Joshua Norris was a low risk pick, and that’s okay

Two Norrises in one week has got to be a record.

Wait, what?

I don’t blame you if that was your reaction to Sharks’ scouting director Tim Burke’s announcement of San Jose’s reach at 19th overall. With consensus highly rated prospects like Kristian Vesalainen, Kailer Yamomoto, and Eeli Tolvanen among others still waiting to hear their names, San Jose went off the board with the 19 year old from Oxford, Michigan. Joshua Norris was the third American off the board, after Casey Mittelstadt went to Buffalo at 8 and Cal Foote (he was born in Colorado, he counts as ours) was plucked by Tampa Bay at 14, in a starting round full of Finnish (sorry), seeing six Finns picked in the first 31, more than any other country save Canada.

The son of NHL cup of coffee drinker Dwayne Norris is San Jose’s first center in the first round since Tomas Hertl in 2012, and first American since Charlie Coyle in 2010.

Norris climbed a fair distance up the draft rankings in his last season playing for the US National Men’s Development Team in 2016-17, posting 61 points (27G, 34A) in 61 games played. Norris was a point-per-game player at the U18 national championships as well, helping power the US team to a gold medal finish. The previous season saw him put up an underwhelming 27 points in 44 games. Norris is committed to the University of Michigan in the fall (his CHL rights are owned by Niagara), and would likely need at least a few years before he’d be ready for his first taste of NHL action.

Norris absolutely crushed at the NHL scouting combine, and his remarkable physical fitness probably went a long way towards convincing general manager Doug Wilson to reach as far as he did. Norris placed first in the left and right agility drills, peak power, vertical jump, long jump, second in mean power, fourth in bench press, and  8th in pull ups among the 104 invited players.

Norris is a very good skater, which is heartening as that tends to be a difficult skill to develop later in the career. His first few steps in particular have shown him to be able to quickly and easily separate himself from checkers and, in the rare occasion one can keep up with him, his lateral agility in the offensive zone goes a long way to create time and space to make plays. He has strong positioning, reads plays well, and can thread needles to make passes to dangerous areas.

Norris is versatile, coachable, and has experience playing in all situations. His shot is pretty accurate, but he could do to add some power to it; if he can translate some of his ridiculous physical fitness to his shot more effectively, it will really round out his game in the offensive zone. If not, Norris’ ceiling is likely limited to depth center, a commodity with which the Sharks’ cupboard is already pretty stacked.

Okay, the histrionics. The Sharks used the 19th overall pick on a center ranked 34th among North American skaters by central scouting, and ranked 23rd overall by the godfather, himself, Bob McKenzie. It’s possible that, if Wilson’s brain trust had decided Norris was their guy, they could have packaged a deal to move down in the draft, stock up for later rounds, and pick Norris later. My theory with no evidence whatsoever is that the Ottawa Senators had their eye on Norris at 28, and took Shane Bowers as a back up once he was off the board. If Wilson and his people knew about that preference, it might explain the reach a little.

Further, Norris is projected as a “safe” pick, that is, a player with a high floor, but without a particularly high ceiling. He’s drawn comparisons in style to Aleksander Barkov, and in potential to Mike Fisher, but he compares his own game to that of the ever controversial Tyler Bozak.

There’s a school of thought that first round picks in the NHL draft should be high risk, high reward players, since “safe” players like Norris can be picked at lower cost in later rounds. Exciting, dynamic picks are what the first round is made for, and while this may seem like the exact opposite, these reaches have paid off in the past. Columbus reached to take Ryan Johansen in 2010 at three over the consensus third ranked Brett Connolly; Winnipeg reached to take Mark Schiefele in 2011 at seven over the consensus third ranked Sean Couturier; the New York Islanders reached to take Kyle Okposo at seven over the consensus sixth ranked Peter Mueller; you get the idea.

Maybe the Sharks scouting staff knows something we don’t. They probably know a great many things we don’t, but maybe some of them are about Josh Norris. Maybe four years from now, Norris is skating 27 minutes a night with a 74% Corsi for and 130 points a year. Maybe Dustin the lucky troll is possessed with the ghost of Dit Clapper and it lives in his helmet like the rat in the cooking movie. But it’s more likely that Norris develops into a passable bottom six center, closer to the Fisher comparison than the Barkov one, and that’s okay.

The history of the NHL draft is littered with high risk first round busts, with Alexander Daigles and Pavel Brendls. It’s also littered with late round gold, with Ondrej Palats and Joe Pavelskis. A miss in the first round can set a franchise back years, and a hit in the seventh can boost a team’s growth exponentially. Why not take the risk when the buy in is the lowest? Why bet big early when you can win just as big late?

Both of these strategies have their merits, no doubt, and both have pages of examples to support them, but if this draft is as deep in later rounds as many scouts believe, it behooves the Sharks to save their risky selections for the picks with the least value.

Norris is a great junior player, will probably be a great college player, and might be a great NHL player, but probably not. At worst, he’s still likely to be an NHL regular, and usually that’s considered a successful pick anywhere outside of the top five.

The Sharks still have seven picks in the latter rounds tomorrow, owning pick 49 in round two, 123 in round four from the Mirco Mueller trade, 159 from the Maxim Letunov trade (earth shattering as it was) and 174 in the sixth round, and 205, 212 (from the Andrew Desjardins trade, yes, it still hurts), and 214 (from the Tommy Wingels trade) in the seventh round. This is where the magic happens. This is where the big risks belong. At this point, maybe Doug Wilson will consider taking some advice from the reigning Jack Adams trophy winner: “Safe is death.”