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.
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.