Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Old Thoughts For New Draft

Coming up to an important draft for the Habs, I have been looking back through what's been written in the past for inspiration. In this case, I found not just inspiration but something I thought should see the light of day again in its entirety. This is something I wrote before the organization's illustrious 2009 draft. The old advice still applies, I think.

The NHL draft is 10 days away now and the previews are coming thick and fast. I've been doing some analysis and will offer a preview of what I think the Canadiens should do very soon. To start with, though, I thought I would indulge a little abstract discussion on how I think a team's scouting department should target their efforts.

Generally speaking there are two ways that teams seem to approach a draft:

1) Address specific organizational needs


2) Pick the best player available

Both are very good approaches with arguments for and against. I dissect each below.

Organizational needs

This method is the favourite of analysts. For one thing, it allows them to predict which teams will take which players. It's clearly also a very popular approach among teams.

What this tack has going for it is that when you get it right, your team can tick over as a self-contained machine. The NHL club will be stocked with players from minor league clubs which are all fed through the draft at each position. You'll always have 6 goalies, 20 odd defencemen and many more forwards in the system to keep it alimenting the major league team.

The problem with this approach is that it requires teams to draft things like defensive defencemen and third line wingers. Scouts already have enough trouble seeking out the one player that could be an offensive star one day, giving them extra briefs to fill all on the same day every year is a tough one.

Another problem is that it assumes organizational strength throughout, not only at judging new talent but also at judging the talent within. Call me crazy, but I don't think most organizations are rightly equipped to approach the draft in this way. Most teams have enough trouble picking a GM and a coach, to expect not only that but also excellent NHL level scouts, heads of amateur scouting and eyes on the local arenas is probably stretching reality.

To boot, you'll end up being called the Nashville Predators.

Best player

Those who fall under the Montreal umbrella will be accustomed to hearing the party line that is "Best player available" for a while now. Trevor Timmins in particular is a premier adherent to this school of thought.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with picking who you think is the best, but you would run the risk of overstocking at one position (say defence) while other positions (like goalie and right wing, for example) are perilously weak.

It does alleviate the problem, however, of having to know what you've got in the system. That taxing activity removed would give more time for actually assessing the new potential coming through. I do like the focus of this idea a lot.

It's not necessarily a bad thing, but this system of choosing draft picks does require a good system to build equilibrium be in place. In my experience, a good NHL team has a balance of talent. It's very rare (and probably foolhardy to go against experience) to ice 6 great defenders a decent goalie and AHL forwards and expect much silverware. Similarly, 3 top centers with no defencemen doesn't work for most. That's to say, your GM better be darn good at trading away defensive prospects for forwards if your a head scout who constantly picks defensive stalwarts from Minnesota.

If your team's track record for trading up (or even sideways) in value and bringing in good players through free agency is poor, then you'd better be looking to the draft to fill some of the other positions as well.

Which system for the Canadiens?

Having looked at the alternatives, I'm not really turned on by either. I do feel the Canadiens have a good scouting network in place they certainly seem to turn up more late round steals than an average NHL club. That said, I wouldn't want to be limited to a team built from the draft - the club still does have it share of shocking picks and misses.

It's tempting to think that the best player approach is a worthy one, but I think these last few years have shown us a few things about Timmins' and Gainey's little theory. Drafting loads of defencemen is no good at all when the GM can't flip one in a trade - it just creates a log jam where perfectly good prospects are lost into the ether (or the KHL). It has to be said that losing Emelin and Valentenko when both Mathieu Aubin might be left as the top D in Hamilton next season is criminal.

The lesson for me in all this is that defencemen are an asset, yes. But defensive projects are not, at least not in a trade. Most clubs trading away value are looking for value that will pay dividends in the relative short term - they don't want David Fischer until they see whether he's able to handle the jump to the NHL at age 25.

I think the Canadiens need a third way to approach this conundrum.

A third system

The third way is a bit different. Rather than selecting the best player, I think the Canadiens should be looking to select the best organizational asset with each pick they make.

Best asset

The first step is to be realistic about how the NHL is run. The draft is what it is, but it is not the only tool available to those building a Stanley Cup contending team. In order to fashion a team to win, a GM must also effectively use free agency, waivers and trades. In the context of all these other avenues of player acquisition, drafting recedes in importance. It is still vital, but in order to maximise your chances your overall, you need to understand what the draft is best for. Moreover, you need to understand what the draft can provide that unrestricted avenues like free agency and waivers cannot.

It's simple really, simple economics: supply and demand.

Recent history shows that the hardest things to get your hands on (from another team) are reliable scoring forwards and top-notch defencemen. Incidentally, these are also the two categories of player that will cost you the moon on July 1st - and due to taxes and other issues are probably out of Montreal's reach altogether in free agency. It follows that having these assets in the system for a possible trade will offer the best return should you want it.

By contrast, drafting and developing defensive or lower scoring forwards is something anyone can do. These players can be traded for with relative ease, signed on July 10th when the dust settles or even acquired through non-draft routes as undrafted players. In other words, one should not look at as a defensive forward or a future back-up goalie as a true organizational asset.

Swing for the fences

Another part of being realistic about the NHL is knowing that having 43 good prospects is not that much better than having 8. Trades are few and don't look to be rising, and teams with a raft of prospects often get shorted on trades because of the perception they are not giving up as much.

Knowing that you don't have to have seven draftees making it all the way to the NHL or the AHL or even the ECHL should be a relief. It's realistic. My question prior to each pick wouldn't be who has the best odds of being an NHL player, but rather who has the best odds (even if they're outside) of being the best offensive star or, if a defenceman, top defender.

A team shouldn't be using any pick, let a lone a top pick to select a player who's already called a defensive forward or defensive defenceman at the junior level. You can't criticise much in the draft, but you can criticise this.

Habs fans, how would you like to have Travis Zajac. He was picked 2 selections after Kyle Chipchura as a risky offensive prospect. He's already played 3 seasons on the New Jersey Devils and is a first/second liner with a 20-goal season by age 23. The Devils swung for the fence and the Canadiens have a forward that can play like their waiver wire pick-up Geln Metropolit (if they're lucky). Chipchura may one day have me eating my words, but Gainey could have traded Huet for him instead of that second round pick in a pinch if he liked him so much - it's just not hard to acquire the Chipchuras of this world. The Zajacs, well you tell me...

If your drafting is any good, and ours is, swinging for the fences should come off once in a while. And who knows, maybe we can replicate our Markov pick with a Datsyuk and Zetterberg of our own.

Trade picks if the math adds up

There will come times when someone comes knocking for that pick. At those times, I can only advise listening.

The Tanguay trade was a classic example of an opportunity well taken. No matter how you sliced it, the likelihood of getting a player as good as Tanguay (a scoring star – one of those rare assets) in either the first or second round of the NHL draft was slim to none. Gainey missed a chance at an organizational asset, but added an actual asset. Also, the addition of Tanguay bumped people down in the organization. Corey Locke, for example was now expendable and used in a trade for something of use to the team.

Trading picks like this is to be encouraged in my third approach, so long as the opportunity cost calculation is sound. a 25th pick for Tanguay (even for one year) is a win. Had that pick been a 10th overall, the choice gets murkier. 5th overall and it's a loser.

In sum

  1. Don't worry about organizational needs – worry about the players available

  • Don't pick the player with the best chance of being an NHLer, pick the one with a chance at being a star

  • Don't even bother picking the types of players you can easily pick up by other means (i.e., OK goalies, defensive defencemen and bottom line forwards)

  • Trade the pick if the organization gets a better asset mix from the swap

  • This is the strategy I can only hope the Canadiens look to in the future. I hope that this year will be the first of many home run swinging affairs and to that 18th pick – whether we use it to choose an amateur or to bring in a pro.

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