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Sample size aside, Zayde Wisdom is worth getting excited about

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Is Wisdom a no-doubt superstar based upon a seven game stretch? No, but he’s promising and impossible to root against.

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Zayde Wisdom has been turning heads in his time in the AHL, and for good reason. The 2020 fourth-round pick is 18th in league scoring and in a four-way tie for third in goal scoring, with six tallies in seven games played. Among players from the 2020 draft currently in the AHL, Wisdom leads the pack in goals per game and ranks second in points per game, behind only 13th overall pick Seth Jarvis. It’s worth additional consideration that Jarvis is playing on the league’s best team (a combined roster of Nashville and Carolina prospects), whereas Wisdom is on a good Phantoms team.

The bottom line here is that Wisdom’s production has been impressive. Everyone is rooting for him to succeed, especially given his monumental journey to reach this level. However, this begs a deeper question: is all of this scoring coming in a sustainable way, and is there any precedent for a fourth-rounder producing like this in a league as competitive as the AHL?

An Unprecedented Start

In short, Wisdom is having the best start in recent history by a fourth-round draft pick. Within the past decade, there’s a short list of players from the fourth round that have produced at least one impact season in the NHL (defined here as a season of 1.5 WAR or above by Evolving Hockey’s metric): Viktor Arvidsson, Erik Gustafsson, Josh Anderson, Andreas Athanasiou, Jaccob Slavin, J.G. Pageau, Johnny Gaudreau, Joonas Donskoi, and Philipp Grubauer. That list just barely excludes a few other NHLers who have had decent or better careers, like Devon Toews, Tobias Rieder and Marcus Sorensen.

Among all of those players above, only Gaudreau had comparable scoring to Wisdom, and those points came in the NCAA against weaker competition. Wisdom’s start out of the gate is in a completely different universe than all the other contemporaries. Even just looking at recent fourth round selections that have made NHL appearances like Chicago’s Philipp Kurashev or Ottawa’s Drake Batherson, neither of them had scoring outbursts in their early AHL career quite like what Wisdom’s been doing.

Now, here’s the important thing to remember: Wisdom is 18, and development isn’t a linear process. Something could throw a wrench into his ascent at any time, so it’s important as a fan and spectator to have reasonable expectations of him. At the same time, if Wisdom continues to produce like this over a slightly larger sample (say he’s still hovering around a point per game at the 20-game mark), it stands to reason that he’ll be an NHL player at some point in his career. Now, the question remains: how is Wisdom excelling early?

Player Profile

Plays with stellar balance and finishes through contact. Good skater when he gets up to speed, with proper amount of knee bend and very little wasted movement in his stride. Has clearly worked on skating in the offseason and shows surprising burst in his crossover steps, but still has some work to do when it comes to acceleration and edgework. Has a hard, accurate shot but largely makes his money doing the dirty work. Excels at gaining leverage on defenders down low and cleaning up rebounds. Doesn’t have spectacular hands, but is rapidly improving in this regard and at the bare minimum has NHL-caliber skill.

The above is my scouting report on Wisdom through seven games. I had to go back and rewatch the Phantoms to gather this overall conclusion, but I figured I’d corroborate my results with two people who watch the team and the AHL more often than I do. Maddie and Brad had this to say about the young winger:

As Eamon’s alluded to, Wisdom’s brought a pretty well rounded skillset that’s already translating pretty easily to the AHL level. But what’s also really helping him is that fact that on top of staying true to his individual style, he’s playing a smart, efficient game, to boot. To shamelessly plug my own data, through his first seven games played, Wisdom has asserted himself as one of the Phantoms’ bulk generators of zone entries, with 35 (second behind just Max Willman), and has proven reliable in making those entries with control, as he’s also put up a 56.67 Controlled Entry%. There’s a confidence here—Wisdom is comfortable being The Guy to get the puck moving in transition and bring it into the offensive zone, and his strength and elusiveness helps him be consistent in doing it with control. This puts his team in a good position and helps to drive the offense he and his linemates are generating. So it’s not just that he’s brought a degree of skill to his game and that’s working for him, it’s that each piece of his game is working well together, each building on each, that’s making him so effective. - Maddie

Wisdom has quickly picked up on the small details of the pro game, and has made the transition from junior hockey to the American league look seamless. He’s a great creator of offense and has gelled really well with AHL veterans Cal O’Reilly and Ryan Fitzgerald on the team’s top line. Something that has contributed to this great start for Wisdom, beyond what has already been discussed, is his ability to strip the opposition of the puck. His stick work without the puck is impressive, and is especially noticable on the offensive zone forecheck. His play style is a little reminiscent of Nicolas Aube-Kubel, who has since gone on to be one of the NHL’s most effective forecheckers. - Brad

When I look at the way Wisdom plays, I see a guy vaguely reminiscent of the Scott Laughton/Alex Burrows/Viktor Arvidsson mold, but with an interesting variation on the theme. While he projects to be more of a volume-shooting winger at the NHL level rather than a true sniper, Wisdom does a much better job of attacking the slot than any of the players I just mentioned. According to Brad’s tracking, Wisdom is fourth on the Phantoms in high danger chances for, something that’s reflected in his tape.

I’d say the one trait that Wisdom possesses that looks undoubtedly elite to me is his balance on his skates. As my dad would say, he’s “built like a brick shithouse.” This gives me a lot more confidence about his ability to succeed long-term in the NHL playing a game based around his puck protection skills and ability to produce off the rush; that extra tool of leverage and balance through contact has allowed him to be a good transition player (his controlled entry and exit rates are solid) and it provides hope that he won’t just be another Rocco Grimaldi on offense.

Defensively, I think Wisdom has some work to do in terms of reading the game efficiently, but the effort and tools are unquestionably there, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he’s a strong two-way presence by the end of the year. Too often I see him hesitating to make a play or take an aggressive gap, but I think that’s largely just a confidence thing and he’ll adapt as time goes on.

Wisdom has an impressive resume in board battles and scrums, something that again makes him stand out from other “energy guy” volume shooters of similar stature. He regularly comes out the winner in critical possession impasses and converts them into transition or rush attempts without much difficulty. Overall, I’m very impressed with him as a player, and I think he has the ability to be a good middle six NHLer if he keeps this up.

Conclusions

I’ve attempted to reign in my excitement for Wisdom and temper my expectations, but all the signs point to him being an NHL contributor in the future. He still has things to improve upon, sure, but at the moment he looks like a guy who could score 20 goals in the big leagues someday. Prospects are volatile, and all it takes is one injury for all of this to go awry (look at Pascal Laberge, for instance). Still, it’s difficult to deny that Wisdom is one of the most exciting prospects in the pipeline. Don’t skip a Phantoms game anytime soon if you can help it, because you might be missing something special.