Believing in hockey

This next entry was originally the first thing I wrote for the Fake GM files.  I made a decision to hold off on it, however.  Dramatically, I wanted to introduce characters instead of waxing philosophical.  And I also wanted an entry to tide me over while I simmed through the dog days.  I had a general idea that my team wouldn’t be very active between the draft and training camp.  (It’s good to be the guy in charge of the decisions, and not just the author.)

Well, it’s time.  I gratefully credit “SnarkSD,” whose article at Behind the Net, “The Sample Size War: How Long is a Typical NHL Career?” was the source of the 117 and 410 game statistic quoted below.  For other information on how many draftees make the league and how many players appear in X number of games each season, I went to and counted my way through the various draft records, going back to 1987, and did some math.  Therefore, any errors in the percentages there are exclusively mine.

AUGUST 2, 2021

“Quite honestly?” Beginner says.  “I hate nostalgia.”

There’s laughter around the room.  Beginner himself is wearing the lopsided half-grin he favors when he knows he sounds ridiculous but thinks he has a point.

“I will admit,” he continues, “I AM nostalgic.  But there’s a difference.  Nostalgia makes it harder to do my job.”

He looks ready to continue but Joe McDonough jumps in: “Mike, you’re not nostalgic.  You’re sentimental.  You talk about these draftees like rescue puppies.”

There’s more and louder laughter, Beginner included.

“It’s like you’re pre-nostalgic or something,” Ryan McGill agrees.  “You want these kids to make it so badly you think forward fondly on the careers they ought to have.”

“And they can’t all have those kinds of careers,” Beginner says.  “I know.”

The numbers are certainly against the nostalgic, or the sentimental.  Every member club of the National Hockey League has 21 skaters and 2 goalies on their active roster – 690 jobs – and every June, 210 hopeful 18-to-21-year olds are drafted in the hopes of filling some of them.  In practice, of course, thanks to injuries and slumps and other vagaries of performance in top-flight hockey, there are more openings: over 900 different people appear in an NHL game at some time in the course of the average regular season.  But nobody is born dreaming of a long hockey career with occasional stayovers in the NHL.  They all want to be stars, or at least regulars… it’s usually the realization of how hard it is to hold a regular NHL job that makes a player grateful for even the smallest glimpse of it.  And make no mistake – it’s hard.

Every season, 150 or so NHL skaters play in 80 or more of their team’s games, so right off, five of the eighteen skater slots on an active NHL roster are spoken for.  Another 100-125 men skate in 75 or more games, so four more roster slots are gone.  That’s half the team.  For a goalie it’s worse – up to two dozen of them typically play in 50 of their team’s games, and another two dozen or so are regular backups (20+ games); this uses fifty of the sixty available NHL jobs.  Fewer than 90 goalies play an NHL game in any given season.

So, those 210 draftees are competing, effectively, for far fewer than the overall total of 900 jobs, of which only about 525 are regular (50 or more games played).  Once you consider that you’ve got kids from several drafts all looking for that break, along with a dozen some-odd undrafted free agents each year, you get a true idea of the uphill climb, even among those skilled enough to merit serious scrutiny.

Approximately 200-250 men will get into ten or more games, as emergency fill-ins or rookies getting their first taste of maximum hockey.  Faltering at this middle stage is what really wipes out the advancing ranks.  A lottery pick may be presumed to have enough talent to give him many second chances and survive some early struggles, but lower-round draftees are presumed to be readily replaceable, and poor play in ten or twenty games is usually enough to convince teams that such a player cannot be trusted with more.  Thus, a man who plays 117 NHL games in his lifetime has beaten the total of fully half the players who have ever appeared in the NHL – and that’s just players who make it that far.  If we measure by those who go on to become regulars, the odds stack up higher.  Lasting 410 games – five full seasons – outdoes 75% of all NHL veterans.

Aside from official retirements, there are no hard-and-fast numbers for how many new jobs open each season: lesser and declining players moved out of lineups, players choosing to go overseas (whether for money, opportunity, or homesickness), and long-term injuries and recoveries.  Maybe two-fifths of a given draft class will see any NHL ice time at all.  A strong collection of picks may see one-sixth of its prospects reach the 410-game threshold.  And in any draft, there are only about a dozen or so of the chosen, the men durable and skilled enough to log 1000 games in a career (or 500, if one is a goalie).

If a team, in three drafts, picks 21 times, they can thus expect that a scant eight of those kids will make it all the way to the parent club; perhaps three or four will become passable regulars; and if even one of them is an All-Star, the team has done well.

At this point, Beginner has conducted five times’ that number of drafts.  That’s a lot of potential regret – sadness for the men who could never harness their talents or couldn’t stay healthy, who will always outnumber those who did, and far outnumber those who enjoyed long, good careers.  It’s a good reason for a sentimentally-inclined man to regret the part of his job that requires clear-eyed odds-playing and the bartering of players as assets instead of individuals.  One has to do it, however.  The distinction between nostalgic thinking and nostalgic action isn’t merely abstract.

Detractors always point to Beginner’s draft record, and truth be told, his draft acumen is not immediately impressive.  It’s worth noting now that he has yet to draft anyone who has managed 200 NHL goals or 500 NHL points – his very first draftee, Bryan Cameron, is closest to both with 176 goals and 470 points.  Ryan Wilson has 110 goals and 400 points (and, oddly, exactly 1000 penalty minutes), but as a defenseman he is tenuous to reach the second milestone and dubious to reach the first.  Both are at least likely to get to 1000 games, though, with Wilson’s 874 leading and Cameron up to 808.

After them are Kozack, now 29 years old, at 130 goals and 301 points, all with Florida; Cyr (now 27) has 78 and 258.  Valentin Murzin is well ahead of both of them in games, with 713, but he has only recently reached 100 goals and with 272 points, he is no sure bet to get to either of the scoring marks.

Considering the team’s players (Cerny included) have won three rookie-of-the-year awards and nine NHL all-rookie selections, their relative lack of career accomplishment is somewhat puzzling.  Cameron, for example, has had a 70-point season, but only one; Kozack is the same.  Cyr got close but has declined since.  None of them were ever been able to supplant the incumbents on the first line for long.  None of Beginner’s draftees has yet made First-Team All-NHL, except Cerny.

Most of Beginner’s successes are defenders like Wilson, like Laine, Ludvík, Oskar Nylander, and Roman Svoboda – they may log the games but are unlikely to generate eye-catching numbers.  His greatest success will likely be Cerny, the all-world goalie, who could merit the Hall of Fame with just a few more good years.  Most of the forwards Beginner has chosen seem to be of the reliable, bottom-six, role-playing variety.  It seems an odd record for such a successful club.  One expects to see more budding stars, even though the team has only had six top-ten picks in fifteen years, and two have yet to debut.

But it’s not for want of choosing promising kids.  Obviously, nobody from 2021 is in play yet, and let’s leave off the three drafts before that (2018-2020) since players selected then still have the potential to be impressive players.  In the other eleven drafts, Beginner has chosen 36 eventual NHL players out of 80 draftees, a solid 45%.  Of those, 22 have reached 117 games, and eight have already made it past 410.  Samuli Laine can make it nine if he plays a full season (he’s at 353 so far), and Artyem Filatov should get there early in the 2022-23 season.  Among these are players who surprise when you hear where he was originally drafted: Minnesota’s Anders Hansson, Calgary’s Dave McDonald, veterans forwards Matt Belich and Rob Czarnik, and defenders Brendon Walsh, Reggie Beaton, and David Vaughn.  The Panthers have long done a good job turning raw talent into actual players; they don’t always get the opportunity to stay in Sunrise.

“Look,” Beginner said to me once in the days that I was still his employee, “I’d love to draft three Hall-of-Famers every year.  It would make everyone’s life easier.  I’d love for our guys to lead the league in a bunch of stuff and win awards.  Nobody would be prouder for them.  But the important thing is to have winning teams.  Our guys turn into good players, and they win, and that’s what everyone aims for.  I’ll do it with rookies, or veterans, or free agents, or trades, or drafts; I don’t care how it looks or what people say about it.  Looks don’t win the Stanley Cup.”

Critics have a point about the team Beginner inherited: Nathan Horton, Jay Bouwmeester, and Olli Jokinen, with Anthony Stewart, Kenndal McArdle, Stephen Weiss, and Michael Frolik in the system.  One writer in particular – charitably, we’ll withhold the name – enjoys saying that he had as much to do with the Panthers’ successes as Beginner did.  Beginner’s tart reply: “Should we all give the rings back because they’re not pure enough?”  If stumbling into great players and winning is somehow a vice, how much worse would it be to inherit them and lose?  Someone had to give McArdle, Stewart, and Frolik their shots, while dealing other players who turned out to be less effective.  Someone had to trade for Kulyash, Josh Harding, Eric Brewer, Ruslan Fedotenko, and Alexander Vasyunov.

Joe McDonough actually had some thoughts on that.  “That first draft is pretty strong – Cameron, Wilson, Doronin.  Even John Hughes has made something of a career for himself now.  Then he went through some dry years, so he had to keep things going with trades and free agents, and then the guys after that are blocked, at least here.  But they’re going to get their chances now.”

Beginner, allegedly riding the coattails of others, has never entirely whiffed on a draft – zero NHLers – and in four separate drafts he found five.  It’s just very, VERY hard to find the few players in each draft year who are on a par with a Bouwmeester or Horton.  (And if you did have them – would you be in a big rush to replace them?)  Sometimes they’re consensus number-ones; sometimes they slide.  If you’re running a successful franchise, it’s hard to draft in the upper reaches, where the surer bets are placed.  And even drafting well means little if the player is poorly-developed – it’s one reason that the club’s main affiliate in Rochester has had the same head coach, Randy Cunneyworth, for all of Beginner’s tenure, and the same GM (Richard Bonner) for ten years.  Add in more than a little luck and you have the recipe for driving many thousands of very talented scouts, coaches, and officials entirely crazy trying to outsmart the theory of probability.

Cerny is the kind of player you get when the hockey gods smile on your pick.  But to look back and say that Murzin, taken seven spots later in the same draft, should have been just as good, or that taking Jock Smyth instead would have been smarter, relies entirely on hindsight.  Swap Smyth (taken 14th) with Murzin (12th) and maybe he’s still the better player… but it’s not a zero-sum game.  Both of them may have developed into All-Stars; or maybe both would have been complete washouts.  One can’t go back (except in a computer simulation) and run the 2010 draft 2010 times and confirm who was more likely to turn out better.  The choice has to be made before the fact… and what is the crazier expectation, pre-nostalgia or precognition?  Should a man be dinged for being hopeful while he’s also expected to be clairvoyant?

Like the players themselves, GMs and coaches and scouts are believed to entirely command their own destiny, and their failures are often directly attributed to their “mistakes” when some of those choices were reasonable or even laudable at the time.  The competition for NHL jobs doesn’t stop at the edge of the ice; a host of people invest a startling amount of time and money trying to predict the future careers of tens of thousands of skilled teenagers every year.  In a way it’s even crazier – at least a player is the one actually playing and making the effort.  The evaluator, on the other hand, an adult with a lifetime of experience on and off the rink, must entrust all of his best efforts to the vagaries of kids, half of whom can’t even legally vote, many of whom toast their entry-level contracts with root beer.  Those who never get NHL jobs, or who wash out of them in short order, usually aren’t grossly incompetent, or less-clever, or less-determined than the golden few with Beginner’s longevity and record.  Sometimes the smart play loses, and the dumb play pays off.

When it does work out, like Cerny surpassing Harding, like Laine and Ludvík growing into Bouwmeester’s role, it’s golden.  To use Beginner’s term from his book, it’s a kind of magic.  And it’s magic precisely because it rarely works out that well.  McGill himself is an example, having lost his playing career to an eye injury; he can definitely understand a case such as Nicolas Filiatrault’s.  His goal-per-game scoring pace in juniors made him the second overall draft selection in 2017, and before the calendar turned he injured his knee.  He has 30 goals in 191 career NHL games, reinventing himself as a defensive, penalty-killing wing – the skill and determination required for such a transformation is itself extraordinary, but people hoped for thirty goals each season: not only fans, but reporters, the Panthers organization, and probably Filiatrault himself.  At this point, the knee is perfectly sound, but the hands have not yet translated to the top level.

And the devil of it is that for Filiatrault to make good anyway and be a good regular counts as a successful pick.  The term “bust” has been whispered in the media.  While granting that he isn’t likely to be a top scoring threat, nothing could be farther from the truth.  He’s already had a longer NHL career than four-fifths of the league’s draftees, and was a Selke Trophy finalist for 2019-2020.  Besides, Filiatrault’s offense could still take a large step (he is but 22).  Either Burk or Henriksson could break out.  Terrific kids like Nosov, Luch Sanipass, Michael Dineen, and Ivan Pohanka are ready for training camp.  With so many of its own draftees on the current roster, Florida has the opportunity to see that magic again.  It really only has to happen once to remind us why we do invest so much of ourselves in draftees and prospects; why we still believe in hockey.

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