How to Build a Cup Contender in Atlanta, Part 5

Intro: In this series I've argued that Atlanta is market with unrealized potential (part 1) and that the team is trapped in  bad hockey product-->bad attendance-->low revenue-->bad hockey product cycle (Part 3). The key to breaking out of this cycle is to create a high quality hockey product. Just how good of a product? Well, we noted that 90% of Cup winners in the lat 30 years finish in the top six of the NHL overall standings (Part 2).

In part 4, I stated that every morning the Thrashers GM should ask himself, "how can I get the most points out of my payroll?" There are four ways to acquire talent: the draft, free agency, trades and waivers/AHL free agents (aka the "nearly free" talent pool). Of those four areas the Thrashers are at a huge disadvantage in free agency because of their low revenue problems and you can't count on winning every trade. That leaves the NHL Draft and the "nearly free" talent pool as the biggest areas for finding inexpensive talent to flesh out a contender-on-a-budget.

(More on NHL Draft strategies after the jump.)

The NHL Draft is key because: a) it can supply a steady stream of young improving talent; b) that talent is often underpaid due to ELC (Entry Level Contract) and RFA (Restricted Free Agent) rules; c) if you develop your own players and keep them happy they may re-sign at a below market price (see Crosby, Zetterberg contracts) and you have the right to make them the first offer they hear. For example, Bryan Little just had a 31 Goal season for the paltry sum of $900,000 a year. He will get a big pay raise in one more season, but even in their 2nd contract many young players come at a discount (assuming Kevin Lowe doesn't screw your team over).

Let's slip on our "Pretend GM" hat for a moment and ask ourselves: "How can get the maximum return out of my team's draft picks? What should be our focus?" I pointed out in the last installment of this series that a Goal Prevented is as value as Goal Scored, but because defense is harder to count than points. Quality defensive players can be obtained at a discount because the NHL is inefficient in evaluating defense. If I am correct in my analysis scoring is more likely to be expensive and therefore a poor organization should put a premium on scouting, drafting and developing offensive talent, because affordable defensive players can be acquired via other means.

In my recent post on "Where are Star Players Drafted?" I demonstrated that the overwhelming majority of 1st line players on playoff caliber teams were taken in the first round. Given that scoring talent is nearly impossible to find at a discount in free agency, it is imperative that a low revenue team draft offensive players in the 1st round or early in the 2nd round. If you don't take scoring players in the first round, you are very unlikely to find impact offensive talent elsewhere.

Forwardsdrafted_medium

A revenue rich franchise like Montreal might be able to take a chance on a player projected as a "plus 3rd liner" like a Kyle Chipchura, but if a poor team takes that gamble it is a foolish decision because it lowers their potential to find offense cheaply. In the upcoming 2009 Draft is highly likely that two players Jonas Nattinen and Carl Klingberg will be available when the Thrashers pick at #34. I like both players, but I would not take either of them that high when there are quality scoring prospects with big potential (such as Rajala and Tatar) still available.

The same principle should apply to defensemen as well. Only defensemen with offensive skills should be drafted in the first round (Bogosian--yes, Valabik--no). Even though Braydon Coburn has developed into a solid top pairing defender, taking a defensive defenseman at the #8 spot in the draft order is almost certain to be a sub-optimal choice for a poor team. Quality defensive players are more plentiful in the 2nd-7th rounds while quality offensive players are much more rare. Bogosian put up numbers in junrior that compare favorable to elite NHL offensive defenseman while Coburn did not.

The distribution of goalie talent is even more bi-polar with a shocking percntage of playoff starts going undrafted or taken very late in the draft. As Daoust put it so brilliantly this week "drafting goalies = witchcraft"--which is a far more entertaining way of saying "the variance is so high that a team is usually better off not spending a high pick on a goalie."

Improving Overall Draft Performance

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, the error rate in the NHL draft is simply astonishing. 90% of the time NHL teams fail got maximum value when they pick. The vast majority of drafted players fail to play a single NHL game. Given the extremely high error rate any NHL club that can squeeze out a 5% or 10% improvement will greatly help themselves over the long run.

Between 1999-2005 Buffalo's success rate was double that of the average NHL team and it was 5 times better than last place Tampa. That's a powerful advantage that has allowed Buffalo to field competitive teams on a below the cap budget. If you're willing to take small forwards (as Buffalo does) and you end up with twice the normal draft efficiency as a normal team you could trade some of those extra guys for things that you need later.

How could the Thrashers increase their success rate?

Don't shy away from small players. Iain Fyffe has been on a crusade about this over at Puck Prospectus, but he's right. If you look at great defensive forwards (Selke Trophy winners) and great defensemen (Norris Winners) they are not all giants--in fact many of the very best defensive players in hocky are "undersized" relative to the league average. Consider Chris Chelios one of the more fear-inducing players of his age who was a modest 6'0". (Don't shy away from a Vatanen!)

Don't over-project when the performance isn't there. Production (aka stats) should be used hand in hand with scouting. A player projected to be scorer with a few points deserves tougher scrutiny and a high scorer deserves a second look.The old saying is that "big guys have to prove they can't play and little guys have to prove that they can" but a better maxim would be "scorers have to prove that they can't play while non-scorers have to prove that they can play the game."

Another reason to take a scoring player is that it is an indicator of NHL caliber hands. Most NHL 3rd and 4th liners in the NHL and put up nice point totals in juniors or the college ranks. Heck even a big bruiser defender like Darian Hatcher had 63 points as 17 year old in the OHL. If a player has elite eye-hand coordinationit should result in some points--you can't teach someone to have hands.

A quick skating scorer can be taught to play defense while a checker is very unlikely to start scoring. An example of this is Marty Reasoner who came out of the college ranks as an offensive prospect with good wheels. His offensive production was simply not that great but he reinvented himself as a smart veteran checker and became a plus third line player in the NHL.

Thrashers Scouting

As a Thrashers observer from Day One, there has been a large amount of criticism directed at the Thrashers player development people. Some of this criticism is just not accurate. Yesterday, I had an entire post on mesuring draft day success or failure. If you adjust for the Thrashers high picks and the value they got from the those picks, they come out as a middle of the pack team. I've said this for years--the Thrashers have been average on Draft Day--neither superior nor terrible.

Draftefficiencychart_medium

Now some fans will say "average isn't good enough!" and that is true if your goal is to contend for a Cup. My draft scoring system has the Thrashers ranked 16th out of 30 teams--only 16 teams make the post-season. Being 16th best team on draft day + being 28th in payroll does not add up to a top six finish needed to compete for Lord Stanley's Cup.

As a poor team the Thrashers need excellence from their scouting and development department more than rich clubs do. How could the Thrashers get the most out of their scouting department? Become more aware and sophisticated about each scout's strengths and weaknesses. In most organizations area scouts submit a rank ordered list of prospects from their region. A team might anywhere from one to seven names off that list. Don Waddell has said in the past that they go back and re-evaluate each draft. My question is do they re-evaluate just the players they took or do they go back and re-score every area scouts rank ordered list? The lists have more data and therefore provide more leverage in determining who makes a better list on average. All those hours in cold ice rinks in obscure places boil down to that single list.

Some scouts are simply better than others. A smart organization would know which is which and give greater weight to their more accurate scouts when making their master list. Every human being has biases. Some scouts may have a good eye for something and a bad eye for other traits. A smart organization should analyze their area scouts "misses" and look for patterns. Does "Scout A" hate short players?--adjust his rankings. Does "Scout B" have a weakness for players with bad character--tell him he must add more character detail in his reports.

Scouting is a very lonely and very demanding business. Every scout works hard, eats bad food, watches terrible hockey and rarely gets thanked. I have no interest in ever working a scout--you must REARLLY love hockey to do it. But having said all that, sometimes an organization must let under performing scouts go. I hate saying that about anyone in this current economy, but all of us most perform. Players who don't perform get sent to the minors,  coaches who don't perform get fired. Everyone should be held account and scouts are no different. (In my day job I work on one-year contracts with yearly evaluations, so I write this as someone who lives with an axe over his job too.)

Conclusion

The Thrashers are in a hyper-competitive business and they must work at a significant financial disadvantage. To maximize value they should always take an offensive F or D in the 1st round (or early 2nd) and seek undervalued small players. They should use free agency to find undervalued (meaning "underpriced") defensive players. They should also be much more self-critical in assessing the talent evaluation abilities of the scouting staff. Make corrections for scouts with known biases or find replacemens for those with consistently poor lists.

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