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.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting piece, Aaron. A couple of suggestions though to clean up your data sets a bit. Firstly, I'd consider trimming some of the most recent years. It's pretty rare for a player to make an impact before they're about 22 (and this is increasingly true of guys who are picked later in the draft.) When doing this sort of analysis, I prefer to start at about 2008 or so.

    Also, if you want to compare apples to apples (ex. How good are the Leafs at drafting relative to the Penguins?) I'd suggest putting in some controls. Over the period you chose to look at, the Leafs didn't have nearly the calibre of pick that these other teams did. I think you'll find that if you control for draft slot, that the Leafs actually have a reasonably strong record at the draft (2004 in particular stands out with Tlusty, Kulemin, Reimer, Holzer, Stalberg, and Komarov all having played in the NHL.) I suppose what I'd suggest is looking at 'impact selections per pick' and controlling for round (I'd probably take it a step further and control for draft slot in the first round -- the Leafs have never even had a chance to draft a player of Crosby or Malkin's calibre.)

    This piece is a good first step in understanding 1) how the Leafs draft from a positional standpoint, and 2) how they've actually fared at the draft. I'll look forward to your future work. Cheers