an extreme longshot Crouse will be anything close to Nash but the fact that he's as many as nine months younger than some of the prospects in this class should be taken into account when evaluating his body of work.
The hope by any team drafting Crouse is that he follows the trajectory of someone like Brandon Saad or Boone Jenner who turned in a so-so draft year statistically but were eventually able to use their obvious physical tools to their advantage in order to develop into impact NHLers. At the same time, even though there are mitigating factors that need to be considered when looking at his raw output this season and the tools are clearly all there, the fact that Crouse has never dominated offensively should be a concern to any team considering him in the top ten. That may not have been the case if this draft class wasn't so stacked at the top end but it is, so you'd better be damn confident Crouse is going to turn into someone like Saad if you're passing on several more prolific options to choose him. I certainly wouldn't be confident enough in that outcome to draft Crouse in the top five and maybe not even in the top ten. Closer to the middle of the first round, though, he'd likely be the best player available and a great pick.
Should the Sharks be interested?
No, at least not at 9th overall, but it's not because I don't think Crouse is a good prospect. Crouse is a perfectly justifiable pick in the 12-16 range and if the Sharks trade down into that portion of the first round and Crouse is somehow still available, he'd be well worth taking. But this organization's prospect pool desperately needs an influx of high-end talent and Crouse isn't that. He's a good bet to make the NHL in some capacity but he just doesn't seem to have the first-line upside of a player like Mathew Barzal, Pavel Zacha or Kyle Connor, at least one of whom should be up for grabs at #9. Crouse is a very good prospect but he isn't a great match for what the Sharks ought to be looking for with their highest draft pick in nearly a decade.
What does he look like in action?
Crouse was one of just two draft-eligible players on Team Canada's gold medal-winning World Junior Championships roster this year, the other being Connor McDavid. He had a terrific tournament for an underage player: