Do The Thrashers Have Large Talons?

Monday, July 31, 2006

Off Season Follies

So today I was reading that Columbus GM Doug McLean is reluctant to sign his talented young center Zherdev to a 3 or 4 year deal. I think any rational GM would have some concerns about a player who has turned in just a good half season so far in his career. But I find the whole think a bit amusing because Doug McLean has been the poster child for handing out bad contracts among the four most recent expansion clubs.

Consider the signing of Scott Lachance to an expensive deal. Or how about the fairly immobile Luke Richardson contract (Salary before: .875 million, salary 2.0 million after:). Or he threw semi-trucks worth of cash at Rick Nash after one good NHL season, WHEN HE DIDN'T HAVE TO DO IT because Nash was still a restricted free agent who was years away from free agency. Then Doug McLean made a big splash by inking defensive defenseman Adam Foote for a large sum of money (that worked out well, the Blue Jackets were ranked 29th in goals against and 28th in shots against the season prior to the Foote signing and they were ranked 26th in goals against and 28h in shots against after signing Foote).

Now that Columbus fans have reason to hope that their team might finally creep up out of the basement, McLean has a sudden pang of conscious about not overpaying his players.

Staying in the Central Division, another GM that deserves a LOT of second guessing is Detroit's Ken Holland. The Wings GM announced that Manny Legace would not be coming back for another stint in Detroit as the team would look elsewhere. One wonders exactly where were "elsewhere" is, because as of this moment their starter is Chris Osgood (who is cheap!) but he is also the guy that your coach thought was inferior to Legace. Now Legace sits out there unsigned and supposedly his price has fallen back toward the bargain range. I think Detroit would be wise to resign him because he is the best option left available, but after tossing him overboard you have to wonder if Legace would come back to Detroit.

Just looking over the rosters I think that Boston is the most improved team in the east (added Savard and Chara and got rid of Raycroft) and Minnesota looks much better in the west (added Demitra, made Gaborik happy and added Carney, Parrish and Kim Johnsson). These are mostly my gut feeling rather than anything based on real hard headed analysis, but I plan on running some numbers and posting some predictions about each team's ranking going into the next NHL season, but I'll wait until the last remaining roster spots get sorted out.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Are Some Prospects More Likley to Fail than Others?

I went to Thrashers Prospect Camp today but I’m not going to post anything more about camp until after the final session on Thursday. Instead I have a post about prospects more generally.

Visiting prospect camp started me thinking about which prospects will succeed and which will fail. Baseball analysts have suggested that high school pitchers are more likely to fail to develop into major league players and therefore teams might be wise to think twice about drafting them high in the MLB draft. If we applied this approach to hockey, is one position more likely to produce busts than another? Are forwards more likely to flame out or is it defensemen who are more likely to become busts?

As I was thinking about this I began to suspect that among the three basic positions in hockey it would be defensemen who would produce the highest failure rate. Why? Evaluating the defensive abilities of a player are a bit more difficult than the scoring abilities of forwards and so I extrapolated that defensemen would probably produce more failed prospects.

But how to test this question? I was thinking about this question last night as I lay awake with a case of insomnia and finally I got up in the middle of the night to see if I could answer it to my own satisfaction since I wasn’t sleeping anyway. I pointed my browser to and their wonderful collection of NHL draft lists. I decided to do a survey of all 1st round draft picks over a five year period (1995-1999) and calculate the failure rate of players by position.

What constitutes a “failed” prospect? For this little study any player who has played at least 250-300 NHL games and has a regular NHL job is a success and any prospect who does not meet that criteria is a failure at this point. (Note: goalies don’t get credit for games played when they are dressed as a backup, so I lowered the criteria for goalies and paid more attention to if they had NHL jobs or not.)

The 1st round picks between 1995-1999 add up to a total of 133 players, not a huge sample size but enough to give us some idea if any pattern exists. My quick and dirty late night survey of these five drafts found that my hunch is false. (It is not every day that I admit I’m wrong in print, so enjoy it.) Defensemen drafted in the 1st round between 1995-1999 were no more likely to fail to develop than forwards. The failure rate of defensemen was 49%, which was identical to the 49% failure rate for forwards. However, goalies did significantly worse than forwards and defensemen, with 62% of those drafted failing to attain NHL jobs as starters or backups. This high failure rate caught me by surprise a bit, but perhaps GMs should think twice about using a high draft pick on a netminder.

While I was going through these five recent drafts, I though it would also be interesting to consider where players were drafted from. Baseball analysts have compared college players to high school players, so I decided to compare draft picks from Juniors, NCAA, and European leagues.

The average failure rate for all prospects taken in the five drafts I looked at is 50%, and if we look at failure rates by league of origin the OHL, WHL and Europe leagues were slightly above average in terms of prospect failure rates (see the table below). The two areas that produced lower than average failure rates where the QJMHL and U.S. College hockey programs, (although the number of players taken from college is so small we would need to do a larger study before drawing any conclusions). Perhaps, during this five year period scouts and general managers tended to underrate the Q and the NCAA and thus only the best players were taken.

League Type…Prospect Failure Rate (number of players in the survey)
QMJHL………..39% (18)
OHL…………....54% (35)
WHL…………...57% (37)
NCAA……….....33% (6)
Europe………...53% (30)

All Players……50% (133)
Interesting stuff but I would want to do a much larger study if I were a GM and trying to figure out the risks involved of drafting players. Perhaps if I get an entire week’s worth of insomnia…anyway, I hope this hasn’t put you to sleep yet.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Prospect Camp Observations: Day 4

I went to Thrashers Prospect Camp again today. Last Friday I was very eager to get a look at the Thrashers top rated guys and I focused on them most of the time. Today I tried something different. I decided to simply write down the jersey number anytime I saw a guy do something good (or especially) bad out there on the ice. That way if one of the less hearlded prospects had a good day it would show up in my notes. Below I have listed very single play I noted on my sheet. But first let me summarize the highlights.

Pleasant Surprises of the Day: Andrew Kozek had a hat trick today during the 2-on-2 and 4-on-4 sessions and really did a lot of good things on the ice. Bryan Little showed some flashes of 1st round talent during the 4-on-4 drills with some terrific stickhandling and passing. Vannelli is a guy who isn't flashy but ended with several plus plays by the time the day was over. Just like Friday, Grant Lewis was head and shoulders above the rest of the defensemen at camp. Matt Siddall had a very good day with two goals and and some solid play.

Unpleasant surprises: Valabik's offensive game wasn't very good today and he got beat badly twice during play. Hamilton, LaVallee, Denny and Painchaud did nothing positive to stand out today.

Note: Players are listed in order of their jersey number. All goals scored are listed as "Goal!" in honor of yesterday's World Cup Final.

Jared Ross: Stole puck in offensive zone. Goal!

Alex Bourret: Lost handle on the puck (unforced error). Missed the puck. Goal! while working the puck with Siddall. Wearing some bling today in the form of a gold chain.

Bryan Little: Very nice pass on give-n-go that results in a goal being scored during 2-on-2 drill. Jaw dropping stick handling move around a guy dish to forward who then scored a goal. Steals puck during 4 on 4. Nice pass. Took a puck to the face hard, it was up in the air and deflected off a player’s stick not more than two feet from his face, no time to react—stayed bent over on the bench for a good stretch but came onto the ice when it was his turn.

Rylan Kaip: Nice pass.

Riley Holzapfel: Lost handle on the puck during 1-on-1. Terrific move in offensive zone leads to chance and goal by Kozek.

Mike Vannelli: Nice defense on 2-on-2 play. Nice D during 1-on-1. Great stick move around defender to open ice. Nice defense during 4-on-4 shift.

Jon Awe: Shot wide. Goal! on shot from the blueline.

Boris Valabik: Seldom got his shots off the ice when I was watching. Bourret made a move and Valabik fell to the ice. Beat laterally during 2-on-2 drill. Valabik does his best Andy Sutton as he leaves J. Ross wide open in the slot to tap in the pass from Pospisil. Turnover.

Colton Fretter: Good breakaway chance, goal got just enough so that puck dribbled wide of net.

Scott Lehman: Very cautious with passing during 4 on 4 (lack of confidence perhaps? Afraid to make a mistake?) Nice defense versus Little. Looked a bit more confident. Showed nice one-timer in shot drills.

Jordan LaVallee: He did nothing that got noted on my list.

Brian Lee: Picked off pass by opposing defense. Made an uncatchable aerial pass to a teammate. Set up goal by Sterling. Good chance from the slot, saved.

Andrew Kozek: Goal! Slipped by Valabik who then held him. Goal! Followed up his own rebound. Goal! Off nice dish by Holzapfel. Creates shot on goal opportunity with a nice move.

Grant Lewis Good defense during 1-on-1 drills. Nice pass to Bourret (4 on 4). Nice stop on defense (4 on 4). Toyed with opposing players, lured them in close and they stepped around him and made a great pass in the neutral zone. Controls the play. Hit a guy, but when he escapes resorts to a hold.

Tomas Pospisil: Terrific backhand pass from below goal line to wide open Ross in slot for a goal.

Matt Siddall: Goal! Another Goal! Nice move and shot but saved. Great pass on given and go with Bourret that produces a goal.

Brett Sterling: Goal! Bad aerial pass. Good work along the wall. His one-timers look effortless during shooting drills (most guys fail to score on their one-time chances).

Jimmy Sharrow: Shot way high. Passed up open shot on net during 2-on-2 to make bad pass that produced nothing. Not expecting a D-to-D pass from partner Valabik, turns over the puck,
Valabik hooks down the guy to prevent a breakaway. They give the player a penalty shot—saved. Nice shot on goal.

Mike Hamilton: I saw nothing worth noting.

Chad Denny: Turnover (4 on 4)

Mitch Carefoot: Brutal pass.

Bryan Dobek: Turnover.

Chad Painchaud: Nice pass during 2 on 2.

Myles Stoesz: Two hits.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Live from Thrashers Prospect Camp: Day 1

I was able to attend the first day of prospect camp in which the invited players went through a two hour set of skating, passing and shooting drills capped off with a brief 3-on-3 scrimmage.

Of course it is only day one and some guy might have been more nervous than others but here are my impressions.

Alex Bourret: I expect him to make the NHL team out of camp and I saw nothing today that would change that expectation. He has great speed, puck handling skills and a nice shot. He’s Thrasherville with skills.

Bryan Little: He did not stand out of the crowd in my opinion. I’m not claiming he is a bust or anything of that sort, it is just that I was hoping to be wowed, but it didn’t happen. Honestly, I didn’t think he was going full speed or giving it his all (unlike say Bourret), but it can be hard to evaluate talent. I was talking with another camp watcher and we reminisced about how awful Kovalchuk looked as a rookie at his first NHL camp and look disinterested—and then he went out and scored two goals in his first pre-season game.

Boris Valabik: First let me note that I was not happy when the Thrashers drafted him in the 1st round (I had seen him play in juniors and wanted the team to take someone else instead). But of all the players at camp he was perhaps the biggest pleasant surprise. His skating show great improvement compared to previous camps. I was even more impressed when I heard him interviewed on the radio by Billy Jaffe and he said that there is no ice back in “Czechoslovakia” and today was the first time he had been on skates in three months.

Brett Sterling: He is small but at least Jared Ross kept him from being the smallest guy at the camp. I’ve seen him play a couple of times in college. There is room in the NHL for small guys today but it is important to have great speed and he didn’t really jump out at me in the skating drills. However, he does seem to possess a deadly accurate shot. At the conclusion of the practice the players formed a horseshoe around the goalies and took turns rotating into the shooting position which was straight out from the goalie a couple of feet beyond the hash marks. The object of the game seemed to be this, you got to keep shooting on the goalie as long as you either beat him clean with your shot or someone put your rebound into the net (in other words the goalie had a make a clean save you the original shooter or the rebound shooter. Well Sterling appeared to win this contest as he just stood there and picked the corners of the net scoring five direct goals on Turple (a solid goalie prospect).

Grant Lewis: I have to give credit to the Atlanta Hockey’s future correspondent who pointed him out to me, but he really looked solid once I started watching him. His skating was solid and his passes were hard but on target. But more than anything he seemed to carry himself with great poise and composure on the ice. He looks ready to turn pro, if he played hockey full time he might only be a year away from making a run at a NHL job (OK I might be getting carried away based on one practice, I’ll see how he looks later this week.)

In general almost every player did a couple of nice things that I noticed, even guys like Mitch Carefoot and Matt Siddall who project as checking line guys looked good at times. A couple of quick hits: Jordan LaVallee has a NHL body and shoots hard but seemed to miss the net a lot. Tomas Pospisil good speed and hands but his skating almost seemed sloppy and out of control at times like an overly exuberant puppy. Myles Stoesz looked pretty bad, but he is a fighter. Oystrick didn’t skate. Colton Fretter and Mike Hamilton didn’t really stand out as much as I expected.

I will probably watch Prospect Camp another two days before it is over and see if my intitial impressions change.

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