Kale Clague started out the season with high expectations. By the end of the season some would say he met them, but it was a roller coaster ride in between.
Clague started out the season ranked as a surefire first round pick, elevated by a solid, if injury-shortened, rookie season in 2015 and a strong showing at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament before the season began. Consistency, however, eluded the Lloydminster native, and by the time Bob McKenzie unveiled his mid-season draft rankings, Clague had slipped out of the first round to 37th overall and behind a trio of other WHL defensemen. Where he’ll rank in McKenzie’s final rankings is yet to be decided as of this writing.
In the second half of the season Clague seemed to figure things out a bit more, and the offense gradually returned to his game. His final stats line won’t bowl anyone over, but 43 points in 71 games is nothing to shrug your shoulders at for a defenseman who was stuck behind Ivan Provorov on the Wheat Kings depth chart. Even more impressive was his playoff stat line. Clague scored as many goals in just 21 playoff games as he had the entire regular season, and finished with a more than respectable 14 points in 21 playoff games.
So where does that leave him as far as the Winnipeg Jets are concerned?
With the Jets all but certain to take a forward with their first pick, many pundits feel their second pick of the first round should go toward a defenseman. If the Jets decide they want someone a little more offensive-minded than towering Logan Stanley, or if (just as likely) Stanley is snapped up before then, that leaves the Jets with a few options on the back end, one of whom is Clague.
As I mentioned in my most recent article on Riley Tufte, the Jets can afford to be patient with whoever they take 22nd overall — and they’ll need to be if they take Clague. Like most defensemen at that age Clague has consistency issues, and needs to work on his decision making a bit. He’s also in need of some more bulk, and like all skilled players needing to add size, he’ll need to add it in such a way that it doesn’t diminish the attributes that made him a top prospect in the first place. In other words, he can’t put on too much weight too quickly.
Not that this is likely to hold him back long term, mind you. After all, lots of young defenders are skinny in their draft year, and with some development time they turn out well. Clague has a lot of other tools at his disposal to tempt scouts while he matures physically. He has a great shot, can make a strong first pass, and is willing to jump in off the rush to create offense. He forces the other team to watch the point option at all times.
How about this sauce pass and goal by a couple of 17 year olds! @nolan_patrick19 @KaleClague #kidscanplay #GoldRush pic.twitter.com/IYOcRjdU08
— Brandon Wheat Kings (@bdnwheatkings) April 30, 2016
Clague has all the hallmarks of a player that really makes scouts wonder what they were thinking having him rated so low. His vision and offensive instincts are excellent, and while he’s not likely to make the end-to-end rushes Provorov does, he’s a capable puck mover. The biggest thing holding him back right now is his physical size, and if that develops any further he could be a steal at this point in the draft.
Next year, with Provorov almost certain to turn professional and many of the Wheat Kings’ best players graduating, we’ll get a really good look at what Clague can do when he’s the one driving the bus from the back end. Obviously scouts can’t wait until next year to make their choice on him, and that’s part of what makes their job so challenging, and what makes scouting such an inexact science.
Patience is a Virtue
Certain segments of the Jets observers already have Clague pegged as the 22nd overall pick, and there’s little doubt he’d be available to the Jets in that slot. The question is, if the Jets have their hearts set on Clague, is it wise to take him that early? The reaction to young blueliners is always tough to predict on draft day, but early reports seem to have Clague available in the second round for the Jets to take at 36. Should the Jets perhaps trade down, or should they tempt fate and hope Clague slips to them in the early second round?
Waiting to grab Clague is tempting. Can you imagine if the Jets walked away from the 2016 draft with Patrik Laine at number 2, one of Stanley or Tufte at 22, and Clague at 36? That would be about as close to an unqualified success as you can get on draft day. On the other hand, it would only take one GM between picks 22 and 36 to recognize Clague’s undeniable potential, and one of the draft’s most creative offensive defensemen would be gone.
So the Jets are in a conundrum with Clague. Do they risk taking him a bit too early if he’s the guy they want? Then again, if you think Clague’s offensive poise will translate to the NHL, is there even such a thing as taking him too early? Only the Jets can answer that before June 24.
The draft is an unpredictable thing, but studying out the various mock drafts that always invade the internet this time of year and get mercilessly dissected, Clague is a first-rounder in quite a few of them. Maybe the Jets should roll the dice on him. After all, they need a left-shooting puck mover on the back end, and they can afford to be patient with their second overall pick.
Maybe the Jets choose to swing for the fences at 22. After all, Clague has the potential to be a home run.