Friday, 13 April 2012

Draft revisionism

An issue I have when we look at past drafts is how we'll wonder at what a great pick someone is who got plucked in the 6th or 8th round and who turned out to be a superstar (Andrei Markov, Theoren Fleury, Pavel Datsyuk...).  While some of these guys may have been someone the organization had a hunch on, it's not clear that there was conviction that this was a can't miss player that they must have, or else that player would have been drafted in the first or second round, right?

So how do we attribute credit?  Was such a homerun a good guess of what the pitcher was going to deliver, along with good technique from the batter resulting in good contact?  Or was the batter clueless and just 'taking a cut' and hit the sweet spot?  Was the player drafted in the fifth or sixth round being championed by a scout starting in the second round who grew ever more strident and convincing as the rounds passed, until he convinced the Director of Scouting to take a shot, or was he number 22 on their list of available goaltenders, someone who was ranked, practically, even with the guy at number 12 or 32, and was chosen because he was the next guy on the list?

I'll use the NFL as an example.  The draft plays a larger, more immediate role in a team's fortunes in the NFL, since they draft players in their twenties instead of teenage years, and their greater maturity usually means they're mostly ready to play that year, instead of having to spend a few years in junior and the AHL.  Another factor is that player careers are much shorter, it's very rare to have one play a decade with the same team, so you are constantly replenishing talent and bodies.  Finally, because the players are 'plug and play', you can draft for roster need, instead of taking the far-sighted view and just grabbing the best available player.  If you need a cornerback for example, you can plan on getting a starter in the first or second round of the draft and fill a hole in your roster that way.

The classic case of drafting wizardry is the New England Patriots grabbing Tom Brady in the 6th round of the 2000 draft.  While the Patriots were shrewd in eventually pulling the trigger on him, they were also 'lucky', and also just as blind as all the other teams in underestimating him.  While he was a successful quarterback at Michigan, he was also in a constant battle with Drew Henson for playing time.  The latter was a better physical specimen and athlete, and was a two-sport athlete, so the Michigan coaches were afraid he'd switch to baseball fulltime if they didn't give him playing time, while Tom Brady had already committed to football and given up playing baseball.

As the linked article shows, New England coach Bill Belichick liked what he saw of Mr. Brady, but hesitated for various reasons, one of which being that they were secure at quarterback with Drew Bledsoe as their starter.  Even in the fifth round, when their turn came up, they couldn't believe he was still on the board, but rationalized it by thinking that the other teams must also be seeing the same red flags they were, and so Mr. Belichick went ahead and drafted two forgettable players ahead of their eventual choice in the sixth round.  So the Patriots do get some kudos for finally looking at the positives, but this is not an untarnished expression of organizational genius.

Hockey has fewer of these classic cases, since we don't often get the backstories on how a team selects its draft choices.  One famous story we can go back to and have discussed before is the New York Islanders' draft of Mike Bossy.  They were presumably working off a list of their preferred choices in the first round when their turn came up at #15.  

"Who's left?", Islanders General Manager Bill Torrey is reported to have asked of his chief scout.

"Mike Bossy, can score, can't check.  Dwight Foster, can check, can't score," was the reply.

"Get me the scorer, we'll teach him how to check," snapped Torrey.

Again, an inspired choice, and the Islanders look prophetic in drafting him, but would they have picked the Hall of Famer if somehow giant defenceman Barry Beck had still been available?  Probably not.  So how much credit do they get for picking the right player out of what they thought were two options left to them?

The Canadiens meanwhile had drafted Mark Napier ahead of the hometown phenom, with the rationale that he was just as good a scorer, but had played a year of pro hockey in the WHA and and survived it, so he was more likely to be a productive NHL'er than the reputedly fragile Mike Bossy.  The Canadiens, in this case, richly deserve the opprobrium for overthinking what should have been the natural choice.

Another draft that is often dissected by Canadiens fans is the 2006 draft.  The Canadiens skillfully manoeuvered and traded down from 16 to 20 in the first round, picking up an extra second-rounder in doing so, and still got their man in David Fischer.  While he was evaluated as a late first-rounder at best by prognosticators, the Canadiens had been following him since his early teenage years and were convinced he was a pillar of their future.

Nowadays, revisionists look at this draft and rue that Montréal didn't grab francophone Claude Giroux instead, and see it as another example of institutional incompetence.  In fact, Mike Boone clearly shows in the article linked below that instead of faulting the Canadiens for picking David Fischer, it's the Flyers who should be lauded since they gambled and took an undersized skill player from the under-regarded LHJMQ higher than he was ranked, and they hit the jackpot.

Also instructive is the second round, where the Canadiens picked big scorer Ben Maxwell, the 49th player taken.  Immediately after, the Boston Bruins grabbed Milan Lucic from the Vancouver Giants.  This is another set of picks that now look idiotic/inspired depending on the evaluator's perspective, but again, at the time, Mr. Maxwell was more highly rated by most scouts than Mr. Lucic.  As I always like to point out, Ryan White was ranked even higher than both as the #7 prospect from the WHL, with Ben Maxwell at #12 and Milan Lucic at #14.

This is where backstory might be helpful, and maybe Mr. Boone can come to our rescue with this question, but I have a hunch that if the Bruins had picked at #49 in front of the Canadiens, they still would have picked Mr. Lucic.  

While Ben Maxwell was a player with relatively low profile in his draft year, Milan Lucic was already seen as being a leader, impact player and difference-maker on the eventual Memorial Cup winners, despite his stats not being as impressive as Mr. Maxwell's.  It is reasonable to assume that his skillset would have fit in really well within the organizational philosophy of the Bruins and that he would have been more highly prized by them than by other teams.  So the Bruins do get extra credit for 'reaching' for Mr. Lucic, snapping him up ahead of where he was normally slated to be taken, and ahead of the higher rated Ryan White, who the Canadiens moved up in the third round to get when he kept 'sliding'.

I often wonder what if at the Canadiens' draft table, someone had piped up and asked if they should risk drafting Mr. Lucic just so as to avoid seeing the Bruins getting him and then having to face him eight times a year, would that have carried the day, or whether he was ever on their radar, especially that high in the draft.

What this speaks to is the organizational stability in Boston, with Harry Sinden having steered the ship for decades.  Love 'em or, more likely, hate 'em, the Bruins have played the same style since the seventies, and have scouted and drafted accordingly, and then developed their players to the same purpose.  This gives them a great advantage in that it restricts their focus and allows them to concentrate on fewer players who fit into their philosophy, it gives them more clarity of purpose and reduces the likelihood of too many options causing 'paralysis by analysis'.

The Canadiens have the opportunity with the current front office shakeup to re-instill the team's philosophy.  We had a nebulous sense recently that there was no such clear guiding principles, in that for example Mr. Gainey had obtained speedy smaller skaters at forward, while Coach Martin favoured a defence-first style that seemed ill-suited to his personnel.  It can be hoped that we in the future have a consistent vision of what the team should look like and how it should play, from the ownership on down, and that this will be promulgated by the GM, scouting, coaching, and player development staff.  We can hope that this philosophy will rely firmly on the team's history and legacy, and that the emphasis will be to build on some of the momentum which has been allowed to ebb since the glory years of the seventies and eighties.

As far as the best way to determine which team has been the best success in drafting, both the methods used by Ed Wiles of the Vancouver Province ( and Andrew Berkshire ( have their merits, and show the Canadiens in a positive light, which goes to Trevor Timmins' and his staff's credit.

I contend, as Mr. Berkshire does, that it doesn't take a genius to draft a Sidney Crosby or a Evgeni Malkin once Alex Ovechkin has been removed as an option, or a Nail Yakupov.  The Canadiens will draft a player at #3 overall this June who will have lots of promise but some warts, and it will be hard to debate the merits of this pick with any certainty until three or four years from now.

I do think that the real test of an organization is how they do with the late first-round picks, as well as their second-rounders and third rounders.  The Canadiens have historically done well with these guys, often grabbing unheralded players from the Québec league who turn into stalwarts for years.  We have quite a few second-rounders coming up in the next couple years, and these will determine the team's future and give us an accurate read on how skilled we are at evaluating and then developing talent.

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