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Debriefing the Canadiens' 2013 Draft

In about five years, we will know how many successful players the 2013 draft yielded the Montreal Canadiens, but waiting those years to evaluate this draft would be a mistake. The time to judge is now.

Bruce Bennett

"If they pick McCarron, I'm throwing my laptop," I said with a growing sense of impending doom as Montreal Canadiens' GM Marc Bergevin stepped to the podium. I wouldn't have even considered it until TSN analyst Bob McKenzie pointed the hulking American out as a possibility seconds before. Timmins made the selection, and the laptop was tossed on the floor. It was an emotional reaction after a long wait, that felt appropriate at the time, but in the end doesn't really represent my feelings on this, the 2013 NHL Draft. Now, a week later, I feel I've collected my thoughts and unwound enough to make a fair judgment about all of what we saw. But I know that some people are already rolling their eyes, so I don't want to start there.

Over the past few days, I've noticed an abundance of tweets of this nature. Following the draft, there was a significant amount of backlash, and I was no small part of it, at the Canadiens for the picks they made throughout the day. This led to many striking back with things like "Five hours ago you were behind Timmins and now you're at his throat," and "Nobody has any idea how these players will end up, so lay off." There were obviously variations, but I think those were the two main categories of responses, and I want to give each of them some space.

First of all, I will be the first to stand up and defend Trevor Timmins for what he's done in his 10 years with this organization. I wrote this piece to open my coverage of this year's draft, and I've spoken, written, and tweeted glowingly about him in the past. He's a man who hasn't been afraid to take risks, hasn't folded to the increasing pressure to draft francophones, and has managed to steer clear, for the most part, of the "size above skill" movement. But this draft was different. We know it was different because we heard it. The Canadiens felt that they needed to draft for need, rather than take the best player available. I don't know if it was a Timmins move or a Bergevin move, although I would suspect more the latter, but it is a fact. Different people have different philosophies on drafting, and mine on the most basic level is to take the best player available. I will go into this more later, but the team's change in philosophy from BPA to need is the biggest reason why I was critical on draft day.

This tweet caught my eye last week and although it's talking about trades, I think we can apply it to draft picks (and now signings, following the Briere deal) as well. There is so much variation and randomness involved in the moves a general manager makes, that waiting five years to evaluate something isn't giving you a clearer view of who was right and who was wrong, it's in fact clouding your judgment. You can, and should, judge a trade at the time it happens, just like a general manager should; you do it by relying on available information at the time.

I don't want to pick on Eric here, but he happened to be discussing this at the right time, so I "went there". It's weird; whenever a GM makes a big trade, people who may not know Cory Schneider's first name come jumping out of the woodwork with their opinions: "Vancouver didn't get enough in return." "Schneider is overhyped." "Should have traded Luongo." But as soon as draft picks come into the equation, the refrain is: "We don't know anything; trust the GM."

I would find it quite interesting if it didn't so piss me off. Over the past month, I've spent close to 100 hours reading the opinions of scouts of all backgrounds; I've spent my own money on guides and resources; I've pored over YouTube highlights and montages; and I've written previews of players and examined trends with the hope of learning as much could be possibly gleaned about this draft class, so that I could pass that knowledge on to readers. I am by no means an expert. I've never seen any of these kids play in person, and I don't have dozens of years of experience. But, just as I could make a judgment on a trade of NHL player for NHL player based on statistics, viewings, and my philosophy on building a team and winning, I can do the same for draft picks. Most people can't, at least not to the same extent, because they aren't hockey geeks like those of us that take the time to know what can be known. But we don't have to blindly trust scouts; nobody does.

"Experts know what they need to know" is a cop-out, maybe even more so than "we can only judge this trade in five years". If history has shown anything, it's that general managers are anything but flawless, and whether you're a fan, an employee, a blogger, a radio host, or a player, with sound reasoning you can be right, and GMs can be wrong. In 2009, Bob Gainey was wrong about Scott Gomez and was wrong about Ryan McDonagh. I don't judge the trade from today, because that's irrelevant. I judged it the day it happened. I knew that Gomez had a horrific contract and was on the decline, and I knew that Ryan McDonagh was a terrific prospect, both my and the Canadiens' top target at the 2007 draft. The same can be said for when Paul Holmgren signed Ilya Bryzgalov to that monstrosity of a contract. The same is now being said about Don Maloney and Mike Smith. The signing won't be a mistake in five years; the signing is a mistake now, as the next six years will almost certainly prove.

Why does this also apply to draft picks? Just like trades, draft picks are about probabilities. Mike Smith might replicate his success from 2012 and be an all-star goalie for the next six years, but it's far more likely that he's a one-hit wonder and a dud. If the former occurs, I'm sure that Don Maloney will talk in six years about how he saw something in practice that made him sure that the Kingston native was the real deal. But I'm sure Holmgren thought he saw the same thing in Bryzgalov. It's what the Avalanche most likely saw in Nathan MacKinnon at the Memorial Cup, and what the Blues thought they saw in Erik Johnson, and what the Whalers saw in Chris Pronger, and what the Thrashers thought they saw in Patrik Stefan. Some prospects work out, and others don't, but there is luck involved, and there is development involved. It's important to remember that not all busts are alike. Just like in school, the process is more important than the result. And that brings us to the Canadiens' 2013 draft.

I was thinking a little while ago about the proper way to analyze a draft in the immediate aftermath, and I stumbled upon an article by Corey Pronman of Hockey Prospectus that really captured the essence of how I too felt about the process. He offered a step-by-step process of debriefing that I figured I'd follow in my assessment of the Habs' efforts on Sunday. The steps are copied below.

1. Analyze the type of player and the type of skills you would want a team to emphasize. There will be no right answer, so don't look for one. Form an opinion based on whatever it is you can, be it some form of objective analysis such a market analysis of value and development risk, your personal subjective opinion from hockey experiences, or a poll of friends, fans, or scouts, or whatever else you can find. Take this information and form your opinion about the skills and kinds of players to prioritize for player acquisitions and use this as the basis of your argument. Also keep in mind that this can fluctuate depending on the year. I have talked to teams who will draft for position depending on the look of their organization in a given year or if they wanted players who could fast track to the NHL.

If you've been reading this site for a while, it won't come as a big surprise that we value puck possession as a critical element for a player and the most important factor in a team or individual's success. The issue is that, particularly when scouting prospects without the availability of statistics like Corsi and Fenwick, possession is hard to define. What are the attributes that one looks for in concluding that a player will develop into a possession beast? Well, I'd say that "hockey sense" is the most important attribute. The ability to go to the right place at the right time to accept a pass, cash in on a rebound, or just find room to maneuver can overcome many deficiencies, and the smarts to make the right decisions with or without the puck are also key. It is these traits that have allowed players like Claude Giroux and Martin St. Louis to become superstars without the size to win many battles either along the boards or in front of the net. It's also what has expedited the development of Charles Hudon, whom the Canadiens selected in the fifth round last year. Other more obvious attributes like skating, passing, shooting, defensive awareness, and physical play are also important, but it's more about how they use them than anything else.

Perhaps the most important aspect of my draft ideology is with regards to risk and reward. In today's NHL, it's more than obvious that you need to win through the draft. Many interpret this as meaning you need to tank to acquire superstars, but that's just not the case. It does mean, however, that you need to take some risks. When the Philadelphia Flyers drafted Claude Giroux 22nd overall in 2006, GM Paul Holmgren said the following:

"Traditionally we have targetted bigger, more physical players, but Claude was a player high on our list. We view him as an excellent blend of skill and smarts, and a player with a very competitive attitude and a definite desire to win."

In other words, they took a risk. They gambled that a small player who shied away from physical contact could use his skill and his hockey IQ to make it to the NHL, and thrive there. Many times, a team will strike out on a first- or second-round pick when choosing a guy like Giroux. Guys like Gilbert Brule come to mind. But, in my mind, going 1/5 on a potential star is better than going 4/5 on potential grinders. Drafting Mike Rupp isn't going to win you a cup. Drafting Patrice Bergeron is going to win you a cup. This is a strategy that the Canadiens haven't always had success with. Andrei Kostitsyn obviously didn't pan out as hoped, but Max Pacioretty certainly did. But, over the long term, it will prove to be rewarding with enough patience. You can always sign a depth player as a free agent, but as people like to say about top-line forwards and top-pairing defensemen, "you just can't find these guys."

2. Assess the qualitative information of a particular player. A team may have drafted a certain forward because they saw him as a high-end skater with above average hands and an elite physical game. Is this true? Well, you'll never define true, but you can certainly argue those points. A common benchmark for skills would obviously need to be identified, but once you do that, you can argue that more easily. It's commonplace for two scouts to watch the same player, in the same game, and come away with different conclusions. Watch the player yourself, talk to scouts, read up on the player, and form an assessment of the player. You can do this even if you don't know what you're talking about and go for a complete secondhand assessment. Then apply this information to what you did in step one, where you defined what a good player is, and see where this prospect stacks up from a value standpoint. Also very importantly, assess this player's skills from and only from the decision point of the draft pick. As I stated at the beginning, the decision point is where the evaluation has to take place. Players do develop, but assessing development is a whole other column where the player, the team's development executives, and unforeseen circumstances can affect the process and usually a combination does.

There's a lot in this second category of evaluation and the most difficult point to assess is the first one. The only glimpse into the reasoning of Bergevin and Timmins that we have are their quotes, but I'm just going to address those briefly since they're only really a snapshot. But look at what the Canadiens' Head of Player Procurement had to say about the guy who was on the top of my list when the Canadiens drafted at 25, 34, and 36, Russian winger Valentin Zykov:

"I know he's a heck of a person and a heck of a goal-scorer. He comes up to spend a week in the summer with my friend and skate in my hometown so I know quite a bit about him. He's gonna have a good NHL career."

Now compare that to his brief assessment of Canadiens' second-round pick (34th overall) Jacob de la Rose:

"You guys are gonna like this guy. He brings it every shift of every game. He's the leader of that team. He's already played with men for two seasons." -De La Rose

Now, again, I refuse to read too much into any of this, but fluff aside, if you know a prospect well and you feel he is going to have a good NHL career, why do you pass him up for a guy that brings "intensity" and "leadership"? I like De La Rose, but if you spit out even two sentences about a guy and don't mention any actual skills, that's probably not a guy I would take over a 40-goal scorer from the QMJHL. Anyway, let's look at some of Timmins' other quotes:

On Finnish second-rounder Artturi Lehkonen:

"He's 5'11" but he's a world class player. He was the leader of the Finnish under-18 team, their best forward. He's already playing in the Finnish elite league and producing. he's a goal-scorer, a character guy, with really really good hockey sense."

This is more in line with the type of pick I was hoping for, as I had Lehkonen ranked in my top-30. Timmins' view on the player also seems to align with my research on him, as the consensus seems to be that he has a great shot, great hockey sense, and has fared extremely well playing in the top league in Finland.

On fourth-rounder Martin Reway:

"He's a homerun swing. He's undersized but so was Gallagher. He's got that grit that you need to survive as a small player. He's a heck of a talent."

Don't have much to say here but as is clear from my draft philosophy above, I like homerun swings.

On third-rounder Connor Crisp:

"He's a heck of an athlete and he's tough. Yes, we addressed a need drafting him. At some point, you have to. He was out there to protect Connor McDavid and he scored a few goals as well"

This is where I really have an issue with how the Canadiens approached this draft. Yes, there's a chance that Crisp miraculously develops into the next Brandon Prust, but when Crisp was selected, left on the board were Pavel Buchnevich, Taylor Cammarata, Anthony Duclair, Jimmy Lodge, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Bogdan Yakimov, Jordan Subban, and others with high offensive potential, who we could one day be reading about as stars. Yes, Trevor, you need "character" players in your lineup, but those are guys you can sign as free agents, and as studies have shown, those guys are often failed first-round picks. No need to go out of your way to draft them with early- to mid-round picks.

3. Evaluate a player's performance through quantitative measures. As I also said previously, stats do have value and you should use them. This could be something like points, league quality, or any other measure you can find. However, there is certainly a limitation, due to sample size, a significant lack of context, and the fact players' true talent level at young ages will usually change. Basic statistics also need to be adjusted for a host of things to maximize their value.

I intentionally left first-round pick Michael McCarron out of the last section because Timmins didn't talk much about him, and I'm going to address the oversized forward here. Unfortunately, as we all know, there aren't many junior-level statistics available for us, so from a quantitative perspective we need to make the best of what we have. McCarron says he models his game after Milan Lucic, so my first thought was to compare his draft year numbers with the Bruins' power forward. But, unfortunately, Lucic played in the WHL with the Vancouver Giants, while of course McCarron played in the USHL with the U.S. National Team Development Program U-18 squad. So, what I decided to do instead was to compare the available stats of every player drafted out of the U.S. NTDP in the first or second round in the last decade. That should at least give us an idea of the upside that McCarron holds, and the probability that he can reach it. The height and weight listed are current measurements - weight is in pounds - while the other numbers are from each player's draft year.

Year Pick First Name Last Name Position Height Weight GP G A PTS PIM PTS/G
2007 2 James Van Riemsdyk LW 6'3" 200 42 33 30 63 63 1.50
2011 33 Rocco Grimaldi LW 5'6" 170 58 39 34 73 65 1.26
2009 45 Jeremy Morin LW 6'1" 192 55 33 26 59 107 1.07
2011 15 JT Miller LW 6'1" 200 35 12 23 35 38 1.00
2005 34 Ryan Stoa C 6'3" 212 38 14 24 38 36 1.00
2013 35 JT Compher LW 5'11" 184 52 18 32 50 51 0.96
2010 59 Jason Zucker LW 5'11" 180 38 18 17 35 24 0.92
2009 26 Kyle Palmieri RW 5'10" 194 33 15 15 30 51 0.91
2012 36 Nicolas Kerdiles LW 6'1" 190 54 22 26 48 38 0.89
2005 7 Jack Skille RW 6'1" 215 42 15 22 37 56 0.88
2009 44 Drew Shore C 6'2" 190 62 17 32 49 46 0.79
2009 50 Kenny Ryan RW 6'0" 209 62 27 22 49 50 0.79
2006 56 Blake Geoffrion LW 6'2" 187 54 18 23 41 68 0.76
2007 57 Mike Hoeffel LW 6'3" 194 44 16 7 33 28 0.75
2009 56 Kevin Lynch C 6'1" 205 63 24 23 47 54 0.75
2012 29 Stefan Matteau RW 6'2" 210 46 15 17 32 166 0.70
2008 56 Danny Kristo RW 5'11" 185 55 21 17 38 49 0.69
2013 25 Michael McCarron RW 6'5" 225 59 16 21 37 182 0.63
2009 36 Chris Brown C 6'2" 191 62 20 18 38 120 0.61
2011 22 Tyler Biggs RW 6'3" 224 55 19 12 31 161 0.56
2004 57 Geoff Paukovich LW 6'4" 209 56 10 11 21 79 0.38

There's obviously a lot of variation here, especially considering that a guy like Van Riemsdyk was a second-overall pick, not in the same range as a McCarron. It's also true that the fates of many of these players are still to be determined. But what we can see is that our Canadiens' draftee is low down on this list. His closest comparable, all things considered, would have to be Toronto Maple Leafs' draft pick Tyler Biggs, who went on to split a couple of sub-par years between the NCAA and the OHL, before making his debut with the Marlies in the AHL. It's too early to say that Biggs is a bust, but I don't think you'll find many smart Leafs fans applauding the pick two years later, especially with guys like Vladimir Namestikov and Ty Rattie still on the board.

In the end, just as Mike Smith could end up as one of the best goalies in the NHL for the next six years, Michael McCarron could wind up as the next Milan Lucic. But that won't necessarily have made Timmins right. It's clear from his comments that the Canadiens weren't taking the best player available; they were taking the wrong kind of risk. And most likely, when all is said and done, they will be burned.