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).

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