There are few more divisive prospects in this draft than an 18-year-old from Mt Brydges, Ontario. Lawson Crouse hasn't even got close to an NHL game yet, and already he's got the NHL media discussing him in depth. There are many reasons for this - some better than others.
Firstly, he's simply really hard to ignore. At 6'3 and 212lbs, the Kingston Frontenacs left-wing has the kind of size that NHL scouts salivate over like starving dogs being let into a meat locker. He's regarded by some as the very definition of "old-school" NHL material - his physical play and power-forward style have already led some to compare him to none other than Cam Neely, which as you'd imagine has got fans of that type of hockey ridiculously excited.
Listening to any talk of Crouse you're very quickly struck by how often words like "role model" and "character guy" are used, usually quickly followed by talk of how he is a "great role model" who inspires team-mates around him to follow by example.
In terms of actual play, it's very easy to sum up how the big winger plays...he hits things, is solid defensively, and going forward his game has all the subtlety and craft of a battering ram or a punch in the face - it simply consists of winning physical battles, hitting things to turn the puck over and once he has it, finding the simplest, shortest route to the net, even if that involves going through other players to get there.
In fact, his game is so simple that it's spawned a new hockey term among scouts - the "Crouse pass" which isn't actually indicative of any passing ability at all - more Crouse's ability to crash into opposition players and knock the puck loose for a team-mate to pick up.
In short, he's a "proper old-school hockey" guy's wet dream of a player. Joe Haggerty, Steve Simmons or any other "traditional" hockey reporter would joyfully sing his praises to the skies were he on their team. They'd point to his size, his willingness to engage physically and his hard work as indicative of what a hockey player should be.
The trouble is...while Crouse is undeniably an excellent physical player and also likely to be an excellent penalty-killer/bottom-six type player...that's all he is in the eyes of many. 29 goals for Kingston this season aren't a bad amount by any stretch, and he's a solid player, but there's also the feeling that the more you look at him, the more you wonder if he's a player who is being MASSIVELY over-rated in this draft.
Crouse's strengths are many. His work-rate, his physical engagement, his work-rate and hockey brain all work well, particularly in his own zone. When he decides to use it and indeed is allowed to play a slightly more skilled game, his shot is very good indeed, too.
However, his skating is....well, it's average. So is his passing. If you're a fan who likes their big men to come with a useful side of skill or indeed top-six quality, you probably should be looking elsewhere in the first round - maybe at Yevgeny Svechnikov, for example. If you're looking for two-way options, then the only advantage Crouse has over, say, the much lower-ranked Jake DeBrusk is his size - DeBrusk is equal in workrate, good in his own zone and far more dangerous and skilled offensively.
There's also questions about temperament here - not off the ice (we're back to that constant refrain of "great role model, great person" again) but his propensity for attracting suspensions. Firstly, there was the 8-game suspension for this headshot in April which means he's missing 8 games at the start of next year:
Then of course, even before that there was this vicious slash in February, which seems to be the kind of thing Crouse will have to eliminate from his game pretty damn quickly if he wants to be taken seriously/build a career at the next level up. Several of these incidents in quick succession in his draft year will also scare a scout or two.
The simple fact about Crouse is that he's probably ranked way too high for the type of player he projects to be at the NHL level. With scouts raving about the defensive side of his game but continually pointing out that his offensive game has to improve for him to go beyond a "energy" role at the next level up, the fact that he's ranked anywhere in the top ten as a forward is....slightly surprising. There's a lot of talk about him being a "high-risk, high-reward" prospect around the NHL at the moment - but that's the kind of narrative you hear thrown around about mid or late-round picks - very rarely those who are ranked in the top 10.
This kid is a gamble. But he's one that a lot of scouts seem willing to take.
Trouble is, scouts have often known to be wrong. Only time will tell whether or not we're looking at the next big first-round bust here or an astute pick.
But if he goes early, Crouse will have to carry more than the usual amount of pressure on that 6'4 frame. He'd better be ready.