Friday, March 6, 2009

Can't Buy a Goal!

[To appear in "The Committed Indian", the unofficial Chicago Blackhawks game day program.]

During the 2004 lockout, I watched former NHLer Eric Cairns play for the London Racers of the English Ice Hockey League. At six-foot-five, Cairns was a bruising defenseman who the Penguins traded for to protect Sidney Crosby - he'd better be an enforcer: even in the English League, against a team that had only dressed two lines, Cairns appeared to lack mobility and stick-handling skills. When I looked up his career stats, I was somewhat amazed to find that after finishing junior hockey, from Age 20 to Age 32, he had scored just 18 goals. Not 18 NHL goals. 18 goals in 639 games at all levels of hockey. Think about that - Eric Cairns scored a goal every 35 games. If he scored one goal in a season, it was pretty unlikely that he would score a second. It over him over 100 games in the NHL to score. Among players who were good enough to play in the NHL, Eric Cairns was a legendarily bad goalscorer.

But with yet another ill-advised New York Islanders call-up this year, we have a contender for Cairns' title: 21-year-old Joel "Wrecker" Rechlicz. Rechlicz, if you can believe this, has just one goal in 166 games since he turned 17. As you might imagine, he does have 567 penalty minutes per goal over that time frame. This got me wondering who the all-time worst goalscorers have been in the history of the NHL. I don't care what level you score at - even if a goal in Junior B translates to 5% of a goal in the NHL, I want to know which players have such stone hands that they'll be mobbed by their teammates if they somehow put the puck in the net. Well, here's our top nine, standing an average of 6-foot-3 and 219 pounds:

Name Years GP G PIM PIM/G
Joel Rechlicz 2009 166 1 567 567
Trevor Gillies 2005-2006 704 14 2934 210
David Koci 2006-2009 585 10 1948 195
Boris Valabik 2007-2009 373 10 1441 144
Ken Baumgartner 1987-1999 954 23 3280 143
Bennett Wolf 1980-1983 477 18 2488 138
Kim Clackson 1979-1981 547 16 2159 135
Wade Brookbank 2003-2009 632 20 2668 133
Garrett Burnett 2003-2004 525 26 3416 131

Why nine and not some normal round number like 10 or 15? Well, it turns out that disastrously bad goal-scoring skills are harder to come by than you might think. There are a few players who racked up 3000 or 4000 penalty minutes but were clearly great scorers in midget hockey and matured (if you can call it that) into goons. Or there are players who couldn't score but clearly got to play a little bit on the power play and so got in on the glory of goal-scoring just a little bit. So this just a list of players who can't score, can't pass, and get into fights all the time - yet got to play in the NHL!

In case you're wondering, there is another player who's threatening to make the top of this list: Rechlicz's brother Marc (currently toiling in the CHL), who has had plenty of fights since he left high school hockey - but has been credited with exactly zero goals and zero assists.


Friday, February 6, 2009

More Gladwell (spoiler: he's wrong)

[This originally appeared in the "Committed Indian", the unofficial Chicago Blackhawks program...]

If you've got a friend in business - sales guy, MBA, doesn't matter - you've probably heard him talk about Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell writes books about unintuitive things: his 2005 book Blink, was, if I recall correctly, about how thinking too hard on the job causes people to make more mistakes. Some of you might remember that line of thinking from Bull Durham. At any rate, Gladwell's most recent book, Outliers, is about how success is a combination of both talent and surprisingly more opportunity than we expected.

One outlier he identifies is the distribution of NHL players' birthdates: for decades, NHL players have been twice as likely to be born in the first three months of the year than in the last three. The reason why is fairly obvious - because little kids are divided into teams on the basis of what year they were born, the kids born earlier in the year are, on average, bigger and stronger and have almost an extra year of development. So they're the most likely to get picked by coaches focused on having the best team over the new few months. That leads to better coaching and competition and ultimately being more likely to get picked for a better team the next year.

This effect continues all the way through Junior hockey and the NHL, where the ratios of Q1 to Q4 birthdates are 3:1 and 2:1, respectively. Gladwell suggests that a lot of hockey talent is being squandered because professional players only started out a little bit better when they were kids but benefited tremendously from better coaching and competition. In an interview with ESPN, Gladwell said he suggested to officials from the Canadian national junior hockey team that they start a parallel league for kids born in the second half of the year, which would conceivably result in 150 additional NHL players if they equalized the first and second half birthdates. The officials supposedly told him it was "too complicated."

So splitting youth hockey into two leagues is too complicated even if it increases the number of players these leagues graduate to the NHL by 30%? If only it were so simple. The ratio of early-to-late birthdays is much higher in junior hockey than it is in the NHL, and so while the player development process may favor the older players from age 5-18, the jump from junior hockey to the NHL actually favors players born later in the year.

It's not surprising either - a player like Patrick Kane, who was born at the end of December, suddenly gained an extra year of development compared to a player who was born in January of the same year. And, after all those years playing in leagues where coaches were only concerned with how good you were going to be this season, the NHL is really only concerned with how good you're going to be at your best, which is usually when you're in your early-to-mid-20s. Even without the extra season, if you have two players with identical statistics in junior hockey, the December player projects to score 50% more points in the NHL than the player born in January, largely because he's put up those points against competition that's relatively bigger and stronger than he is.

Now remember that we're talking about all NHL players, including anyone who plays in even just one game. If we only look at former Canadian junior players who were in the top sixth in NHL scoring, which was anyone with 42 points or more last year, the ratio of early-to-late birthday players over the last decade is about 1.20:1. If we managed to equalize these two groups over the course of the next 25 or 30 years, that would ultimately add about seven Canadian players to the top sixth of the league. That's nothing to sneeze at, but it's not as if, as Gladwell suggested, we're "squandering the talents of hundreds of boys with late birthdays" by not doing so. It turns out that the group where players with early birthdays are most over-represented is the league leaders in penalty minutes per game, and I can't see anyone getting up in arms about whether some kid's December birthday kept him from becoming the next Ogie Ogilthorpe.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

How good is John Tavares?

[Originally appeared in the Nov. 16, 2008 edition of 'The Committed Indian', the unofficial Chicago Black Hawks program...]

Can you imagine baseball fans across the country getting excited about a 16-year-old shortstop? Football fans getting worked up because a freshman running back is dominating the varsity somewhere in Texas? Well, it happens all the time in hockey. Ever since a 16-year-old Wayne Gretzky stepped on the ice in 1977 and dominated players three years his senior in the Ontario Hockey Association junior league, there's been tremendous buzz around kids who would be a decade away from their primes in many other sports. Hockey fans are always looking for the second-coming of Gretzky: Mario Lemieux in 1981, Eric Lindros in 1989, Sidney Crosby in 2003, and now John Tavares.

There was so much excitement around Tavares that Canada's junior hockey leagues changed their rules to allow him to be drafted at age 14 and play just three days after his 15th birthday. Fans of bad NHL teams were already hoping they'd be bad enough to get the first draft pick in 2009 so they could pick him. He did not disappoint, scoring 45 goals in 65 games. The list of players who've put up numbers like this at such a young age over the last 25 years is a short one:

Name Season Age League PPG Adj
John Tavares 2005-06 15.28 OHL 1.18 1.01
Jason Spezza 1998-99 15.55 OHL 1.06 0.83
Rob Brown 1983-84 15.73 WHL 1.16 0.69

The table lists each player's age as of January 1st of that season. The PPG column lists each player's points-per-game, while Adj shows that figure adjusted to a 6 goal-per-game offensive environment. This adjustment is particularly important - without it, we would overstate the significance of performances like Brown's, in a league where teams combined for more than 10 goals-per-game. At any rate, Tavares was younger and better than other prodigies, who themselves were pretty good: Spezza has three 30-goal seasons in the NHL before age 24, while Brown scored 49 at age 20.

Tavares didn't disappoint in his second season, scoring 72 goals in 67 games. His company at that level:

Name Season Age League PPG Adj
Sidney Crosby 2003-04 16.40 QMJHL 2.29 2.04
John Tavares 2006-07 16.28 OHL 2.00 1.61
Vincent Lecavalier 1996-97 16.70 QMJHL 1.59 1.27
Derek Roy 1999-00 16.66 OHL 1.32 1.13
Pierre-Marc Bouchard 2000-01 16.68 QMJHL 1.42 1.10
Brian Bellows 1980-01 16.33 OHL 1.76 1.09
Jimmy Carson 1984-85 16.45 QMJHL 1.71 1.05
Martin Lapointe 1989-90 16.30 QMJHL 1.48 1.05
Rob Schremp 2002-03 16.50 OHL 1.14 1.03
Rick Nash 2000-01 16.54 OHL 1.14 1.02
Jason Spezza 1999-00 16.55 OHL 1.17 1.01
Mike Ricci 1987-88 16.18 OHL 1.49 1.00
Pierre Turgeon 1985-86 16.34 QMJHL 1.65 0.99

Most of these players did not approach Tavares' age-16 performance, but even at these lower levels, they averaged nearly a point-per-game in the NHL at age 18, and 10 out of 12 of them arguably ended up being NHL stars - while Martin Lapointe played nearly 1000 NHL games (and the jury is still out on Rob Schremp).

So what happened the next season? Tavares kept his output steady, which still placed him at the top of his age group:

Name Season Age League PPG Adj
Sidney Crosby 2004-05 17.40 QMJHL 2.71 2.55
Jason Spezza 2000-01 17.55 OHL 2.10 1.89
Pierre-Marc Bouchard 2001-02 17.68 QMJHL 2.03 1.74
John Tavares 2007-08 17.28 OHL 2.00 1.74
Pavel Brendl 1998-99 17.77 WHL 1.97 1.68
Dale Hawerchuk 1980-81 17.74 QMJHL 2.54 1.62
Ramzi Abid 1997-98 17.77 QMJHL 1.99 1.60
Vincent Lecavalier 1997-98 17.70 QMJHL 1.98 1.60
Marc Savard 1994-95 17.46 OHL 2.11 1.56
Kyle Wellwood 2000-01 17.63 OHL 1.74 1.56
Mario Lemieux 1982-83 17.24 QMJHL 2.79 1.55
Joe Thornton 1996-97 17.50 OHL 2.07 1.55
Pierre Turgeon 1986-87 17.34 QMJHL 2.66 1.55
Rob Brown 1985-86 17.73 WHL 2.51 1.51

A few more good names pop up on the list, along with some huge disappointments. My initial inclination was that because Tavares wasn't scoring at a higher rate, he wasn't getting any better. And players who don't get better as teenagers tend to be very disappointing professionals. But he's still at the top of every list at his age, and he doesn't play on a top offensive team like Crosby did. I think he's obviously not as good as Sidney Crosby, but likely better than Jason Spezza. That's not a terrible verdict - Spezza was 6th in NHL scoring last season; Crosby, whose abilities are well-known, was 1st in scoring two years ago.

The bottom line: Tavares probably won't be the best player in the game, but it's pretty likely that he'll be in the top ten even if he doesn't step up another notch in his final junior season.

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