The Prospect Pyramid: A Response

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While my typing fingers were silent last week, I did spend a little bit of time reading the blogs to see what everybody was up to. One of the articles that came across my eyes was on our very own TheLeafsNation.com, written by our pal and Senior Vice-Present of Loud Noises, Steve “Dangle” Glynn. In it, he proposed something called a “Prospect Pyramid“.

First off, it was neat to see Steve turn to written words on this platform; something we haven’t often seen since the days where Dave Nonis was the Leafs GM and our editors had noted girlfriends. But the idea was intriguing; a counter to the prospect rankings so many blogs use, published just before we concluded our own series.

Steve’s argument can be simplified as such:

  • Prospect Rankings make for plentiful content, which is why platforms do them
  • They also make for excessive arguments over minuscule differences
  • Arguments can be eliminated by sorting prospect pools into a tiered pyramid, which separates certain players from the pack while lumping others who are at similar levels together.

It’s a noble effort, and I get where Steve is trying to get at. Micro-analyzing things can be frustrating at the fan level, and this allows for a bit more wiggle room. But I don’t know if it’s enough room to make the difference that it sets out to.

The reality here is that Steve’s pyramid doesn’t eradicate available arguments, it just adds to them.

Chandeliers inside the pyramids

  • How exactly are we deciding who should be eligible and who shouldn’t be? Josh Leivo is ineligible Steve’s pyramid because he’s made cameos in a couple NHL seasons and has amassed some experience. Kerby Rychel is in despite playing more games last year than Leivo has played ever. Justin Holl isn’t out because he’s 24 and about to be an NCAA Senior + 2 player. Zach Hyman is in, despite being 24 and an NCAA Senior + 2 player with NHL games played. Nikita Zaitsev isn’t in because he’s a sure-fire NHLer this year, but that doesn’t apply to the Big 3, where Marner is the only one who even has a slight question attached to him.
  • Why does the pyramid have exactly five tiers? There’s no explanation as to what each tier was, just that they exist. I presume Steve starts a new group whenever he feels there’s a pocket that is noticeably better and cuts to “the field” after 25 players. My end result involved 12 tiers (I didn’t cut off at “the field”) and by player 25 I was in Tier 9. Where’s the line?
  • Most importantly; even if everyone uses the same model, your results are going to be much different.

For the sake of making this argument, I scrapped my own chart and built a pyramid in Steve’s 1-2-4-9-9-Field shape (nobody said drawing triangles was easy), and stacked it next to his. Here’s what it looks like:

pyramids

Like I said, I personally don’t feel that my pyramid accurately represents the tiers of the organization; I had to break up or combine certain “Jeff tiers” into pieces to properly fill the “Steve Tiers”. But what’s more important here is that an argument-suppressing format still has a lot of differences.

  • Steve has Kasperi Kapanen in Tier 3. I have him in Tier 4.
  • Steve has Brendan Leipsic in Tier 4. I have him in Tier 3.
  • Steve has Tobias Lindberg in Tier 4. I have him in “the field”
  • Steve has Zach Hyman in Tier 4. I had him in Tier 5.
  • Steve has Yegor Korshkov in Tier 5. I had him in Tier 4.
  • Steve has Adam Brooks in Tier 5. I had him in Tier 3.
  • Steve has JD Greenway and JJ Piccinich in Tier 5. I have them in “the field”.
  • I have Pierre Engvall, Vladimir Bobylev, and Jack Walker in Tier 5. Steve has them in “the field”.

Of 25 players on our pyramids, that’s 11 that we have in distinctly different tiers. Possibly more; I didn’t include Trevor Moore because I wasn’t sure if Steve had him in mind while making the rankings; if he left him out with intent, I’d knock Nielsen down to Tier 5 and Loov into the field, making 14 positions of disagreement, or over half the list. We’d also disagree on how to formulate the list, and who is on the list.

Again, the intentions of the format are good; but rather than solve problems, it just creates new ones.

Where a Pyramid is useful

I don’t think that a tiered system is without merit, to be fair. The most practical use for it, from a writer’s standpoint, is a single-feature, casual look at the organization where you aren’t looking to say a heck of a lot. A situation where you want to acknowledge that you’re aware that these guys exist, and are generally aware of what they do with their lives, but you can’t commit to outlining every fine deal.

So it’s no shock that Steve is the one who is sold on the idea. That’s not at all a knock on him; it’s just something that best fits his own format of easy-to-consume content that doesn’t stretch into longer projects (does a full season of LFRs count as a project?). He has to get a point across in ten minutes or less (the associated video, coincidentally, is 10 seconds shorter than Frank Ocean’s ambitious concept track ‘Pyramids’), spend a bunch of time editing it, publish it, and switch to a new subject for the next video (or work on one of his eighty-bazillion other things). Our prospect rankings, on the other hand, are a month long project spanning eight writers and 50,000 words. This gets the general point across quicker, and while it’s not as thorough, for many it’s worth the opportunity cost of getting the basics covered.

Why rankings reign supreme

As Steve admits very early in the video, there’s a lot to be gained from the time investment of reading through list projects like ours and Pension Plan Puppets’ Top 25 under 25 (which still has four more spots to go; I’m betting on Steven Stamkos or Anatoly Golyshev at #1). When you break down rankings into a couple of dozen posts, you absorb not just an opinion of where a player stands, but information on what they’re about.

Our posts on TLN, for example, included everything from contextualization of box score stats, to projection analytics, to video, to back stories, to a look into what the player’s individual future holds. You can’t go into all of that detail for every prospect in one shot without having the info go out of your brain as fast as it goes in; it’s the same reason none of us remembers much about the books we did all-nighter reports for in high school. You either get bored or look away or get lost in a train of words.

But as long as you consume them at your own pace, these profiles, whether you agree with the order or not, give even the most casual level fan an understanding of players they’ll see in the NHL in a few years. That’s the real end game here; the rankings are mostly to set the order (and a little bit for hindsight bragging rights).

I also believe that once you get a big enough crowd of people, a consensus ranking will sort itself out reasonably well. We had eight writers with drastically different approaches to grading the system and much different opinions, but there were very few “50/50” moments in the final rankings once we put everything together. The same goes for the fan vote; we had nearly 400 responses, and next to no margin-of-error decisions. 

The levels of variance are hurdles at an individual level; especially if you’re the one who has to decide the rankings. But that just acts as encouragement to scrub through more data, watch more video, and talk to more people, and learn more about the players so you can pass those thoughts on to others. I had players who took huge leaps and falls from my first draft to my final decision, and that came simply from doing due diligence on them. Do I think I’m going to bat 1.000 on my list? Probably not; great players can be ruined by injuries, underwhelming kids can take huge steps with things as simple as a skating pattern change. But the decision-making process can be as educating as it is predictive, which is why I feel that going one-by-one, while the most difficult approach, is the best option for both writers and readers.

Conclusion

I feel like Steve set out to solve a problem with his Pyramid and managed to solve a different one instead. If the goal was to get rid of the “this guy should be placed here” arguments, which is what the text and the video implies, it completely and totally misses the mark based on the level of variance that there is in people’s player evaluation, and the fact that there are no set rules to the pyramid.

The problem it solves, though, is creating an easy to consume baseline for an organizational depth chart. We used to have HockeysFuture’s upside number, probability letter system and table presentation for that, but with their site no longer being updated for present and future draft classes, a tiered system is something non-proprietary that hockey journalism platforms can easily adopt to give a first glance at an organization. It gives you a general idea of who to be excited for and who to not worry about for now without having to comb through a ton of information. 

Think of it like the Pharoahs; the best way to learn about them is to read encyclopedias and go to museums, but for those who just want a reminder of their place in the world, you head to Egypt and look at, well…

  • Gary Empey

    I don’t think that steve was against the in depth analysis. In fact he states that he loves the in depth look at prospects. I don’t the pyramid excludes such articles either. You could still do a pyramid style ranking and do the same level of analysis and individual articles with each player, but just assign them tiers instead of ranks. Also Steve has criteria for assigning players to the same tier. Basically, are these players hard enough to distinguish as prospects that the distinctions slip almost into meaninglessness when we get down to them?

    Of course there will be differences of opinion. Clearly you think there is a similarity in prospect quality between Adam Brooks and Connor Brown that Steve doesn’t see. So the pyramid isn’t perfect. But it certainly gets rid of the more petty arguments over individual rankings (Marner vs Nylander, Hyman vs Soshnikov, etc.). The arguments that do arise become more meaningful. The argument no longer becomes if Soshnikov warrants a spot 3 places higher than Hyman. It becomes about if Soshnikov is a different kind of prospect. If he has a higher level of success or upside that you don’t associate with Hyman. The tiers better describe the difference between Nylander and Soshnikovs prospect status then does an 8 rank difference.

    The difference I have described between the systems might seem trivial but I think that is because of Toronto’s system. Toronto has extraordinary depth and quality in its system so that there is a nice smooth gradient in prospect quality. The relative positions between rankings mean more in the Leafs system for this reason. The difference between Marner and Hyman marks a big difference. But in systems which are not as robust Toronto’s then the number ranking system becomes much worse and separating prospect quality. If a team with an awful prospect pipeline drafts a blue chip prospect, you might get a situation in which a player like Mitch Marner is no. 1 and a player like Zach Hyman is no.2 or 3. On it’s own the ranking system doesn’t tell us much other than one prospect is better than another. But that doesn’t necessarily tell us much. Tiers, whether arranged pyramid-wise or not, tell us something about the prospect, and the overall system.

  • Harte of a Lion

    I think both the pyramid and the list system have their merits. In past years, I always enjoyed both websites’ takes on who the Leafs’ prospects were, where they were ranked, getting more in-depth knowledge of each prospect. This year? I read the first few articles from each site and eventually realized that I no longer cared that much. When Steve published his video, I gave a strong, resounding “YES!!”

    I think the reason for my apathy towards the ranked list comes from the sheer amount of depth currently in the Leafs’ organization. With so many good prospects in the system, it’s no longer important to me who’s better than who, so grouping them together into tiers makes so much more sense.

    In past years, when the Leafs were near the bottom of the league in terms of the health of their farm system, a ranked system was more valuable. Back then, the Leafs had no tier-1 and tier-2 prospects, and a player who currently wouldn’t even rank in the top-20 may have even made the top-10. As Corey Pronman noted in his recent organizational rankings, the Leafs currently have 20 players who would have ranked in most teams’ top-10s. The more prospects there are, the less of a gap there is between them, the harder it is to rank them. The less there are, the clearer the divides become.

    Personally, I’m just enjoying this period of having a top-ranked prospect system while it lasts. Who ranks where, and why, is unimportant to me.

  • Harte of a Lion

    I for one see merits in both although for myself, the more information and opinions available the better. Even Mike Augello who simplifies things even more… “Rather than assigning a letter grade or ranking the Toronto organization’s young players, Leafs prospects will be placed in three categories” with his Challengers, Contenders, Cornerstones grading. It’s simplified to bare bones. I need more than 70-100 words and basically a pass fail grade.

    TLN, keep up the great work, I didn’t agree with some of your placements however the quality and quantity of information was fantastic.

  • Harte of a Lion

    Listed or Tiered groupings both have their benefits and pit falls.

    Generally a listed breakdown of top prospects is usually subjective thoughts of a writer based on their opinion. Sure there’ll be disagreements of points of view and where to place a player… but I always find it interesting how people’s thoughts compare to mine. And I admit in some cases logic/common sense reigns and my point of view changed.

    Steve Dangle’s point I feel was to try and REDUCE tension with fans, not eliminate it. Grouping prospects into tiers in fact would reduce some tension, however there’ll still be arguments on which tier to put a prospect.

    I agree with the writer Jeff Veillette that each Tier should have a category to explain why we’re grouping that player.

    If I said the first tier was players that are the FUTURE CORE PLAYERS of the team. Most people will have 4 people: Mathews, Marner, Nylander and Zaitsev. Chances are the argument will be minimal, and most fans would agree.

    The problem I have with prospects reviews is that the player is judged purely on their skills, not on how that player will or could benefit the Leafs. Is there a need for that type of player on the current or future roster. For example: Leipsic is a small skilled forward who is one of many (dime a dozen) in the Leafs prospect pool. Then you have a prospect like Vladimir Bobylev, who has size, skates well, a sandpaper game and offensive upside. Bobylev is not as talented as Leipsic (skill wise) but I can make a argument where the Leafs need him more.

    To me putting a team together is about balance with various skills, hockey IQ, and yes size. Currently the Leafs many under 6’0″ skilled forwards. All these players are not going to get their chance with the Leafs.

    Anyway it would be interesting to see somebody write a prospect tiered system review and document all the tiers and why he/she has grouped them that way. You can group them by most talented non core player, by position, by team needs etc.

  • Gary Empey

    I rarely comment on the prospect ranking. If you are being honest, goals and assist stats, are what you are really using to grade the prospects. If a prospect plays a solid defensive game he will relegated to the bottom of the field.

    Jeff wants to know what criteria Steve is using to create his tiers.

    At lot of us would like to know what criteria TLN is really using to grade prospects.

    Example: Yesterday Ryan Hobart stated his criteria for rating Nylander over Marner.
    Personally I enjoyed the article, even though most commenters tore his logic to shreds.

    There is room for both tier and individual rankings but lets not forget we are trying to speculate on how our prospects will preform at the NHL level.

  • Gary Empey

    In any and all human arguments, there’s no such thing as right or wrong so if you want to talk about tiers, then just do it.

    Don’t do it because you think it’s “right” and the other way is “wrong”.

    With this post we’re getting deeper into the exact thing the vein the original post was written in, which was simply to get away arguing about the nitty gritty.

    It’s all just random Canadians I don’t know talking about ice hockey and the only reason I read is because I’m some random Canadian that loves hockey (and of course, the Leafs), too.

  • Harte of a Lion

    Let us pay respect to the father of the pyramid system none other than hall of famer, all star, leaf coach, Red Kelly.

    Mr. Empey I’m sure you will appreciate my comment.

  • Gary Empey

    Red Kelly promoted pyramid power amongst his players to counter the Philadelphia Flyers’ use of Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America.”

    He hung a plastic model of a pyramid in the team’s clubhouse after a pair of away defeats to start the series. The players embraced the superstition after observing team captain Darryl Sittler first place his hockey sticks beneath the pyramid and then stand under it for exactly four minutes.

    The Maple Leafs managed to win all three of its home matches before losing the series’ decisive Game 7.