NHL draft: ‘It’s all guesswork,’ professor says

Jul 02, 2013

The following article was published by Toronto Star on June 29, 2013.

Peter Tingling, a business professor at Simon Fraser University who has analyzed years of NHL drafts, says the notion that some teams are particularly good at making draft decisions is a myth.

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Professor Peter Tingling, Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University

NEWARK, N.J.—This is the day NHL general managers will boast that they can’t believe a certain player was still around.

This is the day that will give rise to those backstories down the road about the guy taken in the fifth round who scores the winning goal in the Stanley Cup final.

The top of Sunday’s NHL draft is almost too easy to predict. We know Nathan MacKinnon, Seth Jones and Jonathan Drouin are going to be taken, just not the order. It’s the bottom of the draft where careers are made and myths are born.

It’s all a bit much to Peter Tingling, a business professor at Simon Fraser University in B.C. who has analyzed years of NHL drafts looking for insight into how decisions are made.

His conclusion:

“It’s all guesswork,” asserts the professor. “Our research says nobody is particularly good at making (draft) decisions. There are people who have the reputation of having made great decisions. There’s this myth of Detroit as a great late-round chooser.

“I would tell you it’s a bit of a myth. They do a great job (scouting) in Europe, not so good in North America. But what Detroit is absolutely tremendous at is retaining and developing players.

“At some point, drafting well is useless if you can’t develop and retain (the players), as many teams know.”

Tingling looked at the 1995-2003 draft years — he even presented a paper called “Better off Guessing” before reaching his conclusions.

“What teams are really good? “ said Tingling. “The short answer is no team is consistently good. Central Scouting does an amazing job of identifying the first 60, 70 players, maybe 100. After that, it basically flatlines.

“There doesn’t appear to be any decision process at all,” added Tingling. “Teams generally hope to not be unlucky in the first round.”

Some findings:

  • A top-10 pick works out 88 per cent of the time.
  • An 11-to-30 pick works out about 65 per cent of the time.
  • A pick in rounds 2 and 3 works out about 22 per cent of the time.
  • A pick in rounds 4 to 7 works out about 12 per cent of the time.

Tingling defines a player who got into at least 160 NHL games as one who worked out.

He’s noticed a couple of other trends along the way. For instance, NHL GMs last about 5.4 years in the job. Those who are early in their tenure take more risks than those in the later years of their tenure.

This particular scenario fits the new front office in Colorado of Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy. They face a great deal of pressure to pick Jones, the local product deemed by Central Scouting to be the No.1 skater in the draft. The Avs have made it clear they’re not taking Jones first overall and they’ve been very loud about possibly trading the pick.

“It would take an incredibly bold GM to not pick the top one or two guys,” said Tingling. “It also depends on how long you’ve been GM for.

“When you’re a GM in the early part of your tenure, you could probably afford to take a few risks. Toward the end, your leash is shortened, you have to make more conforming decisions in many ways.”

Most teams say the goal in the seven-round draft is to go seven-for-seven. None have. But it is possible, says Tingling, because every year late-round draft picks make it

“Very few teams actually measure their scouts in terms of the quality of their decision making,” said Tingling. “Success has many fathers and failure is an orphan.”

He cites the story of some Ottawa scouts telling their GM in 1992 that the Senators should pick Chris Pronger instead of Alexandre Daigle. The pressure was on the Sens to take a francophone scoring phenom.

“Wouldn’t you want to know who those scouts were? That’s the key question,” Tingling said. “People don’t really track that stuff, and they probably should.

“I would say NHL scouts have a memory somewhere between a goldfish and a mutual fund manager.”

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