In September 2011, Nick Ebert was a consensus top-5 draft pick. He was rated more highly than other top young defencemen Morgan Rielly, Griffin Reinhart, Mathew Dumba, Jacob Trouba, Derrick Pouliot, and- well, basically everybody else not named Ryan Murray.
On June 23, 2012, the LA Kings drafted Nick Ebert #211 overall - that's dead last, for those of you not keeping track at home. It was one of the biggest falls from grace for any top-ranked prospect in recent history, if not the biggest fall.
I was at that draft, sitting in the very empty crowd. Dean Lombardi was on his feet, looking towards the exit, and I was sort of pondering whether I wanted to try to waylay him as he left. My friends were planning (loudly) where we were going to go drinking after we left. The whole arena was buzzing with the sounds of an entire league's worth of scouts, executives, officials, and media packing up their stuff. Nick Ebert's name was announced with about as little fanfare as imaginable, and I didn't remember, until a friend prompted me, that he had once been a consensus early first-rounder. "What the hell happened?" was the obvious first question. "Did he punch a baby? Make an obscene gesture at Don Fehr? Show up for the combine eating a Big Mac? But seriously, he punched a baby, right?"
I don't know if he punched a baby, although I sincerely hope that he did not. This is what we do know about Nick Ebert:
|25(t)||Nick Ebert||11/05/1994||USA||211 (7th round)||35|
(Regarding the vote total: please remember that there were 10 voters, ranking from 25 to 1. Thus, the maximum possible vote total was 250.)
|2009-10||Waterloo Black Hawks||USHL||53||6||12||18||26||3||1||0||1||0|
A highly-touted young prospect when he made the jump from the USHL, Nick Ebert had a stellar rookie season in Windsor. He was lauded particularly for his strong hockey sense and vision (which resulted in great positioning), and his point shot generated excellent results on the powerplay. Not only did he play notably well at both ends of the ice, but he did so on a Spitfires team that was still quite strong, although no longer of the Memorial Cup-winning calibre it had been during the Taylor Hall years.
It's arguable that a significant proportion of the disappointment with Ebert's performance in his second year in Windsor was due to the artificially inflated expectations which assail top prospects too early. For some perspective, look at the recent pre-draft dogpiling on Nathan MacKinnon - after being anointed The Next Next Next One (or whichever One we're at now), he spent the next year being criticized for not somehow transcending those messianic expectations, despite still being quite excellent.
(You might have heard about some personal issues that Ebert went through during the 2011-12 season. I don't think it's really my place to comment on that, so I won't.)
It was also, however, clear that the overall strength of Ebert's game had weakened. He had a noticeably bad start to the season, beginning by apparently showing up to training camp out of shape and over-confident. He was expected to carry a rebuilding (read: pretty terrible) Spitfires team, including quarterbacking the powerplay, and he faltered under the burden of his newly-expanded role. His two-way decision-making and instincts, which had been his strengths, were unimpressive as he attempted to bolster the team's depleted offence, and resulted in noticeable defensive lapses. Being out-of-position meant that his physical game necessarily suffered as a result. He looked frustrated, and then as a result of that frustration, his focus wavered.
In short, he wasn't elite - but he also wasn't last-overall-pick bad, and the tail end of his pre-draft season was noticeably stronger than the beginning had been. It was too late for him to be redeemed in the eyes of most scouts, however, and that's how he ended up becoming an LA King. Since then, both his game and the perception of his game have rebounded somewhat. He's put on a bit of weight (he was listed this past season at 6'1" 207 pounds), and he had a fairly strong 2012-13 with a truly awful Spitfires team. (How awful? Sixteen out of twenty OHL teams make the playoffs. The Spitfires...did not make the playoffs. I saw them lose 6-5 to the Barrie Colts in a game that featured the worst goaltending I have ever seen in a game not featuring toddlers.)
I asked Brandon Sudeyko, who covers the OHL for In the O Radio to comment on Ebert mid-season, and this is what he had to say then
This season however, despite the team play, Ebert has the focus that maybe was lacking for a full 60 minute game. His hockey sense, vision, ability to create space was never a question for Ebert, and all have grown with more experience adding to his confidence. The extra weight he put on has already added to his incredible point shot that won the 2012 CHL Top Prospects Hardest Shot competition back in February. His skating could still use some work, he can start and stop very well, close the gaps, isolate and eliminate on the boards but I would like to see some better acceleration. Providing his head stays in the game for a full 60 minutes, Nick will make major leaps and bounds this season.
The last pick of the last round is usually a throwaway (although there are currently two active NHL players who were both Mr. Irrelevant in their draft years), and expectations for Ebert have to be focused through that lens. After reading a variety of opinions from people who would know better than I do, I get the sense that the consensus is that Ebert still has the fundamental skill and instincts to make it as an NHL regular, but he remains quite a project. That, of course, isn't much of a problem for the Kings, who have
a million nine defencemen in LA, and a million quite a few prospect defencemen at every development level. Ebert will probably never be an offensive dynamo, and he'll also probably never be a defensive rock who can shut down any opposition, but getting a serviceable two-way defenceman for pick #211 would be quite a coup for Lombardi, Futa & co.