I don't think I need to tell a hockey fan, or any mildly informed sports fan, that drafting is not easy and there's a lot of uncertainty and chance that goes with selecting and projecting 18-year-old kids. People like me do make hard projections at times leading up to the Draft, but we realize that our projections will still have a very high variance.
Even when selecting as high up as third in the NHL Entry Draft this last decade, you sometimes get a stud like Jonathan Toews, while at other times you get Alexander Svitov. You could snag Matt Duchene, but you might also end up with Cam Barker. The life of a third overall pick is never a straight-forward one, which brings us to the tale of Mr. Kyle Turris.
Turris was selected third overall in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft from the Burnaby Express in the BCHL. It was the highest a Canadian Junior A player had ever been picked, and by a significant margin. Top Canadian prospects only usually go the Junior A route if they really want to attend US college; elite Canadian prospects tend to go the way of Major Junior for exposure reasons and to face a better level of competition. Turris was not a top five prospect at the start of the draft season, but rose as the year went on and still never deferred from the path he has chose in terms of attending the University of Wisconsin.
Typically, when a top Canadian prospect goes through the motions of intentionally facing inferior competition so that he can attend US college, they tend to stay beyond one season. The NCAA is seen as an environment where players can play for lengthy durations and take the two, three, even sometime four years to develop before turning pro. I'm not a huge fan of that development approach, but it's one that some players take nevertheless. So it was quite peculiar when Turris left Wisconsin and turned pro to join the Coyotes organization after merely one NCAA season. It wasn't as if Turris was a late birthdate either. In fact, as he was born in August, he was an extremely young prospect relative to his draft class, having just turned 19 when he stepped into his first pro camp after signing and committing to the pro game.
It would be an understatement to say that Turris' NHL career got off to a bumpy start, as he was quickly overwhelmed. In his first NHL season, he had the second-highest even strength offensive zone start % amongst Coyote forwards with at least 30 GP, with a Corsi Rel QOC of -.347 (second-lowest on a team whose third-lowest was .006). Despite such protected minutes and usage, Turris ranked last on the 2008-09 Coyotes in Relative Corsi. His 5v5 TOI/60 was the third-lowest on the team; however, his 5v4 TOI/60 was the fourth-highest and his Relative Corsi at 5v4 the third-highest on the team. Those power play numbers show the team had confidence in his offensive skills, but it was clear he had a ways to go before he was ready for a regular scoring role in the NHL. After being sent down for a year of AHL action, he came back in 2010-11 to put up the second-highest Relative Corsi amongst Coyotes forwards, albeit while having the highest offensive zone starts ratio and facing the worst competition. His 5v5 TOI/60 was third-worst on the team, and his 5v4 numbers were pretty underwhelming as well.
That said, even though last year was his age-21 season, there are reasons for optimism with Turris. Several NHL sources said that back in 2007 that they thought Turris was the kind of high-end prospect who was going to take a while for his potential to come to fruition. One NHL Head Scout said:
"I was surprised that he went pro so quickly. I thought when he decided to go to college he did it because he was going to be patient. He had a lot physical development to do after leaving the BC Junior league and he was going to need a few years before he was ready."
Several other scouts I talked to were also pretty adamant about how much physical development Turris needed at the time of the draft and the season he turned pro. I did find one high-ranking NHL executive, though, who somewhat defended the move:
"It's easy to play armchair GM now," he said, pointing to the fact that Turris did get good experience versus pro players. When it came to the physical development he then said, "It was going to be needed in either case," referring to the fact Turris would need to grow whether he stayed at Wisconsin or went to the NHL.
The decision was not a one-sided affair for anyone who thinks Turris wanted to start his UFA clock early or the Coyotes pressured him into going pro. One NHL source said on the matter, "Turris was very eager to turn pro [following his season with Wisconsin] and [the Coyotes] wanted him."
The decision certainly was debatable, and the mainstream consensus does lean one way on the matter, even without the hindsight. Turris certainly did well in his freshman year scoring at a point-per-game rate, but he didn't exactly blow the doors down and convince without a doubt that he was way beyond the college level at the time of his signing. As Gabe Desjardins from Arctic Ice Hockey frequently mentions, one of the most important things hockey management executives can do is manage their cap properly and maximize their top entry-level deals. This is usually done by delaying them as long as possible until the player is ready to be a significant contributor.
In the case of Kyle Turris, this did not happen, and now the Coyotes are paying the price as to how quickly he entered the league. His free agency has come at a time where he has played an extremely small amount of minutes on a defensive-minded team through his first two years, due to his development immaturity. Now, while youngsters like Mikkel Boedker and Andy Miele are starting to grab more ice time, Turris is holding out for a fresh start.
Unfortunately for Turris, holdouts in today's NHL aren't that effective. The current CBA is not generous to restricted free agents who try to create leverage out of thin air, as the free agency clock does not continue if a deal is not struck by December 1. Seeing as the two requirements to become a UFA are seven accrued seasons or to turn 27, if Phoenix decides they want to continue this marriage, Turris will be left with very few options.
I have my doubts that this will end in anything but Turris taking his lumps and re-upping with the Coyotes. As Don Maloney has said publically in the link I posted before:
"We will not trade his rights under any circumstances and are prepared to live with the consequences if he decides to sit out this, and future, seasons."
One NHL source close to the situation also relayed the same message to me, more or less inferring that the Coyotes have no intention of dealing Kyle Turris. Aside from the fact they had invested a third overall pick in the player, those within the organization are still very, very optimistic about Turris' potential and they like the fact that he is a center who has high-end upside.
Several NHL sources have said they saw positive signs in Turris' game in 2010-11. One NHL exec said "Turris was coming around towards the second half" despite the fact that he did get much ice time and his scoring rate only improved marginally. Another NHL exec said, "He has gotten stronger and has physically developed into a man. He got better as the season went along, did well in the playoffs, and looked ready to take the next step forward this season." Optimism about this season being a possible breakout or potential step forward for Turris was a common theme amongst those I talked to in the industry.
What the future holds for Turris remains to be seen. I have little doubt that he will at the least end up a top-six forward in the league. This year was a possibility for that, but a more cautious prediction would see Turris establishing himself in that role in 2012-13. His hockey sense, puck skills, and shot tools are all plus, as he has definite high-end offensive upside. He can create plays with his vision, creativity, skating, or by wiring a shot from mid-distance. Turris was never a player who needed to fix a certain hole in his skill set, but really just needed to mature into what a pro player needed to be to succeed at the highest level, as has all the abilities to potentially be a top-line scorer.
While he hasn't been at camp, he has been working extremely hard off the ice. People can question the person all they want for the holdout, but those close to Turris have had nothing but praise for his offseason and the tremendous amount of work he's put into his body. This was likely the first full summer since going pro where he wasn't held back by any form of injury and I've heard a lot of optimism in regards to his off-ice work. Of course, you hear that often about athletes, especially young players. However, when his body has historically been one of main deficiencies, it is good that he has gotten over the curve from a kid into a man physically.
Even if Turris re-signs with Phoenix, this obviously will not be a long-term relationship, as it's clear from the player's camp that he has other ideas of where his future lie. However, Phoenix gets four more years of Turris to maximize his value, be it through adding a significant number of wins to a club who may make a run in the future, or be it simply raising the value on an asset by hopefully adding a better production portfolio to sell to potential buyers.
Corey Pronman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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