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Having the Right Tools for the Job

A week or so ago an old issue MLB Magazine that was laying around caught my eye.  Why?  The cover story on the apocryphal five-tool player, one of the most cherished prizes (theoretically, at least) in all of baseball, a player who has the ability to beat an opponent in any facet of the game and who puts his team at an advantage whatever the situation - the truly complete player.

For those who aren't familiar with the term, the five tools are categories baseball talent evaluators use to rate players (in current and/or projected ability), on a scale of 20-80.  The five tools are: ability to hit for average, ability to hit for power, defensive skill (especially in terms of range), arm strength, and speed.  As a whole, it's a pretty comprehensive way of evaluating a player's game given space and time constraints.

But can this scale be adjusted and adopted for use in the hockey?  Corey Pronman from Puck Prospectus took a hack at doing just that, and explains:

The tools that baseball used this system for included hitting, power, fielding, running etc. Transferring this over to hockey we are going to stick to these tools:

  • Skating (Acceleration, stride, top speed, turning/edge control)
  • Puck Skills (Passing, stick-handling etc.)
  • Shot (Accuracy, velocity, release)
  • Physical Game(Size, strength, able to handle physicality)
  • Hockey Sense (Decision-making, awareness, smarts)

That's a great starting off point, we'd like to tweak it slightly.  Under "hockey sense", we would include anticipation and vision.  We'd also consider passing not specifically a subset of puck skills, but rather the result of the utilization of puck skills (threading the puck through legs and sticks, being able to make a saucer pass lay flat on your teammate's stick, etc.) and hockey sense (vision and anticipation, as noted above).  Those minor revisions aside, we love the system.

The scale's aforementioned 20-80 system is as much a strength as the way it categorizes ability.  But what does it mean in practice?  Pronman's got you covered there, too:

  • 20: Can barely perform this skill, there are 13 and 14 year old amateur players who can do this skill better. Think Derek Boogaard’s hockey sense for example.
  • 30: Significantly below average (minus minus), isn’t beer league quality but it’s nowhere near the NHL level. Think Georges Laraque’s puck skills or Hall Gill’s skating.
  • 40: Below NHL average (minus), this skill isn’t completely out of the league but it’s still a good notch below. Examples are Marc Andre Fleury’s rebound control or Jack Johnson’s hockey sense.
  • 50: NHL average, think Marco Sturm’s puck skills, Justin William’s shot.
  • 60: Above NHL average (plus), this is an all-star level skill. Examples are Jonathan Toews’ skating, Mike Richard’s physical game, David Booth’s shot.
  • 70: Significantly above average (plus plus), this skill is one of the best in the game and is in an elite class. This is a grade rarely given out. Steve Stamkos’ shot, Chris Prongers’ [sic], physical game, Nicklas Lidstrom’s hockey sense, and Alex Ovechkin’s skating are examples.
  • 80: Generational talent, an extremely rare grade to be given out for any skill. Examples of what an 80 grade is include Bobby Orr’s skating, Al MacInnis’ shot, Wayne Gretzky’s hockey sense.

Pronman also provides the rationale behind the 20-80 system:

You may read this and wonder why the scale goes from 20 to 80 and not from 0 to 100. Well, simply put, it's because of standard deviation. To those mathematically deprived, it means that according to a normal distribution of talent 2/3rds of the players should fall between 40 and 60, with the overwhelming majority falling between 30 and 70. It’s a proven way to make sure the average players and varying notches are spread out well enough but not too much. While the theory stems from standard deviation, not all the tools have a perfectly normal distribution. Many more players have an 80 physical game, and very few have an 80 skating or an 80 shot.

With all of that out of the way, we figured we'd give it a whirl with Capitals' players.  Make the jump to figure out how we rate the Young Guns, some Rink favorites, and who's at the top (and bottom) of each category.

To start off, let's take a look at the Capitals highest profile and most skilled players: the Young Guns.  Here's how we rate Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green:

Skating Puck Skills Shot Physical Game Hockey Sense
Alex Ovechkin 70 60 70 75 55
Alexander Semin 60 70 70 40 60
Nicklas Backstrom 55 70 50 50 65
Mike Green 70 55 60 50 50

This seems like as good a time as any to draw the crucial distinction between tools and production, or even between tools and ability.  Tools are just that - tools.  They're the skills and abilities players posses, but they are not production in and of themselves.  That's why a guy like Alexander Semin can be so close to someone like Ovechkin (even ahead of him in some categories), yet clearly be the inferior player.  It's not that he doesn't posses the same level of talent, it's that he doesn't use it as effectively.

To further illustrate that point, consider hockey's most coveted talent - goal-scoring.  Goal-scoring is not itself a tool.  Rather it is the end result of several of these tools, most directly shooting skill and hockey sense.  Ovechkin's greatest asset when it comes to goal scoring is his shot, Sidney Crosby's is his hockey sense, and Todd Bertuzzi's was his physicality.  Ergo, each player has a talent for goal-scoring is to focus solely on production, rather than skill set.

That's not to say production isn't more important, because, of course, it is.  It's more important because it's the total number of goals for and against that determine who wins games - and style doesn't count.  Ideally a team would be able to determine a player's value solely based on his production, but the reality is the data to do so isn't necessarily available in junior or overseas leagues, a player's production may be as much a function of his teammates and his coach as his ability, and uncertainty levels are high under any set of circumstances.  Evaluating a player based on his tools thus offers a succinct, standardized way to come up with an idea of how he might fit in with a team, either in its current instantiation or down the road.  These ratings, then, are just another arrow in the quiver of overall talent evaluation.

That having been said, let's take a look at some other fan favorites, many of whom, incidentally, are guys who are quite productive, although they don't score all that high on the tools assessment:

Skating Puck Skills Shot Physical Game Hockey Sense
Matt Bradley 55 45 40 55 55
Eric Fehr 40 45 55 50 55
Brooks Laich 55 50 50
55 50
Jeff Schultz 40 40 35 45 55

The takeaway from this list should probably be that tools aren't everything. While none of these players excels in any one aspect, they've all managed to do well for themselves by being willing to work hard, commit to mitigating their weaknesses, and using their hockey sense to the best of their advantage.  These types of players can be especially important to a team looking for a deep playoff run because they generally offer good value since they don't wow people in any one particular aspect of the game and because they can be counted on to help the team every night, as opposed to a player who might excel in one area and be useless if that part of his game is contained.

Lastly, we thought it'd be interesting to look at who we thought are the best and worst Capitals players were in each category:

Best Worst
Skating Alex Ovechkin (70), Mike Green (70), Jason Chimera (65) John Erskine (35), Jeff Schultz (40), David Steckel (40)
Puck Skills Alexander Semin (70), Nicklas Backstrom (70), Alex Ovechkin (60) John Erskine (40), David Steckel (40), Jeff Schultz (40)
Shot Alex Ovechkin (70), Alexander Semin (70), Mike Green (60) Jeff Schultz (35), John Erskine (35)
Physical Game Alex Ovechkin (75), John Erskine (60), Jason Chimera (55), Matt Bradley (55) Tomas Fleischmann (40), Alexander Semin (40), Boyd Gordon (45)
Hockey Sense Nicklas Backstrom (65), Alex Semin (60) Tyler Sloan (30)

Perhaps there's nothing totally surprising here: the team's most important players are the ones who show up in the "best" column the most often, while the guys who show up more than once in the "worst" column are depth players.  But there are several players who stand out.  Under the "best" you have the inclusion of Jason Chimera (for his skating and physicality) and Bradley (for his physical game); under the "worst" you have Jeff Schultz (several times, in fact), as well as Tomas Fleischmann and Alexander Semin, all of whom are productive players. 

This fact underscores the tenuous relationship between how a player is rated in terms of tools and how productive they are in practice - heart and desire, after all, are not tools for the sake of this exercise.  It's possible for a player to not score particularly well in one or more area and still be an excellent NHLer, and by the same token it's possible that a player is significantly above average in a category or two but a depth player, which brings us to our final question.

If you were a scout, coach, or general manager, what kind of players would you look for?  Would you favor players who excel in one or two areas and come up short in others, or would you be looking for guys who aren't great in any one category, but don't have any glaring weaknesses as well?  Does your answer change depending on what role you expect out of the player, how much ice time he's going to get, or what position he plays?

For another look at hockey's five tools, check out this older article from Larry Wigge.