In my new, what I hope is a semi-regular column, I plan to write a monthly? weekly? feature that uses numbers to help explain the current state of the San Jose Sharks. During the season, this will likely look at how the team or a given player or line or pairing is performing. For now, we have oodles of prospect information to look at, so we’ll start there. I’m a big Moneyball fan. I enjoy the intersection of sports and statistics. My goal is to share that love with you and maybe serve as a bridge between the wild world of numbers and the casual fan. I hope you learn something and enjoy. Most of all, I hope your experience with these columns is... Off the Charts.
If there’s one thing the Fear the Fin masthead can agree on, it’s that Ryan Merkley should have been the pick of choice for San Jose at 21 during the 2018 NHL Draft. However, fans and writers alike are wont to overvalue prospects and irrationally favor certain draftees, regardless of what the scouting reports and numbers say about them. Today, we’ll try to provide a more objective evaluation of Doug Wilson and his scouting staff’s performance in selecting teenagers to join the organization.
We’re looking for a few things. First, we want prospects that have might just turn into a star. While it’s important to draft players that end up being NHL regulars, your team will languish in hockey purgatory if your roster is full of run-of-the-mill, middle-sixers and bottom-pairing defensemen who never hit an awards ballot or show up at the top of a spreadsheet column. That means, yeah, we’re looking for “boom-or-bust” labels, high juniors point totals, and scouting reports that leave you cleaning up your own drool two sentences into them. We want — pardon my French — some gosh darn excitement about these guys!
Most NHL draft picks bust. “Safe” prospects are just guys without the “boom” upside. Mirco Mueller was a “safe” pick. Give me some 5-foot-8 Swedish teenager who regularly makes adults look silly over the 7-foot manchild defenseman who is “good in his own end” any day.
Second, we want some value. Google “NHL draft pick value chart” and you’ll return a list of hockey-stick-curve graphs in reverse (fitting, right?!). What they’re saying is that the first few picks of the draft are worth way more than anything else going on, based on the chances that player turns into an NHL regular. When you adjust for the chances of finding a superstar, the first handful of picks become that much more valuable than the rest of the field. That’s why you see people talking about trading back late in the first round. Pick 21 is closer in value to 40th overall than it is to 3rd overall. Still, it’s important to pick a player as late as possible. To execute that perfectly would require ESP, but we can make up for our lack of extra-sensory intuition by ensuring we give good grades for players who were likely taken at the last possible moment.
Which brings us to our first draft pick.
Pick #21: Ryan Merkley, Defense (Guelph Storm, OHL)
At 21 overall, it’s tough to decide if the Merkley pick receives points for draft position. NHL Central Scouting dropped Merkley all the way down to 45 among North American skaters after being ranked 21 at midterms. More statistically inclined models had Merkley anywhere from about 22 to the mid-teens. The Blue Bullet Report, which melds eye test (scouting service and scout ranks) with numbers (adjusted scoring rates, historical NHL success rates, and draft pick value) labeled Merkley as the 22nd-best prospect on the board. While there was speculation about him dropping, it seems he was drafted about where you would expect him to be drafted by a stats-focused organization, but perhaps a bit higher than by a team more concerned with his potential downsides. Based on talent alone, the only thing we can potentially fault Doug Wilson for is leaving Joe Veleno on the board, and even that is debatable.
We’ll give the draft pick slot a slightly-above-average grade because Wilson got a player whose skill would have otherwise put him in the top-seven range near the end of the first round.
Corey Pronman of The Athletic labeled Merkley as one of the most skilled 17-year-olds he’s ever seen. Other draft writers have inked similar sentiments. Prospect cohort success models gave Merkley anywhere from a 66 percent chance of making the NHL to a wild 100 percent chance. Some scouts have noted his defensive deficiencies, which should cause some alarm. It’s clear where the “bust” part of Merkley’s “boom-or-bust” label comes from. What about the boom?
This chart show Merkley’s neutral zone prowess. Mitch Brown tracked a bunch of OHL and US National Development Team USHL skaters this season through the neutral zone, recording exit and entry attempts, as well as defensive breakups. Merkley breaks up an above-average rate of entry attempts, but allows more clean entries than he prevents — the defensive question marks appear again.
Merkley’s skill is also on display in these deep blue bars. He was better than every other defenseman in this sample at exiting his own zone, entering the opponents’ zone and creating scoring chances. His on-ice shot rate contribution was also impressive, without taking many shots himself.
These blue bars show Merkley’s impact on his teammates’ scoring, as well as his own scoring. “Betweenness” describes a player’s impact on his team’s scoring rates. A high score (like Merkley’s) means the player contributed to many of his teammates’ points without relying too heavily on any one teammate for his own. His adjusted scoring rates were also impressive when compared to the rest of his draft class. For a defender, it’s especially exciting.
Doug Wilson picked Merkley about where scouts ranked him — between the late-teens and early-twenties. Given the Sharks didn’t have a second-round pick to spare, Wilson got Merkley at the only juncture in the draft he could have. The young defenseman must improve his defense and comes with an off-ice warning sign. His talent alone, however, should make the Sharks’ selection worth the risk. You need superstars to win in the NHL, and Merkley seems to have superstar potential.
Pick #87: Linus Karlsson, Center (Karlskrona, SuperElit/SHL)
It is always impressive when a teenager spends time in an adult league. Though Karlsson spent most of his 2017-18 season in Swedish juniors, he also racked up 13 games with the men and even notched an assist. Karlsson is a curious case in terms of draft position. On one hand, the consolidated ranking Canucks Army compiled from multiple scouting services had Karlsson at 129, suggesting he likely would have been available in the fourth round, where the Sharks initially had two picks. On the other hand, research (that might be a bit outdated, I’ll grant you) of the NHL draft by Michael Schuckers suggests NHL teams tend to perform Central Scouting between picks 40 and 100. The same research also shows that “when teams differentiate from the CSS ordering they are gaining some value both in terms of GP and in terms of GVT.”
(GP here stands for games played, and GVT is goals versus threshold, a wins above replacement-type metric that attempts to fold a player’s contributions into one number.)
Two of the three stats and eye test combo scouting ranks listed Karlsson right around pick 80. The third did not list him among the top 100 prospects. We’ll give Wilson and company credit for trading into an area where teams outperform Central Scouting rankings and selecting a player where stats people would have taken him — but not too much credit, as there’s a decent chance Karlsson would have still been available at 114, one of the Sharks’ original fourth-round picks.
In terms of the player selected, Karlsson might just be an under-scouted gem.
Karlsson’s 1.23 points-per-game scoring rate is impressive at first glance. But when adjusted for situation (5v5, power play, etc), age, era, and league, his scoring rate falls to just 0.7 PPG. Karlsson’s raw point totals place him just shy of two potential milestones.
Nhle key to finding an nhler and star (all forwards drafted between 2002 and 2012) pic.twitter.com/a9U9zijtAh— Byron Bader (@Baderader) June 12, 2018
First, Karlsson’s NHL equivalency score of 25 points between the ages of 18 and 19 places him in tier 12 on this chart. Just 40 percent of his historical scoring cohort went on the make the NHL, and only five percent of them turned into stars. He was just seven points away, however, from bumping himself up to tier six, where historically comparable players have gone on to make the NHL and become stars at a much higher rate. The second milestone Karlsson just missed, this time by only a point, is the 51 percent rule. Draft-eligible skaters who score at least 0.09 points per game in the SHL have gone on to make the NHL 51 percent of the time. Karlsson’s one point in 13 games gave him 0.077 points per game.
Even if his individual scoring is not quite as impressive as we’d like it to be, his impact on the rest of his team was, say it with me now, off the charts. Karlsson registered a primary point on 30 percent of his team’s 5v5 goals. With Karlsson on the ice at 5v5, Karlskrona scored 59 percent of all goals. With him on the bench, that number fell to just 34 percent, a massive difference. While goal-related numbers are subject to luck and noise and variance, the wild discrepancy likely means this center was doing a great job of propping his team up when he was on the ice.
The Sharks took Karlsson perhaps a bit earlier than they needed to. They also took him ahead of a few players — some of whom we wrote about — who were ranked higher and showed potentially stronger statistical profiles than Karlsson. Still, there are some promising signs that say, maybe Karlsson’s raw scoring rates don’t tell the whole story.
Pick #102: Jasper Weatherby, Center (Wenatchee Wild, BCHL)
Look, kudos to the Sharks for trading up to spot 102 in hopes of catching some extra value in the 40-100 range. Maybe their BCHL scouts (who appeared to be very active this season) found someone special, but nothing about his statistical profile says this guy has NHL player, let alone star player, in his future. A handful of BCHL players have gone on to make the league, but they were scoring closer to 2.0 points per game their 17- and 18-year-old seasons, not barely cracking 1.25 points per game as a 20-year-old over-age player.
San Jose continues to tap into the market of prospects along the path to the NCAA, so maybe they’re homing into this population because of perceived drafting inefficiencies. Even if that’s the case, it’s likely Weatherby would have been available in the sixth round. To compound this bizarre (from a numbers standpoint) choice, the Sharks left a handful a players analytics loved on the board: Aidan Dudas, Cole Fonstad, and Blade Jenkins come to mind.
Pick #176: Zacharie Émond, Goaltender (Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, QMJHL)
Émond is another head scratcher. He only played 24 games this season in a backup role. His save percentage didn’t crack .900 (it was just shy, at .897), and he was ranked by Central Scouting in the teens among North American goalies. His goals saved above average numbers look a bit better than his raw save percentage, and maybe San Jose’s scouting department saw that, too. Émond’s adjusted goals saved above average per 30 minutes ranks 17th of the 28 QMJHL goalies who started at least 20 games this season. At even-strength, Émond’s adjusted goals saved number ranks 12 of 28. Filtering for just goalies under age 18 this past season, Émond’s adjusted saves number ranks second of 11 players, only behind someone who was too young for draft eligibility this year.
Émond’s draft slot is a wash. So few goalies are drafted, and Émond was so far down the list that there’s a good chance he would have gone undrafted. But the Sharks took him toward the end of the sixth round, so it’s not as if they used a high-value pick on him. There are some bright spots to his statistical profile, but goalies take years to make the league. We’ll have to watch this season to see how many goals he saves above average.
Pick #182: John Leonard, Left Wing (UMass Amherst, NCAA)
At first glance, Leonard’s profile isn’t terribly exciting. He’s another over-age player who had a solid, but unspectacular year in the country’s second-toughest college conference. His NHLe puts him in a similar situation to Karlsson. Three more points this season, and Leonard moves from a wholly unexciting tier of historically comparable players to one that has developed some star NHL players in the past.
Thanks to some wonderful people on Twitter, we can also examine numbers beyond just Leonard’s raw points-per-game rate.
UMass Amherst Betweenness Scores, 2017-18— Evan Oppenheimer (@OppenheimerEvan) June 18, 2018
Cale Makar lower than expected. Looking a little deeper though, he only had 2 goals (1 of which was unassisted) and 2 primary assists at 5v5. I assume that he'd look much better with shot data, since this is goal-related only pic.twitter.com/qw6NwuCiLB
In our article about late-round players, we looked at the metric shown in the above tweets: betweenness. Betweenness tries to identify how reliant a given player was on his teammates at a particular game state (5v5, power play, etc.). A high betweenness score indicates a player who was involved in his teammates goals and who did not rely too heavily on any one or two teammates for his own goals.
This tweet shows Leonard’s 2017-2018 UMass Minutemen team. He ranks second in even strength betweenness, first in all strengths betweenness, and third in even strength betweenness. In other words, Leonard was a centerpiece of his team’s offense. Leonard’s betweenness scores from his 2016-17 USHL season were not as impressive. He would have seemed a below average prospect at that point. Clearly the Sharks identified someone who took a leap this season and thus took their own leap.
Leonard’s draft slot was fine, he was a handful of goals away from being in an exciting historical cohort, and it seems there is more to him than his raw point totals.
Final Draft Grade
If we refer to this grade scale, we can determine a final grade that averages the Sharks’ five picks. Based on the at least somewhat arbitrary (I’ll be honest, though I tried as hard as I could to consider what grade accurately represented each pick) grades I gave each prospect, the Sharks final draft grade is:
C+ (very close to a B-)
That sounds about right. Doug Wilson and his front office bandits made off fairly average this year. They did well to trade into the sweet spot between picks 40 and 100 (twice). They took the most skilled player with the highest upside available in the first round, and all of their skater selections scored points. What really pulled down the draft’s grade was the fourth-round pick of Weatherby. The BCHL doesn’t seem to produce NHL players unless they blow the league out of the water.
To have earned a better grade, the Sharks scouting department could have:
- Drafted someone with a more inspiring statistical profile with their fourth-round pick. There were likely some European league skaters who were glossed over or some higher-scoring overagers left on the board.
- Looked for a goalie with better numbers. Emond had some solid showings at even strength, but his adjusted goaltending stats weren’t earth-shattering. Or maybe they could have picked a starting goalie. Goalies are notoriously difficult to project as it is, but selecting a goalie with just a 24-game sample size seems bizarre.
- Taken more of a chance with their final pick. Leonard has some solid measurables, but he’s also turning 20 in August. The Sharks could likely have taken a younger player with a similar NHLe score or another over-age player with a more impressive scoring rate.
Additionally, since the NHL draft rarely produces stars — or even NHLers — in the later rounds, a weighted grading system that places more emphasis on the first through third rounds may have provided a truer indication of the team’s draft. The score is brought down by one big F, which probably shouldn’t impact the team’s overall grade as much as it has.
What do you think?
What was the Sharks’ draft grade (in your humble opinion)?
This poll is closed