DEFENDING THE NHL’S AMATEUR SCOUTS
Over at the fantastic Lowetide blog, LT has an article up comparing two distinct erasin the draft history of the Edmonton Oilers. The first, from 2001 to 2007 with then-Oilers Head Amateur Scout Kevin Prendergast, and from 2008 to present with Stu “Magnificent Bastard” MacGregor. There is a huge difference in the way the two scouts conduct themselves. Prendergast was bullish on every single prospect in the Oiler’s system, declaring them all “the next big thing” – an exaggeration perhaps but not far from the truth – whereas MacGregor is a little more understated in his approach, leading to more realistic expectations whilst still being relatively optimistic about the potential of each player. This isn’t a detailed look at the drafting records of these two men – for that read Lowetide’s series on them – but rather I am using a summary of their records as a means to show that scouts are often shouldering the entire load of a draft pick’s success or failure, for no good reason.
Their respective records – whilst nowhere near fully written for MacGregor yet – speak for themselves. The impact NHL players drafted by Prendergast are Ales Hemsky, Jarret Stoll, Matt Greene, Devan Dubnyk, Jussi Markkanen, Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano, Kyle Brodziak, Jeff Petry, and Theo Peckham. Hemsky was a home-run of a player at 13th overall in 2001, an absolute gem. Stoll and Brodziak are high-quality 3rd line centres, Greene a tough, quality 3rd-pairing D-man, and Cogliano a tweener who showed scoring ability in his first two NHL campaigns but has stalled since then. Markkanen was a quality backup for a short time – proving invaluable to the Oilers in their 2006 Cup run – and Dubnyk is looking to cement himself further as an NHL starter in Edmonton. Jeff Petry is a legit top-4 defenceman with top-2 potential, Peckham is a borderline NHLer struggling to regain form, and Sam Gagner is a still-surprisingly-young (23) veteran of 5 NHL seasons who consistently produces 40+ points as a borderline 2nd line centre. So, essentially you have one slam-dunk top-tier player in Hemsky, two potential high-impact players in Petry and Dubnyk, a 2nd line scoring centre (Gagner), and a respectable assortment of bottom-half-of-the-roster-but-still-useful players. Sounds ok, until you consider that that’s out of just under 70 drafted players in that time span.
The Oilers during this period gained a reputation for drafting what have become known (courtesy of LT) as “Coke Machines” – huge players with limited hockey-playing-ability. The Eddie Caron’s, Geoff Paukovich’s, Colin McDonald’s of this world just were never meant to become NHL players, but the Oilers were obsessed with getting bigger as a team so they could compete physically, all the while forgetting the importance of actually playing hockey in winning games… I do have something of a pet peeve when people seem to think that being big automatically means you should be physical, and that being physical means your a good player. It doesn’t. Nick Lidstrom was virtually never physical. Point made.
The low-point – a moment that will live in infamy for all Oiler fans – came at the 2003 draft where Edmonton, concerned at the high number of small centres they already had, opted to trade down in the first round. They selected tall playmaking centre Marc-Antoine Pouliot, and then with the 3rd round pick received from New Jersey in the trade-down, they selected Jean-Francois Jacques, a guy with the nickname “Crazy Train”. Not necessarily bad selections at the time, despite the fact neither guy turned out. The kicker for Oiler fans is that with Edmonton’s first round pick, New Jersey selected Zach Parise.
However, these selections – however bad they look right now– were made with reason at the time. The Oilers felt they needed to be bigger to compete in the NHL at that time and so, dammit, they went out and did it. The reasoning might not have been sound, but it was there. For all those that want to point to Milan Lucic as the gold standard of hulking power forwards who can play – he’s the exception, not the rule. That was a lucky shot by the Bruins, and fair play to them it worked out. He was developed properly, he got his chance and he didn’t let it go. Development. Luck. Work. That’s how you get good players out of the draft.
When Stu MacGregor took over the draft in 2008, the Oiler’s philosophy changed. Draft for skill, at least in the first three rounds. If a player happens to be both big and skilled, bonus, if not then generally speaking take the best player available. Stu’s first pick that year was Jordan Eberle, 22nd overall. That selection has earned him, again courtesy of Lowetide, the mantle of “Magnificent Bastard”. So far, so good.
Since it has only been 5 drafts for Stu, and hence only 5 years since he started working the draft table, it is not yet possible to fully evaluate all the players drafted by him. But we can look at these players and see how different they are in the overall upside they have compared to KP’s drafts – Teemu Hartikainen (crash and bang scoring winger, Top 6 potential), Magnus Paajarvi (speed-demon, top 6 scoring potential and already defensively responsible in the NHL at 21), Anton Lander (potential top-drawer 3rd/4th line centre with massive leadership reputation), Oliver Roy (5th round goalie project off to great start in pro career, a slam dunk for NHL time but unknown as to what level and how much), Tyler Pitlick (fast, crash-and-bang wing/centre with booming shot, 3rd/2nd line potential), Curtis Hamilton (big bodied, fast, skill winger with strong PK ability), Martin Marincin (huge defender – 6’6″ – with great offense and a mean streak, potential top-4 d-man), Tyler Bunz (5th round goalie project, WHL goalie of the year and projected to be even better than Olivier Roy), Oscar Klefbom (big defender with 2-way ability, top-4 potential with an outside shot at being top-2), David Musil (almost a slam dunk to be a top-6 NHL d-man, even if just on 3rd pairing – smart, big, great defense, basically Smid with better brains and less physicality), Tobias Rieder (small-ish but fast do-it-all right winger, had a monster year in junior and literally does it all – PP, PK, even strength; this guy is one to watch) and Martin Gernat (another tall – 6’5″ – Slovak defender, basically the same as Marincin but with greater offence and worse defence, projects as Top-6 d-man).
That’s 13 quality drafted players in 32 drafted players from 2008-2011 (I didn’t include 2012 as it’s far too recent to judge). Of course, not all these players will fulfill their potential, a good deal won’t, but I don’t think there was any other period in Oiler’s history when the system was packed with that many prospects you could say that many good things about.
And that’s leaving out the three 1st Overall Draft Picks – Taylor Hall (bull-in-a-china-shop scoring winger, already is driving the play at an elite level), Ryan Nugent Hopkins (playmaking first line centre, has been compared to Gretzky in his passing ability, had the best Power Play season of any player in the NHL this year, and probably the best rookie at the discipline of all time) and Nail Yakupov (the 2012 drafted Russian sniper who has an overwhelming shot combined with bullet-like speed, combined with elite passing skills and built like a tank). The quality between the two era’s just doesn’t compare!
However, I do believe completely that how a player turns out after all is said and done should not fall squarely on the shoulders of the man who drafted him. Yes, that man and his team can do all the scouting they like, but there is no way whatsoever to predict how things will ultimately turn out. I commented on LT’s article about this, and I thought it apt to post here, too:
I think people often forget how many variables there are AFTER a player is drafted. All sorts of things can happen to a player that can result in him either advancing well, or completely flaming out. Prendergast made some very suspect decisions in many drafts, while most of Stu’s picks at least have some measure of realistic usefulness as players. I was genuinely surprised when Hesketh flamed out, he seemed like a fair project to take on – taken a bit high, but had tools. But the question is, was it that he was a bad player all along, or did something happen to not take him to the next level? Personal issues, attitude, unforeseen circumstances, and perhaps most importantly player development. If the teams a drafted player is on aren’t developing said player well enough, well then said player isn’t going to stand much of a chance.
As an example, a friend of mine was something of a child prodigy in music, and great things were expected of him if he were to receive great mentorship, teaching and work hard. He worked hard, he had great teachers and mentors, but he never developed into the musical genius many thought he would be. He’s a damn good musician, and currently studying jazz at Trinity College In London, so he’s not a failure in the slightest, but it just goes to show that you can’t always predict the future. Things happen, sometimes even things DON’T happen but people’s “ceilings” aren’t always where you think they are.
The Oilers can have Mike Sillinger and Billy Moores out talking to players as much as they like, they can do all the background checking and combine interviews that they like, statistical projections, scout’s experience-based projections, but at some point there is a HUGE measure of the unknown that I think we would all do well to remember when judging whether or not it was Stu’s fault if Anton Lander or Tyler Pitlick never turn into their original projections.
The same of course goes for if those picks are successful: woohoo, well done Stu for making those picks, they’ve turned out great – but lend some credit to everyone else along the way, player included, for working to make that projection reality.
LT then responded:
Chris: What a great comment, thanks for it. When I was reading it, my thoughts turned to my kids and various struggles they’ve had during school years. You have to credit the parents (my wife, in this case), the teachers (tremendous bunch) but the bottom line is that you have your own hide to pack to market. And that’s a very big thing in the development of one person.
Are you being reached? Do you care? Are you progressing? Are you what you appear to be? It’s that old Bill James quote about Mike Ivie/Pete Rose all over again.
Thanks LT. It’s exactly that with kids, whether it’s in academic work, sports, the arts, music, whatever it is – very few people can make it completely on their own, if any. Even those that are “naturally talented” still need to go out there and work to actually show it. And that’s certainly not to say that anyone who doesn’t “make it big” is a failure. It’s why I hate it, HATE it when so-and-so states, “Such-and-such is a crappy hockey player, he shouldn’t be in the NHL”… No, he isn’t a crappy hockey player, he just maybe isn’t an NHL-level hockey player, or at least is being asked to do too much. There are plenty of fantastic hockey players all over the world who aren’t NHL calibre. That guy on your rec league team who you say is a really good player? Exactly.
As much as I enjoy the work being done on stats – and I absolutely love it, despite never being what you’d call a stats guy in the slightest back in school – there is always a human element, and that includes the unpredictable nature of being a human. People can do unpredictable things, act in ways you didn’t think they would, perform in ways you didn’t expect (whether it’s over- or under-), perform in ways THEY didn’t expect themselves. S**t happens, basically, and no matter how well you think you know a person they can always surprise you, intentionally or otherwise, positively or otherwise.
Did anyone think Joe Juneau would be a 1.2 points per game player in his first 2-and-a-bit seasons? Did anyone think after that that he’d be a 0.56 points per game player the next 667 games of his career? Just when you think you know a guy.
Who knows whether Rob Schremp, the YouTube star who’s hobbies included playing pro hockey, would have turned into a decent NHLer (I think he would have, given the chance, just for the record), but we’ll never really know what circumstances contributed to it not happening. But don’t blame the scout who selected him for that. Scouts always have a reason for selecting the players they do, and using hindsight to critique these selections and those that made them is a somewhat unfair venture.
So many things go in to the development of not just an NHL career, but into the life anyone wishes to make for themselves. It is important to remember who made that life happen the way it did, the party-in-question included, and for better or worse.