Despite the thousands of hours I’ve spent reading about hockey prospects, my first love in terms of drafts is baseball. Unlike hockey (and football, basketball too) the baseball draft is not a televised event.
In fact back in the day baseball teams would have a conference call and select players when their turns came. Imagine the Montreal Expos selecting Bill Gullickson in the first round in 1977 and then waiting on the phone until their next turn. They took Greg Staffon, then got lucky again with Scott Sanderson who was a nice pitcher (as was Gullickson). I’m sure they liked Tim Raines but it took until the 5th round (106 overall) before the name of the most brilliant of all Expos was welcomed to the fold.
Baseball procurement is less of an exact science than hockey (although you should always draft a college man if all things are equal and it’s best to avoid pitchers in the first two rounds–they break too easily. I have no proof but it’s also true that most of the great third basemen in history were actually shortstops in high school and college) but the pool is absolutely enormous (or it was when baseball mattered).
Hockey has some advantages over baseball because the baseball coverage map is truly global. There are guys throwing off mounds under cover in Sherwood Park right now who may get drafted, and there are boys playing so far inside Mexico you can only get there by ass (which explains why the Yankees do well there).
I don’t like the way anyone tracks prospects. Let’s take as an example Hockey’s Future. They give a player both a number and a letter to represent their abilities and the changes said player will deliver. A “10” would be Ovechkin and a “1” is a fringe guy at the lower levels of the minor leagues (let’s use Glenn Fisher as an example). The letter tells us that the chances are that the player will deliver, “A” being Ovechkin and “D” being Rob Schremp (that’s Hockey’s Future’s number).
Let’s use Rob Schremp as an example, since he’s not often mentioned and could use the publicity. HF lists Schremp as an 8.0D, so let’s see what they mean according to their template:
- 8.0: players with definite skill that might be just a cut below elite status, but still possessing All-Star potential. Think Patrik Elias, Keith Tkachuk, Mattias Ohlund, Adam Foote, Sean Burke, Olaf Kolzig.
- D: Unlikely to reach potential, could drop 3 ratings – a player who has a chance to reach his potential but is unlikely to do so. The potential rating is multiplied by 70 percent for depth chart purposes, indicating that the player’s potential is extremely fluid.
This is a pure cut and paste from their site, so please don’t ask me to explain specific things like “extremely fluid” (as a parent it brings back memories of things that happen at 3am when your children are little). HF is a terrific fan site and I’ve learned a tremendous amount over the years from its posters. I do want to say that the rating system tries to do too much. If we take Schremp as the example, we can safely say HF thinks he might be the next Patrik Elias but it’s unlikely and in that case he might be a 5 and that would make him a 4th line forward (which is sort of what he is today).
Predictable is a word we can apply to the Hockey News. They basically list all of the first rounders from recent seasons and add them into the mix with those closest to graduating and you pretty much have the Top 10 for each Future Watch.
What then, IS good for prospect evaluation? Well, McKeen’s does a nice job of describing a player’s strengths but I’ve always felt the best way to see how talent is developing is to track it from one level to another. If it takes two seasons in the AHL to find your way into the NHL, well that’s a tell. Right? If you get to the NHL at 19 well then that’s a tell too.
Let’s start by making a simple 10-slot rating system that asks only where the player is currently.
- Player of unknown quality
- Entry level junior/college player (Mark Pysyk)
- Fringe level junior/college/2nd div Euro player (William Quist)
- Regular in junior/college/2nd div Euro player (Phillippe Cornett)
- Quality junior/college/2nd div Euro player (Alex Plante)
- Impact junior/college/2nd div Euro player (Jordan Eberle)
- Minor League/Elite Euro league Depth Player (Johan Motin)
- Minor League/Elite Euro league Regular (Rob Schremp)
- Quality Minor/Elite Euro league Player (Linus Omark)
- NHL Fringe Player (Liam Reddox)
- NHL Role Player (Marc Pouliot)
- NHL Regular (Ethan Moreau)
- Above Average NHL Player (Ales Hemsky)
- Impact NHL Player (Jarome Iginla)
Pretty simple stuff, Bill James used to have an 18-element list with the top player being MVP at #18. It doesn’t really matter but they should be easily recognizable to a fan. In this case I’ve used Oilers prospects and Jarome Iginla.
Let’s rank a bunch of first round picks at age 17:
- 6(impact jr): Hemsky, Gagner
- 5(quality jr): Pouliot, Dubnyk, Schremp, Cogliano, Eberle
- 4(regular in jr): Plante, Nash
Okay, that’s all the first rounders since 2001 (except Niinimaki who screws up the ranking as he’s a 7 by this measure–SM-LIIGA fringe player). You can quibble with some of the rankings but the idea is we can see that the Oilers got lucky in 2001 when drafting a kid who was romping through the Q at 17 (1.47ppg) and got another top flight talent with a much higher pick (Gagner’s ppg was 2.23 in the O). The 5’s in this are all interesting players but none are on the same level (Jordan Eberle’s ppg is in the range with Schremp and Pouliot).
Now, let’s look at these players at age 19 (with Eberle obviously not in the picture):
- 11(NHL role player): Hemsky, Gagner
- 6(impact jr/coll): Pouliot, Schremp, Cogliano
- 5(quality jr): Dubnyk, Nash
- 4(regular in jr): Plante
So, two seasons later and the the top two players from the previous slotting are in the NHL. All the 5’s have graduated to 6’s save for Dubnyk who ran in place for his junior career. Nash moves up and Plante stays the same (I welcome input on this but he appears to be the #4 dman on a junior team).
Finally, let’s follow through to age 21. We’re going to lose Gagner, Nash and Plante this time:
- 12 (NHL regular): Hemsky, Cogliano
- 10 (NHL fringe player): Pouliot
- 8 (Minor League Regular): Schremp, Dubnyk
By age 21 we’ve got a really nice view of the player. If they’re not in the NHL it could be awhile. We see Cogliano made very nice progress and honestly his college time may not be well reflected here (possibly his college season at 19 deserved a better number). Either way, Cogliano is the only player who was ranked below “impact junior/college player” at age 17 who has made the show with enough torque to imply he’ll be more than a role player. This might be a tell on Jordan Eberle’s future and something to keep in mind moving forward with this player.
If you’re going to waste as much time as I have looking at these kids and tracking their progress, for God’s sakes bring some logic and good sense to it. And if you do create a better mousetrap, pass it along.
I’ve often thought a dollar value (seriously) from $1 to $100 for prospects might work, maybe add a letter to reflect the likelihood.