Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Game 9: Next

“You probably don’t know it, but you just saw a future star.”

I do, as a matter of fact, know it. I do not know major junior hockey so very well, but I know some things, and anyone who knows anything at all about the CHL in 2007 knows John Tavares. In fact, I’m slightly insulted by implication that I would be spending my Sunday afternoons in the Kingston Memorial Center and not know anything about John Tavares. It’s not like the Frontenacs attract a lot of casual fans. But this cabbie is one of those kindly middle-aged know-it-alls, and he thinks he’s got an opportunity to school a naïve young lady in the intricacies of hockey prospects, so I might as well just sit back and see where he’ll take this. He is, after all, the great-nephew of The Great Bun Cook, which must count for something.

“Tavares, right?”

“Tavares. How’d he do?”

“Two goals, one assist.”

“The score?”

“Five-two, Oshawa.”

“Sounds about right. The Frontenacs don’t know how to pick talent. Like the Leafs, always trading away youth for veterans.” (In this case, ‘veteran’ means ‘old enough to drive but still not old enough to drink in Michigan.’)


“Tavares, though, he’s something else. He’s gonna be the next Crosby. Better, even. Not even seventeen yet.” He shakes his head in exaggerated disbelief.


“He’s gonna go to Europe, you know.”

“Yeah?” This is a low-wattage but common rumor at the time. Tavares is still nearly two full CHL seasons away from draft eligibility, and has apparently been lobbying the NHL to make an exception and render him draftable at 17, which the NHL is obviously disinclined to do. So, people say, maybe he’ll ditch the CHL and go play in Europe, where he could start facing off against slick, dangly Swedish men as opposed to 220 lb., hormonal, undereducated nineteen-year-olds who still hope they can thwack their way into a tryout.

“Yeah. An old friend of dad’s used to scout for the Rangers. He still hears all the inside gossip. Told me himself: If Tavares can’t get into the draft this year, he’s going to play the next season in Europe.”

“Pro teams might not look too kindly on that.”

“He’s so good, they won’t care. Why should he keep playing against boys? He’s got nothing left to learn here.”

This conversation was the first time I (as far as I remember) that I encountered the phrase ‘nothing left to learn’ in hockey. Not long after, of course, I would start hearing it dropped left and right with reference to Carey Price, then barely 20 (which is about 17 in goalie-years) and coming off an abbreviated Calder Cup season with the Hamilton Bulldogs. ‘Nothing left to learn’ is the primary and overwhelming justification for pulling a player up to the NHL ahead of the standard- what one might call ‘sane’- development schedule. In the archetypal development trajectory, players make the NHL between 20 and 24. After drafting, they finish out a season or two with their junior team, or spend a couple years in college, or hang out across the pond with their club. Then, generally, some sort of time in the AHL. Depending on injuries, this might only be a perfunctory couple of months, but generally it’s another season or two. These seasons are studded with call-up opportunities, little tastes of the show, before a regular roster slot is earned.

Apparently, we’re supposed to envision this as a learning process. Like school- every level has something to teach you, and once you’ve passed all your courses, you can go up to the next one. But hockey isn’t knowledge. Hockey is skill, and skill doesn’t accumulate the same way that knowledge does. Knowledge is complex but fairly linear in its growth. Something you knew yesterday you know today and you will still know tomorrow. It would take a period of months or years for you to stop knowing it. Skill, however, grows irregularly. It takes a period of time to attain a certain level, and then even more time to solidify it. It is possible to do something perfectly a few times and never again. It is possible to do something well one day, poorly the next, and better the day after. It’s not only possible, it’s likely. Hockey is a game of inconsistency, of better and worse performances day to day and month to month and season to season. Under such a regime of variance, practice is essential, and more practice- supervised practice, anyway- is never a bad thing. There is no learning, as such, in hockey; the metaphor is a poor one. There is only practicing, and while it is possible to exhaust the learning available in a given place, it is not possible to exhaust the opportunities for practice anywhere. What a player gets out of all the time in all those levels is not knowledge, it's experience, and experience can't be accelerated.

It is a fact that very few can play in the NHL at age 18. The years before twenty are seldom productive ones. Because offense seems to be more innate and develops earlier than defense, the players who are pushed into a full pro season at 18 are generally high-end offensive forwards. Nevertheless, only 28 players in the history of the modern NHL (over the past eighty years) have scored more than 40 points at 18. The vast majority of those played in the Era of Promiscuous Scoring, commonly referred to as The 1980s, and virtually all of them were minus players in the process. At 19, the number of players who’ve been able to contribute 40 points more than doubles to 83, and by age 20, 205 guys have been able to make that contribution to a team. Historically speaking, it’s clear that some very few remarkable guys can do well as teenagers, but overwhelmingly those same players are much better at 20, and a 20-year-old rookie seems more likely to contribute a productive season than an 18-year-old one. In fact, there was hardly ever such a creature as a teenage NHLer before the 1980s, suggesting that- like the dedicated goon- the 18-year-old rookie owes his job to talent dilution.

But every now and then, there are exceptions. Gretzky set records at 18. Crosby nearly did. Yzerman came out hot, as did Ron Francis. These exceptions are deceptive, because they could apply hypothetically to any exceptional teenager, and if that exceptional teenager happens to be exactly the teenager you need to save your ass… well, he could be the next one, couldn’t he? But every lower tier of the game produces a collection of exceptional players who, nevertheless, cannot go higher. Every NHL player was one of the best in his League at every level growing up, but there were others just as good or better even who grew up different, into great truckers and teachers and engineers and middle managers, but not great hockey players.

There are countless ways a young player’s development might go astray, but it is uncertain how many of them a team can control. A lot of it is, and always will be, the kid himself, his abilities and choices. But one thing is certain: there is more to lose by overestimating than underestimating. Underestimate, keep the kid down, and the worst you get is a slightly older player for just as long and just as cheap who produces exactly the same thing. Of course, he arrives a year later, but given the way one gets top draft picks these days, that can’t but be a good thing for everybody concerned.

But likely, wait and you get something better for three seasons of discount indentured servitude. Two years makes an 18 year old into a 20 year old, and every man born in human history, barring disease or disability, grows stronger and smarter in that time. The kind of skills that come with simple maturity may themselves be worth waiting for, but for a player, the increased strength and fitness that come from literal growth. Moreover, the extra years of practice and probable dominance, the experience working with a team and leading as one of it’s senior members, and repeated shots at the unique pressure of playoff games are not worthless refinements of native skill.

The preponderance of evidence suggests that the years one gets from a player at 18 and 19 are not especially good for your team, and they may not be good for the player. To do even respectably well, a teenager needs to be coddled something fierce- given soft minutes and PP time and lots of hugs from the training staff. And what they put up in the o-zone is generally counterbalanced by what they give up in their own end- shots against, goals against. If you’re a good team in a position to give a baby player special care without hurting the team, it might work, but good teams seldom spend roster spots on teenagers. Which means, in general, 18 year olds play on weak teams that push them into positions they’re not equipped to handle well, making it impossible for them to break even. Certainly it did Guillaume Latendresse no favors to be taking a regular shift with the Canadiens at 18. And there are very few Habs fans now who will admit to being one of the legion who claimed, three years ago, that Carey Price had ‘nothing left to learn’ in the AHL. He obviously had something to learn, including that most valuable of lessons, Don’t go RFA in the same year as Jaroslav Halak.

Conversely, what are the costs of keeping a teenage player in junior? Where is the evidence that it will somehow destroy him? Who are the players who’ve been ruined or damaged by an extra year at an easier level, and what horrible things did it do to them? For a piece of conventional wisdom as entrenched as ‘he has nothing left to learn’, I find shockingly few pieces of evidence offered in its favor- no data, no case studies, hardly even an example of a player who was harmed by spending 18-19 outside of the NHL. I suspect it’s because there’s a fundamental irrationality to the search for such examples: if the guy was left down in his teens and imploded, for either physical or mental reasons, then he probably wasn’t of quite the constitution necessary to make it in the show. Any player so fragile that he’ll be irrevocably broken by an extra year in Junior is probably a player you don’t want, and nobody is going to use such tales to try to make a case for rushing anyone’s growth process.

There has been no player since the lockout who decimated the CHL as decisively as Tavares. If anyone had ‘nothing left to learn’, it was him. But what have the Islanders gotten from his teenage years? Has it brought them closer to a Cup? Even if his rookie year- being the transition point- didn’t turn out much better at 20 than at 18, there’s a hell of a lot better chance of getting a miracle season out of years 20-23 than 18-21. The Isles, they took John Tavares and put him to work, pulling a lot of weight, and he put up respectable numbers, but dude still gave up more than he got, and for what? To drag a 30th place team up to 25th? That’s the kind of improvement that could come just as easily from random variance. A team could do absolutely nothing between seasons and rise five places in the standings.

Given all of the circumstances stacked against the teenage player in the NHL, I suspect there is no good hockey reason whatsoever for bringing up a kid- any kid- at 18. Either he won’t be as good as the team hopes, or the team won’t be good enough to support him yet, and either way it’s a recipe for an unproductive season. If one was making the decision on purely what was going to help the team improve, one would never carry an 18-year-old through a whole season on the NHL, and precious few 19-year-olds either. It makes no sense whatsoever. The only reasons to do it are impatience and arrogance. Either you’re one of those childlike souls who just cannot wait to play with a new toy, or you really believe your new toy is Wayne Gretzky, or you believe your team- despite the bottom-feeding finish in the previous year- is good enough to compete right away. None of which are reasonable beliefs.

For the Canadiens, who are a long far way from any very high draft picks, this is largely irrelevant. Everybody, nearly, marinates their lower-end kids for a year or two longer in junior, and generally a couple years in the AHL, or just a long soak in European waters. But if you are blessed with one of those sure-and-certain, can’t-miss, nothing-left-to-learn kids, it makes sense to treat them as a precious resource. You only get them, guaranteed, at value, for so long, and at 18-19 you can keep their rights for nothing. Spend those two years making a team worthy of them, rather than introducing them direct into the supremely dysfunctional squad that ‘earned’ them.

[Oh, but Chicago, Chicago. The worth of the ‘Chicago model’ depends on what you consider to be the value of one Stanley Cup. They promoted their stars as teenagers, and at the very end of those RFA contracts, they got their prize- at exactly the moment they had to pay or set free almost their whole roster. They were a one-bullet team, and it was a hell of a bullet, and they won on it. However, I would contend that (A) not every team that gets one bullet will win with it, and what would we think of Chicago now if they’d lost in the conference final? And (B) most fans don’t want their team to win once, they want their team to dominate in a sustained way, holding out the prospect of multiple Cup wins per generation of players. With that goal in mind, storing your draft picks for a couple of extra development years, while taking the time to get the other support pieces you need in a price/term structure that you can live with, makes a helluva lot more sense.]

Check out the data at The Copper & Blue. (I loves me some multivocal Oilers blogging. It’s as smart as traditional Oilers blogging, but less likely to rip off your head and shit down your neck if you make it angry).


TCO348 said...

Great essy as usual. Your timing stinks though - Price just had a 34 save shutout last night.

On the putting teenagers into the NHL thing - If the team is bad and isn't going to make the playoffs why not give the fans something to be excited about? Also I do think playing against better competition accelerates development unless the competition is too good. I think the Isles did the right thing by sending Nino back to Portland. I really wish they could loan him to a team in the Swiss A league for 2 yrs so he could play against better competition than major junior A provides and then introduce him to the NHL at age 20. I don't think juniors will push him enough but in the NHL he was just struggling to keep his head above water. I liken it to a video game. If you start playing Tetris on level 10 you'll never make any progress. You'll just fail every time. But if you progress through the levels gradually, but always pushing yourself to get better, you'll progress the fastest.

E said...

That's great for Price, but it doesn't materially affect my position, being as how he's 23 now. My point is, was he worth the acceleration to have in the NHL at 20-21?

I'm not arguing that kids who come into the League young are not going to develop into good players. Of course they are. Almost everyone who starts at 18 becomes good in the end. My point is that they're not usually good at the beginning, and given that the beginning is where you get them at the best value, it makes sense to get the most out of those years. I don't think that the 18-19 seasons meet that standard, in most cases.

The key point, which I probably didn't emphasize enough, is the structure of the CBA. If this was 1963 and you could hold the rights to your players in perpetuity, then by all means, put them on the NHL club whenever you want. A few years of struggle, in that case, aren't wasted time- you have all the time you need. But now, you have to pay your stars at reasonable value after three years or they're apt to get poached. Meaning you have to have the cap space or the cap management skills to give the kid- who is still mostly potential even at 20- what he deserves without sacrificing anything else. No few teams have gotten themselves into awkward situations that way, and I think it's one of those difficulties that could be easily avoided.

Ranger Rick said...

Well hopefully Skinner is the exception that proves the rule. So far he's on fire scoring-wise with a point a game and while his plus/minus is a 0, at least he's not (yet) been a huge defensive liability.

If nothing else, we Hurricanes fans were prepared for a potentially depressing rebuilding year; as a season ticket holder I can tell you that even if we lose every game, Skinner is a joy to watch on the ice and it's helping make it worth hanging in there. Staying in the mix for the playoffs is just the icing on the cake.

In a smaller market and a down economy, something fun to watch on the ice might be a part of the considerations by the team, and not just purely his development. I'm heartened by the fact that the Hurricanes organization has been paying attention to him closely for a while, and feel he's ready. So far that's proving to be the case...

Doogie2K said...

I loves me some multivocal Oilers blogging. It’s as smart as traditional Oilers blogging, but less likely to rip off your head and shit down your neck if you make it angry

That's because the real angry fuckers tend to keep to themselves these days.

E said...

rick- the promotional value is a different issue, and certainly deserves some consideration. wherever a team is in a precarious position, in terms of attendance and income, other considerations will have to overshadow hockey decisions sometimes. i think the necessity of playing the teenage future star is often overstated (i.e. i really don't believe fans in most cities would abandon the team in droves because they can't see tavares/stamkos/hall/seguin/whoever), but in some cases it probably isn't. i just don't want a publicity decision to masquerade as a hockey decision.

doogie- they've given up on the rest of us... we're hopeless, we are.

saskhab said...

I have seen players simply coast through a season of junior hockey, thinking they are too good for it. It doesn't seem to wreck their career, but maybe it has some longer lasting effect. Recent wasted years that come to mind: Ryan Getzlaf and Cam Barker's last years of junior. Getzlaf sparked up for the World Jrs, but outside of that seemed to just go through the motions more often than not. Ryan Ellis seems to be going through it this year.

Part of the problem is that it's a NHL vs. junior debate: at 19, these guys probably shouldn't be bound to play in junior. Playing in Europe, or in the AHL, is a reasonable alternative, but that's not the deal between the NHL and CHL.

Anonymous said...

Nice timing on this article. I've recently been watching Cam Fowler, who the Ducks have added to their roster at the baby-faced age of 18. To keep this young boy (and he really is a boy) away from the temptations of Newport Beach and its environs, the Ducks have opted to go the Crosby/Lemieux route and board him with Scott Niedermayer and his family..without a car no less. I'm surprised this hasn't received more media, but perhaps this is a good thing as it will quietly allow this kid to develop into a man.

We shall see how Fowler handles the stress of playing in the NHL, particularly if his team should make it to playoffs.

Scott Reynolds said...

Excellent article, E, and fun to read now that we'r halfway through the season (I'm not sure how I missed it earlier). I tend to agree with your perspective on this issue, and wish the Oilers would have handled things differently, although I must admit that it's been fun to watch the rookie forwards improve over the course of the year. On the "bright side", it looks like they'll have another chance at this thing again next September.

A quick quibble: While I'm sure that you're correct that talent dilution has played a big part in the increase of young players in the league, it's important to note that 18 and 19 year olds weren't permitted to play to pro hockey until the WHA decided that was silly. They didn't get to the NHL until the merger of the two leagues for the 1979-80 season.

E said...

hmmm.... then what's up with this?

it's got 18-year-olds listed going back to the 40s, including the bobbies orr and hull. am i missing something?

Scott Reynolds said...

Yeah, that's my mistake. They only had that 20 y/o rule starting in 1969, and it only lasted about a decade (to 1979 or 1980). Even then, it doesn't seem like they were consistent since 18 y/o's could be drafted by NHL teams in 1974 (which is how Mario Tremblay gets in). At any rate, that rule change may help to explain the lack of young'uns in the 70's.