When San Jose used their first round selection this year on Josh Norris, the pick elicited massive groans, skeptical comparisons, and a lot of head-scratching. San Jose had passed on dynamos like Kailer Yamamoto and Kristian Vesalainen for the big, safe, defensively responsible center who compared himself to Tyler Bozak. In other words, it seemed like a typical Doug Wilson pick. What’s often underestimated is just how smart a lot of Wilson picks tend to be, especially of late.
Norris put up 61 points in as many games with the National U-18 team to go with 26 in 25 with the USNTDP juniors, but what initially looked to be a subpar season based upon counting numbers was quickly dispelled by the eye test and a deeper dive into his season.
For starters, Norris led his team in points per game and was often the best offensive option on the ice. The USHL was overlooked this year because it lacked a truly elite prospect in the mould of Kyle Connor or Clayton Keller, but it’s safe to say that had it been scouted in greater depth, many scouts would have come away deeply impressed with Norris’ well-rounded 200-foot game, which showcased solid defensive ability, skating, passing, and goal-scoring.
Norris wasn’t elite in any particular hockey area, but what stood out for most scouts was his insane physical ability, finishing first in five different categories at the NHL combine (agility, long jump, vertical, skating power, and mean power output). Those factors, combined with his high hockey IQ and incessant buzz on the ice, make him very unlikely to be another Lukas Kaspar-esque bust; in fact, almost every analyst projection has Norris becoming a solid middle-six center at the very least.
There’s reason to think, however, that these estimates are a bit too conservative. Nation Network goes into this in great detail, but to summarize some of their findings: Norris started the year at an extremely slow level, but soon took off and scored at a ~1.3 PPG pace for the last half of the season. He also was first in the USHL with 2.70 shots per game, which reflects very positively on his ability to drive play and hints at a bright NHL future*. Norris also had a fantastic WJC tournament, where he stole the show with 7 points in 7 games and often looked like the USA’s best player, which no doubt boosted his stock greatly and brought his profile into the light.
Two players instantly come to mind when looking at Norris: Bo Horvat and Dylan Larkin. Both of them were rather young for their draft years, played similar roles for their team, and had similar less than stellar seasons statistically, and yet all were highly valued by scouts for exactly the same reasons mentioned above (in fact, Horvat netted Cory Schneider in a trade, and it’s not so clear that the move was a disaster for the Canucks despite losing an elite goalie, which speaks volumes to Horvat’s ability). Statistically speaking, Nation Network ranks him as being closest to Kyle Okposo and RJ Umberger, with players of his ilk putting up an average of 53 points per season in the NHL. If that ends up happening, San Jose would have found a solid second-line center for the next decade.
An important point to note is that Norris is extremely young for his draft year, having been born in May. A difference of nine months in development time matters a great deal to young prospects, and often a player’s draft +1 year is so valuable exactly because it lets scouts understand where the player stands with respect to his age group and gain a better perspective of how good he really is. With Norris set to join the highly-touted Michigan Wolverines program for the upcoming season, all eyes will be on him to see if he can take the next step.
Norris isn’t the franchise center everyone is praying for, and he isn’t going to be the Thornton replacement the Sharks need, but he’s a very good player in his own right. His projections range from the floor of a third-line center to the ceiling of a very good number two center. If he ends up being closer to the latter, he could be a cornerstone of the team for years to come.
Name: Joshua Norris
Age (as of 9/9/17): 18
Last Year’s Ranking: N/A
2016-17 Team: USNTDP
Where he’ll (probably) be next year: Michigan Wolverines
What we like: Skating, physical ability, shot generation, size, defensive ability
What to improve on: He’s not exactly elite in any area, and his playmaking still leaves something to be desired if he’s ever going to become a top line center.
Norris showcased his shot in a December on a one-time beauty against the then-Bloomington Thunder (now the Central Illinois Flying Aces). Have to love running into the ref on the celly, too.
*It’s interesting to see how the Sharks seem to prioritize this in prospect picks, as Meier was selected in large part due to this exact same reason. It seems to be working just fine so far.