The Winnipeg Jets drafted Nikolaj Ehlers after Jake Virtanen. Dylan Strome went before Mitch Marner. Luke Schenn and Colten Teubert were drafted before Erik Karlsson. Why do good players get drafted after worse players and how can teams change this?
One of the main reasons that good players fall in the draft is because they are small. Erik Karlsson was very light when he was drafted. Oddly enough, that size did not take away from his hockey sense or offensive instincts. Those were very good and remained that way as he put on a bit of weight.
An extreme example of this is the Montreal Canadiens Brendan Gallagher. Gallagher was drafted in the sixth round and made the NHL at 20. Why did he fall? Gallagher is generously listed as 5’9” and plays like a bull. There was no guarantee that he would make the NHL, even though he scored 50 goals in his draft year.
Quality of Teammates:
In the case of Nikolaj Ehlers, beyond his skinny stature, there was his teammate: Jonathan Drouin. While Drouin and Ehlers were rarely linemates, scouts still had a hard time separating the two from each other and it impacted how some viewed Ehlers. In some cases, it can be really hard to separate two players. This is more because it is hard to see who is driving the play when two players play together a lot. This is true in the NHL as well. Also, it is easier to stand out on a bad team than a good team.
If the team a draft-eligible player is on is bad, it can be hard to see what part of their performance is because their teammates are so bad and what part is because they are simply good. When a player has to do it all, it can be hard to differentiate. There is also the problem with having to be able to watch for plays that are skilled, but would never work in the NHL. A player going end to end is not necessarily a repeatable skill in the NHL although it is fun to watch.
Scouting is an Inexact Science:
If you think about it, we are talking about 17/18 year olds who are still growing and developing. It can be easy to assume that a player has the skill to be good, so therefore they will make it. But it is not that simple: a bad farm team environment can wreck players as can poor coaching at any level. Uneven usage or messaging at any level can leave a player confused. Never mind an unexpected bad injury derailing a player’s season at a bad time. Add in the fact kids develop at different rates and you can see how a team can be as practical as they want when drafted, but at the end of the day, scouting is an inexact science.
There are many reasons why players like Jake Virtanen get drafted ahead of players like Nikolaj Ehlers. Some of these reasons are good, some of these reasons are bad. There is no one reason for it and teams outside of the top five of the draft will continue to benefit from it until the end of time.