Michael Schuckers acknowledges he has not discovered the foolproof method of drafting future NHLers. No such solution exists.
If Schuckers had uncovered something to this degree, he would be claiming ownership not just of the pending Las Vegas franchise but all of the city’s casinos.
Instead, Schuckers, professor of statistics at St. Lawrence University, is a proponent of marginal gains. It is the approach that guided his authorship of “Draft by Numbers: Using Data and Analytics to Improve National Hockey League Player Selection.”
The paper, which Schuckers presented at the 2016 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, details Schuckers’s creation of a model that examined two clusters of players: those drafted from 1998 to 2002, and prospects taken between 2004 and 2008. Schuckers’s “Draft by Numbers” model predicted NHL performance for players drafted within each set.
Schuckers used games played and time on ice for a player’s first seven NHL years as performance benchmarks. By these metrics, Schuckers determined that his statistics-based model suggested selection orders that were more accurately aligned with future NHL results than how teams drafted within the clusters by approximately 10 percent: not a game-changing leap, but one that could expand an organization’s player pool over time.
“Drafting is a tough business,” Schuckers said. “We know only about 45 percent of players drafted make it to the NHL, much less play any sort of length. Projecting a 17-year-old when he’s 23 or 24, that’s tough. But if we can bump up the success rate by 5 or 10 percent over a five-year period, then we’re a much deeper organization.”
NHL teams are usually good about drafting the supposed sure things. Just about every scout agrees that Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine will be the first two names called at the draft this Friday in Buffalo. In 2008, Steven Stamkos, Drew Doughty, Zach Bogosian, Alex Pietrangelo, and Luke Schenn were the first five picks. In retrospect, Bogosian was an outlier, aided by his Herculean performance at that year’s combine.
But the others were no-brainers to be picked in their slots then. Eight years later, they probably went where they should have gone. It wasn’t terribly hard for scouts to determine that Stamkos and Co. were prodigies when they manhandled on-ice competition.
The exception from the 2008 first round is Erik Karlsson, who lasted until the No. 15 pick. Teams, perhaps rightly so, wondered whether the wispy Karlsson could survive nightly NHL beatings. In a do-over, Karlsson would be a top-three selection.
The eye test, however, cannot help but become blurrier upon each round. Reality prevents a team’s scouting staff — Los Angeles, for example, employs four amateur scouts — to get eyes on thousands of draft-eligible players worldwide. It’s where statistical analysis could complement and most likely improve on in-person viewings of borderline NHL talent.
In creating “Draft by Numbers,” Schuckers took three elements into consideration: NHL Central Scouting rankings, statistical performance prior to selection, and height and weight. Based on Schuckers’s model, Jason Demers was a steal for San Jose in 2008 at No. 186.
For whatever reason, Central Scouting did not list Demers among its final North American rankings. Most teams seemed to agree with Central Scouting’s consensus.
But in his draft year, the right-shot defenseman scored nine goals and 55 assists in 67 games for Victoriaville of the QMJHL. Historically, a 0.96 point-per-game pace for a defenseman in the QMJHL is a rate that should draw NHL attention.
“In the Q, a defenseman getting a point per game is a big deal,” Schuckers said. “One of the things the model says is that if you’re a defenseman and scoring lots of points, it assumes you’ve got skill and skating ability.”
“Draft by Numbers” would have classified Demers as a second-round pick. It wasn’t until the seventh round that the Sharks, led by longtime director of scouting Tim Burke, concluded Demers was worthy of selection.
As a first-year pro, Demers scored two goals and 31 assists in 78 games for Worcester, San Jose’s former AHL team. He became a full-time NHLer in 2010-11 as a 22-year-old. Demers recorded 98 points in 300 games for San Jose before the Sharks traded him and a 2016 third-rounder to Dallas for Brenden Dillon — a deal that ended up favoring the Stars.
But Demers gave the Sharks six seasons of service, which is far more than expected of a typical seventh-rounder. Demers has appeared in 423 career NHL games. Only eight defensemen taken in 2008 have played more: Doughty, Bogosian, Pietrangelo, Schenn, Tyler Myers, Karlsson, Michael Del Zotto, and John Carlson. They were all first-round picks.
“Using the example of Demers, you’ve got data on him for 67 games in the Q,” Schuckers said. “You’re utilizing the data you’ve got, not just what you’ve seen on tape or in person over three or four games. It’s something that’s given some weight in the process.”
“Draft by Numbers” is not bulletproof. Schuckers’s model would have picked Tyler Ennis in the fifth round in 2008. Schuckers also acknowledges it does not perform as well in selecting goalies compared to forwards and defensemen.
Draft data, however, is expected to improve. Shot attempts will be recorded uniformly. Player tracking, either via chips or video, is coming. Teams will have richer information to analyze than goals, assists, and save percentages, which are not always accurate representations of player performance.
These improvements could help teams illuminate what can be a shot in the dark.
END OF THE LINE?
Chicago can only subtract so much
Ron Francis is the latest general manager that Stan Bowman has made happy. On Wednesday, Chicago’s perpetual cap crisis forced Bowman to include former first-rounder Teuvo Teravainen as the dessert to say goodbye to the plate of veggies that is Bryan Bickell, the heavy left wing with an equally portly contract ($4 million annually).
Francis is the latest member of a group that includes Jarmo Kekalainen, Jim Nill, and Garth Snow. They are the respective recipients of Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya, and Nick Leddy, four ring-winners who were dismissed for their former organization to practice cap compliance.
Yet the beneficiaries of Chicago’s hedge-trimming, along with the rest of the league’s GMs, were not smiling when Bowman hoisted three of the last seven Cups. After each championship, even after his players lined up to get paid, Bowman found a way to change the roster, stay under the ceiling, and chase the Cup again.
That Bowman had to say goodbye to such talent is the cost of doing business in Chicago. Fans of the franchise confirmed their approval of Bowman’s actions at each of the three parades.
Moving Bickell’s contract should give Chicago enough breathing room to re-sign Andrew Shaw. The question is whether the Blackhawks are approaching the end of their talent pipeline. Last year, Artemi Panarin and Artem Anisimov emerged to assume some of the shifts taken by Saad and Sharp. Chicago has no such go-to forwards on the horizon for 2016-17. They also need blue-line reinforcements to take minutes away from Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Brent Seabrook. Who knows how much tread Marian Hossa will have on his tires next year?
Bowman’s been the NHL’s premier problem-solver since he replaced Dale Tallon. Even the best GMs can run short of options.
Sullivan’s role more prominent
One year ago, Mike Sullivan looked somewhat out of place when he stepped onto the United Center ice, well after Chicago’s principal actors had grown weary of lifting the Stanley Cup. As a player development coach for the Blackhawks, Sullivan played what he acknowledged was a small part in the organization’s Cup run.
A year later, the Marshfield native was one of the first revelers to tumble onto the SAP Center sheet. Sullivan’s rise in rank afforded him early entry.
Sullivan is a worthy repeat champion. Had the Penguins not sacked coach Mike Johnston and promoted Sullivan from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, it’s fair to project they would not be entering a summer of celebration. Pittsburgh was in 12th place in the Eastern Conference when Sullivan arrived. By the end, the Penguins had ripped through four formidable opponents to confirm their transformation from disappointing to great.
Sullivan saw what wasn’t working and what needed to change. In hindsight, it was one of the finest coaching jobs ever submitted in a six-month stretch. It wasn’t just that Sullivan identified Pittsburgh’s swarming speed game as his strongest asset. He convinced his players to express it.
Sullivan didn’t come across this notion when he replaced Johnston. Sullivan already was thinking this way last summer when he landed the AHL position. It was an approach Sullivan saw and appreciated during Chicago’s 2014-15 playoff run, in which he scouted upcoming opponents.
“There are a few different types of identities out there, and the teams are having success when they know what they are and play to them,” Sullivan said last August. “It’s the evolution of a team. It has to be spearheaded by the leadership group, the coaching staff, and the GM, and it has to filter through to the players. They have to believe and buy into that identity and play to it.”
Even before he retired as a player in 2002, people were talking about Sullivan as a future behind-the-bench star. He promptly landed the Providence job. He fast-tracked to the Boston position. He was considered one of the handful of Boston University alums who could replace Jack Parker.
Sullivan learned that instant results were no guarantee. Former Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli declined to retain Sullivan for 2006-07. Sullivan served three apprenticeships under John Tortorella with the Lightning, Rangers, and Canucks. He had to go down to the minors to revive his coaching career.
The Cup Sullivan lifted in San Jose last Sunday was less the result of a six-month turnaround than a lifetime of learning.
“When you have a team that plays with energy, passion, and a level of commitment and conviction,” said Sullivan, “and also plays with a certain intellect and purpose, that’s when a team is most difficult to play against.”
Geography could help the Bruins
The Bruins may not have the package of young players, prospects, and draft picks that clubs with surplus defensemen will demand. But the Bruins have one advantage that a defenseman-hungry organization such as Edmonton does not: its place in the Eastern Conference. Most of the defensemen who could be on the move are in the West, including Kevin Shattenkirk, Matt Dumba, Jacob Trouba, Hampus Lindholm or Sami Vatanen, and Dennis Wideman. Teams are wary of reinforcing conference rivals.
High expectations for Aho
The Hurricanes signed Sebastian Aho, their 2015 second-round pick, on Monday to an entry-level contract. The forward, who will be 19 in training camp, will be under consideration to play with the big club in 2016-17. Aho had 20 goals and 25 assists to lead Karpat in Finland’s SM-Liiga in 2015-16. During the World Championship, he scored three goals and four assists in 10 games as Finland won silver. Carolina coach Bill Peters, who coached Canada’s entry in the World Championship, got a good look at his future pupil during the international tournament. Patrik Laine, the Finnish hot shot expected to be picked second overall, will be an early candidate for the Calder Trophy next year. He will have competition from Aho, assuming he makes the Carolina roster.
Savard sets the Datsyuk market
Florida’s trade of Marc Savard on June 10 indicates that Detroit will have to bundle a significant piece to move Pavel Datsyuk’s contract. The Panthers, who had acquired Savard’s deal with Reilly Smith from the Bruins for Jimmy Hayes, had to cede a 2018 second-rounder to get the ex-center’s contract (just over $4 million annually) off their books. Datsyuk has one year remaining on his deal at $7.5 million annually, a number the Red Wings would have to apply to their cap even if the center plays in Russia in 2016-17. Arizona and Carolina should have the space to absorb Datsyuk’s dead money. But any club that assumes Datsyuk’s contract will have a steep asking price. The Wings are not in position to cede a future first-rounder, but that is where the conversations will start.
Jets in enviable position
The Jets have grunt work ahead in re-signing Trouba and Mark Scheifele, who will be restricted on July 1. Both will be big-ticket items because of their pedigree, accomplishments, and projected ceilings. They are must-sign players, and will take a big bite out of Winnipeg’s cap space. But the strength of Winnipeg’s situation is its up-front star power on entry-level contracts. They already have Nikolaj Ehlers, who racked up 15 goals and 23 assists in 2015-16, mostly as a 19-year-old rookie. Kyle Connor, a Hobey Baker finalist as a Michigan freshman last year, should make the varsity. So should Laine. The Jets also have the No. 22 pick, courtesy of the Andrew Ladd deadline deal with Chicago.
Time for a change
The Kings turned the captaincy over to Anze Kopitar. Kopitar became the first Slovenian-born captain in NHL history. That Kopitar became captain confirms his importance to his team as one of the league’s best 200-foot players. But it does little to solve the problem of Dustin Brown, the Kings’ previous captain. Brown is under contract for six more seasons at $5.875 million annually. It is a toxic deal, considering the 31-year-old is, at best, a third-line wing and subject to decline. The Maple Leafs traded Dion Phaneuf, which is proof that any contract can be traded. But it’s hard to see Brown becoming an ex-King unless GM Dean Lombardi sweetens the package with one heck of an additive.
Eleven ex-collegians were on the ice for Pittsburgh in Game 6 of the Cup Final, a record: Nick Bonino (BU), Matt Cullen (St. Cloud State), Ian Cole and Bryan Rust (Notre Dame), Brian Dumoulin (BC), Carl Hagelin (Michigan), Ben Lovejoy (Dartmouth), Phil Kessel (Minnesota), Chris Kunitz (Ferris State), Justin Schultz (Wisconsin), and Conor Sheary (UMass Amherst) . . . It’s curious, with goalies expected to be available by trade, why the Hurricanes re-upped Cam Ward for two years at $3.3 million annually. Ward will take a healthy pay cut to stay in Carolina. Whether he deserves to stay at all is the question. Ward last broke the .915 save percentage threshold in 2011-12 . . . We are coming off our annual reminder that the Stanley Cup is the finest trophy in sports because of its power to make everybody happy. You will never see such smiles as those on the faces drinking from the Cup. Joy never goes out of style.
Fans of the Sharks didn’t get the result they desired from the Stanley Cup Final, but at least the franchise made it to the final round for the first time after 24 seasons. The Cup-winning Penguins reached their first Cup Final in their 24th season, back in 1991 — but they also won it all that year. Among active franchises, San Jose and Pittsburgh are tied for the third-longest wait for a franchise’s first trip to the championship round. The Coyotes/Jets franchise remains mired in the longest drought.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.