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Less than zero

While we all recover from the emotional rigours of NHL draft weekend, which were particularly intense here in Edmonton, here's a thought experiment about the net value of scouting departments that some of you may wish to contemplate. Imagine you're an Oilers fan who inherits a time machine from his wacky scientist uncle, only to find out that the damn thing actually works. Naturally, instead of going back to kill Hitler in 1933 or anything like that, you decide to return to the mid-'90s and arrange the violent demise of Oilers scouting director Barry Fraser and his staff. Having created this terrible crisis you are asked to rectify it with the tools available, but instead of going out and hiring a bunch of ex-jocks to replenish the lost personnel, you decide to hire a little old retired lady at $10 an hour.

This plump little pumpkin of a woman knows literally nothing about hockey, but she's your new Scouting Director. Your instructions to her are to attend the NHL draft with the two big lists of North American and European skaters as ranked by the league's Central Scouting Service; cross off names as they're announced by other teams; and when that nice Mr. Bettman calls her up to the stage for the team's first draft choice, she is to read out the highest-ranked name not yet crossed off on either list.

How would she have fared, with her pencil and her two pieces of paper, against the Sather-Fraser regime? Our data go back to 1995.

Year Oilers          Grandma
1995 Steve Kelly     Radek Dvorak
1996 Boyd Devereaux  Marcus Nilson
1997 Michel Riesen   Michel Riesen
1998 Michael Henrich Dmitri Kalinin
1999 Jani Rita       Martin Havlat
2000 Alexei Mikhnov  Ilja Nikulin

At $10 an hour and all the draft-room canapés she can eat, Grandma beats the living hell out of the professionals. The top Oiler picks in these drafts years were, in order, crap, a late-blooming role-player, crap, crap, a guy who is now doing real well in the Finnish SM-Liiga, and a question-mark manchild who currently seems unlikely to knit together an NHL career. One old lady and a pencil found you a volatile but talented second-line winger, a fourth-line guy, one of the crap players from the other list, another D who's reached the conference finals in the last two years, Martin freaking Havlat, and a Russian national-team defenceman who hasn't crossed the ocean yet. It's safe to say that Edmonton would be watching a team of an entirely different calibre today. As in, it would be pretty good.

Although the Oilers' scouting apparatus was much worse than useless in those six years, providing an object lesson that all businesses would do well to heed, Oil fans who are impatient with Kevin Lowe should probably stop and reflect that he is still doing better than Grandma, on the whole. In 2001 she would have drafted R.J. Umberger instead of Ales Hemsky, and the clamour of the bulletin boards and weblogs would not yet have died down to this day. She turns the tables on Lowe in 2002, snatching Jiri Hudler (who may not be able to play every night for the Red Wings but certainly could here) where he bet the farm on the immortal Jesse Niinimaki. But Lowe rebounds with what looks like another victory in 2003, capturing the still-promising Marc-Antoine Pouliot where Grandma would have stuck us with current RSL fourth-liner Dmitri Chernykh.


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Comments (4)

Ah, but Grandma wouldn't have taken Alex Plante at #15. Let's just pray the guy she would have taken ends up like Traktor Boy, and not Pavel Bure.


Scouts who say things like "saw him good" are the ruination of the Edmonton Oilers. In today's Journal there's a quote where Kent Nilsson found some guy in a Swedish beer league and defended him righteously until the Oilers selected him. This is the same Nilsson who saw Alexei Mikhnov playing in a deep fog at midnight on an unlit Siberian outdoor rink and convinced everyone he was a smash.

Kill me. Kill me now.

Terrific post, Colby. Though perhaps CSS alone still represents to much individual bias, what if ISS, Redline, and whover else does this sort of thing were factored in as well? And what for the later rounds?

The means of quantifying a good NHL career is tricky too. Games played seems reasonable, points per game for forwards isn't a bad measure, ATOI through the heart of the career makes sense on a lot of levels as well.

If we put the onus on Lowetide's saw-him-good crowd to prove that they could outperform the concensus of a few scouting agencies, over the long haul ... they would be fools to take that bet in my opinion. I mean some would beat it, some slots players win too, some are bound to. That doesn't make them wise.

That's the thing of it--the "Grandma" of our thought experiment is REALLY stupid. She could easily be given a superior but still simple heuristic for choosing between the N.Am. and Euro lists (doing things this way, she'll take Europeans like 17 times out of 20) and the research on which source deserves the most trust, if you were eager to combine ISS/CSS/Red Line/McKeen's, wouldn't be all that hard. Like you say, if you're going to do it in a truly quantitative manner the trick is choosing an appropriate performance measure.


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