“It’s not you, Jake. It’s me.”
When we’re talking about player evaluations, it often seems like we get caught up in the whole black-or-white, he’s-either-good-or-bad-there-is-no-alternative train of thought. While it’s tempting to fall into this, the fact of the matter is that there’s a hell of a lot of grey area when it comes to ranking players because no one really understands exactly how hockey works yet (similarly, no one really understands how gravity works either but that doesn’t stop physicists from creating very accurate and detailed models based on what the best available approximations and theories tell us. This is a long-winded way of saying that Corsi, Fenwick and possession theory are our best available approximations of understanding hockey and yes we totally can accurately analyze hockey with numbers, you guys. But, I digress).
Similarly, there’s a ton of grey area when ranking prospects, and perhaps the most contentious ranking we at Canucks Army have had is that of Jake Virtanen. Virtanen has a lot of good things going for him – he led all first-time draft eligible players in even strength goals, possesses a great shot relative to other CHLers, and is by all accounts one of the most “toolsy” players in the draft. In other words, he’s a good NHL prospect.
Vancouver, however, would be smart to avoid Virtanen at 6th overall. Read past the jump to find out why.
The argument against drafting Jake Virtanen isn’t so much anti-Virtanen as it is pro-other guys that will or should be on the board at 6th overall. Like I said, Virtanen is a really, really good junior who possesses a set of physical tools tantalizing enough to easily talk yourself into coveting. Cam did a good job profiling him here in the intro to our Prospect Profiles series, and mentioned that Virtanen’s production this year “being fully indicative of his talent” is “not a safe bet.”
While we can debate the ins-and-outs of whether or not Virtanen’s numbers accurately reflected his play this year (before we continue, it is worth noting that despite a strong record, the Calgary Hitmen were not a very good possession team and a PDO-driven mirage for most of the year, so Virtanen’s offensive numbers being deflated by poor shooting luck seems incredibly unlikely), but we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt here and assume his production is “real.” The point I want to focus on here is the “making safe bets” part.
On Bets, Costs, and Draft Theory
More than anything, a draft pick is a bet. When an NHL team selects a given player, they are essentially saying “we bet that this player holds more future utility to us than any other player we could have selected at this time.” Of course, you can’t know anything for sure with prospects, so this statement carries a lot of uncertainty. Not only that, but selecting a player carries an opportunity cost component that has to be considered. If you’ve never taken an economics course, an opportunity cost is the cost associated with the best available alternative course of action not selected.
For example, Vancouver selected Nathan Smith in the first round of the 2000 entry draft. The best available alternative at the time as determined by our “fixed” Sham Sharron model (that we’ll roll out in full before the draft) was Justin Williams. Williams has played 837 career NHL games, carrying a career GVT of 109.7. Following the logic outlined in this Michael Shuckers paper, we can say that from 2000 to 2014, the opportunity cost for selecting Smith over Williams was between $24 million and $37 million. In other words, since Smith provided next to no value in his NHL career, the Vancouver Canucks lost between $24-$36 million in player value because of the decision to draft Nathan Smith.
Now, obviously this is an extreme example and quite often the actual value of a drafted player will exceed the opportunity cost associated with the best available alternative, leading to a net benefit for teams. The goal then should be to realize the greatest net benefit possible at each draft position, which is a fancy way of saying that a team should want to draft the guy who’s going to be the best NHLer, regardless of position or organizational needs.
What Really is a “Safe” Draft Pick?
The multi-million dollar question then is how does an NHL team make the best bets? Which prospects are the “safest” and most likely to make the NHL? Which ones are most likely to be superstar players? To begin to get an answer for this, I’ll direct you to two of my favourite prospect-related posts ever, courtesy of Gabe Desjardins at Arctic Ice Hockey. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here.
If you’re like me and too lazy to click and read links embedded in an article, this heat chart is essentially the major takeaway:
The pattern here is pretty clear: the more points a player scores at their given age, the more likely they are to become an NHLer. The safest bets are simply the guys that score the most.
This problem here is that this chart lumps all scorers together indiscriminately. Not all point-per-game players are created equal though. Some guys are 5’9 and never get a real NHL look, either because they don’t possess the tools to translate their junior success to NHL success, or because coaches and GMs are saddled with horrific biases and never give them a fair shot – the reason you believe depends on how cynical you are. The point is we should look at pedigree as well as production to get a true sense of what we can expect from a prospect, given the guys who were regarded as highly as him and produced points at the same level.
We can do this by adjusting offensive output for player age and era (I’ve outlined how to do that in this post), comparing scoring with previous first round picks – guys who were highly regarded by scouts for one reason or another – and seeing if any patterns emerge. We’ll first look at players who had a similar pedigree to Jake Virtanen and produced within 10% of his adjusted draft year points per game:
Overall, that’s not a bad group of names by any stretch. Jeff Carter, Gabriel Landeskog, and Ryan Johansen are all legitimate top-6 if not top-3 NHL forwards and certainly are guys that you want on your team. It’s reasonable then to say that those guys are Virtanen’s ceiling. He has a chance to reach that level if everything goes perfectly and his development isn’t hindered in any way.
On the flip side, Virtanen’s very closest comparable is Kyle Beach. There are also guys in this sample like Ryan O’Marra and Alex Picard, and Marc-Antoine Pouliot too – total washouts at the NHL level and complete draft busts. There are about as many of these guys as there are legitimate top-6 forwards, so based on our one year of data, it’s probably equally likely that Virtanen is a total draft bust as it is that Virtanen becomes a top line player.
The most probable outcome likely lies somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. Here, it’s Virtanen becoming a guy like Mikkel Boedker or Devin Setoguchi or Wojtek Wolski; a useful middle-6 forward best suited to a complimentary role. Overall, that’s not a bad range of outcomes, and barring the still-young group of Noesen, Danault, Klimchuk, and Puempel all busting, it means that Jake Virtanen is likely going to be a regular NHLer. It’s a horribly boring conclusion to come to, but Virtanen is a good prospect and these are the types of boring, non-committal conclusions you draw from just analyzing good prospects. He may be X, he may be Y.
However, as I mentioned earlier, drafting Jake Virtanen isn’t just about getting Jake Virtanen in your organization. It’s also about passing up on the opportunity to draft some other guy who is the best available alternative to Virtanen. Based on what Gabe Desjardins findings described earlier (more points = more success), the best available player that we can compare to Virtanen (sorry, Willie Nylander) is Halifax Mooseheads forward Nikolaj Ehlers. Let’s look at his comparables:
Ehlers is keeping some pretty elite company. His closest comparable is none other than Steven Stamkos, and his floor appears to be what we can infer is Virtanen’s most likely career outcome: a useful mid-6 complimentary forward like Derrick Brassard. Once again, Ehlers is probably as unlikely to reach John Tavares/Steve Stamkos levels as he is to only perform at his floor level, so we can say that his most likely career path is that of a very good 1st line forward.
Another way to look at it is that you have the choice between selecting one random player from Jake Virtanen’s bin or one random player from Nik Ehlers’ bin. If you’re a rational person, you’re going to choose from Ehlers’ bin 10 times out of 10. There’s a larger chance of finding an elite player, a lower chance of finding an outright bust, and the average player you select will be better than the average player from Virtanen’s bin.
So to sum it up, we can draw the following conclusions about Jake Virtanen vs. the best available alternative, Nikolaj Ehlers:
- Ehlers carries less risk of busting than Virtanen
- Ehlers has a higher ceiling than Virtanen
- Ehlers has a higher floor than Virtanen
- Ehlers’ most likely career outcome is probably better than Virtanen’s
Parting Notes on Nikolaj Ehlers
In this exercise, we gave both Ehlers and Virtanen the benefit of the doubt and assumed their draft-year production was “real” and not inflated in any meaningful way. While this may not be true for either player, there is probably more concern surrounding Ehlers than there is Virtanen. While Virtanen did play with a couple of more talented/older offensive players in Greg Chase, Brady Brassart, and Adam Tambellini, Ehlers shared a team with Jonathan Drouin, who is definitely and unquestionably an elite offensive talent.
Because of this, we should look to see if Drouin was driving the bus in any major way. Fortunately for Canucks fans, friend-of-the-blog @MoneyPuck_ has painstakingly scraped a whole whack of Halifax Mooseheads data by hand, and found some pretty encouraging things about Ehlers. First of all, Ehlers’ main linemates at 5v5 were Brent Andrews and Andrew Ryan, two guys who appear to be passengers:
The majority of Ehlers’ even strength offence (around 70%) also came with Drouin on the bench, so he was pretty clearly driving the bus for his line at even strength. What’s more surprising though is that Ehlers saw better results at even strength than Drouin did, as he outscored his opponents by a wider margin on a per-game basis:
The smaller GF and GA values in the “Together” column indicate that Ehlers and Drouin both spent more time apart at 5v5 than they did together. Ehlers’ 59 ES points also rank him 4th among all draft eligible CHLers behind only Nikolay Goldobin (67), Josh Ho-Sang (61), and Sam Reinhart (60). Ehlers was also on-ice for a larger portion of his teams’ goals than Drouin was, but some of this can be attributed to Ehlers having played more games:
The powerplay was a different story, however. Drouin and Ehlers played together with the man advantage and were pretty lethal:
Ehlers totaled 35 powerplay points, 24 with Drouin on the ice. Only Michael Dal Colle (43) and Sam Reinhart (40) were more prolific with the man advantage among draft eligible players.
While the presence of Jonathan Drouin more than likely helped Ehlers in some regard, there is no real evidence to suggest that Ehlers’ output is a teammate-driven illusion. He spent minimal time with Drouin at even strength and still finished with an elite point total, and looked more than capable of producing on his own in any situation. All indicators point towards Nikolaj Ehlers being a legitimate top prospect and the best likely available player at 6th overall.