Monday, 2 December 2013

Hockey Canada Screws Up The WJC's. Again.

No no no no no no no no no no no no no.
This morning, Hockey Canada officially announced the selection camp roster for the 2014 World Junior Hockey Championships. There were some glaring omissions for sure, as Darnell Nurse and Max Domi headlined the players that weren't even invited to attend camp. The full roster can be found here.

Now, if you follow me on Twitter and saw what I had to say during the CHL Super Series whenever the topic of goaltending was brought up, you'll know that I'm no Craig Button when it comes to Zachary Fucale. I don't particularly think he's the best U20 goalie in Canada, and certainly shouldn't garner consideration for the World Junior starting gig. I've listed a few of the reasons why I believe this before, most notably this:
Basically, a goalie's only job is to stop the puck. Zachary Fucale is bad at stopping the puck. Therefore, Zachary Fucale is bad at his job and shouldn't be on the World Junior team. It's not difficult logic to follow, but for some reason, logic seems to have completely abandoned Ryan Jankowski and the rest of the Hockey Canada decision makers, as they're citing stuff like Fucale's "ability to win."
Now, a couple of very reasonable people who I know understand my point have put forth some arguments in support of Fucale as a WJC goalie. They are as follows:


Basically the statistical argument in favour of Fucale is this: the QMJHL has a worse save percentage on average, so Fucale is just as good relative to the rest of his league as Eric Comrie, Tristan Jarry and Jake Paterson have in theirs. I'll explore this in a minute, but first I'll quickly go over why I ignore wins and GAA when evaluating goalies.

Goals against average is the average number of goals scored on a goalie per 60 minutes of play. It can be found by this formula:

(Total Goals Against/Total Time On Ice)*60

Goals against, however is a function of shots against and save percentage, so GAA can also be calculated in this way:

([Total Shots Against*1 - Save Percentage]/TOI)*60

As you can see, a goalie doesn't have any control over half of GAA, and the other half is just save percentage. Tracking GAA then only serves to add useless and irrelevant information when looking solely at goalies.

Wins are much the same, except now goals for are added to the picture. Bill James' expected win formula as it applies to hockey is Goals For^2/([Goals For^2]+[Goals Against^2]). Again, a goalie can't control the vast majority of what goes on in a win. The only part he can control is the number of shots he stops, which is his save percentage. It's for these reasons why I don't put a lot of stock into "knowing how to win games." It's especially relevant in Fucale's case because last year's Halifax Mooseheads probably could have won with 2013 John Garrett in goal. They basically crushed the rest of the QMJHL last year in score close possession, as illustrated by this data dug up by Josh Weissbock:


Having a team with two super-elite finishers in MacKinnon and Drouin, and that can tow nearly 60% of possession is ridiculously dominant. Having a huge season under those circumstances is less "knowing how to win games" than it is "having four functional limbs and a pulse."

Anyways, on to more relevant stuff. The prevailing argument in favour of Fucale is that he's as good relative to the QMJHL as Eric Comrie and Tristan Jarry are to the WHL and Jake Paterson is to the OHL. To see if this is true, I took the average save percentage over the last 3 years in each league, and compared each goalie's career CHL save percentage to this baseline. Here are the results:


Even with a league average save percentage more than 10 percentage points lower than both the WHL and OHL, Fucale only performs 97 basis points (0.97%) of save percentage better than the rest of his league. By contrast, both Comrie and Jarry perform far better compared to their peers, while Paterson lags behind the OHL.

I'll touch on this next bit a little more later, but I suspect the reason for a depressed QMJHL save percentage doesn't have anything to do with the quality of shooters or coaching systems or anything, but just fewer good goalies. For some reason, the QMJHL only developed 3 legitimate NHL goalies in the decade between 1999 and 2008, and none of those guys are really above NHL average for a starting goalie. Anyways, if you assume all leagues are of equal player talent, you can take a Canada-wide average of save percentages and compare all goalies against that baseline. Here are the results of that:


Okay, this is a little math-y now so bear with me. The Z-scores in the above table are a standard score. They measure how many standard deviations above the mean a given number is. A Z-score of 0 means average, below 0 is below average, and above 0 is above average. A score of 1 here would mean that a goalie's save percentage is better than 84% of those save percentages posted in the three year sample of games I looked at.

Long in short, Eric Comrie and Tristan Jarry score better than 90-95% of all CHL goalies. Jake Paterson is better than about 60% of all CHL goalies. Zachary Fucale is just barely above CHL average. In a cap-less system with no constraints on players, Hockey Canada passed on two elite performers to take two average ones.

So let's review the findings here:
1) Eric Comrie and Tristan Jarry are better than their respective league more so than both Fucale and Paterson.
2) Fucale's baseline comparison was easier, yet he still couldn't outperform it as much as his competitors.
3) Using a constant baseline for all goalies, Comrie and Jarry were found to be elite, while Paterson and Fucale are just slightly above average.

But wait, there's more. 

I feel like I'm piling on Zach Fucale at this point. I really don't mean to, but I think it's important to get this point across: he probably isn't good enough to be an NHL goalie. Similar to what I did with those defenseman posts back around the draft, I looked at the 10 year window between the 1999 and 2008 NHL entry drafts to see which goalies that came from the CHL turned out to be NHL-calibre players. In all, 120 goalies were drafted out of the CHL; 39 from the WHL, 47 from the OHL, and 34 from the QMJHL. Of this sample, just 15 goalies turned out to be what I consider an NHL regular. Here's the whole list:

The takeaway here is that guys who went on to be anyone of consequence in the NHL were all extremely good to elite junior performers. Zachary Fucale is neither extremely good or elite. He is average. And average CHL'ers don't make it to the NHL in any kind of significant capacity, despite what scouting reports like this will tell you.

To sum this all up, leaving one of Tristan Jarry or Eric Comrie off the World Junior team would be a poor decision. Leaving both off in favour of Fucale and Paterson is indefensible. Despite this, Canada should still win the gold medal because the talent level in this country is so much better compared to every single nation in the world that it should be nearly impossible to screw up. Yet Hockey Canada somehow has for five years now, and it's decisions like these that prioritize "heart" and "grit" and "winningness" over "ability to play hockey" that play a major role in those failures.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Dan Hamhuis Has a 57% Corsi; May Be Struggling

Pictured: despair. Image via Chris Peters
One of the quickly developing storylines of the still infantile season is the play of Dan Hamhuis. If you're reading this, you probably know that he's failing the eye test in ways that are either hilarious or depressing, depending how much of your life hinges on a game that takes place before the season is even 10% done. Most recently he, Jason Garrison and Roberto Luongo did a thing. They did this thing:


I, uhh, yeah. That happened. Remember, you, valued season ticket holder, Francesco Aquilini paid those three guys a combined $212,976 tonight for that blooper, which really means nothing but I'm sure it'll get someone somewhere fired up if you tell them.

What isn't meaningless is that despite all his perceived struggles, Dan Hamhuis is killing it on possession. At the time of this post, he's sitting at a Corsi% of 56.8%, good for 3rd on the team behind only the Sedins. Yes, his PDO has been awful and he's due for an uptick in that. But, saying "oh you're just perceiving his poor play because Luongo isn't stopping pucks when he's on the ice" isn't really a valid response to criticisms like "he took a miserable interference penalty" or "he turned the puck over and fell down" because it doesn't address the aspects of his game that are being complained about.

So is there some crucial context that we're missing when looking at his Corsi numbers in isolation? Why is Hamhuis crushing puck possession but failing the eye test so mightily? Well, there are a couple of possibilities that I'll sum up in three main points:

  • Hamhuis' most common forward linemates are the Sedins, who are the Canucks' best possession players.
  • When Hamhuis starts a shift, it is more likely to be in the offensive zone with talented offensive players, relative to all other Vancouver Canucks defenders.
  • Consequently, Hamhuis' possession numbers are being inflated by John Tortorella's coaching decisions.

We know that starting a shift in the offensive zone leads to a boost in Corsi% immediately proceeding the faceoff, and we also know that playing with the Sedins will drag up a Corsi% too. Hamhuis leads all Canuck d-men in OZone start%, and is 4th behind Edler, Garrison and Bieksa in quality of competition. He has also started the lowest percentage of his shifts in the defensive zone out of all Canucks defensemen. While he's not being sheltered, he's the closest to it right now.

As a result, it's possible that Hamhuis' possession numbers are simply being inflated by Tortorella's usage of him. Tortorella has put Hamhuis in the best position of any Canuck defender to have strong possession numbers, and his deployment is working. This also would help to explain why Hamhuis' WOWYs look so damn good, as someone playing with Hamhuis is already more likely to be in a position where the Canucks get the next Corsi event, and someone playing apart from Hamhuis is more likely to be buried in the defensive zone. Good WOWYs here would have less to do with Hamhuis and more to do with coaching.

Of course, there's always an element of good old human error when using the eye-test. Since we're all in a frenzy just waiting for a Hamhuis gaffe, we'll definitely notice when he makes a small mistake just like every other NHL player makes from time to time. As a result of our attention, we're more likely to recall times in which Hamhuis struggled in order to better fit our hypothesis of him playing poorly. This is called confirmation bias.

I do suspect that there's a large element of confirmation bias going on in regards to Hamhuis' play, but quoting his Corsi% as evidence that he's not playing poorly misses a ton of context. The bottom line is that Dan Hamhuis should have the best possession numbers of any Canucks defenseman because he's been put in a position to have the best possession numbers of any Canucks defenseman. He may not be struggling as much as you think, but his possession numbers definitely don't tell the whole story.


Friday, 13 September 2013

The Tyler Benson Post

Giants #1 pick and top WHL prospect Tyler Benson. Image via Vancouver Giants.
The Vancouver Giants' preseason is winding down with only two more games left between now and the start of the regular season: a weekend home-and-home against the Victoria Royals this Saturday and Sunday. So far the Giants have had a fairly decent preseason, going 2-1-1 with wins over Kelowna and Kamloops. They've been led in scoring by 19-year old ex-Red Deer Rebel Joel Hamilton and rookies Ty Ronning and Alec Baer. All three have three points in three games. But to the dismay of some fans, the Giants will start the season without their most intriguing player: the highly-touted Tyler Benson.

Benson chose not to apply for exceptional player status this year, which, if accepted, would have allowed him to play his 15-year old season in the WHL. Instead, he and his family chose to attend the Pursuit Of Excellence hockey academy in Kelowna, where he left Giants camp to join this past weekend. From closely watching him through camp and his first preseason games, Benson left me with the impression that not applying for exceptional player status was absolutely the correct choice. He still needs time to grow and develop before he can run roughshod over one of the best junior leagues on the planet. I'll outline the reasons why below.

Benson at Training Camp:
Like most of the Giants' top rookies, Benson was dominant at rookie camp, but kind of went quiet as he moved to the main camp alongside guys that were bigger, stronger, faster and more skilled than anyone he's ever played with or against before. Although he showcased some dynamic skill, he looked tentative and not used to the speed of the older players, especially after getting crunched by Blake Orban in his first game with the main camp. He finished his first WHL preseason with a goal and an assist in three games, both of which came in his first game against the Kelowna Rockets.

Although he has "WHL size" already at 5'11, 180 lbs, he looked much smaller and more slight than many of the returning players. He was also pushed off the puck when battling down low, and didn't have that extra gear in his skating that Giants veterans like Dalton Sward demonstrated. In fact, size is probably one of the few concerns with Benson. As the previous link also revealed, he is already the tallest person in his family. Since his Dad is 5'10 and his mother is 5'3, he may be finished growing already. That being said, it's not as if he's 5'4. There are plenty of players in the NHL who are 5'11 and below, including the reigning Conn Smythe trophy winner and Art Ross trophy winner and probably the best hockey player in the world. Whether Benson grows or not isn't going to hold him back at this point.

The one skill that Benson demonstrated more so than any other was his sublime passing ability. His playmaking should have been obvious after he posted 89 assists in only 33 games last season in the AMBHL, but he consistently impressed with smart passes in all three zones, threading perfect breakout passes through the neutral zone and using his quick hands to set up scoring chances down low and off the rush.

All in all, Benson just looked like a player that isn't quite ready for full-time WHL duty. He's supremely talented, but really wasn't much of an impact player when he was on the ice with the main camp or seeing preseason action. This is no fault of his, since it appeared to come mainly from the physical shortcomings that go along with being just 15 years old. This is still the same kid who set the AMBHL scoring record last season, with a massive 146 points in 33 games so he's going to be a good hockey player. But what does his bantam scoring rate really tell us about his future, and does it mean he's going to dominate the WHL in the years to come? John Tavares and Connor McDavid stepped seamlessly into the OHL as underage players after standout performances in minor midget, but as you'll see, the AMBHL is a very, very different league.

Context for the AMBHL Scoring Record:
The comparisons between Benson and Erie Otters centre Connor McDavid are already out there. In a sense, it was inevitable that it would happen. It's rare that two very talented forwards come along so close to one another, but these comparisons are also vastly unfair to Benson. Even though he scored at a higher rate in his 14-year old season than both McDavid and Sidney Crosby, Benson played in bantam while both Crosby and McDavid played with players one and two years older in midget. Comparing their scoring rates is comparing apples to oranges.

There's also the matter of just how good the AMBHL was when Benson lit it up last year. Historically, it's produced a handful of NHLers including Jarome Iginla, Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, Jay Boumeester, Andrew Ference, Clarke MacArthur, Kyle Calder, Jordin Tootoo, Mason Raymond, Mark Fistric and Johnny Boychuk. Overall, that's not a bad track record and a very solid list of names, but I don't know how this compares to any other major bantam programs in Canada as far as "producing NHL talent" goes.

But here's the interesting thing: the scoring record that Tyler Benson broke wasn't some long standing record that finally fell after years and years of talented players passing through. It was held by now 20-year old Ty Rattie, who, while a very good prospect, isn't expected to light the world on fire at the NHL level. The record holder before Rattie had his big season in 2007-2008 was a guy by the name of Josh Lazowski, who scored a then league-high 118 points in 2005-2006. Previous to Lazowski, the record had belonged to Colton Sceviour (108 points in 2003-04), Ian MacDonald (107 points in 2000-01), Jared Aulin (103 points in 1997-98) and Tim Smith (90 points in 1996-97).

You'll notice two things here. One, that you've probably never heard of any of these guys except for Rattie, and two, that the AMBHL scoring record hasn't really stood for very long at any one time. The first observation is more of a confirmation in the uncertainty of projecting the hockey playing future of kids that are 14 freaking years old, but the second observation is curious. Why is this scoring record being broken so often? I could think of three possible explanations:

1) This is a reflection of the decline in Canadian goaltending. Our best athletes are no longer playing goal because it's too expensive, so scorers will have an easier time scoring.
2) The quality of top-level players is increasing relative to that of the bottom level of players. This could be caused by either Rattie, Benson and company being the best hockey players to ever come through the AMBHL, or the rest of the league simply getting worse.
3) The quality of stat tracking has simply improved over time. Secondary assists may be awarded with more frequency and stats may be safely archived online, leading to more accurate, and relatively inflated, point totals.

Just looking at the save percentage numbers from 1993-94 to present, the first option doesn't seem to be true. If anything, save percentage for AMBHL goalies looks to be increasing as more and more kids eclipse the 0.900 mark. In fact, more goalies posted save percentages of 0.910 or better in 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 than there ever had been in any single year before, so a decline in quality of goaltending isn't a viable explanation.

There may, however, be something to the second option as the AMBHL has more than doubled in size since 1991 from just nine teams to 22 today. The theory of a diluted talent pool would seem to be supported by the stats too, as the number of players who average two or more points per game in a single season has tended to increase along with expansion. This is illustrated by the below graph:


There's one big problem here though. If you remove Benson's most recent season where an astounding 19 players averaged more than two points per game, there really doesn't appear to be a pattern as to if expansion is leading to more productive seasons from the AMBHL's top players.

So what about the third and final theory, that assists are being counted with a greater frequency, leading to higher point totals. If this hypothesis is true, we should expect to see the leading scorers for the AMBHL to post fairly constant goals per game numbers on a yearly basis, an increase in assists per game among points leaders on a yearly basis, and a declining ratio of goals to assists among leading scorers, indicating that a greater proportion of their point totals are from assists. Long in short, we want the dark grey lies in this next graph to all be about the same height, the light grey ones to be getting taller as you go right, and the red line to get smaller as you go right. Unfortunately, it's not all that clear as to what's going on:


If assists are being counted with greater frequency, it's not being reflected in the AMBHL leading scorer's point totals. From this, it cannot be concluded that Benson's massive season is a result of more accurate tracking of scoring stats.

What cannot be ignored is that Benson set his record in a freaky weird outlier of a season in terms of the number of players who scored at a clip of two points per game or better. There doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason why. It just kinda happened like that. 146 points in a 33 game season is still a massive total, and the fact of the matter is that Tyler Benson was by far and away the best player in the AMBHL last year, but we should still be cautioned when we look at this record. The list of previous record holders isn't exactly prestigious, and we know that weird things were happening in last year's outlier of an AMBHL season.

What All of This Says About Benson:
First and foremost, it says that he's a very, very good player with enormous upside. Let's not lose focus of that. He scored a ton of points; more than everyone else playing at that level. He is fully deserving of being drafted 1st overall out of bantam and he should become a star player in the WHL. He is not Connor McDavid though. Nor is he Sidney Crosby. From the evidence I've been able to gather, between looking at his AMBHL stats and watching him closely all through training camp, I don't think it's fair to say that Tyler Benson is a generational talent that projects to be a sure-fire can't-miss NHL superstar. He may very well turn into that, but he needs time to develop as a hockey player and get stronger before he can run roughshod over the WHL, and spending the year in Kelowna's Program of Excellence Academy will help him do just that.

For now, he is the future of the Vancouver Giants. If GM Scott Bonner can continue to surround him with quality talent like Ty Ronning and Alec Baer, the future of the Giants is very bright. Still, it's best to temper our expectations a little. It will be a year or two before we really see the best of Tyler Benson in the WHL.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Vancouver Giants Training Camp Days 3 and 4 - Cuts, and Camp Gets Serious

The Giants take a break in scrimmage action today, holding just a pair of practices and a goalie session later in the afternoon. This one-day reprieve is as good a time as any to look back and reflect on how camp has gone for both the veterans and the rookies, and take a look at what this all means for the Giants' upcoming season.

Rookies:
Boise, Idaho product Hunter Lester. Perhaps the best chance of any rookie to make the Giants. Image via Eliteprospects.

As of the Grey-Black split-squad game on Sunday night, just 11 skaters from the Giants' rookie camp remained, including Hunter Lester, the only player still in camp who was not on the Giants' 50-man protected list on July 4th. This group of rookies consisted of Lester, Tyler Benson, Alec Baer, Ty Ronning, Jesse Roach, John Wesley, Brendan Holterhus, Ryely McKinstry, Kole Bryks, Michael Eskra and Matt Barberis. While some of these kids have looked impressive at times, the fact of the matter is that I'll be surprised if a single one of them makes the opening night roster.

It's worth remembering that context is everything, especially at training camp. The Giants sucked last year. There's no two ways about that. They had zero players in the top-50 of WHL scoring, and just three in the top-100. Split-squad games further water down this roster by adding weaker players who will not make the team into the mix. As a result, any strong performances - this goes for any player, not just rookies - have to be taken with a huge grain of salt as the level of competition is basically that of half of a really bad WHL team.

And with that in mind, I feel pretty comfortable saying that no rookie looked impressive enough to be really near a good WHL player this upcoming season. Ty Ronning has scored a lot of goals, but he's probably best served spending another year away from the WHL just to grow a bit. He's just so small on the ice that you start to have concerns about his safety, especially when you see someone like the average-sized Dalton Sward be able to freight train him from the faceoff dot to the end boards. Jesse Roach is the biggest rookie at 6'3, but he has been between solid and adequate - far from a player who's going to step in and make an immediate impact, but maybe one that can fill in a solid role down the roster in preparation for bigger things in years to come.

Especially with the Giants clearing a protected player spot with the dealing of Taylor Vickerman to Tri-City, currently unsigned Hunter Lester may actually have the best chance to be somewhat of an impact player right now. He's still wiry and has a goofy posture when skating, but he's very quick on the forecheck and has shown an ability to out-battle the much stronger older Giants defenders and win pucks. Coupling this with very strong puck skills can make him a dangerous player in the offensive zone. That being said, he hasn't really been able to clearly out-play many of the incumbents on the Giants roster, as mediocre as many of the incumbents were this previous season.

Of course, there's still the topic of Tyler Benson to address here, but that section was quickly spiraling out of control as I wrote it so I'll address it in the near future after camp gives way to the preseason. For now, it's sufficient to say that he's going to be served well in the Program Of Excellence academy in Kelowna, where he opted to go instead of applying for exceptional player status. He looked tentative and didn't really make an impact on either split-squad game, which is a bad sign if you were expecting a McDavid-like entrance into major junior. He's still dominating in his age group, but he's going to need a year or two to develop into playing with 18-20 year old players. He'll get there, just not by September.

UPDATE: The Giants announced last night that Hunter Lester had returned to Boise to start his school year. Hopefully we'll get to see more of him in a Giants uniform in the years to come. He would be an excellent addition to a talented young group of forwards.

Returnees:
Import draftee Andreas Eder. The big '96 birthday has looked good early in camp. Image via IIHF.

Despite a tough season in 2012-2013, most of the Giants' big names project to be coming back to play in the WHL this year, however there is some uncertainty surrounding top offensive player Marek Tvrdon who spent last season recovering from a near career-ending blood clot in his shoulder. As he's an overage player, he is eligible to play professionally, most likely in the AHL with the Grand Rapids Griffins. Ditto for Montreal Canadiens pick Dalton Thrower, who, after spending last season with the Memorial Cup hosting Saskatoon Blades, would be a massive addition to the blueline should he be returned. The Giants' third and final overage player is Cain Franson, who is without a contract but has been invited to Vancouver Canucks camp. Needless to say, the Giants roster without any of the three looks far, far weaker than with them.

Judging by the moves made in the offseason by Scott Bonner, the team isn't anticipating a return from Tvrdon. They used both their picks in the import draft to take big Russian d-man Dimitri Osipov and big German forward Andreas Eder. As the team can only carry two import players at once, a return from Tvrdon would necessitate either a trade, or a departure of one of the two young draftees. Given where the Giants are (dwelling in the WHL basement), a Tvrdon trade seems most likely in this scenario.

Knowing this information, it looks like Eder is expected to play a very large role, potentially as the team's #2 centre behind ex-Red Deer Rebel Joel Hamilton, or at least step into an offensive role in the top-6. Whether or not Cain Franson moves over from the wing can change the outlook here too, as Eder could then be moved to the wing in his first season in North America. He's looked very good at camp though, using his size to drive to the middle of the ice and create opportunities for himself and his teammates. He should be a very good player as he develops.

On the wings, Franson, Dalton Sward and Jackson Houck are all locks to make the team, and Tristan Sieben, Travis McEvoy and Rob Trzonkowski look to be returning as well. Scott Cooke and Luca Leone haven't been present at camp, but they're also still on the Giants' roster and will probably compete for spots again. Either Foster or Ast can also move over from centre, and all of a sudden you have a crowded top-12. The problem is that as crowded as that forward group is, it's not crowded with overly talented players. Other than Houck, Franson and Hamilton, no forward in this lineup has even hit 30 points in a season. However, Sward should get there as a bigger, stronger, faster 19-year old, while Popoff and Ast look to take a step forward offensively as well. Sward for his part looked very fast and dangerous through the first part of training camp.

The story is the same on defense, with Brett Kulak, Mason Geertsen, Tyler Morrison, Blake Orban, Reid Zalitach and Arvin Atwal returning to play. Depth spots are most likely going to guys like Jake Kolhouser and Shaun Dosanjh, who both saw very limited time with the Giants last year. A Thrower return changes the complexion of the back end entirely, as it insulates Kulak and Geertsen a bit, both of whom will be counted on to play some major minutes this season. Kulak was good enough to get drafted last year, and will be looking to take another step forward this year. He hasn't participating in any of the scrimmages, but he will be leaned on heavily for the majority of offence from the blueline. Dimitri Osipov will also slot in somewhere, but he has yet to show up at camp.

UPDATE: GM Scott Bonner did a radio hit on the TEAM 1040 today (August 30th) and mentioned that Dimitri Osipov came to camp with a fractured collarbone, so he's been around but only practicing in the non-contact yellow jersey.

So, judging by the first four games of camp, the Giants roster is shaping up something like this:

Franson - Hamilton - Houck
Eder - Ast - Sward
Trzonkowski - Popoff - McEvoy
Sieben - Foster - Cooke

Kulak - Geertsen
Orban - Morrison
Zalitach - Atwal

Lee
Rathjen

Not a whole lot of surprises, and it remains to be seen who Dimitri Osipov bumps out of the defense, and some of the bottom-6 spots in the forward group should be contested by Luca Leone, Jesse Roach, Alec Baer and Hunter Lester. Jack McClelland, who had an exciting fight with Arvin Atwal on Sunday, is also firmly in the mix for a 3rd or 4th line spot.

The Outlook:
A lot of how the Giants' season will go depends on if they get both Thrower and Franson back. With those two players in the fold, they should be much better just by virtue of everyone getting a year older and a year stronger. Jackson Houck and Cain Franson will be counted on for the majority of offense, and if former first round picks Anthony Ast and Thomas Foster can start to really show some of that promise that got them drafted, goals should be easier to come by for what was the WHL's second-worst offensive team last year.

The bottom line is that there is no quick fix, not in the form of Benson or Ronning or Baer or any of the other young guns. The Giants will be bad this year, but they should show signs of improvement. The important thing is that they've received an injection of skill into their system in Benson as well as other high picks Matt Barberis and Ryely McKinstry, imports Dimitri Osipov and Andreas Eder, and Hunter Lester may be found money if he is signed and can develop alongside this increasingly young core. Ty Ronning and Alec Baer also look very promising too.

The most intriguing story over the final few days of camp will be if any of the young guys can oust an incumbent from the bottom of the roster. As with all camps, there are a group of five or six guys competing for really one or two spots. My best guess has McClelland, Leone, Baer, Roach, Lester and potentially Ronning (if he keeps scoring) competing for bottom-6 spots on the wing. How this small group of players performs in the final few days and through preseason will be the biggest thing to watch for.

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Videos From Camp:

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Vancouver Giants Camp Day 2: Rookie Camp Winding Down?

Alec Baer takes a penalty shot against Lethbridge last season. Baer may be among the first rookies to make it to main camp. Image via Puckedinthehead.

There was some confusion at the Ladner Leisure Centre tonight as instead of the scheduled three games starting at 5:45 PM, Giants' skills coach Yogi Svejkovsky took to the ice with a pair of players to work through some quick skating drills. The session was just a short one as it was revealed that the Giants had already trimmed the rookies into two teams, down from three, and were preparing to play what may be the final all-rookie game of the camp.

Notably absent from this game were nine skaters, including day one standouts Alec Baer, Ty Ronning and Jamieson Ree. Kole Bryks, Jesse Roach, Michael Eskra and John Wesley were also missing, as were Bradley Cropmton and Brendan Holterhus. It's worth noting that - save for Ree - all these players appear on the Giants' "In the System" page on their website and were not part of the 2013 draft class. I overheard a scout saying that they had already put "five or six" guys through to the main camp, so I suspect that Baer, Ronning, Roach, Bryks, Eskra, Wesley, Crompton and Holterhus are safe for now by merit of just having been on the radar for a year.

The picture is less clear with Ree. Despite impressing me with his play on day one, it seems odd that he would be either cut prematurely or put through just on the basis that he's not really "in the system" as of yet. And as the picture I took of a scout's roster shows, he was scheduled to dress for team White:

Official roster for team White. Jamieson Ree was listed, but didn't play.
He was never even on the bench though. It's possible that he was injured in one of the morning sessions and was unable to play, but I don't know because I had to miss the morning games. It would be a shame if he was forced to sit out with an injury since I thought he looked like a very capable defender with his play on day one and deserved a shot with the main camp.

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If you assume that most of the players from main camp will be retained in the first round of cuts, you quickly realize that there really are not many spots left for the rookies in the main camp. Each main camp team already has six forwards and five defensemen, leaving room for maybe four or five rookies per team. Of those four to five per team, you're looking at a F/D split of maybe 10-12 F and 3-5 D making it to main camp. Six forward spots are presumably already taken, as are two (three if Ree was put through early) spots on defense.

That means that of the 27 skaters that suited up tonight, only 4-6 forwards and 0-2 D will make it through the weekend. Tyler Benson and Hunter Lester have surely done enough to earn spots at main camp, so that leaves a maximum of just six spaces to fill. Who fills them?

Probably the best candidates are Scott Mickoski and Gage Ramsay up front, while Ryely McKinstry, Matt Barberis and Chayden Lauber all made cases to stick around on the back end. Other than those guys, no player really caught my eye on either day as someone that could have an outside shot to stick either now or in a year or two. Scouts are paid to see really fine details though, so maybe someone caught something that I didn't. We'll see soon enough.

Note: the Giants put seventeen rookies through to main camp last year, so players who showed promising flashes tonight, like Treavor Gagne or Phelan Shaw, may get second looks too.

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I did manage to take a couple of videos of the 4-on-4 overtime scrimmage and the shootout that came at the end of the game. You can see them here:

OT Scrimmage
Shootout

Also, the Giants just posted their official day two recap, confirming that Baer, Ronning, Roach, Bryks, Eskra, Wesley, Crompton and Holterhus all made the jump to the main camp on Friday. There's no mention of Jamieson Ree, so that mystery continues. Perhaps Saturday will shed more light on the situation, as ice times start at 9 AM.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Vancouver Giants Camp Day 1: Five Rookies that Made an Impact

Tyler Benson, the Giants' hope for the future. Image via HockeyNow.
With Vancouver Giants training camp opening today, team scouts, nervous families, and some dedicated fans spent the day at the Ladner Leisure Centre taking in some long-awaited hockey as the offesason finally starts coming to an end. While the main camp also kicked off this afternoon, I'm going to spend the first few days mainly looking at the rookies for a couple of reasons. One, the first cuts are going to be mostly rookies and the majority of guys in the main camp will survive beyond the first round of cuts on Sunday, and two, the team kind of sucked last season so most of the interest is in what they're building for in a few years time.

It was also time for highly touted Tyler Benson to make his debut in a Giants uniform, and he did not disappoint, picking up a hat trick in his very first scrimmage. He wasn't the only rookie standout though, as here are five rookies that looked particularly impressive on day one of camp:

Alec Baer, C, Born Aug 25, 1997
Baer was simply electrifying at times, skating through entire teams and showcasing amazing puck skills. Although undersized, he was a one-man show in the offensive zone as he consistently made defenders miss and manufactured scoring chances. He also scored the best goal of the night, as he drove wide on a 1-on-1, cut to the net, then pulled the Marek Malik between-the-legs move and put the puck right under the bar.

He will progress through rookie camp as he saw time with the Giants last year, and it remains to be seen if he can continue to play the same self-reliant style. He really tended to hold on to the puck and manufacture chances himself rather than set up teammates, so he may not be able to get away with taking the same chances against 18-20 year old defenders like Daulton Thrower, Brett Kulak, Mason Geertsen and Blake Orban (who caused quite the stir against team Black). The good with Baer by far and away outweighs the bad though, as his bad habits can be coached out. The bottom line is that he has amazing raw talent and is very fun to watch.

Hunter Lester, LW, Born Feb 10, 1997
Most of the really impressive names at rookie camp are usually guys you've heard a little about before. Baer and Jesse Roach spent time with the Giants last season, Ty Ronning is a 1st-round pick from last year, and Tyler Benson has been in the news for a while. I knew absolutely nothing about Hunter Lester though, but came away thoroughly impressed. He demonstrated fantastic hands, threading a quick wrist shot right off the crossbar and in on two occasions, but more importantly was a scoring chance and shot generating machine. He was absolutely tenacious on the forecheck, wreaking havoc on opposing defenders and causing turnover after turnover with his speed and lightning quick hands. He set up numerous chances and was a force all night.

The big concerns with Lester would probably be his slight build and age. He's listed here at 6'1, 167 lbs, but that looks like it would be after a Big Mac or two. He also looked very raw despite being roughly six months older than the more polished Baer, but that may be caused by a lack of strength. Lester has the look of a kid with all the raw tools but just needs to grow into his frame a bit more and add some strength. If the Giants can be patient with him (admittedly, I don't know the rules governing American prospects) they may have themselves a real player in a year or two.

Tyler Benson, LW, Born Mar 15, 1998
What is there to write about Benson that hasn't already been written at this stage of his development? He possesses a blistering wrist shot, very good speed, a decent physical edge, and a phenomenal ability to produce offense through sublime passing, accurate shooting and quick hands. He had a hat trick in his first game and looked dominant on a line with Alec Baer and Jesse Roach. He also showed a willingness to engage physically that surprisingly few prospects had, and his on-ice playmaking ability was superb as he made passes and saw lanes that no one else on the ice noticed opening up.

If you were to nitpick his game, he kind of disappeared at times in the night games when he was seperated from Baer. However, he still rang two shots off the post after this point and could have had 4 points easily. He was by far the most impressive '98 birthday out there though and looks like he'll be able to do it all once he develops. More time in major midget may serve him well though as he prepares to carry Vancouver in the coming years.

Ty Ronning, RW, Born Oct 20, 1997
Skating on a comparatively weaker White team, Ronning showed well. Much like Baer, he used his speed and skill to set up chances for himself and he was extremely elusive with the puck, spinning off checks and avoiding contact from defenders. He looked a cut above most of his teammates and was very opportunistic as he jumped on a few breakaways and odd-man rushes for good looks on goal. In his final game, he made a beautiful forehand-backhand move to score one of the nicest goals of the day.

It was a tough night to really get an appreciation of how good Ronning was, however. He took a hard point shot off the foot in one of the morning games and kind of disappeared for long stretches after that. I don't know whether this was him being bothered by a possible injury or just him not playing well, but when he was on he looked as polished as Baer did, and just that much better than most everyone else.

Jamieson Ree, D, Born 1997
I don't know when Ree was born, and whether he was an early or late '97 makes an impact on how impressive his day was. For my money, he was among the best defensemen at camp as he consistently made composed and intelligent plays with the puck, doing an admirable job of shutting down Tyler Benson in the final game of the night for an outgunned Black team. The play he made that sticks out to me happened in team Black's second game of the day. Setting up the breakout, a forechecker was bearing down on him. A left handed shooter, he had the puck in the right corner with an outlet standing about 8 feet to his right. Rather than make the pass on his forehand and expose the puck to the attacking team, he made a quick behind-the-back backhand bank pass off the boards right on the tape of his winger to start the breakout. His team was able to advance the puck with ease down the ice.

Ree also made some other nice outlet passes, looked composed with the puck and broke up a number of good scoring chances, but his ability to really stand out was probably diminished by a weak Black team. His team was hemmed in their zone for much of the night, so he didn't really get the chance to show what he could do in the offensive zone. He also didn't really seem to have much of a physical component to his game apart from a couple of runs at diminutive '98 birthday Chase Hawkins. Hopefully he advances through the rookie camp, as I think his performance has earned him a look with the older players.

Other Noteable Players:
Matt Barberis, D, '98 - Very fast skater had some good rushes. Played a steady game.
Kole Bryks, D, '97 - Big defender looked strong in his own zone, had deceptive speed as he scored a nice goal off an end-to-end rush.
Gage Ramsay, C, '98 - Undersized but fleet of foot. Generated some chances with speed and tenacity.
John Wesley, LW, '97 - Talented winger didn't show great speed, but was a force from below the hashmarks in the offensive zone. Scored a couple of beautiful goals and was White's most consistent threat.
Michael Eskra, D, '97 - Flashy defender threw some big hits and liked to pinch and rush the puck. High-event player as he got burned on D a couple of times too.
Ryely McKinstry, D, '98 - Played a very sound game for team Red. Solid at both ends of the ice, was one of the best defensemen.
Scott Mickoski, RW, '98 - Only forward to show a consistent mean physical game. Threw big hits, caused turnovers and had a couple of goals. Used his size well.
Jesse Roach, RW, '97 - 6'3 winger with good hands controlled play well on a strong Red team. Very pass-first. Would like to see him shoot more and use his big frame to create more chances with his strength.

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Each rookie team has six more games to impress Giants brass before cuts are made, presumably on Saturday night, and camp is paired down to just three teams by Sunday. Unfortunately, I can't be at all six as I have to miss tomorrow morning's session, but I will be back at the Ladner Leisure Centre to cover all three rookie games at night as well as those on Saturday morning.

I'll also begin covering the main camp (including import picks Andreas Eder and Dmitri Osipov, if Osipov shows up later this week) more in depth once Sunday rolls around since the main scrimmages these first few days are more a formality than anything - the vast majority of the first wave of cuts on Saturday will be rookies, after all. Until then, I encourage you to get out to the LLC if you're in the area and take a look at some free hockey, and follow me on Twitter for game updates and happenings and my musings about camp. It's quality entertainment. Well, at least the hockey is.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Slicing and Dicing: Re-Examining Data on Draft Eligible D-Men

I love getting feedback and hearing from other people when I write stuff, even if it's simply to tell me that I'm an idiot for reasons X, Y and Z. It gives me ideas on how to examine my arguments in different ways and see if my initial conclusions were either flawed or could be refined. A couple of people made some good queries this morning that I feel are worth looking at, so that's what I'll take this time to do.

First off, @garik16 raises a valid point. Assists may be influenced by teammates in both positive and negative ways, so perhaps looking at goals per game played will yield a clearer picture of offensive ability than points per game does, and subsequently forecast NHL success more accurately:
As it turns out, the scatterplots for G/GP vs. NHL% of GP and  Pts/GP vs. NHL% of GP behave in very similar manners. Both have large clusters of non-scoring early-round busts at the bottom left hand corner, while the rest of the plot is pretty random. In both cases, there isn't enough of a linear relationship present to conclude a direct correlation between offensive output in the CHL and NHL success, however, as I said before, there is enough evidence to conclude that guys who don't score in the CHL don't become NHL players. Here's the plot:


It looks like there could be a linear relationship here if the picture wasn't clouded by so much noise at the bottom and so many outliers to the right. I'm not about to eliminate half of my data though, so we're left with this mess.

What I find interesting is that when you move to 0.25 CHL draft year G/GP, most of the guys end up flaming out before making the NHL. In fact, here are the top-10 CHL defensemen in this sample, sorted by G/GP:


Personally, I think this list is hilarious. The only "regular" NHLers here are St. Louis Blues spare part Kris Russell, journeyman Steve Eminger, and one of the all-time busts in Cam Barker. The rest of these guys can't even crack an NHL roster full-time. So how did they perform so well in their draft years? The most probable explanation is something that we see in the NHL all the time: individual shooting percentage is volatile in small sample sizes, leading to inflated goal totals over a single season.

It's circumstances like this where possession numbers as well as deployment patterns and shooting percentages would be very informative. After all, we're looking at such a small sample in "defenseman goals in a single short season." Possession metrics effectively expand the sample size allowing us to paint a more meaningful picture of what's happening on the ice over a shorter time period. Hell, even looking at just individual shots on goal should expand the amount of data available by 2000% (assuming a CHL d-man shoots at something like 5% on average). Unfortunately, this data wasn't available to me when I was data mining over on hockeydb.com so it'll have to wait for another day, if it even exists at all.

So to finally answer what @garik16 was wondering, looking at G/GP doesn't tell us much, at least not about the data I have. This is probably because goals provide such a small sample of data that they're just too volatile to conclude anything more than what we already knew merely by looking at Pts/GP. While assists may introduce "quality of teammates" noise, eliminating them introduces a lot of randomness noise.

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The other point that was mentioned by a couple of people was that guys drafted in the first round tend to be offensive guys, with the implication that guys drafted in the 2nd and 3rd rounds are regarded as riskier anyways:

First off, I'd hesitate to call it a "0.6 Pts/GP rule" since I think putting a set-in-stone number on it tends to make it look like I believe what I'm presenting is gospel. It isn't. I'm merely trying to present evidence to make the point that defensive ability is probably overvalued in CHL defensemen, and that GMs probably shouldn't spend early round picks on guys who exhibit no offensive ability.

Anyways, to test to see if my theory holds up when looking at the data round by round, I divided the total sample of players up in to three batches, based on Derek Zona's "Impact Player Percentage." This is essentially a percentage measure of how many players from a particular grouping in the draft turn out to be impact NHL players. Based on Zona's work, a top-25 pick turns into an "impact player" roughly 39% of the time, a player drafted anywhere from 26th to 50th becomes an impact player 15% of the time, and someone taken between picks 51 and 100 becomes an impact player about 7% of the time.

Of course, my definition of a "successful pick" is different than what is defined as an "impact player." Since my definition doesn't stipulate how frequently a player must score at the NHL level, my definition should yield more "successes" than there are impact players. Therefore, the success rate of NHL teams drafting a defenseman in each batch of picks should, in theory, exceed the impact player percentage of that same batch. In other words, since 39% of top-25 players become impact players, significantly more than 39% should be what I call successful picks.

I then divided each batch into two sub-groups of "scorers" and "non-scorers." If defensive defensemen are just as risky or less risky than offensive defensemen, the success rate of each sub-group should be similar to one another, and above the impact player percentage for that range of picks. Here's what the batch-by-batch relationship between NHL % of GP and CHL Pts/GP looked like:




What I notice right away is that a higher proportion of scoring defensemen are drafted in the first 25 picks compared to the 26th - 50th picks and the 51st - 100th picks. However, within these batches, does my initial conclusion that primarily defensive guys are still more risky hold true? I assembled the information into a table to check:


As you can see, scoring CHL defensemen turned into successful draft picks at a higher rate than defensive CHL defensemen in every single batch. Even though the success rate of non-scoring CHL d-men exceeded the batch impact player percentage (labelled as "impact rate") in both the first and second rounds, the difference is so small that I'd feel confident in saying that a well lower than average amount of these picks go on to become impact NHL players. An NHL team would be far better off using the pick to take a scoring defenseman or a forward.

So, after analyzing the data in yet another way, I'm left with the same conclusion: non-scoring CHL defensemen carry a disproportionate amount of risk and fail to become NHL players more often than not. I will say that I have softened my stance on Samuel Morin and Nikita Zadorov based on the information I looked at today, however I still believe that they're both unlikely to become NHL regulars and shouldn't be drafted if guys like Pulock, Morrissey or Theodore are still on the board. Even "risky" Jordan Subban is as likely to become an NHL regular as "safe" Zadorov is. Also, guys like USNT product Steve Santini should probably be bypassed entirely in the early rounds of the draft because their offence just isn't there. I hope I've done enough to demonstrate that defensive ability in the CHL is overvalued and that offense and puck skills have historically carried far less risk among draft-eligible defensemen.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Defending The Defenseman Post

James Mirtle and I had a good Twitter discussion about the defenseman post, and I think his criticisms raised some really good issues and points that I probably need to clarify. I'll go a couple of them in depth because they're questions I can see being raised by others too.

1) "What about player X? He doesn't fit this pattern."
This is true that Chara wasn't a big junior scorer, but then again, how many 6'9'' players have ever played in the NHL? Bruce Arthur also makes the point that even among big men, Chara is somewhat of an anomaly with his immense on-ice ability. But even the data presented in my last post shows that guys who aren't big scorers in junior can go on to NHL success. To this point, I'd simply say that there are exceptions to every rule, and broad-brush analysis isn't going to be applicable to every individual case.

With this being said, there are still far too many examples of guys who were drafted for size or defensive ability that never turned into NHL regulars because they couldn't score. Branislav Mezei, Boris Valabik, Matthew Spiller, Ryan Parent, Matt Pelech, Libor Usturnl, Andy Rogers and Logan Stephenson are all players that were taken early in the draft because of their size or defensive ability, only to find themselves unable to make it as an NHL regular. The list goes on and on and on, too.

The point that I think should have been made more clearly in the last post is similar to the one Tyler Dellow made here: defensive defensemen at the NHL level far more often than not exhibit puck skill at the CHL level. Guys who are known as prototypical shutdown NHL D-men, including Barrett Jackman, Rostislav Klesla, Nick Schultz, Brent Seabrook, Dan Hamhuis, Tim Gleason and Karl Alzner, all were significant offensive contributors to their CHL teams in their draft years.

Of course, this begs the obvious question:
Based on the window of drafts I studied (1999 to 2008), and my cutoff point for an NHL regular (played in 40% or more of available NHL games), these are the guys who scored less than 0.5 Pts/GP in their draft year and have still become NHLers:


At first glance, that's an impressive list of names. However, you'll have to remember that this list is only 12 guys out of a sample of 105 that put up similar offensive numbers in their draft season, so these guys are anomalies. The other important fact to consider is that, with the exception of Fistric (probably the least talented player of this sample) and Schenn (who was in the NHL), every single player on this list became a significant offensive contributor their very next CHL season, as they all eclipsed 0.5 Pts/GP. Once again, guys who turn into NHL players, even guys we regard as pylons like Jeff Schultz, tend to be scorers in junior hockey.

2) "Offensive numbers don't do a good job of quantifying defense."

 I agree with James' point here. At the same time, I'm not evaluating defense on the basis of offense. As I touched on in the section above, defensive value of CHL defensemen doesn't seem to translate to the NHL if the player in question isn't a two-way force in his junior career. Almost all of the players that became good NHL defensive defensemen drafted in the first three rounds of the draft between 1999 and 2008 had a high scoring rate in junior, and the vast majority of early round busts in that same time frame were guys who simply didn't put up points in the CHL, as was shown by the data presented in the previous post.

This means that of the draft-eligible defensemen from the CHL, some are riskier picks than others. Here's the table of the CHL guys ranked in the consensus top-90 again:


History has shown us that guys like Zadorov and Morin are risky picks. If I were an NHL GM, I wouldn't draft either of these players unless I was convinced that they did possess enough offensive talent to become a big scorer in the CHL in their draft +1 and +2 seasons. James indicates that some scouts believe this is true of Zadorov, and I hinted in my last post that I think Madison Bowey could be a similar case from my limited viewings of the Kelowna Rockets.

I didn't think that "points are not the be-all-end-all" was something that I needed to explicitly state, and obviously there are a ton of other factors that go in to predicting whether a draft pick will be successful or not. However, as a broad brush analysis, CHL point totals still paint a pretty clear picture that guys with no offensive ability in major junior rarely turn into NHL players.

I hope this clarifies some of the statements I made previously, but I still think the rule of thumb conclusion that I came to in the last post is valid: defense at the junior level - be it size, physical play, shot blocking or something else - is overvalued, resulting in a disproportionate number of early round busts. As this is the case, in my mind at least, Nikita Zadorov probably shouldn't be more highly regarded than Ryan Pulock or Josh Morrissey, or maybe not even more highly than Shea Theodore or Jordan Subban just based on the historical examples of what successful NHL defensemen tend to do when they're in junior.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Defense, Defensemen, and the Draft

Pittsburgh's Scott Harrington. Future draft bust?

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. It's a good thing I'm about to spend somewhere in the neighborhood of 1500 words backing up this claim, or else you might think I'm crazy.

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Since the draft is just around the corner, I decided to take a look at all the CHL defensemen drafted in the first three rounds between 1999 and 2008 to see if there was any link between offensive production at the junior level and NHL success. Tyler Dellow has danced around this topic in the past, pointing out that depth roster players are mostly high draft picks that don't achieve star offensive status in the NHL, and that most defensive defensemen of consequence establish themselves as NHL regulars by their early twenties, but I've yet to see someone go through each pick and look at which ones were successful and which weren't, even though I'm sure such a study is out there.

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. I decided to use a 10-year window of drafts, with the most recent one I looked at being 2008. This gives the most recent batch of players I looked at five years to get acclimated to the NHL and start to stake a claim to a roster spot that they'll ideally hold down for years to come. I also stuck to the CHL for a couple of reasons: 1) it's the biggest feeder league of players to the NHL, and 2) it's probably the most familiar major junior league to me as well as any other Canadians (and certain Americans too) in terms of styles of play and levels of competition.

I evaluated players on the percent of NHL games played, relative to the total games available to play over that time. For example, since Dan Hamhuis was drafted in 2001, he was eligible to play in a total of 868 NHL games. He has played in 676 games over this span, meaning that he has appeared in 77.9% of NHL games. For the purposes of this study, I defined an "NHL regular" as someone who has appeared in 40% or more of the games they were eligible to play in. I then compared this percentage to their draft-year points-per-game and made a scatterplot. It's pretty rudimentary stuff, but the results are still pretty telling:


Note the massive cluster of points on the bottom left hand line of the plot, and how it magically disperses once it reaches about 0.55 Pts/GP. This tells me that while scoring in junior doesn't guarantee NHL success, not scoring in junior more often than not predicts NHL failure. To illustrate this point better, I divided the plot into quadrants (divisions at 40% NHL GP and 0.6 draft year Pts/GP) and made note of how many players fall into each category:


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.

So what does this mean for the draft on Sunday? Well, according to the NHLNumbers.com consensus top-100 players, there are 15 CHL defensemen ranked in the first 3 rounds. They are as follows:


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, as Dan Dorazio will tell you:



Other players like Mueller and Bowey should be regarded as very risky picks, too. They are probably much more skilled than the five big guys listed above, and I'd be anxious to see how they do in their draft +1 and draft +2 years. I'm no scout, but Bowey's meager 30 points is really surprising to me considering how great of a skater he is and how well I've seen him play with the puck.

Also, Corey Pronman calls Jordan Subban "risky" because of his small frame and defensive question marks, when he's probably a far, far less risky pick than either Zadorov of Morin. A coach can tell guys where to stand in the defensive zone, but a coach can't tell a guy to be talented. As the numbers have shown, the youngest Subban probably has a 50/50 shot at the NHL, whereas the odds are stacked against the 9th ranked Zadorov about 10/90.

The overriding lesson here, however, is don't draft a defensive defenseman early since it rarely, if ever, works in your favour. The few that do work out almost always put up big offensive numbers in junior before turning pro anyways, as I'll point out in just below. Of course, this philosophy probably extends out beyond the draft eligible CHL crop of talent, too. If I was an NHL GM, guys like 37th ranked Steve Santini out of the USNT (0G, 13A in 62GP) would be completely out of the question as well. I'm no expert, but the numbers seem to agree that guys who actively contribute to winning hockey games by scoring eventually turn out to be good at hockey. Really, this should all just be common sense.

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As an aside, I always find it fascinating to look at the guys who are the anomalies. Here, they are the guys in the top left and lower right quadrants. How did the low-scoring guys make it? How did the high-scoring guys fail? Here are some of the explanations for why the outliers are outliers:

How they made it:
- Kris Letang (62nd overall, 2005) and Marc-Edouard Vlasic (35th overall, 2005) both had less than 0.5 Pts/GP in their draft years, but surged to over a point per game the very next season. Despite falling in the "unlikely to make it" category, they still both had a history of putting up big offensive numbers in junior.
- Marc Staal (12th overall, 2005), Dion Phaneuf (9th overall, 2003) and Travis Hamonic (53rd overall, 2008) all also had less than 0.5 Pts/GP in their draft years, but all reached above 0.6 Pts/GP by the time their draft +2 seasons had ended. Phaneuf and Hamonic were better than a point per game in their final years of junior.
- Braydon Coburn (8th overall, 2003) definitely had a down year in his draft season. He only scored 19 points in 53 games in 02-03, but had more than 0.5 Pts/GP every other year of his WHL career.

How they missed:
- Andrew Campbell (74th overall, 2008) was drafted as an overage '85 birthday in the '87 draft class after scoring 35 points in 68 games. In his first draft eligible season, he had 4 points. Danny Syvret (81st overall, 2005) is a similar case.
- Jesse Lane (91st overall, 2002) had a very promising 0.84 Pts/GP in his draft year, however decided to quit hockey to pursue his studies once Carolina declined to offer him an entry level contract after a strong junior career.
- Ivan Vishnevskiy (27th overall, 2006) is the only player in the bottom right group to leave for the KHL. He most recently played in North America for Chicago's AHL affiliate.
- Some players were drafted high after an obvious outlier season. Examples include Alex Plante (15th overall, 2007), Dustin Kohn (46th overall, 2005), Martin Vagner (26th overall, 2002) and Josh Godfrey (34th overall, 2007).
- Other players in this bottom right group may just have yet to establish themselves as full-time NHL players. Guys who are close to full-time duty include Thomas Hickey (4th overall, 2007) and Bob Sanguinetti (21st overall, 2006).

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Why Are We So Damn Ignorant?

For some reason, rather than continually explore new avenues and attempt to enhance our understanding of how hockey actually works, we (I'm using "we" fairly broadly here) seem to instead bury our heads in the sand, dig our heels in, and resist new ideas and concepts. This is especially prevalent if these new ideas are in the form of acronyms or contain decimals. Tonight, my absolute favourite TV hockey personality Steve Kouleas left Twitter with a gem of an anti-thinking tweet, and wouldn't you know it, the analyblogotwittosphere or whatever we're calling it jumped all over him. I'm not going to rip Kouleas here because I find him insufferable and it'll turn into a rant, but I'll address some stuff that really has been bothering me; mainly just how to meld stats with more "traditional" analysis done by the talking heads in a way that makes the staple intermission or pregame or postgame panel much more informative or insightful.

But first, a rundown of what happened, just to prove I'm not setting up a strawman here. I don't know what prompted it, but ol' Stevie just felt it necessary to throw this out there:

That's not even grammar'd correctly, and the excessive use of ellipses basically undermines any point he may have been trying to make since they show he has the punctuation skills of a second grader, but that's irrelevant. The main point is that this is a major host on perhaps the world's most influential television network when it comes to meaningful hockey analysis is completely dismissing the underlying school of thinking that seems to be slowly welling up beneath the traditional mainstream narratives. You would think that, as a network dedicated to feeding hockey programming en masse to the insatiable Canadian populous, TSN would also strive to deliver the most insightful programming too. For the most part, I think they're the best of the three major Canadian networks, with guys like McKenzie, Dreger, LeBrun, and even Ferraro and Ward at their disposal.

TH2N seems wildly divergent from this perception however. It's like something CBC's panel would do sans Friedman. "LOOK HOCKEY TALK LOUD NOW," or something like that. Aside from the banal shouting that goes on between Kouleas and Button (whom I think is horribly miscast), there's also the fact that berating alternative viewpoints seems to be the norm from TH2N regulars, as shown by STATS GUY tonight and Steve Simmons a while ago:

Other than the obvious "I claim to understand your ideas completely but really I have no idea" stuff that's going on here, I don't think that taking the stance of "it will never work!" is either productive or even smart. As Broad Street Hockey's Eric Tulsky pointed out earlier tonight, a lot of smart people have spent a lot of time looking at this stuff. Dismissing it outright works on the same logic as denying climate change or suggesting that smoking doesn't cause cancer. Unless you can defend your argument that Corsi is "ridiculous nonsense" with actual strong evidence, your opinion is invalid, no matter how how large the pulpit you preach from (and as we all know, a one-game sample that lacks any sort of context is flimsy evidence at best).

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This all brings me to my main gripe with how hockey is being analyzed right now: incorporating stats, educating your viewership, and making your product better would be incredibly easy and I don't understand why it's not being done. Take Hockey Night in Canada for example. On one hand, you have Elliotte Friedman getting free reign to use timeonice.com in an intermission bit, and then on the other Glenn Healy claims that Pavel Datsyuk isn't that talented. Fortunately, you only need one guy to know what he's talking about to present a segment in a way that makes everyone come across as intelligent. Imagine an intermission segment on HNiC as follows:

MacLean: "The Boston Bruins are up 2-0 on the Penguins. Who could have seen this coming, Elliotte?"

Friedman: "Well Ron, according to some of the most reliable measures we have on predicting future success, the Bruins were by far and away the better team than Pittsburgh through the regular season. We all know that Detroit built a decade of success on the back of puck possession, and the best measures of puck possession we have at our disposal are a couple of stats called Corsi and Fenwick. *brief explanation of both stats followed by a chart showing the massive difference between BOS and PIT in these measures.* So while this fast 2-0 lead for the Bruins may be surprising to some, it really shouldn't be."

MacLean: "So PJ, what are the Bruins doing in these playoffs to keep up this great puck possession play?"

Stock: "It's all about the 50-50 puck battles. Here you got a guy like Bergeron who's a great player and look at him work against Crosby here *hilight reel of Bergeron and other Bruins fighting for pucks along the boards.* You win with guys like Bergeron. They turn pucks over and give it to your team and help you keep the puck for more of the game."

MacLean: "But coaching has an important role too, Kevin?"

Weekes: "Absolutely. You look at how Boston is structured in their defensive end, and they keep pucks to the outside and cause turnovers. Pittsburgh on the other hand is really loose. Look at how poor their coverage is on this Krejci goal! They're chasing the Bruins all over the ice, and never in a good position to get the puck back if they turn it over. As a result, Boston has the puck more and they're winning."

A segment like that introduces and explains a statistical concept, and then outlines the factors and events in a hockey game that go into that stat. Not only does it simply run through numbers, but it marries the newer wave of analytics with the traditional narrative in a way that should be more easily understandable to viewers. Stats aren't intrinsically divorced from the old-school way of looking at hockey, but mainstream analysts really have yet to make the connection between what we see going on, and what we measure going on. It's not a hard connection to make, but I really hope it happens sooner rather than later. Hockey needs more Friedmans and less Kouleases.

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One last thing: my favourite part of this whole thing was when Kouleas challenged Twitter to "go to a coach or GM and ask them a question on it" and both a coach and a GM immediately responded telling him that he was full of shit. I really hope the Soo Greyhounds win a Memorial Cup soon since it would be nice to see an organization that embraces analytics so openly get rewarded for it.