Thursday, 5 June 2014

The Vancouver Canucks' draft record autopsied.

Canadiens fans aren't the only ones who look ahead to the future with hope that good luck at the draft table and shrewd trades will bring about championships, in short order.  North American pro sports leagues are all dependent on a draft model, which fans accept as one of the ways to ensure parity, in order that all fanbases get to experience their team going through championship runs eventually.  While the draft process should treat everyone fairly eventually, there are still wild swings of luck in any one year that define fortunes for a decade for teams who have essentially the same opportunities to improve.

There are many examples of this.  The Indianapolis Colts pick Peyton Manning with the #1 overall draft pick in 1998, so the San Diego Chargers are content to get consolation prize Ryan Leaf, who is evaluated by experts to be just as good a prospect as the Tennessee Volunteer quarterback, or almost, it's that close.

Or, the Ottawa Senators are fortunate to be the recipients of the first overall draft pick in 1993, and use it to select Alexandre Daigle, the consensus best player available.  The Hartford Whalers manoeuvre to get to the #2 spot, and take mammoth prospect defenceman Chris Pronger, who most accept is the second-best choice that year.

Over time though, these random events should even out, and most teams should generally alternate a bad draft year with some average ones and one good year.  That's the way randomness works, right?  Unless the draft process isn't essentially random, unless there is a significant element of skill involved, or lack thereof.

Montréal Canadiens fans will often rue a certain pick, a certain year.  The 2006 draft, in which they whiffed on first-round pick David Fischer, only to see the Philadelphia Flyers strike gold two picks later with francophone superstar Claude Giroux, is one of these.  Compound that with the second-round, when the Habs got their hands on highly-regarded Ben Maxwell, with their bitter rivals Boston Bruins rolling the dice on rampaging mastodon Milan Lucic with the very next pick, and you have the makings of a boil to be endlessly picked at by fans.

Overall though, Montréal fans are quite well-served by the draft, and by the team of scouts who make the decisions, led by Director of Amateur Scouting Trevor Timmins.  In various studies performed recently, the Canadiens have proven to be at or near the top of the league in successfully choosing players who go on to productive NHL careers.

Canucks fans, on the other hand, have not been so lucky.  Casual inspection of past drafts on show a succession of drafts yielding nothing, of players who left no mark on the NHL beyond their draft day.  And if it seems bad to the untrained eye, it doesn't get better when a more systematic approach is used.

The website Puckwatch looked at the Canucks drafts under Chief Amateur Scout Ron Delorme, from 2000 to 2008.  They tried to weed out some factors like the number of draft picks a team had, and the quality of the picks they held based on their final position in the standings the previous year.  They found that:

  1. the Canucks held the fewest picks of any team over that period besides Carolina,
  2. their regular-season success saddled them with the second-worst draft quality of any team save for the Red Wings,
  3. even taking the preceding into account, they significantly underperformed compared to how they should have performed statistically, choosing fewer quality players than they 'should' have with their respective picks than everyone in the league save Atlanta/Winnipeg and Florida, 
As the authors state:
Talk about a perfect storm.  Bad draft position, fewer picks, and horrible selections?  Yikes!
 It's an interesting read, in that it tries to account for all those factors we agonize over when discussing the draft, how one team should draft well since it gets high draft picks anyway, and another should do poorly given that their GM is always trading away picks.  In this study, even while attempting to control for these factors, the suspicion of every Canucks fan is borne out: they stink at the draft table.

Another source, Canucks Army, asked roughly the same question in a hilarious article, also based on the putatively bad Canucks drafting over the years: Ron Delorme's record as head of Canucks amateur scouting really that much worse than everyone else?

Below are broad excerpts, but I highly recommend clicking on the link above to read the original in its entirety, it is that fascinating and enjoyable.
To find out, I decided to design an extremely basic you-don't-have-to-even-think method of drafting and compared it to Vancouver's draft record under Delorme. I've put a summer intern with nothing but a book of CHL stats and no access to any non-Canadian junior league up against an entire team of world-travelling, game-watching professional amateur scouts. If the Canucks' brass can't clear this woefully low hurdle, then holy hell they are awful.

Spoiler: it's even worse than you think.


Sham will not pick and choose his draft selections. He has no access to game tape, he has seen no games, and he has no fancy stats or analytics to aid his decision. He will select all players by the following rules:

1)  All players selected will be from the Canadian Hockey League.
2)  Goalies are voodoo, they will not be selected at any time.
3)  Defensemen are voodoo, they will not be selected at any time.
4)  The Canucks' selection will be the player still on the draft board that scored the most points in their 17 year old CHL season that was for-realsies taken between Vancouver's selection and Vancouver's subsequent selection.
5)  No other information other than the total number of points a player had in his 17-year old season (his first year of draft eligibility) is considered. This information was freely available at the time each draft was held.
6)  Ties are broken on the basis of points per game.


If Vancouver never kept a single amateur scout on staff, never paid any attention to junior hockey anywhere in the world, never watched a single game, never did any in-depth research, never prepared for the draft for more than three hours each year, and simply took the next highest scoring CHL forward with every selection they had, they would have drafted over 4000 more games of future NHL experience, nearly 1000 more goals, and over 1500 more assists than they did under the Ron Delorme regime. Vancouver's scouting since 2000 has not just been useless, it's been a cataclysmic failure on all fronts, and probably the single largest reason why the Canucks have not been able to accrue enough assets to build a perennial Stanley Cup contender. (...)

So a highly entertaining look at the failures of Canucks drafting, and a must-read for those who think that Trevor Timmins should be censured over the choice of Louis Leblanc.  While trying to show how poorly the Canucks have fared, these articles again demonstrate how well the Habs are doing.

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