Talking Stats and Scouting with Craig Button

(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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

the Twitter machine (@CraigJButton)

, as he usually has some insights as we head into NHL Draft season.

  • Parallex

    I always find Button really interesting to listen to. I highly recommend getting the TSN Draftcenter Podcast. It’s not very frequent (usually only once a month or so during the hockey season) but it’s quality when it’s made.

    • Parallex

      I agree. Button is a very knowledgeable guy when it comes to scouting! He is a credible analyst for sure. As a GM with the Flames I can recall he made some decent player drafts/ moves but unfortunately for him he did not recognize Martin St. Louis talent and extend his contract with the Flames and as well he gave in to local pressure to draft Brent Krahn 1st overall.

      • BurningSensation

        Button was a heartbeat away from trading Jarome for Mike Peca.

        He almost single-handedly destroyed the franchise in one move.

        I echo the reccomendation of his podcast though. It’s quite good.

        But I wouldn’t let Button within a hundred yards of a GM chair again.

  • BurningSensation

    And, Olivier Roy is really looking like a prospect all of a sudden. I knew our advanced stats boys wouldn’t like this article but the fact is that all organizations have their own things they look at and value. Corsi and Behind The Net are fun to look at when comparing players but, often not what a team really values.

    • SmellOfVictory

      I’d call myself an advanced stats guy, and I enjoyed the article. I appreciate things that can be viewed beyond advanced stats; that said, they do bring great value to the discussion.

    • SmellOfVictory

      >>Corsi and Behind The Net are fun to look at when comparing players but, often not what a team really values./quote

      ya, that’s part of the problem. you CAN ‘make up whatever stat you want and track it’ but corsi has proven very robust as a true show of skill rather than pure luck. I sincerely doubt any of the stats button is talking about have any internal validity at all

      • the forgotten man

        You don’t think analysis of decision making by a defenseman in different scenarios while having the puck has any validity but a shot from anywhere does? Just because none of the advanced stat crew are aware of what Button is talking about doesn’t mean it isn’t either tracked or valued internally by some team or teams. 50/50 puck battles are heavily valued by many coaches yet, where do they show up? Style of play a team employs dictate what stats are important to a particular team.

        • We’ve been aware of things like touches and other internally generated stats for some time clyde. Here’s the problem:

          – They are arduous to collect, aren’t published at any sort of scale and haven’t been correlated to any sort of result to prove they are predictive of success. At least, not publically. You can count anything during a game and then give it some sort of rationalizaton of why it’s important…but that doesn’t mean it has true utility or is indicative of a player’s talent.

          And because team’s don’t share their processes, we can’t vett their metrics for relaibility or validity. It wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of club have useful measures behind the curtain. It also wouldn’t surprise me, given how consistently poor some team’s decisions are, if a lot of clubs were wasting their time on nonsense.

          I’d like to add here that authority is not necessarily a proxy for intelligence or accuracy. The claim that “NHL teams do this therefore it’s right” is a fallacy.

          • ChinookArchYYC

            My point is that Many of the stats used to judge an individual player on here can lead to far more poor decisions. Who you play with, the system you play in and what your coach is asking you to do are way more important. Iginla has much better advanced stats this year. He was considered a poor alternative by many in the advanced stat community yet he is doing very well playing with better players in a better system.

          • ChinookArchYYC

            A high tide raises all boats.

            No one ever suggested Iginla was washed up or useless. The sentiment was more that he cost us more goals than he generated and was no longer able to carry the Flames single handedly on his back.

        • ChinookArchYYC

          Could you please stop pigeon-holing people with statements that start like “Just because none of the advanced stat crew are aware…”? It makes you sound like a raving ignoramus which, frankly, is a shame.

          PS. I suggest you look into something called the zone exit project.

          • RedMan

            That is actually a fair comment and I shouldn’t start off comments like that especially since I am not opposed to all advanced stats. My apologies if I offended anyone

  • the forgotten man

    OT…Featers JayBo deal is looking worse and worse with time. With Team Canada’s defensive play, JayBlow is now looking All-World. In retrospect, I think that deal sealed his fate with the Org.

    • the forgotten man

      Personally I doubt Jaybo gets the invite to team Canada if he was with the Flames. His playing partner helped a lot with is his selection. If he was with the Flames he likely would have played either with Wides or TJ neither of whom were on team Canada’s radar. If he had played with GIo then possibly. Also St L is one of the top teams in the league and we well to be nice are not.

      • ChinookArchYYC

        Although I respect your opinion you could not be further from the truth! JBo is a world class defenseman regardless of the team he plays for. The sad part is the Flames received basically a 1st round draft choice for him. Cundari and Berra are low level prospects at best and will never be long term Flames. If Poirier does not work out we basically get nothing for a top defenseman who had a year remaining on his contract. Yes I’m still whining about Ty Rattie not being part of this deal!

        No question this deal did indeed seal Feasters fate with the Flames!

        • ChinookArchYYC

          I agree that JBO is a world class defenceman but he was overlooked in 2010 at his prime and playing with a better core of defencemen than the current drop of Flames D. If he was here this year his chances would have much more difficult to make the team. I agree we did not get enough for him, but boy to I remember the fan base here blasting him on a regular basis. As for what we did get Cundari is still an AHL defenceman but I find it interesting that he is back playing in the Blues organization(although Flames property)so they must still like him. As for Berra he filled an organizational need. While he struggled early on he has improved significantly and may prove to be a useful NHL back up and we may be able to trade him down the road for other assets. Would I have like Ty Rattie absolutely but I’m not going to live in the past. Who knows maybe we pry him loss with Cammi. St L is in the hunt and have some depth at RW and are deep in their organization.

  • the forgotten man

    apply advanced stats and justify the selection of janko versus olli “f78kin” maata please. obviously someone overvalued a particular player over the logical selection.

  • the forgotten man

    Balance. It is not one or the other. Button correctly talks about the importance of evaluating all of the information. It drives me crazy when either side talks in absolutes without having a) looked at the stats to b) seen the guy play. I will say that prior to this site I was in the dark regarding advanced stats and I am amazed by how often stats guys like kent accurately predict the success of a player or team using this information. It has been enlightening.

    • RedMan

      I’m a bit mixed about these advanced stats. For two years I have been hearing “just wait the leafs are going to collapse shortly”. And after last year the excuse was if there were more games then the leafs would collapsed like so many promised.

      Will anyone own up to the limitation of advanced stats if the leafs make the playoff again? To be fair, not everyone in the stats world is dogmatic abusers of statistics as there are some very good stats users like Kent. But these stats suggest probabilities and not certainties. And the probabilities they suggest are very weak.

      But there are some just awful statisticians that use advanced stats to propagate a narrative and then come up with lame excuses that make advanced stats look weak. And if you want advanced stats to be taken seriously, then you folks need to own up to mistakes you made or clarify the limitations of advanced stats. And as importantly if you want advanced stats to be more greatly accepted then we need to take on those folks who are abusing these useful advanced stats with their snake oil sales routine on twitter and in the blogsphere. This will engage those folks that some in the advanced stats group have alienated. And don’t let a few bad seeds ruin the good work that has been done.

      • If the Leafs go on to consistently beat out their rotten posssession numbers, then they are doing something completely new in the modern NHL which is worthy of inspection and discussion. The game changes and sometimes new things are discovered as a result. But then you have to assume the Leafs are doing something revoluationary or game changing, which is probably a poor bet.

        I’m still going to bet against them myself (they have probably banked enough points to make the payoffs this year, but my guess is they drop off hard down the stretch and then struggle next season). They have only the 15th best goal differential in the league (-4), despite riding high near league high SH% and SV%. Their record is propped up by a whole bunch of things that have proven not to be sustainable in the long-run for just about every team in the league post-lock-out. On top of their percentages spike they have also won a league high 9 shoot-outs.

        Aside from that, I’d be happy to discuss any limitations or mistakes you have encountered when it comes to advacned stats.

  • the forgotten man

    Wow this is a great interview. Button is well balanced and with fancy stats. But the undertones is how ridiculous the fancy stats crowd looks. Clearly, these guys know about these fancy stats and they need to look at other factors as well. I’m tremendously impressed that Button is informed and doesn’t trash stats but says they are simply part of the picture. Now if someone would take on those annoying twitter heads saying corsi this and corsi that.

    • ChinookArchYYC

      me too, he already has 50 plus games in the show and a bronze metal all before his 20th bday. nowhere near best player in the draft territory in 10 years category mind ya.