February 21 2014 02:00PM
(courtesy Elite Prospects)
It's no secret that drafting well is really tough. There's a lot of teams competing for a finite amount of young players, and at times it seems as if the amount of information out there about NHL Draft prospects is so chaotic to be entirely fruitful. To be honest, that's why I've always been really interested in learning about how teams draft and what goes into it.
In recent years, a lot of the discourse about drafting and player evaluation has been surrounding advanced (or "fancy") statistics. Are they useful? Are they junk? Are they somewhere in the middle?
After bumping into him at the CHL Top Prospects game last month, I had the opportunity to chat with Craig Button about this very topic. Button has a pretty long hockey resume - he was a scout with the Minnesota North Stars before they moved to Dallas, where he became head scout and got a Stanley Cup ring. He later served as Calgary Flames general manager between 2000 and 2003 and, after a brief stint with the Leafs, he moved into his current gig as the NHL Draft prospects guru for TSN.
When asked about the whole "fancy stats" versus scouting debate, he noted that both are a means of providing insight on a hockey player.
"There's no absolutes with either approach," said Button. "What you're trying to do is get to a more complete picture on a player. Now, watching that player, looking over video on that player, assessing statistics on that player, assessing historical data on those types of players, you use all of those to try to get as full a picture as you can on a player. But to suggest that one is not useful or that one is way more useful, I don't think that puts you into the frame of completing the puzzle."
I've seen quite a bit of the Calgary Hitmen this year, and one guy that's impressed me quite a bit is Ben Thomas. As he's a blue-liner that doesn't score a heck of a lot (25 points in 61 games), a statistical approach may undervalue a guy like him - or even a guy like teammate Travis Sanheim. Button noted that it depends what you want to measure and how you measure it.
"It depends what stats you're going to assess," said Button. "There's a lot of different ways to look at a player, so to me, a guy like Ben Thomas, you might say, okay we're going to go to the game and let's say you're watching video. So you're watching video and you're going to track now how many times he handles the puck in a game, how many times he's forced to make a play under pressure, how many times he makes a good play with the puck, how many times he might be challenged. So then you take those stats and you say 'Well geez, this is a pretty good player, I've watched tape on this other guy with better goals, assists, points, whatnot, he doesn't make as good a decision, based on whatever stat you're looking at.' It's not about just looking at a stats sheet, it's about what do you value in a player."
In other words, if you value decision-making (or anything else, really), you can essentially create your own statistics that measure that. It's a bit subjective - and it may be a case of having one scout or video guy do a bunch of work so that you're always measuring the same thing - but it can provide a comparator of different players along the same lines. If you want your forwards to have good zone entries or your defensemen to have a good first pass or something similar, you can count that and measure it.
"[For] defensemen, for me, I use the term 'touch,'" shared Button. "I want to know how many touches a guy has with the puck. And i'm not talking about just touching the puck, I'm talking he has the puck on his stick, he has to make a play – what's he confronted with, and what kind of play does he make? Very different kind of stat that you're assessing than just a goal or an assist or shot on the radar gun. So I think that all teams at various levels look at this in the context of their own evaluations and their own criteria. That's just what I value, and I think one of the biggest things that you have to keep in mind is what does an organization value?"
Especially in drafts with little consensus on the top players, like in 2012, there's a ton of variation between teams and between scouting services in terms of pre-draft prospect rankings. In the context of evaluation, a lot of that variation can be explained through the lens of different individuals and organizations valuing different attributes.
"There's no question, and everybody has a bias," said Button. "I think one of the main things you have to recognize is what your bias is. A bias isn't a negative, it's just understanding the one team may value skating more than size. Another team may value size more importantly than skating. It all depends on what you're valuing."
One peculiarity in drafting that can be seen throughout recent Flames history, but also throughout the league, is a great variation in success rates in terms of guys transitioning from the lower levels to the NHL. Button noted that many factors may play into this, including the importance of player development, but it's not like the NHL teams are picking guys that were bad in the lower levels and hoping they'll be better as pros.
"When the the NHL starts to draft players, the NHL teams start to draft players, the guys that ultimately don't make it, they were all the best players at their previous levels," said Button. "The NHL doesn't draft players that are four-goal scorers and say 'We're projecting him to be a 50-goal scorer.' They draft 50 goal scorers. And then that guy, for various reasons, somehow doesn't make it. That's what I find very interesting in terms of draft discussion."
This year's NHL Draft will feature 29 guys picked in the first round - the Devils don't have a first rounder due to the Ilya Kovalchuk cap circumvention penalty. Button predicts roughly nine of the guys picked, for various reasons, will fail to have a significant NHL career. A similar situation unfolds in roughly every first round of the draft - a good chunk of the highly-touted, highly-anticipated NHL picks simply won't pan out.
"The NHL teams are not drafting players because they don't like them," said Button. "In fact, they really like these players and they're really enthusiastic about getting them. When you draft a guy in the first round, you're going to sign him and you're going to put lots of effort into developing them, but it doesn't change the reality."
Thanks again to Craig for taking the time to chat. Be sure to follow him on
, as he usually has some insights as we head into NHL Draft season.