Anaheim Ducks Draft Board Target: Brad Lambert

EDMONTON, AB – DECEMBER 26: Brad Lambert #33 and Ville Koivunen #24 of Finland celebrate a goal against Austria in the third period during the 2022 IIHF World Junior Championship at Rogers Place on December 27, 2021 in Edmonton, Canada. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)

Well, here it is. The excuse everyone who’s ever read anything I’ve written in the past three years has known I’ve been waiting for. It’s finally the 2022 entry level draft, and that means discussing how God-damned impressive future Anaheim Ducks captain and heart throb Brad Lambert is. I should preface that I’ve not had the chance to get to Finland this season, and it looks like my next trip won’t be until after the draft. So, take what I say as either old information seen first-hand, second-hand information provided by friends, my sometimes-adorable partner, or via various open-source scouting resources (noted where appropriate). With all my effusive praise – and swooning over the past few years, I’m no longer entirely sure that Brad Lambert will be on the Ducks radar let alone him being drafted in the top-10 selections of this year’s draft.

“Lambert was supposed to be a top-3 pick but after a difficult season and lots of red flags around him, I’m not sure about his point producing potential…” – Eetu Siltanen, Dobber Prospects.

Two seasons ago, and even as late as the beginning of last season, Lambert was considered one of the three-headed monster that was to be the 2022 entry draft. Shane Wright and Matthew Savoie being the other two heads. However, time waits for no man, or prospect. After back-to-back down years it’s hard to put a finger on what’s going on with Lambert specifically. However, he seems to be travelling a similar path of some other recent and highly touted Finnish prospect before him. Aatu Raty comes to mind as the most recent super hyped Finn who perhaps struggled to develop in his D-1 (and D-2) season. Before him, Kaapo Kakko and Jesse Puljujarvi struggled to really put it together and live up to their hype.

At face value one must wonder if bringing these players into high levels of play is really the best way to develop them. Consider this: Lambert has only recently turned 18-years-old. He’s been playing in the Finnish top league for two seasons’ now, and their Under-20’s league for the past four seasons. While there’s no doubt been success at the lower levels to drive his ascension to the higher levels – let’s be honest, how many 15-year-old kids put up 11 points (2 goals, 9 assists) in 17 games against boys up to five years senior – his rise was meteoric. In the 2018-19 season he played 6 games in his age group (Under-16’s) before being elevated to the Under-18’s team. A promotion which lasted 6 games before once again being promoted to the Under-20’s team. The very next season, Lambert left the team he had come through the ranks with to play for HIFK, where he monstered his way to 38 points in 42 games with their Under-20’s team and earned himself a four-game cup of coffee with HIFK’s Liiga team. In 2020-2021, Brad Lambert, at the age of 16 was playing full-time in an adult, professional league.

It’s not hard to wonder if this lack of coherent progression has put a dampener on the developmental pathway for the player. In some ways it shows on the ice, and being in a professional league, mistakes are not often overlooked. For the same reason it is said that the NHL is not a development league, the same can be said of the Liiga. This is part of the reason Lambert has stumbled out of the gate. His entire junior career he’s been a go to scorer who had the puck on a string. At the professional level more was asked of him, and he couldn’t live up to the questions that were asked. As a result, Lambert’s role would change multiple times within games, starting in the top-6 but being relegated to the bottom-6 after the first period. It was if he was expected to make an immediate impact without the opportunity to create chemistry with his linemates. It’s an issue partially on Lambert for not taking advantage of his opportunities, but a condemnation of a system expecting a young player to take a leading role in an elite men’s league.

However, let’s talk about Lambert himself.

DOB: December 19, 2003 (18-years-of-age)

Nationality: Finland. Also holds Canadian citizenship

Height: 6’0

Weight: 179 lbs

Position: C/LW/RW

Handedness: Right

Lambert hails from Lahti, with relatively strong hockey pedigree, with his father a skills coach for Lahti Pelicans and a former NCAA (Princeton University), Canadian Junior (Saskatoon Blades), and general journey man – He also played in the AHL and British leagues. Lane Lambert, the New York Islanders associate coach, is Brad’s Uncle. Another uncle (Dale Lambert) played 14 seasons in the British leagues, and his cousin plays for the University of Michigan.

“My father’s family was born in Canada. My grandfather, my father and his two brothers played and coached hockey most of their lives. My Uncle Dale currently coaches the Saskatoon Contacts Midget AAA team. My cousin, Jimmy, is in his final year at the University of Michigan and my Uncle Lane is the associate coach of the New York Islanders, so they’re my favorite NHL team right now.” – Brad Lambert

Lambert is perhaps the most polarizing player in this year’s NHL draft. Long been hyped – and by yours truly even going back as far as four seasons – as having elite talent, skills, vision, and skating, the shine has worn off over the past 12 months or so. Once considered a certainty for a top-3 spot in this season’s draft, he now has fallen outside of the top-10 on some few mock draft lists. This downfall has primarily been born of a low scoring Liiga season, question marks about his off-puck play, and the regularity of him changing teams creating some concerns about his character.

It’s a stunning fall from grace for a player who presented so strongly until now. Consider that the 38 points he presented in 2019-2020, while playing for HIFK Under-20’s, was the third best total behind for a Finnish player in their D-2 season. The two players above him? Patrik Laine and Anton Lundell. He followed that season up with 15 points in 46 games at the Liiga level the following year, which while not surpassing the forementioned Lundell or elite current NHL players like Aleksander Barkov, it did rank him (historically) 4th for points per game pace in a D-1 season. For interest’s sake, this production was higher than that of Mikko Rantanen, who we all know is an absolute gem now. Nonetheless 10 points in 49 games, split between two teams in 2021-2022, was not what the hockey world expected.

Perhaps one notable point mentioned via (The Scouching Blog) is that both of the teams Lambert played for this past season perhaps didn’t utilize him as effectively as he might have liked. The Pelicans were a slow team, both in skate speed and in style, at the best of times and didn’t attempt to find him open space at center ice. JYP used him as a link player in transition, in much the same way he had success in junior, however, couldn’t keep pace with him into the offensive zone. Ducks fans would remember Andrew Cogliano skating all alone into the offensive zone and either needing to curl back for lack of a pass-receiver option or needing to pass to suboptimal positions due to slower players not being in position. It’s not a perfect representation, but it’s perhaps close enough to understand what was happening.

This, however, is somewhat of a double-edged sword, and perhaps the precipice of Lambert as a player. Certainly, he has an undeniable skill set and ability in this regard and not being able to utilize a strength is certainly causing his doubters to grow in numbers. However, he’s also not done himself many favors as an extremely talented young player. At some point Lambert needs to show some creativity in his play and not be as linear as he has been in his play against adult men. A point which again cycles back to him perhaps being promoted too rapidly. Mistakes cost players ice time, and with creativity comes an increased risk of making a mistake. Risks that perhaps Lambert felt he wasn’t able to take for whatever reason. It’s plausible that a more traditional path to professional hockey would have allowed Lambert to flirt with his skill set and showcase his creativity. Repetition breeds comfort and the lack thereof to date, has clearly stunted the players development pathway and subsequently has resulted in questions of how high Lambert’s upside can be.

What is noteworthy is that perhaps more than any other player, Covid has perhaps put the dampeners on Lambert like few other high-profile prospects. Going back to December 2021, Lambert put up 5 points in 2 games versus his peers in the 2022 World Junior Championships, to co-lead the tournament in scoring prior to it being cancelled due to the Omicron outbreak. While the tournament has been rescheduled to August of 2022, this will fall after this years NHL entry draft and won’t be able to assist in boosting Lambert’s draft stocks.

With all of that said, it’s perhaps worth looking into the skill set that underpins the hype around Lambert and what makes him such an intriguing, and fun, prospect.

Skating
Straight out in front, Lambert is a phenomenal skater with excellent speed. It’s no joke to suggest he may be one of the more explosive skaters in recent draft years. One of his gifts, and one that fits with the skills sets of some current Ducks players, is that he is a highly transitional player. There aren’t too many rush attempts in which he doesn’t showcase an excellent use of crossovers in the mid-rush, to drive momentum forward. It’s not unfair for a player to utilize their strength, and this becomes apparent even in the offensive zone, as he will use his tight and well sequenced crossovers to transition between the right and left half-walls. Lambert also can stop on a dime, allowing him to make changes with puck movement and catch defending players out. Taken together, this all provides a package that fits in with the Ducks current group of smooth skating forwards already in the NHL (i.e., Trevor Zegras) and those still to come (i.e., Jacob Perreault). In particular, the Ducks could look to place Lambert the playmaker with Perreault the shooter and use their top speeds to back up defensemen on the rush.

With that said Lambert still has some improvements he can make with his skating. He does, on some few occasions (apparently – blame my partner for this one), stop with his skates a little too far apart, creating some mobility issues. I feel this personally deep to my bones, as my partner continually tells me I skate with too much width. Which seems to be a concern of Lambert’s as well. When Lambert isn’t actively looking to forecheck, or when he’s carrying the puck, his legs are sometimes quite far apart, a concern which I’m told far too regularly cuts down on acceleration and mobility.

While I jest about my partner’s critiques and these minor and sporadic flaws within Lambert’s skating stride, he is overall an incredible skater with a blazingly quick top end speed and a strength in transitioning the puck. He’s so fast he can beat defenders to a loose puck even should they be given significant head starts. It’s plausible that as he gets physical stronger, and should he shore up those sometimes-minor inconsistencies, that he’ll boost his acceleration and become even faster.

Creating Offence
One wonder’s if a fresh start on smaller ice is what the doctor ordered for Lambert. He already has incredible tools, in that he possesses elite level skating and puck skills that can already keep up with that ridiculous speed. Lambert has shown he can impact a game in a major way in games against his peers. He’s a world class play driver and a step ahead of most players in his age range. Most impressive is his high-level passing, allowing him to thread the needle through layers and layers of defense. He has excellent vision and is capable of diagonal and seam passes. Interestingly, Lambert appears to be more effective, or rather his versatility seems more apparent when he’s playing the wing than at center. However, it seems like he’s almost been talked into believing that his skill set fits better playing the pivot (see comment below). Nonetheless, for a team already boasting two good centers, Lambert could provide a wing presence and draw into the center position to take the odd draw, or to create mismatches and alterations in plays to catch defending players off guard. This could be especially pronounced on offensive starts as would be taken on the power play.

“For the past few years, I have played equally in center and wing. There are things I like best about playing on the wing, and I think it’s a big advantage to be comfortable with both, but overall I prefer the wing. center. I think that at the center there are more opportunities to use my strengths and to have a bigger impact on the game. So far this year I have played all games except one at the center.” – Brad Lambert

One concern that has been raised by Josh Glazer of Dobber Prospects is that, at least in Liiga play, Lambert has been hesitant to carry the puck into the slot and has settled for his shots from the perimeter. However, this seems to be less of a concern against his own age group, and he’s always seemed to be comfortable in that facet of play to me. To be frank, his driving to the net in international play ranges from dangerous to dominant. However, this could be one of the differentiating factors in his performances against men and junior players. While this could be seen to be a “red flag” of sorts, the Ducks have had many players in their history improve from perimeter players to big time goal scorers from inside the paint. Bobby Ryan was one prolific scorer who eventually turned himself into a four-time 30-goal scorer. Troy Terry went from being knocked over by a stiff breeze to scoring any number of his 30+ goals this past season from in tight. Terry in fact may be the better example for Lambert to follow, as it very well may be the significant differences in size and strength which have prevented him from penetrating unscathed. I would imagine that over the next few years, Lambert could place a focus on developing strength to go with his impressive frame, and with that should come confidence to initiate and take contact.

It’s worth noting here that Lambert tends to be shoved off the puck when the opposition fixes him against the boards. This of course is a clear example of a strength mismatch and could be yet another example of a young player being promoted above his current ability to play. It’s not that Lambert is unskilled or that he can’t withstand this physicality against his peers, its that he’s been a 17-year-old playing against grown men. Players who don’t hold onto the puck, tend not to get much ice time. With less ice time, comes less opportunity and few points. With an increase in size and strength, it’s very likely that puck possession in these moments will be improved, thus negating a current critique of the player.

With that said, while developing strength is a valuable tool for the player, the most important thing for Lambert to focus on should be his shot mechanics. It’s not that he has poor mechanics, or at least not always. Some shots, he gets it and every looks great. Some shots, he shoots from outside his body creating a side-to-side motion instead of down and towards the net. Simply put, his puck position to his body ensures that the momentum is not going the desired direction. One thing we’ve seen this past season with Auston Matthews is that he changed his puck position from around the heel of his skate to the toe of his skate, allowing him to transfer his weight better and create more power in his shot. Obviously, there are a few other things going on with Matthews shot, but it provides an example of where Lambert could improve going forward, and how quickly that change can be implemented.

Lambert does still get his shot off accurately and with decent power. Within his own age group, he scored several times off the one-timer from both circles, and has shown (again, in junior and international play) that he has a deceptive backhand. However, developing some more consistency may speed up his release and force players to respect his shot a little more. Some scouts have considered that with an improved shot, Lambert becomes a top line scoring threat and without improvement, merely a top-9 role player.

Defensive Play and Positioning
One major concern that has been raised over and over is that Lambert can look disengaged and lost when he doesn’t have the puck. However, I’m not entirely sure that is warranted. Or at least it’s been blown out of proportion to me. I can’t speak for this past Liiga season, however, in the season prior he some strides in improving his physical play as he was often switched in and out of the top-6 forwards into a more middle-6 role. Within this role he did engage with increasing physical presence as time when on, even if the change was incremental. What did lack, was a clear strength differential. It’s hard to push a bigger stronger man off the puck as an example, and this was a case of a boy versus men. It’s also worth noting that Lambert was on one of the worst teams in his league, so it wasn’t abnormal for him to be playing a lot more defense than offense.

What this sustained time in the defensive zone did do for him was create some structure to his game. He maintains textbook spacing and stick placement when checking an opponent. His speed and hockey IQ, now that he’s grown more comfortable in that defensive zone, allows him to pressure the points into hasty decisions and occasional turnovers. It’s this ability to transition the puck from defense to offense that is his greatest defensive attribute.

It is worth noting that he’s never been a penalty killer in Liiga competition, however, it’s plausible that this could change as the player develops enough strength to withstand being physically bullied in dangerous areas. To this end I would envision a player like Andrew Cogliano, who was an adept penalty killer in that he was aggressive and dangerous on the counter punch. Lambert, should he further develop his skills would need to be respected as a penalty killer simply due to his blazing speed. He could break out himself or beat players back to cleared pucks. It’s at least one possibility for a player with his tools.

The Final Sell
Obviously, I’m a massive fan of Brad Lambert and I think that many of his perceived flaws have been overblown by a lack of context in his circumstances. With that said, he clearly didn’t do enough to break into the lottery draft selections. However, the Ducks decided they were going to win some games this past season, and with Lambert dropping down the draft boards, and the Ducks drafting around the 10th selection, linking with Lambert could be a match made in heaven.

The change to smaller ice may help showcase his tight skating versus the larger European ice. With the Ducks he’ll play with far stronger skaters than he currently skates with. This is likely to help accentuate his strongest attributes and help polish him as a player. He’ll have time to physically develop his body and to work on adding consistency to his shot before ever needing to set a skate on NHL ice.

“The 18-year-old may be struggling on the big ice in the Liiga, but he exploded on smaller ice vs his peers in two WJC games with five points. He could be sneaky good fantasy value in a fantasy draft if he falls outside the top ten of your draft and then explodes on the small ice in the NHL” – Peter Harling, Dobber Prospects

Taken together I think that, with a patient development curve, Lambert has every chance to be the “boom” prospect that every team wants to pick in their draft. However, even should he fail to reach his scoring potential as a top line forward, his hockey IQ and skating ability will lend him to develop strong third line forward skills, perhaps in a way that could make him a dangerous middle 6 option and penalty killer in the future. It’s not a bad floor given how high his ceiling is.

The long and short is Lambert is a player who could drop down the draft boards and make a lot of teams look silly in the future. The Ducks should not be one of those teams. They should take him and run.