Sunday, 24 February 2013

Rielly Among Great Company: Impact Analysis of Top-10 Junior Defensemen

Recently, Curt from Blue Chip Prospects and I exchanged articles that looked into the Leafs' drafting record.  I argued that the Leafs' positional drafting strategy was undifferentiated and that draftee impact was weak. Curt, on the other hand, argued that the Leafs' drafting was quite strong, given their low bust rate and late median draft slot in the first round. As an avid reader of sports blogs, especially of those that cover the Maple Leafs, I respect and appreciate Curt's attention to detail and thoroughness. Also, as a rookie blogger, I welcome constructive criticism and he was kind enough to offer some feedback on my methodology.  Be sure to check out his insightful response and some cool data over at Blue Chip Prospects.

Prior to his response, Curt wrote another interesting piece on positional draft analysis by round and tweeted about Morgan Rielly's impressive performance, including a game-winner against Prince Albert on February 16th. In a nutshell, the article showed that, at least in the first three rounds of the draft, defensemen typically have a lower bust rate and a higher impact rate than forwards.

The tweet on Morgan Rielly and the article got me asking, if I had to pick a defenseman in the upcoming draft, where would I look?

Given that I'm not a pro-scout, I decided to apply the same criteria Curt used (All-Star, Impact, Replacement, Bust) and began my search with the top-10 defensemen in scoring across the OHL, WHL, and QMJHL, from 1999-2008. Once again, this analysis would have benefited from some added flexibility. Players like Seabrook (Stanley Cup and Olympic gold) and Pietrangelo (2011 2nd-Team All-Star) were relegated to the "Impact" category as they were not "All-Stars", per se, but an argument could be made for both. In any event, the following charts represent the the number and percentage of players who fall into the aforementioned buckets.

The OHL stands out as producing the highest number (19) and percentage (28.8%) of Impact+ players, and the lowest bust rate (54.5%). Also, from 1999 to 2008, there have been 66 unique defensemen in the top-10 of scoring. This means that no one player was double-counted if he was a top-10 scorer in multiple years. Some notable graduates include Drew Doughty, Alex Pietrangelo, Mark Giordano, Michael Del Zotto, and P.K. Subban.

The WHL stands out with the highest number (5) and percentage (7.8%) of All-Stars. As a whole, there were 10 Impact+ players, or 15.6% of all 64 unique defensemen from 1999 to 2008.  Furthermore, the bust rate for top-10 WHL defensemen was 68.8%. Some notable graduates include Alexander Edler, Dion Phaneuf, Mike Green, Brent Seabrook, Josh Gorges, and Cody Franson.
The QMJHL also boasts 10 Impact+ players, including 2 All-Stars (2.8%). However, given that there were 71 unique defensemen in the top-10 of scoring, the "Q" lags the other two leagues in absolute and percentage terms. Also, the 81.7% bust rate is significantly higher than the other two. Some notable graduates include Kris Letang, Keith Yandle, Zybnek Michalek, Francois Beauchemin, and Johnny Oduya.

So, if we revisit my initial question on where to draft, it appears that the OHL may be the place to look. Obviously, other factors like international experience, size, translatable skills, and skating play a huge role in the overall player evaluation.

As of the writing of this article, Morgan Rielly is sitting in 5th place in scoring among defensemen, and Leaf fans should be ecstatic to have such a highly-touted prospect in the pipeline. I honestly can't remember the last time I've been this excited about a prospect. Now, the above data should not be used as a means to handicap the probability or likelihood of Rielly succeeding at the NHL level. However, what it does tell us is that Rielly is among good company.

Stay tuned for the next piece where we will cover the top-10 forwards from each league... 

Friday, 15 February 2013

Burke Was Right, and Wrong

A little over a month ago, Brian Burke was fired as GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs and it was arguably one of the most well-covered and talked about events surrounding the team in recent memory - a sad fact indeed. Media and experts where quick to assess the wreckage and perform their respective autopsies - how could they not? Brian Burke was a larger-than-life general manager and only his blockbuster trades rivaled his bombastic proclamations. Content with simply observing what others had to say about Burke's tenure, I was compelled to reflect on some of his most memorable soundbites, namely "I build teams from the net out..." and "Pittsburgh model, my ass...".

Brian Burke - truculent till the end
Photo courtesy of Global Toronto
Prior to the Leafs most recent 4-game win streak, the post-Burke life-cycle stage of the Leafs was debated and there are two main opinions. First, some argue that Nonis should trade for Luongo and push for the playoffs, and second, there is a contingent of fans who are of the "Tank Nation" persuasion, citing Seth Jones or Nathan MacKinnon as reason enough to "mail-in" the season.  I'll admit, I was conflicted as to whether I wanted the Leafs to tank. The possibility of adding an organizational gem like Jones or MacKinnon should have every fan salivating. But, as a former athlete, I couldn't fathom giving less than 100% effort as it defies the very nature of your being.

So, if tanking for a high draft pick was never an option for Burke, as demonstrated by his contempt for the Pittsburgh "model", then drafting well and identifying talent become imperatives for the Leafs. Combine this with the "net out" development philosophy, I wondered whether the Leafs' draft selections and performance reflected Burke's public statements.

The following graphic represents the positional breakdown of draftees for Northeast Division teams and the Pittsburgh Penguins, since 2005.

Before stating my observations, I think it's important to list some limitations in extrapolating sweeping conclusions based on how a team has drafted and how those draftees have performed. Drafting represents only a portion of a team's influx of talent and is a component of a larger strategy (trades, signings, etc.) for building a team. A team's developmental process also plays a big part in the future success of draftees. Unfortunately, as an outsider, a team's development strategy is hard to observe but if I were in a management position, development would certainly factor into the evaluation.  

However, the whole purpose of drafting is to identify and select potentially impactful players. So, how does Toronto compare to the rest of the division and Pittsburgh?
  • Toronto places 5th, 4th, and 5th in goalies, defensemen, and centers drafted, respectively
  • Buffalo and Pittsburgh appear to have similar positional drafting strategies
  • Boston, Buffalo, and Ottawa all appear to have differentiated positional drafting strategies
Burke's influence on the data covers half of the sample of drafts, so he has had a chance to leave his mark on the team. As far as building his teams "from the net out", the Leafs have not drafted like it: 5th in goalies drafted (7%), 4th in defensemen drafted (37%), and 5th in centers drafted (22%). Juxtapose this with today's high-demand for goalies, defensemen, and centers, it comes as no surprise that the Leafs have had little success since the 2004 lockout. Building from the net out, my ass.

Another interesting observation, I believe, is the similarity between Buffalo and Pittsburgh. Granted, Buffalo has not had the "luxury" - and I say this lightly, as the rest of the blog will show - of drafting generational superstars like Crosby and Malkin. But, in terms of positional drafting, both teams are quite similar. Therefore, there doesn't appear to be anything particularly unique about how Pittsburgh has drafted. "Pittsburgh model, my ass", indeed.

In other words, from a drafting perspective, Burke was right and wrong. Wrong about drafting from the net-out. Right about the "Pittsburgh model". 

On the other hand, knowing whether Burke was right, or wrong, doesn't inform my opinion on whether I want the Leafs to tank or not. Many analysts describe the upcoming 2013 draft as containing a deep pool of talent. There are many ways to measure a successful draft, such as number of games played or goals/points scored by the draftee. Firstly, I decided to measure success by looking into the average draftees as a percentage of a team's top-10 and top-5 scorers.

Three points are worth highlighting:
  • In both cases, Toronto is mediocre, at best, in terms of draftee impact on team scoring
  • Compared to our division, Pittsburgh is average in terms of draftee impact on team scoring
  • Buffalo stands out and leads the division in terms of draftee impact on team scoring
Pittsburgh's draftee impact, as odd as it seems, does not significantly outperform our division and reinforces the previous notion that there is nothing particularly exceptional about the "Pittsburgh model".  However, this is also a damning chart for Toronto and perhaps indicates some sort of weakness in our drafting.

What about the consistency of a draftee's impact on team scoring? Specifically, what average number, or percentage, of top-5 draftee scorers can we expect to be top-5 scorers again next season? The following charts give us an idea of a team's "turnover" of draftees as top-5 scorers.

Three points to outline:
  • Toronto's turnover, on an absolute (1.17) and relative (50%) basis, is pathetic - one can expect only 1.17 draftee(s) or 50% of draftees from the prior season's top-5 scorers to replicate their performance
  • Pittsburgh's turnover is notably below the Northeast Division average and is virtually the same as Montreal's
  • Ottawa and Buffalo's turnover rates stand out as having the highest average number, and percentage, of draftees who can replicate their performance the following season
Once again, Pittsburgh's drafting performance seems average, at best, when compared to our division.  More importantly, the overall performance and consistency of Toronto's draftees is abysmal compared to the other 5 teams.

The two questions I asked at the beginning of this entry were seemingly unrelated at first. In fact, you may still be wondering what Burke's public statements have to do with whether the Leafs should tank, or not. The key takeaway, I believe, is that from a drafting perspective, Burke was correct in scoffing at the "Pittsburgh model", as the Penguins seem to be average at identifying consistently impactful talent through the draft. Conversely, the Leafs do not draft with the "net out" philosophy and, development aside, draft the least consistently impactful players.

So, Burke was right, and wrong, in his proclamations.  However, drafting is clearly not one of our strengths so even if we did tank for Jones or MacKinnon, would it matter?

I leave that for you to decide.