Who’s better at drafting: Darryl Sutter, or a hat?

Darryl Sutter was simultaneously one of the best and worst general managers of the Calgary Flames. During his tenure, he took the team out of the Young Guns era and into their most successful spell since the 1980s. On the other hand, he also ignored the looming spectre of old age and unsustainability and sent the team crashing into rebuild mode.

The latter is mostly due to his drafting. If he wasn’t trading draft picks away (“fun” fact! Sutter only drafted in the second round twice during his eight years), he was wasting them. There’s the infamous 2005 and 2006 drafts, where the best selection he made was his own son (who played all of 60 NHL games). Of the 59 players he selected, only ten have player more than 100 games, and most of those ten are depth players. TJ Brodie, Dion Phaneuf, and Mikael Backlund are pretty much his only impact picks through his whole career.

It’s absolutely stunning that a man who pretty much excelled at every other aspect of his job could fail so completely at drafting. Hindsight being 20/20 and all, we can look back and say he should’ve picked this player and this other player instead of this guy or Matt Pelech. That criticism can apply to every GM though. If given the chance to repick, everyone would grab certain NHLers.

The more interesting, and more fun, way to judge the quality of Darryl Sutter’s picks is to put someone else in the exact same spot, but without any hockey knowledge, previous experience, scouting reports, statistical data, or what have you. Someone who is equally likely to take a seventh rounder in the first round as they would take a first rounder. Someone who could use all their picks on goalies. That someone is a hat.

Credit for this idea goes to Jon Bois, who originally did it at SB Nation for a post about the NFL draft. You should read all of his work because he is pretty good.

Rules of the game:

  • I lied about the hat, it is only a concept. The “hat” is actually this educational and fun children’s math website. It’s easier to call it the hat, so we are calling it the hat.
  • The hat will pick a random number that corresponds to where a player was selected in their draft year. For example, if the hat spits out 204 for the 2010 draft, the hat has selected Mauro Jorg.
  • The hat is playing with the same constraints Darryl had when drafting. The pick the Flames had is the lower limit, and the last pick was the upper limit. The hat will have the same choices Sutter did.
  • To judge who had the better draft, we are using Hockey Reference’s point shares stat. The basic explanation is the amount of standings points a player contributed over the course of his career based on his offensive and defensive contributions. Whoever the hat picks, their point shares will be added up and then compared against the total point shares (TPS) of Darryl’s drafts.
  • I ran each draft ten times through each time to cut down on flukiness one way or the other. The victor of each draft will be whoever wins out of all ten drafts by the hat, but we’ll keep the individual total as well.
  • Mickey Renaud (2007) and Dan Ryder (2005) do not count, and the hat did not make selections in their spot.
  • The full results are here, for your interest.

2003

Preliminary thoughts: With the only top ten pick of his tenure, Sutter selected Dion Phaneuf. Without looking up his point shares (I didn’t look up the actual point share stats of Darryl’s drafts until the end. It was much more fun to keep the suspense for the last bit), I felt that Phaneuf would probably be very hard to beat. The hat would need to get really lucky to get one win.

Results: I was right. Phaneuf’s point share was 76.6. Even with Tim Ramholt and Greg Moore dragging him down by -0.3, the hat was unable to pull out a single victory against 2003 Darryl. The closest it got was on the 8th run through, where the hat picked Shane O’Brien (seriously) and Brian Elliott with the last two picks. That added up to 71.7 point shares.

Victor: Sutter, 10-0

Score thus far: 10-0 Darryl

2004

Preliminary thoughts: I felt the odds were in the hat’s favour for this one. This was technically Sutter’s most successful year, having picked four NHLers. The bad news was that the best one of those four was Adam Pardy. I also knew that, because of the rules of the game, the hat would have a high chance of picking Jannik Hansen, 287th overall, with the 279th overall pick. I felt that they would at least split it, 50/50

Results: The hat won, and it only picked Jannik Hansen once with that pick (the hat also picked him in the third round in one run through). Rarely did the hat ever need a combined effort of players to beat the 2004 draft class’s total point share of 26.7. The hat was able to grab Hansen, Ryan Callahan, Troy Brouwer, and Mark Streit in different drafts. Those players were enough to win.

Victor: hat, 7-3

Score thus far: 13-7 Darryl

2005

Preliminary thoughts: I felt the hat should easily take this one. The only way it could lose was if it rolled an absolute gutterball and drafted all zeroes. Even so, it would still be very close.

Results: The hat ran roughshod over Sutter. It drafted Rich Clune in the first round and it still beat Darryl and his 0.8 TPS handily. As I said, it could only take gutterballs to beat the hat in 2005, and that happened twice. We also had one tie, which was neat.

Victor: hat, 7-2-1

Score thus far: 15-14-1 Darryl

2006

Preliminary thoughts: I don’t recall Leland Irving having one good game out of the 13 he played, so maybe he could have a negative rating. I felt the hat could pick eight players who never even got to the NHL level and still win.

Results:  Nearly a clean sweep for the hat. As it turns out, point shares are generous to goalies, as Irving had a 1.8 PS for his 13 games. The best players the hat picked were James Reimer and Mathieu Perrault and it still won nearly every run through.

Victor: hat, 8-2

Score thus far: 22-17-1 hat

2007

Preliminary thoughts: Mikael Backlund would be a tough character to beat, and with only four picks, the chances of picking an equivalent player were diminished. Darryl would retake the lead.

Results: Yup. Backlund only has 17.6 point shares to his name, but that was enough to defeat nearly every one of the hat’s drafts. It didn’t help that the hat put all its eggs in one basket by selecting David Perron, Keith Aulie, and Carl Gunnarsson in the same draft.

Victor: Sutter, 9-1

Score thus far: 26-23-1 Darryl

2008

Preliminary thoughts: TJ Brodie is also a tough character to beat. Lance Bouma could also give the hat a rough time. I felt Darryl would sweep again.

Results: The hat did win twice, once because it selected TJ Brodie. Lance Bouma was not nearly as dangerous a player as I though (4.1 PS to Brodie’s 26.9), so the job was slightly easier, but not too easy for the hat. It lost 8-2.

Victor: Sutter, 8-2

Score thus far: 34-25-1 Darryl

2009

Preliminary thoughts: The hat could make up for previous mistakes quickly in this round. Sutter picked Tim Erixon, who quickly flunked out of the league, and Joni Ortio, who can’t get an AHL job now. Just by drafting an okay player every time, the hat could be 10-0.

Results: I thought way too highly of the hat’s ability to randomly pick players. Even though Darryl’s TPS was 6.8, he won 6-4. The hat stepped up to the plate and whiffed, selecting a whole bunch of zero players often. Sutter has won the whole game by this point.

Victor: Sutter, 6-4

Score thus far: 40-29-1

2010

Preliminary thoughts: Sutter didn’t have a pick until the third round, and his picks have pretty much turned out to be AHLers by this point. Micheal Ferland could redeem him, but up to this point, his contributions probably wouldn’t be able to stop the ship from sinking. The hat’s last chance at perfection.

Results: Micheal Ferland did redeem him, because all the rest of his picks who have played an NHL game are all negative point share guys. Ferland dragged the 2010 draft class kicking and screaming (total TPS is 0.1, Ferland is 0.8) to beat the hat three times and tie it once. We’re talking a draft class that could be outmatched if your only pick of note is Scott Wedgewood.

Victor: hat, 6-3-1

Final score: 43-35-2, Darryl Sutter. Tied 4-4 in overall drafts.

Final thoughts

Drafting is a process. It takes months of scouting, watching, traveling, interviewing, and pretty much everything in between. It takes hours of meetings and gut-churning decisions. It is doing as much research as possible on as many as 300 kids and then whittling that list down to seven or eight. They do this for first round picks as well as sixth round picks. It’s something you can’t screw up.

It also takes a whole lot of dumb luck (you can’t understate the fact that most of drafting is just waiting for someone else to screw up). The common perception is that when a player turns out to be good or bad, it’s because the GMs are geniuses and morons and the scouts just know or are blind, depending on the outcome. This is true, to an extent. There are those who find and pick stars because they know they will be stars. Some just pick because they want to roll the dice and then pat themselves on the back later. 

Our hat was the latter. It rolled the dice on every pick and 34 times, it won. Sutter definitely had some bad luck drafting, but he also had tons of resources that were there to try and cut that out. The hat had never seen these players play, it can’t understand what a goal is, or how high a player’s ceiling it. The hat doesn’t understand hockey. It just spits out numbers.

(I would like to note here that, at times, it felt like the hat really, really, really wanted to fail. With 70 chances to pick first rounders, it only picked two of them. It also really liked players in the 200s. This is what Sutter was competing against in this world I created: a self-defeating children’s math website.)

Darryl Sutter had a plan. He had a team of scouts that spent their years going to hockey games and watching tapes in their spare time. He had years of experience guiding him. He had so much at his disposal when he was making those 59 picks. A hat that drafted Zack Stortini with the ninth overall pick came excruciatingly close to beating him.

  • supra steve

    Darryl beat “the Hat”, but not convincingly.

    I’m pretty sure I (or anyone with just a moderate understanding of the game) could have beat them both with a copy of The Hockey News-Draft Edition and a copy of McKenzie’s final list for each draft. And if I were in charge of moving draft picks and players, we would have had several more second rounders, and Iggy would have been moved a little sooner as well…like as soon as LA called to inquire.

    I have been VERY pleased with drafting since Darryl left though.

  • Parallex

    I’ve often wondered how often Teams/GM’s simply outsmart themselves at the draft. By which I mean assume that the GM is so lazy he doesn’t bother to hire his own scouting staff and instead just selected the highest name on the CS/ISS list how often would they be better off?

    • PrairieStew

      I’ve always wondered this too. Instead of spending money on scouts to watch 17 and 18 year olds play and guess how they’ll develop in 3-5 years, why not hire development coaches to work with the guys you’ve already drafted. Use the central scouting list and then invest in the guys that fall to you.

      Go to a rink and talk to hockey guys – there is usually a wide variety of opinions on each player – and it is pretty random in terms of how often each guy (scout) is right.

  • Longshot1977

    This is the saddest thing I have heard all week, and I watched the Hip concert.

    I can’t help but think…if we had the hat instead of Sutter, we could at least shrug and say, “hey, it’s a hat, what did you expect?”

    • supra steve

      So first rounder in 2014 was Bennett.

      Seconds were MacDonald & Hunter Smith.

      Third was Hickey.

      Sixth was Adam Ollas Mattsson.

      Seventh Austin Carroll.

      In a league where landing two future NHLers per draft is a decent return, I’m not sure that the Flames will not meet or exceeded that bar. As is always the case, time will tell.

      It’s thinking like yours that cost the Nucks the services of Cam Neely in his prime years.

      • The GREAT Walter White

        Thank you for the history lesson…..(unfortunately it was not needed as i’m very familiar with the 2014 draft) you forgot about Bollig!!!!!!

        You are subscribing to the Oilers draft strategy; pick a good player in the first round with a super high draft pick, be really proud of your selection, and mail in the rest of the draft…..

        It’s thinking like yours that gets us MacDonald when Demko is still on the board…..

        WW

        • supra steve

          Think you need to find YOUR hat WW, the New Mexico sun seems to be getting to you, affecting your judgement. Or you could come to CGY for a visit, you certainly won’t need to worry about heatstroke up here this summer.

  • Mo Rock...Monstrous

    How come Johan Franzen doesn’t have in 2004 second draft? He’d need to be around 26 points to change the outcome of that draft, but if Mark Streit is a 63.3 I gotta think its in the ballpark at the very least.

  • jupiter

    It was as if Daryl felt there was no value in scouting after the first round. Wonder if it had anything to do with his own draft. He was selected in the eleventh round and scored 40 goals in his first year in the league at 22 years old. Pretty damn good for a 179th pick.

  • KACaribou

    The stats people here can answer these questions because I have seen them here before:

    1) What percentage of 1st round picks become successful NHL players?

    2) What percentage of 2nd round picks become successful NHL players?

    Particularly 2nds, which Darryl mostly traded away, being poor odds anyway then perhaps his thinking was why not take a guaranteed NHLer rather than the poor chance I have of coming up with one in the 2nd round or beyond?

    Although it didn’t work out for the Flames, there is some merit in that thinking. I mean how many 2nd rounders and beyond actually became a Johnny Gaudreau other than Johnny Gaudreau?

    BTW Jay Feaster selected Johnny Hockey, even if he didn’t get much for dumping an aging Iggy or Bowmeester; though he did get rid of their huge salaries which also was important.

  • OKG

    If we do this again six years after 2013 (that would be 2019) for Feaster (2011/2012/2013) I think Feaster will make out like bandits. Gaudreau, Baertschi, Wotherspoon, Brossoit, Jankowski, Kulak, Granlund, Gillies, maybe even Sieloff/CUlkin, Monahan, Poirier, Klimchuk, maybe even Gilmour.

    Only real true misses in that three year span were Eric Roy (who was worth the gamble), Keegan Kanzig (who goon-lovers still believe in) and notKucherov.

    • Feaster is the anti-Sutter in a sense. Couldn’t do anything other than draft. If the rest of his picks never get to 100 NHL games, , he still drafted NHLers at a 20% rate, which is an acceptable rate. The 2011 draft could be 100% in the next two years

      • wot96

        Does anyone really think it was Feaster that drafted anyone? Full credit to him for trusting his scouting staff for picking the right players but he didn’t really draft squat. What that really says to me is that Sutter was waaaaay worse than his staff because I don’t think they suddenly got better when Feaster came in.

        • supra steve

          Feaster seems to have allowed his scouting staff to take control of the draft, and they are kicking @55. THAT is what I give him credit for.

          The previous drafting drought included Darryl’s term, but also extended back (as I see it) to the later part of the Fletcher era (and he left in 1991). Iggy and Regehr were bought, not drafted, with assets from the Fletcher era. If not for those two and that run of competitiveness that they had beginning in 2004, there may have been just one LONG dry spell.

          I envision a meeting between Feaster and Todd Button where Button demonstrated who the Flames actually drafted Vs. who Button wanted to draft (over a number of years). That meeting saved Button’s job and saved the franchise’s future.

  • Slowmo

    I often wonder about the Demko pick and wonder if they thought they had there future Goalie in Gilles and just needed a great backup?Either that or they just Made some kind of deal with Van like they must have this yr or why else wouold Van shoot them selves in the head and pass on what could very well be the Rookie of the YR 😉

  • mattyc

    I’m a little late to the party, but I have a couple constructive comments about your methodology.

    First, this has been done here with Sham Sharron and the Potato. I only mention it because the concept is very similar, as are the results, and for interest’s sake.

    Similar to the original Sham Sharron model, your methodology will over-rate the Hat’s drafting success. Given that you’re limiting your random number generator to players that were eventually drafted, the Hat essentially has post-draft knowledge of who everyone in the league would like to draft. The hat isn’t picking random players, it’s picking players at least one team in the league felt was worthy of drafting, so your artificially subsetting your population to only include drafted players.

    Having said that, it’s reassuring that the conclusions from this are similar to what we’ve seen in other similar experiments: Clearly there is some skill in drafting, but luck/chance ends up playing a large part. This is likely because 1) It’s hard to project players, and more importantly, 2)You’re competing against 29 other ‘competent’ teams of scouts.

    • the only reason the hat wasn’t allowed to select undrafted players is because it’s a whole can of beans that I didn’t want to open. Does that include all draft eligibles, including 19 and 20 year olds? Does it include all hockey players born in between those years, Canadian or Kazakhstani? it’s casting a huge net that i didn’t want to do for a thought experiment that was just for fun

      (aside: if i set the upper limit to, say, 250 and declared every pick past 210 to be an automatic zero, i still think the hat would’ve given darryl a run for his money)

  • Sol Goode

    The jury is still out on Macdonald and Demko. Most people know it takes goalies a while to blossom. Comparing a college goalie to a qmjhl goalie is pretty tough. We will see how they both do this year in the AHL. Until then, no one can really say which prospect has the more promising future.