Looking ahead to the future

I haven’t posted much recently. I have several mailbag questions to get through and it’s at a bit of a bad time—I’ve been taking a six-week course that ends this week and just completed a move, but I plan on getting through the rest of the mailbag through the summer. If you have a question on anything in hockey analytics you’d like to see answered, send me an email at camcharron(at)gmail.com.

Tonight, though, I was reading The Jeffler’s post on this week’s rumour and something caught my eye.

From Howard Berger (via Jeffler)

Maple Leafs would trade [for] the No. 1 overall selection. It would enable Toronto to draft potential franchise blue-liner Aaron Ekblad of the Ontario Hockey League Barrie Colts. Ekblad would ultimately join Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner and Matt Finn to form a young, potentially superb defense unit for the Maple Leafs.

Can anybody explain what’s wrong with this level of thinking?

Often, people look at groupings of prospects and assume the future of the team lies in those players. Back during the 2003 World Juniors, future Pittsburgh Penguins general manager (?) Pierre McGuire talked up how the Flyers were stacked for the future with players like Jeff Carter and Mike Richards.

Of course, Carter and Richards are having a lot of success at the team level together—they just happen to be playing for Los Angeles. A better example would lie with this video of McGuire talking up the future of the Kings’ defensive corps:

A little over a minute in, McGuire gets into talking about what Colton Teubert brings to the LA Kings future:

“When you put him in on defence with a guy like Jack Johnson, you put him on a defence with a guy like Thomas Hickey, you look at the fact that they have drafted Drew Doughty. They are building a smart way. Strength on the back end.”

It’s fun to look at these things in retrospect because pundits like McGuire get to sound smart by saying smart-sounding things about the future and they don’t have to worry about whether their predictions come into fruition or not.

Of the four players specifically named by McGuire, only three ever played a game for the Kings. Of the six defencemen who suited up in Game 7, only three were drafted by LA: Doughty (2008), Alec Martinez (2007) and Slava Voynov (2008).

This speaks to two things: one is that projecting defencemen (or any player, really) is very difficult. With the 4th overall selection a year earlier, the Kings selected Thomas Hickey. With the 141st overall pick, Pittsburgh took a defenceman out of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds named Jake Muzzin. Muzzin would return to junior hockey for his overage year after failing to earn a contract with the Penguins. He was invited to, and cut from, the Nashville Predators. Muzzin also played 27:02 in a Game 7 victory by the Kings over the defending Stanley Cup champions.

The second thing though is that you can’t make assumptions about the future based on a team’s prospect core. Things change. It’s true that you can look at the Leafs and see a surplus of quality young defencemen. The problem is that the players are young and things can change. While Jake Gardiner is a multi-year pro, the reality is that Morgan Rielly is not. Many things happen in the second year after a good rookie year, the first being the dreaded “sophomore slump”, which is really just the cliché attributed to the nerd-sounding “regression to the mean”. The second could be injury, or misuse, or really, any number of things that can affect Rielly’s performance in the NHL. It’s plausible he can improve, but remember that the NHL is littered with players who made the NHL at an early age and kept improving.

When Berger, or anybody in the Barilkosphere, writes about the young defensive corps, you want to approach that with caution. Invoking the names of Stuart Percy, Andrew McWilliam, Petter Granberg et. al doesn’t help the argument. Youth is best served by players who are junior-aged, or just out of junior, regularly contributing on an NHL roster.

Once reality sets in, I think Gardiner is the only “young” defenceman that I can write down in pen on a future Leafs team. That, however, doesn’t invite the possibility of a trade or injury that can end a player’s tenure with a team. When projecting for the future, it’s important to note that things don’t neatly line up like ducklings following the mother duck.

Revisiting old draft videos and watching McGuire and the TSN panel make proclamations about the future is pretty funny when you consider only about a third of the players they name ever make the NHL.

Anyway, that’s my point. The odds that the Maple Leafs have a top four in six years consisting of Gardiner, Rielly, Aaron Ekblad and Matt Finn is a fraction above zero. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves when we pencil the guy the Leafs wind up taking to the 2016 first line.

  • nonikhanna

    even if the leafs did acquire the #1 pick (berger’s proposal is somewhat ludicrous), i wouldn’t want them to pick ekblad. IMO picking a defenseman 1st overall is just setting him up to not meet expectations. how many of the league’s top defensemen were even drafted in the first round, let alone were top-5 picks?

    if the leafs get #1 or #3, they should draft sam bennett (assuming he’s available at #3, of course).

    • Sarah, I can give you two names. Drew Doughty 2nd overall and Alex Pietrangelo 4th overall. Are they ‘leagues top defensemen’, that is up to whomever you ask but I would assure you they would fall in the top 60 – given a 30 team league, that makes them first pairing D-men.

      They are also the best on their respective, and very good, teams. It must also be considered that defensemen that longer to develop or peak compared to a forward.

      CAM, the player doesn’t always have to play for the team that drafts them. The NHL is an asset management business. Often you have to look at what that player can get you if you flip them. I’m sure that counters for something.

      Teubert – Dustin Penner was the return and was a good contributor for LA in the playoffs.

      Johnson – Jeff Carter was brought in by flipping this asset after Johnson played roughly 5 season there.

      Hickey – Sometimes you strike out when you step up to the plate.

      • Sure, but Colton Teubert never played in the NHL and Jack Johnson is almost universally regarded as the worst regular minutes player in the game today.

        Also, while it’s true Drew Doughty went 2nd and Alex Pietrangelo went 4th, Zach Bogosian in the same draft went 3rd. Luke Schenn went 5th and Erik Karlsson went 15th.

        It’s not perfect for forwards either, but when you suss out the data, it’s more likely that a highly-ranked forward will be a “hit” at the NHL level than a defenceman, and more likely for a defenceman than a goalie.

  • I couldn’t agree more Cam that forwards are the safe bet. Here is what puzzles me. Toronto trades up to grab Reinhart, the guy I would want, or Bennett. Kadri seems to be the asking price with the 8th…rumors of course.

    Ekblad would make more sense would it not. I don’t think Reinhart or Bennett or even Draisaitl are a Stamkos or Tavares like player so why give away Kadri (113pts in 177gp already) and Elhers/Nylander/Kapanen to grab a forward.

    Doesn’t seem smart from an asset management p.o.v but would be a very Leafy move.

  • Great read Cam.

    When I’ve watched Ekblad play (world jr’s or whenever he’s played the Fronts) I’ve been really impressed.

    I don’t think comparing Ekblad to Teubert, Shenn or Hickey is fair .. but I get your point. Junior d man are nearly impossible to predict and it’s a crapshoot at the best of times. Still.. I think he upgrades the defense immediately and that’s been the major issue in my opinion.

    Both Sam’s would be great as well.. but I’d be happy with any one of the three. They’re the only sure thing NHLers in this draft.

  • Leaf Fan in Mexico

    Good bit o writing Cam. Not sure who said it but asset management is the key, and good management seems to be able to put a mix of proven, promise, and practical on the ice. Proven talent (aka vets, preferably with some good years left in them); promise, guys that show loads of upside like Gardner; and practical, the lower cost role players that do a steady job through regular season and find two or three extra gears in the playoffs.

    Managements other job is to combine the three Ps in a way that leads to a great team culture with loads of leadership and accountabily to a team ethic….