The Oilers Rig

Betwixt & Between: Success Avoidance is not a Strategy

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A couple of days ago, in midst of day two of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, I struck upon an Archimedean Point.

When I wrote this, the Oilers had just drafted their 3rd US College bound over-ager, Tyler Vesel (Round 6, 153rd OV). He followed Zach NagelVoort (Round 4, 111th OV) and Liam Coughlin (Round 5, 130th OV). All three are 1994 birthdays. All three are Americans. All three are committed to US Colleges next year (Nagelvoort has already played a year of College hockey).

[An interesting sidebar: The Oilers 2nd pick of the draft, William Lagesson (Round 4, 91st OV) looks like he may end up in the USHL next year].

The run of 3 in a row struck me as odd. The Oilers passed on a variety of interesting CHL talent. I, for one, was hoping to see them grab one of the following: Brayden Point, Spencer Watson, Chase de LeoVladimir Tkachev or one of the over-agers Edgars Kulda and Jaedon Descheneau. All suffer from one worry or another (mostly size related). But, given the level of competition they play in (the CHL is a very good set of development leagues) and their age (excepting the over-agers I listed), all appear much safer bets to become “impact players” in the NHL than the assortment the Oilers chose.

At any rate, the pattern suggested the Oilers had something in mind here. I clearly wasn’t the only one picking up on it. In this media scrum, Stu MacGregor is asked a couple of questions that follow the same logic as mine.

Q: Can you talk about the strategy to draft the kids that are a little bit older, 19 year old out of the BCHL [Note: this is Coughlin, he'll be 20 this Sept.] and then the kid that put up huge numbers, was a little older, in the USHL [Note: this is Vesel], was there a mindset behind that, or are you just taking a good player?

This was my question as well. MacGregor’s answer is interesting. First, he demurs.

MacGregor: There’s no strategy at all (laughter) [Note: taken out of context this might be a good slogan for the Oilers in general]. They were just kinda the next players on our list.

But… instead of sticking to that line of argument, MacGregor pivots immediately to tout the benefits of the situation, strategy or no.

MacGregor: I think… they are players that are just entering college, which I think is a good thing. They’ll play against older players a little bit earlier. And, it will give us an opportunity to watch them for maybe two to four years. So, you might have a little bit more time before you have to get to that signing stage.

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2010: The Year We Make Contact

I think part of what is going on here is the curse of 2010. After Taylor Hall, the 2010 draft still managed to show a lot of promise. It got largely positive reviews at the time (it was no doubt inflated by the relative horror that was the 2009 draft). Here’s Terry Jones, at the time, giving the year a lot of pressure to live up to. And, here’s the boys at Coppernblue giving a well-balanced contemporaneous appraisal. The Oilers’ own puff piece on the draft is here.

Since then, the draft (after Hall) hasn’t found much to cheer for. The emergence of Martin Marincin and the tiny glimmer of NHL hope that is Tyler Pitlick have improved the look of the draft class over the past year. However, it remains clouded in controversy all the same. Bruce McCurdy recently took a look at the late birthdays of the bunch (those born closer to the Sept. 15th start date of the draft year) to see if there was a counterfactual way to improve the development paths of the group. He found that, by and large, the paths chosen (to elevate the players to pro work, rather than send them back for over-age junior seasons) was based on sound logic. Only in the case of Tyler Pitlick did he feel serious questions were legitimate.

Regardless, a series of questions float in the ether around the 2010 draft and the development of the players chosen, especially regarding the 3 forwards chosen in the early going (Pitlick, 31; Hamilton, 48; Marindale, 61). While Martindale has since left the organization, this Summer the Oilers are faced with having to decide whether to qualify expiring RFAs Pitlick and Hamilton.

I think it is a fair assumption that the Oilers are none to thrilled about having to decide on players at once underwhelming, yet previously highly regarded and probably still seen as having a shot at NHL employment (albeit a long and getting longer shot). No doubt they would prefer to defer the question on these players at least a year. They clearly still see potential in them (Pitlick got a long look in training camp this year and his first NHL cup of coffee; and, Hamilton got a lot of attention by the Oilers PR department mid-way through the year, see here, here, here and here), but at the same time they appear leery of granting another contract to players who’ve had 3 ELC years to prove themselves and come up short.

What if the Oilers convinced themselves, based on the experience of the 2010 draft, that they would prefer players that come with a longer CBA timeline? (Here’s a good write-up on how the current CBA relates to NCAA players, depending on the age they are drafted and when they decide to turn pro). Without getting into the arcana of the CBA and how it relates to these individual players, the basic idea here is the following:

1) You draft an older player (19 or 20), who at that point is a little closer to what they are going to develop into. So, their highs and lows are more clearly defined as a projectable professional hockey player.

2) You see them off to a four year college program, during which time they do not clog up your development system (i.e., they don’t take up a roster spot in the AHL) and they don’t take up a spot on the 50-man reserve list.

3) With any luck, somewhere between their freshman and senior year of college they turn into bona fide prospects, in which case you sign an already mature player (say 21-24 years old) to an ELC and bring them into the system to compete for NHL work.

Regardless of the whether this scheme pays off, you’ve avoided two things in this situation: 1) having to fill your development system with marginal prospects (and, that is what we are talking about here when faced with players taken in the 4th round and later); and, 2) having to make a contractual decision on a player before you are ready to.

Success Avoidance

While I can see a team like the Oilers talking themselves into a scheme like this on the apparent merit of its prudence, it remains flawed in a lot of ways. It doesn’t read to me like a cautious, prudent approach. It reads like an overly cautious fear of success.

Part of the subtext goes like this: what if we get too many good hockey players? where are we going to put them all? we’re only allowed 50 on the reserve list and I don’t like having to rush my decision making!

At the end of the day, we’re talking about fairly marginal prospects (even if the Oilers had chosen from my preferred list above). If they turn out, you find room, or trade them for something else on your wish list (just this year a pair of NHL-ready prospects taken past the first round of the 2009 draft, were traded by very good NHL teams––Brandon Pirri and Linden Vey). If they don’t, or if they remain a distant bell, you cut bait.

The goal, however, is to stock the shelves with good prospects that force you into hard decisions. The goal, however, is not to seek the cover of long-shots you don’t have to worry over for several years. Which brings us to the question of drafting impact players.

Reviewing the 2014 Draft Under the Prism of ‘Impact Players’

The other day, I reviewed Craig MacTavish’s stated draft philosophy of seeking only players in the later rounds that project out as ‘impact players.’ Here’s a reminder of what he said:

For every player that we draft in those mid to later rounds, we want to be able to make a case of why this guy has the potential to be really a top 7 forward, anyone of the 3 top center positions and the four top wing positions, or a top 4 defenseman. If that player doesn’t look like he has the potential to develop into that, then we’re gonna pass and try to find somebody that fits that need.

Well, I’ve got news for you: A 19 year old (turning 20 this Sept.) who can’t crack a point per game in the BCHL is not going to become an impact player.

The players that get a sniff of NHL work out of that league (say, this trio from 2007: Kyle Turris, Riley Nash and Jamie Benn as the big success stories) reliably cover off two bases: they are drafted in their first year of eligibility and/or they score at or well above a point per game basis.

If we look at marginal-to-still-possible NHLers from this league from 2004 through 2010, we can identify one or two areas of concern, which probably relates to their struggles to hit the NHL running. Tyler Eckford (2004; 7 NHL games) was drafted in his 19 year old season and failed to a point per game. But, he had 101 PIMs in 58 games. So, there’s a good chance he was drafted as a face-puncher. He spent last season struggling to score in the AHL. Raymond Sawada (2004; 11 NHL games), also drafted in his 19 year old season, fell just short of a point per game pace (0.96). He spent last season in the SM-Liiga. Zac Dalpe (2008; 96 NHL games), another player drafted in his 19 year old season, scored well above a point per game pace and spent most of the season last year with the Canucks. He’s a tweener at this point and a long-shot to hit 200 NHL games. Derek Grant (2008; 25 NHL games) was drafted in his first year of eligibility and scored above a point per game pace. He is currently a tweener and has a slim chance to hit 200 NHL games. Beau Bennett (2010; 47 NHL games), drafted in his 19 year old season, blew the doors off the point per game pace (2.14) and is, barring more injuries, going to hit 200 NHL games with no problem.

Even in this motley group (excepting Bennett), we can see that they bought NHL games by either being drafted earlier and/or scoring more than a player like Liam Coughlin.

Bob Brown, Every Little Step

BC Hockey Hall of Famer, Bob Brown, serves as a long-time amateur scout for the Oilers (he’s been with the team since 2002) covering off junior hockey out West.

In 2009, Bob Brown “had an extreme passion for [Cam Abney.]” Abney, after struggling to find a role for himself shuffling between the ECHL and the AHL, is no longer part of the Oilers’ organization (he was sent to the Maple Leafs in a 50-man reserve list dump alongside the rights to Teemu Hartikainen in exchange for Mark Fraser). Abney had 4 points and 103 PIMs in his draft year in the WHL. He was picked 82nd OV in the 3rd round. It was a horrible pick.

As I speculated the other day, I believe the Oilers suffered a draft philosophy crisis as a result of the 2009 draft. They’ve upped their standards and are talking about finding “impact players” in later rounds. In the 2013 draft, we saw what that might look like with the Greg Chase pick.

But, in 2013, we also saw the Oilers take Evan Campbell before Chase. Campbell, a 20 year old over-ager from the BCHL, is what I imagine Bob Brown thinks a late round impact player looks like. This year, we see the template print off another from the mold, Liam Coughlin, an over-ager from the BCHL.

Left Behind

The good news, such as it is, is that Bob Brown and the Oilers have upgraded their standards since Cam Abney. The bad news is… they still aren’t nearly high enough. And, they are no where near “impact players.”

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