Sunday, 4 August 2013

Samuel Morin, Nikita Zadorov and Jonathan Diaby won't make it, or, Maybe Trevor Timmins knew what he was doing at the 2013 draft

 "I don't think they have any value at all."
“Statistics are like a lamp post to a drunk: Useful for support but not for illumination,” Burke said. “Statistics are going to tell you something. Where you take that data and where you take that research and apply it and add it to the other data sources you have — that’s where you’ll be successful. If you look at statistics and point to a column and say, ‘We’re drafting this guy’ — have fun. I hope you’re in my division.”
“Numbers are overrated a lot of the time ... It’s an eyeball business ... You’ve still got to watch guys ... No one’s ever won a title with Moneyball.”
Brian Burke, quoted in the Toronto Star, at the 2013 MIT Sloan Conference.


Contrary to the 2012 draft, which as a Canadiens fan I thoroughly enjoyed, I had major qualms and a minor meltdown during this June's draft.  I felt the Canadiens bypassed certain players in favour of others ill-advisedly, and that the mission to gather a squadron of prospects with size to improve our mix on the farm was botched.  Some people tried to reason that Michael McCarron, Connor Crisp and Jakob de la Rose were three players with size, and that you can't draft solely for size, and we went back and forth, but I never really felt better about it, was kind of sour.

Until now.  I came across this piece on "That's Offside!" blog, and it allowed me to not feel so bad about what I thought was a wasted opportunity.

The main thesis is simple: defensive defencemen in junior, those who specialize in shotblocking and positional play and so on, don't tend to turn into successful NHL defencemen.  Rather, CHL defencemen who have talent and contribute offensively are those who can assume a defensive role in a higher-level league.  As the author puts it:

My hypothesis was that to be a regular NHL defenseman, you probably had to be an outstanding player in the CHL at both ends of the ice. Consequently, guys drafted for their "defensive abilities" but couldn't score would make up the vast majority of early-round draft busts, at least when it came to defenders.

To prove this thesis, the author compares the scoring proficiency of CHL defencemen during their draft year versus the number of NHL games they've played.  To keep his numbers manageable, he uses only defencemen drafted in the first three rounds.  To be able to truly evaluate success, he uses the 1999-2008 draft classes, since those more recent classes haven't fully gone through the system yet.

The evidence is clear to see when shown on a graph.  Those defencemen who didn't pile up points in junior tend to wash out, while those who did have a greater likelihood of having an NHL career.  While this doesn't seem like rocket science, it addresses his pet peeve of analysts over-hyping 'heart and soul' junior-age players:
One of the things that drives me off-the-wall crazy about Hockey Canada at the junior level is the fetishization of stuff as nebulous as "heart" and "grit" and "toughness." Consequently, we get guys on our international junior teams who, when they appear to exhibit some of these intangible qualities, are lauded for their on-ice defensive abilities. Take, for example, Scott Harrington. A Penguins 2nd round pick in 2011, he was named the captain of the OHL champion London Knights this past season (leadership!), was a finalist for OHL defenseman of the year (defense!), and was guaranteed a spot on Canada's World Junior Championship team's blueline because he was there before because he blocked shots (heart!). Corey Pronman lists him as one of Pittsburgh's top-10 prospects, saying that his upside is a 3rd or 4th NHL defenseman due to being a "high-end thinker" with stellar defensive ability.
And yet he'll more than likely be out of NHL hockey by the time he's 25, doomed to a career bouncing around the minor leagues and Europe, mostly because he's not a very good hockey player, relatively speaking.

I will resist the urge to quote too much of the article, but here are a couple more passages:

Based on historical data, a CHL defenseman taken early in the draft with fewer than 0.6 Pts/GP in his draft year, like Scott Harrington or Dylan McIlrath or Colten Teubert, only has about a 1 in 10 chance of even making the NHL as a full-time player. Going back to Harrington, only 3 players in the last 15 years have scored at a lower rate in their draft years and established themselves as NHL regulars: Mark Fistric, Tyler Myers, and Shea Weber. However, Fistric was never a big scorer and finds himself dangerously close to falling out of "NHL regular" status, while Weber and Myers grew into elite 19-year old scorers in their draft +2 seasons. Weber had 0.75 Pts/GP with Kelowna, and Myers put up an impressive 48 points in the NHL. Harrington still finds himself under 0.40 Pts/GP in his draft +2 season, which means he's tracking to be just like the other 91 guys who haven't ever made the show full-time.
And the money shot:

Just based on the stuff that was outlined above, you can say with a fair degree of certainty that Zadorov, Morin, Heatherington, Diaby and Kanzig all will not be long-term impact NHL players (coincidentally, all of these guys are 6'5 or taller, with the exception of 6'3 Dillon Heatherington) unless someone gets really, really lucky. It just goes to show the love affair that scouts have with nice bodies

Which for me is a big relief, because I was hoping that we'd have a shot at Samuel Morin, who was actually long gone by the time our pick came up, but also that we'd have a crack at Jonathan-Ismaël Diaby, who we bypassed.  I also had a minor man-crush on Mason Geertsen, another tough defensive defenceman, who wasn't rated in the Top 90 for this draft but who does fit the 'heart and soul defensive defenceman who doesn't put up points' to a 't', and was sorry we'd not snagged him either.

I'm mostly better now.  This demonstration of the low likelihood that any of these three gentlemen make any impact in the NHL has quelled a lot of the drafter's remorse I felt.

One caveat: I have a feeling, which I've stated often, that the goalposts are being moved, that the game is being refereed at such a 'reckless disregard' level that crashers and bangers and crosscheckers become de facto impact players.  Note the 'impact' 6'4" Sens defenceman Eric Gryba had in last year's first round of the playoffs.

So, is there a way to factor in player size?  How about if we just consider players 6'2" and above and/or 210 lbs and above, put the data in the machine, crank the handle, and see what comes out?  Do the low-scoring defencemen who reach a critical size threshold start to overcome their lack of talent, and are they given every chance to succeed, given icetime in the minors out of proportion to their skill, so that their odds of making it to the NHL and having a career is higher than a peer with similar lack of scoring success who is of more modest size?

Of course, we'd have to compare this discrepancy in results for low-scoring defencemen of different size, if it exists, to that which endures for the general population, at all positions, since the game is already tilted toward bigger players, toward Colton Orr and Greg Campbell, and away from Martin St. Louis and David Desharnais.

So if we find there is a statistically significant greater likelihood of a bigger player making it, then we have to allow that Nikita Zadorov and Samuel Morin have the cherished size that modern coaches and GM's love, and they'll coddle and develop the hell out of these guys.  And if they can't pass or shoot but can stand in front of the net and be a cross-checking menace to life and teeth, then they'll have long, rewarding, bloody careers in Gary Bettman and Colin Campbell's NHL.

Another consideration is the uptick in production, or at least quality of play, in the second half of the season noted by scouts in the case of Samuel Morin and Nikita Zadorov.  For 18-year-olds just coming out of a growth spurt that took them to their extreme size, it's understandable that they're just barely getting their limbs coordinated and back in control.  Maybe the statistical model should account for this, and weigh more heavily the games later in the season, as these outsized players get more used to their new bodies.  Not that it was related to his size, but the Canadiens took a risk on Darren Dietz two summers ago in the fifth round specifically because his game came together later in the season, and he was given more responsibility and opportunities.  Both Mr. Morin and Mr. Zadorov, and Mr. Diaby to a lesser extent, were all described in writeups as improving throughout the season, and being markedly better at the end than at the beginning.

That may be close to a truism and an explanation for their rapid rise in the draft rankings, but it's still a valid observation in terms of if I use the "That's Offside" method to make a drafting decision on a young defenceman, and my scouts really like a player but he falls under the magic threshold, maybe I look at the second-half of the season data, and see what's going on there.

But getting back to Brian Burke's remarks on statistics, and making use of analytics to build your team and draft prospects, this simple exercise shows us that there is actually a lot of value in looking at past data to find trends.  As I wrote more than a year ago:
1) Analytics: If this isn’t already being done, it should be. Like shown in Moneyball, there are market inefficiencies that should be exploited. Mr. Gauthier admitted at the last Draft that once you get to the third round, you’re picking through players that other teams didn’t want. Let’s figure out which players historically have the highest chance of being an important contributor (US College, Europe, early or late birthdays, freakishly big (Byfuglien) or small (St-Louis), injured during draft year, etc.)

So there are relatively easy indicators to which prospects have a greater chance of contributing to a team's future than others, actually, despite Mr. Burke's bluster.  I'm sure there are more that teams have stumbled upon, and that they may explain some crazy reaches or picks that make us scratch our heads.  And, that if some teams have some mathematical models that they believe are valid, that they won't be running around telling the other teams or reporters, that they'll guard their putative competitive advantage.  As Billy Beane did not, and found that every other team quickly adopted his GWARP and WHOOsH and RARV and other newfangled metrics to evaluating baseball talent, and thus had lost his edge as a small-market team trying to find undervalued players.

So maybe Brian Burke is just blowing smoke, or at least is doing so more strategically than usual, and is trying to throw everyone off the scent.

And maybe, just maybe, Trevor Timmins knew what he was doing on June 30 at the draft table.  I'm flexible enough to allow that it's possible...

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