With the NCAA season over, the American Hockey League has suddenly been flooded with college hockey players. Many members of the vaunted crop of USA players in the 2019 draft class graduated to the pros last weekend. Matt Boldy (12th overall), Cole Caufield (15th), and Alex Newhook (16th) joined Alex Turcotte (fifth), Trevor Zegras (ninth), and Arthur Kaliyev (33rd) as players who’ve made their AHL debuts this year.
Throw in fellow American 2019 draftees Jack Hughes, Spencer Knight, and Cam York, and these players will be tied together forever. It’s the best class we’ve seen from the Team USA program. That goes doubly for Boldy, Caufield, Newhook, and Knight — for Minnesota Wild fans, at least.
At the height of Paul Fenton’s madness, two months before his ousting, the Wild’s front office drafted Boldy. Fans hoping for the Wild to draft for need — Newhook is a center, Knight is a goalie — or to take Caufield were disappointed. It didn’t help that Fenton got his chance to hype up his draft class.
The perception that Fenton took a worse player because of height grew as Boldy struggled in his freshman season. You know that story already, though. Boldy has long since put that behind him to reassert his status as a top prospect.
Boldy, Caufield, and Newhook each generated a ton of buzz in the AHL over this last week. Boldy has three games under his belt, with two goals, an assist, and 13 shots on goal. Caufield has three goals and four points in his two games. Newhook got on the board in his second game Wednesday night, with a two-point game of his own.
One could drive themselves to create a PEPE SILVIA board tracking each of their progress, trying to deduce whether or not Boldy was definitively the right pick. But before you dust off the thumbtacks and string, ask yourself: To what end?
Boldy’s got a real shot at being a top-line player for Minnesota. He just stepped into a pro lineup and got chances, made plays, and even scored like he did in Boston College. He did all that knowing that the crowd in Wells Fargo Arena was mostly there to see him. Being able not only to handle that moment but excel can only mean good things in the future.
So if Boldy becomes a scoring power forward who fuels Minnesota’s power play and can play a two-way game on top of that, who cares what anyone else does? Does it matter if Caufield becomes the next Alex DeBrincat or Kyle Connor? Would Newhook becoming a Dylan Larkin clone invalidate the Wild’s choice?
Of course not — for the same reason that Washington Capitals fans don’t re-litigate taking Alex Ovechkin over Evgeni Malkin, despite the latter’s higher points-per-game numbers and Stanley Cup count. Because it doesn’t matter! The Capitals got a franchise-changing superstar and got a Cup out of it. Why waste time wondering, “What if?”
It’s an extreme example, as both Ovechkin and Malkin are slam-dunk Hall of Famers, but the point stands. All that matters now is whether Boldy pans out, not whether some other team that picked later got a player that’s 5% better. And right now, Boldy’s chances of panning out look extremely high.
Constant comparisons to other prospects can ruin a player’s reputation before their career even starts, let alone is fully written. We’ve seen it in the State of Hockey with Joel Eriksson Ek. How many wrote him off as a bust by constantly comparing him to Vancouver Canucks goal-scorer Brock Boeser, who was taken three picks after Eriksson Ek in 2015?
Not only was it unfair to Eriksson Ek, it also happened to be at least somewhat incorrect. Minnesota took Eriksson Ek believing him to be a center who could fill the eventual void Mikko Koivu would leave. It took him longer to develop into a top-six option in Minnesota, but Eriksson Ek is showing that he can do exactly what he was drafted to do. The plan worked!
Still, there will always be a subset of fans who judge Eriksson Ek against Boeser and find him wanting. Never mind that they’re roughly equivalent in value (Evolving Hockey’s Wins Above Replacement has Eriksson Ek with a 3.1-3.0 edge since the start of 2018-19). Or that we have no idea who, or if either side, would say no to a Boeser-for-Eriksson Ek trade if it was proposed today. Or that 115 picks after Eriksson Ek, the Wild came away with Kirill Kaprizov, a Boeser-type offensive weapon.
Wild fans would do well to avoid repeating that with Boldy, and instead judge him on his own terms.
That 2019 draft class was very deep, with talented kids available through the first round and beyond. Sure, having a Small Goals Boy, or a potential center, or a top-tier goalie prospect would be nice, but the Wild couldn’t draft them all. They had to pick one, and there were risks and rewards with every one of those players.
The Wild made a call, picked Boldy, and the move looks like it’s working out nicely. It’s time to accept it and enjoy his star rising rather than obsessively mapping out alternative histories. It’ll be more fun for everyone involved.