Monday, August 22, 2011

Triumph's Principles For Evaluating Prospects

If you're a boorish American hockey fan like me, you probably don't get much of a chance to see NHL prospects, either live or on television. Prospects tend to play in cold, scary places, with a dearth of shopping malls and an overabundance of death by frostbite. We might see ten seconds of his highlights during the NHL Draft, we might see him looking awkward in a ridiculous suit going up to the podium, and then for several years he's nothing but numbers on a page.

Whatever the case, I find myself shaking my fist and gnashing my teeth at the way prospects tend to be evaluated, especially the evaluation on a site that rhymes with Rockey's Suture. I've thought about it a bit and have come up with some rules that I use when I look at a prospect's stats. I don't know that my way is any better than their way, but I do think mine is at least more logical. Again, this is in the face of the fact that quite simply, most of us do not ever get to see these players until they are in an NHL uniform.

Just to be clear, I am assuming that I am talking about rating prospects according to statistics found on and, as well as junior hockey and college hockey websites.

Principle #1: The most recent season is the most relevant, with descending importance to be placed on each season previous to the most recent.

This seems self-explanatory, but I see so much prospect evaluation that overrates performances from 3 years ago, or underrates what happened last year.

Principle #1B: Don't overvalue a fluky season

While the most recent season is the most important, a season that appears to be an aberration may just be that. A large jump in numbers may not indicate a large jump in ability. We can't always get shooting percentage data for the lower levels, but an inordinately high shooting percentage always makes me wary.

Principle #2: Draft position matters, but not really - the further away we get from that player's draft, the less relevant their draft position is.

Players taken near the top of the draft tend to outperform players taken later in the draft. This is not an absolute principle, however - one year after a draft, we can re-evaluate all the players who participated in that draft. Even after one year, there will be some players who have underperformed their draft position, and some have outclassed the players around where they were taken. After several years, the differences will become more stark. I see too much player analysis that relies on the fact that a guy was taken at a high position 3 years ago. So what! That information shows that he was likely worthy of being thought of as a top player, then. But what matters more is what he's done since then.

Principle #2b: Don't sleep on undrafted free agents

Hockey is being played all over the Northern part of the world - it's become more and more popular. Sometimes scouts just plain don't see a particular guy and he goes undrafted. Or, more likely, an athlete simply improved from the time he was draft-eligible. There are plenty of examples of players who were not drafted who have gone on to excel in the NHL. Undrafted free agents should be evaluated like everyone else; they're not second-class citizens simply because they weren't one of the top 210 players when they were 18 or 19.

Principle #3: Make sure to take into account a player's age in relation to where he is playing

Prospects play at all different levels and against all different sorts of competition. It is extremely difficult to evaluate the play of an 18 year old player in junior hockey, versus an 18 year old in college, versus an 18 year old in the NHL or AHL, versus an 18 year old in the KHL, and so on. Regardless, take into consideration whether the prospect is playing in a men's league, or if he's 'old for his league' (e.g. college senior, overage junior player). Just playing on a men's team at 18 can mean a prospect is better than a similar prospect dominating the junior league in the same country.

Principle #3b: If a prospect is 'old for his level', he should be dominating

This seems simple enough, but is often missed - a college senior or overage junior player, if he is to be considered a legitimate NHL prospect, should be crushing. He should be one of the top players in the league. Most of his fellow prospects have moved on to more difficult levels - he needs to demonstrate that he is capable of taking that next step.

Principle #4: The strength of a prospect's team matters

Player A scored 60 points in 60 games, but he's the 5th highest scorer on the team, which did very well. Player B is the same age and plays the same position, but played in a different league. He scored 20 points in 40 games, but he was 2nd on the team, which did poorly. Who's a better player? It's obviously unclear, but unless Player A is on a team with some really great prospects, I'm inclined to downgrade his performance. A rising tide lifts all point-scorers, and likewise, an ebb tide lowers all point-scorers.

Principle #5: Defensemen are more difficult to evaluate than forwards

Since the main method of evaluating these prospects is point scoring, we know that points don't even come close to telling the whole story with a defenseman. Neither does plus/minus. In general, more points are obviously better than fewer, but plenty of defensemen have had their offense dry up by the time they reached the NHL. Plus/minus is too team-dependent to have much meaning. Ice time is a better measure than plus/minus, but that's not always available.

Principle #6: Give up on evaluating goalies, it's impossible

This is mostly tongue-in-cheek, but goalies seem to me largely unpredictable. Occasionally there's a goalie who blows away the competition; those are easy to spot. The rest, who has any idea? There's always a Lundqvist or Backstrom that comes out of nowhere to be a star. I pay almost no attention to draft position when it comes to evaluating a goalie.

Principle #7: Do NOT evaluate a player just based on his upside!

If you head over to that site that rhymes with Rockey's Suture, so much of prospect evaluation is based on this nebulous concept of 'upside'. What does this mean, exactly? I'm not sure - they have that silly numbers/grade system also, as if they can predict how a player will grow at the NHL level. Regardless, their reviews of prospects are always glowing, and they talk about how this player 'should' be a second-pairing defenseman in three years, etc. Yet three years later, a lot of these prospects are not in the NHL and no longer considered prospects. Remember to consider 'downside' as well - a prospect may hit a plateau in their growth. Not all of your team's prospects will hit their 'upside'. In fact, most of them won't. Don't be pessimistic, be realistic.

Well, that about wraps 'er up. The future always looks brighter than the present, it's part of why we're sports fans. Still, let's not go inking 19 year olds into the starting lineup in three years. Let's also not fall into the trap of thinking that because a player is a 'prospect', that means he is 'unproven' and 'could fail', even if he's been dominant at all levels prior to this one. That happens, but it's also rare. There's a thoughtful way to evaluate players one has never seen, and it's not what a player 'should be' based on his draft position. It's based on what a player 'could' be based on a reasonable range of outcomes.

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