In every NHL draft, there are players who get picked much later than they should have.
Players fall for different reasons. Sometimes, players get over-scouted to a certain degree. Players who have been in the spotlight for years have their weaknesses magnified and strengths minimized just because they’ve been so closely analyzed. If Shane Wright somehow goes 2nd overall instead of 1st overall in this year’s draft, you can blame over-scouting.
Then again, a player might suffer from not being scouted enough, such as when Alex Edler fell to the third round in 2004 because he was playing for a practically un-scouted Division 1 team. Other players fall because of the “Russian factor,” with teams worried whether a player will actually come to the NHL at all.
One of the biggest reasons players fall, however, is because of just one number. Or, rather, two numbers separated by an apostrophe — their height.
While the NHL has grown more friendly to undersized players in recent years, there’s still a bias against smaller players in the draft. To a certain extent, it’s understandable — smaller players do have a tougher time dealing with the size and strength of NHL players and typically need some sort of separating factor in their game.
Still, it seems eminently clear that Brayden Point, for example, should have been picked a lot sooner than the third round in 2014, but he's 5'9". Conor Garland is 5'8" and went undrafted in his first year of eligibility in 2014 and had to wait until the fifth round to get picked in 2015 despite racking up 129 points in 67 QMJHL games.
Sometimes, it’s not quite as dramatic as an undersized player dropping a couple of rounds or going undrafted. Sometimes it can just mean dropping a few picks. That’s something the Vancouver Canucks ought to be hoping happens to Frank Nazar, one of the most dynamic players available in the draft.
Frank Nazar - Centre
5’10” - 180 lbs - Jan 14, 2004 (18)
Mt. Clemens, MI
U.S. National U-18, USDP (56-28-42-70)
Let’s be clear — measured at 5’10” at the NHL Combine, Frank Nazar isn’t even that small. Kiril Kaprizov, Kevin Fiala, and Jesper Bratt are all 5’10”. But NHL teams get nervous any time a prospect’s height doesn’t start with a six.
Public scouting services seem to universally love Nazar. He’s ranked as high as 4th overall by Dobber Prospects and 5th overall by Elite Prospects. Smaht Scouting and FC Hockey both have him at 7th overall.
In other words, they all see him as a surefire top-10 pick. But there’s a sense around the NHL that won’t be where he’s picked.
Bob McKenzie’s final draft ranking, which tends to more accurately reflect the NHL consensus, has Nazar down at 15th overall, right where the Canucks are picking. His TSN colleague, Craig Button, is even lower on Nazar, ranking him 25th overall.
NHL’s Central Scouting has Nazar at 21st just among North American skaters. When you include international skaters and goaltenders, that means they likely see Nazar as a second-round pick.
That is a massive disparity in opinions on Nazar and it could mean that Nazar is likely to slide on the first day of the draft and be available for the Canucks. If that happens, the Canucks just need to be careful not to trip as they rush to the stage.
Or, maybe the Canucks are one of those teams who don’t view Nazar as highly as the public sphere. Let’s take a closer look at Nazar and see where the disconnect might be.
"He reaches his top speed in two strides."
One of the keys for undersized players is typically their skating, which they need to evade crunching hits from bigger players and create the separation necessary to use their skill. Fortunately, skating is one of Nazar’s biggest strengths.
“Nazar’s game all starts with his elite skating ability, a combination of high-end speed and sharp edgework that makes him a slippery player on the puck,” says Alexander Annun for Dobber Prospects. “His skating makes him an extremely dangerous puck carrier.”
For Nazar, it’s not just his exemplary skating technique but the relentless motor that drives it.
“I love him,” said one NHL Scout to The Hockey News. “He plays with so much energy, his motor is relentless, and he can skate like crazy. He darts, he reaches his top speed in two strides, and because of that, when he’s going east-west or picking up a bad puck off the wall, he gets there so quick.
Nazar combines his skating technique and motor with his intelligence. He doesn’t just blindly hit top speed on the attack, but intelligently varies his speed to open up options for himself and his linemates.
“Nazar not only presents a full array of skating tools and techniques, but he also knows how to utilize each weapon depending on the situation,” says Elite Prospects’ Cam Robinson. “That right there is a dangerous combination.”
All of that skating and energy would be useless without the ability to handle the puck at speed. Fortunately, he’s also one of the best puckhandlers in this draft class. All of those elements combined make him one of the draft’s most electrifying players in transition, with Elite Prospects naming him the best transition forward in the draft.
"You'll see some teams just back off as soon as he gets the puck because if they don't, they're going to get burned because he can fly with and without the puck," said Central Scouting's David Gregory.
Nazar is an "offensive genius."
Once he gets to the offensive zone, Nazar is a multifaceted threat. He’s capable of potting goals himself with his quick release and willingness to get to the front of the net but he’s even better at spotting linemates through layers of traffic and hitting them with pinpoint passes. More than that, he adds deception to his passing game, creating passing lanes where none existed previously by manipulating defenders with an array of fakes.
Accordingly, Nazar’s best weapon isn’t necessarily his skill or skating. Instead, it’s his cerebral approach to the game that constantly makes his linemates better.
“Nazar makes subtle, almost imperceptible plays at every corner of the ice to create advantages for his linemates,” says his Elite Prospects scouting report. “Little things like dragging defenders toward him on entries to create half-ice 2-on-1s or driving the net off-the-puck to give his linemate more runway. The more attention you pay to Nazar, the more you appreciate his offensive genius.”
The fact that Nazar is already doing so many little things away from the puck — setting subtle picks, lifting sticks, manipulating space with his positioning — is fantastic to see and it’s a skill that should translate well to the NHL.
Nazar is just incredibly fun to watch and he piles up points, racking up 28 goals and 70 points in 56 games with the US National Team Development Program, as well as 3 goals and 9 points in 6 games at the World Under-18 Championship. Only Isaac Howard and Logan Cooley had more points than Nazar with the USNTDP.
“He has the ability to get behind defenders, play in small areas, play off contact, shoot pucks in tight areas and against the grain,” said an NHL scout to The Hockey News. “Those skills are all as high-end as I’ve seen in this area. He just produces all the time.”
"He plays with a raring motor."
Nazar may be primarily known for his offensive game, but he isn’t just a one-dimensional player. With his skating and motor, he’s a terror on the forecheck and he smartly takes away breakout options, creating turnovers that can quickly turn into offensive opportunities. In his own zone, he’s a diligent defender who uses his excellent hockey sense to take away passing lanes and track his man off the puck.
"I don’t know if you saw me play last year, but it looked like I wasn’t even trying in the D zone,” said Nazar to Robinson. “It was something that needed to change, and once I started to understand that you have to play defence so that you can play offence, it hit me really quickly. I need to put a lot more work into that. Being smarter. Trying to get it out of our zone as quickly as I can, closing out on pucks. And I’ve done that."
Nazar's focus on his defensive game has shown this past season and that type of honest self-assessment is a great sign of Nazar's maturity. His defensive play is now a strength of his game and he was a regular on the penalty kill.
"His work on defense is commendable as he plays with a raring motor and forechecks aggressively and maintains a nice defensive structure," said Annun.
Nazar is also not afraid to engage physically despite his smaller stature. He has honed techniques to win those battles by getting low to the ice to gain leverage. Combined with his fantastic skating, he’ll frequently spin out of puck battles with the puck even against much larger opponents.
"If he stood but a few inches taller..."
Frankly, Nazar has all the attributes of a potential first-line centre. There’s just that one problem.
“If he stood but a few inches taller, we suspect more of our peers would hold him in a similar esteem,” reads his Elite Prospects scouting report.
The fear for NHL teams is that Nazar’s game won’t translate to the NHL because of his smaller size. Nazar thrives on getting to the inside to create offence — can he still get to the inside in the NHL, where opponents are bigger and the checking is tighter?
Others are concerned about his passing game. He’s taken massive steps in improving his playmaking but some scouts might still have it in their heads that he can’t distribute the way an NHL centre will need to. Maybe they’re right.
“He's a 5’9” centre who isn't a particularly strong passer,” said one NHL scout to Elite Prospects. “Good at generating offence from his shots and possesses the puck well but struggles to use his teammates.”
Many scouting reports disagree, but if that's the prevailing opinion among NHL scouts, then Nazar could indeed fall. But Nazar’s combination of elite skating, relentless motor, and high-level hockey sense are a combination that can’t be dismissed.
Nazar has an incredibly high ceiling and, if he slides to 15th overall, could be the Canucks’ only chance to find a legitimate first-line forward with their first-round pick.