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Invested Development

A look at some do’s and don’ts in trying to get the most out of players

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Dallas Stars v Washington Capitals Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

“College players are a better investment than high school players by a huge, huge, laughably huge margin.” Bill James in Moneyball

Bill James was, of course, talking about baseball players in the quote above, but the sentiment applies generally to hockey as well. As Stefan Szymanski and Simon Kuper put it in their book Soccernomics (also not about hockey), “[H]ow good you are at seventeen or eighteen is a poor predictor of how good you will become as an adult. By definition, when a player is that young there is still too little information to judge him.”

But hockey teams aren’t going to (nor should they) stop spending money scouting and drafting kids the moment they’re eligible to be picked. And they aren’t going to stop making mistakes trying to maximize the returns on those investments; developing hockey players, even (or perhaps especially) high-end prospects, is a journey so fraught with pitfalls that it’s almost a wonder that there aren’t more spectacular busts than there are.

Jack Han is a hockey consultant, an ex-NHL analyst and ex-AHL coach, who writes publicly about hockey tactics and player development. His Hockey Tactics Newsletter is informative and accessible, entertaining and applicable (and well worth any money you can spare for it). You’ve seen some of his work on the former (hockey tactics) in this space before, but now we’re going to look at a piece on the latter - player development. In an easily digestible 200-word post, Han presents a simple “Player Development Matrix,” and uses it to discuss what separates “smart” teams from “dumb” ones when it comes to player development. Here’s the visual:

via Jack Han’s Hockey Tactics Newsletter

So what are you looking at? “Frequency” describes how often something happens, while “Success Rate” describes the degree to which something is a positive or negative. If that doesn’t make sense yet, it will in a second. We’ll go quadrant by quadrant, starting in the upper left, and discuss how smart teams approach these challenges, with some relevant examples where applicable. Smart teams, per Han:

1. Leverage a player’s Signature Skills (high frequency, high success) to build confidence (player to self) & trust (player to coach)

2. Expand a player’s comfort zone by uncovering underutilised assets (low frequency, high success actions)

3. Use the developmental momentum to Address a player’s high-frequency weaknesses

4. Aggressively Ignore a player’s low-frequency weaknesses (like DZ coverage for a winger) and chalk it up as a cost of doing business with that uniquely talented player

By now, your mind is flooding with examples of how the Caps (and perhaps other teams) have or haven’t followed these approaches. Maybe they’ve expanded Evgeny Kuznetsov’s comfort zone by uncovering underutilized assets... like his penalty-killing ability. Or leveraged Tom Wilson’s complete two-way game to build confidence and trust and make him arguably the team’s most important forward. Perhaps they’ve used Dmitry Orlov’s developmental momentum to try to address weaknesses in his puck management. Or aggressively ignored Alex Ovechkin’s poor defensive play... because Ovi.

On the flip side, here’s what dumb teams do:

1. Fixate on weaknesses at the expense of leveraging strengths

2. Spend valuable time & energy attempting to influence low-frequency, low-value skills

3. Double down on poor process by accusing the player of being uncooperative

4. Strip down the player’s unique identity, then sell him/her at a discount

Again, you’ve got examples. “The Big Mistake” has cost young players like Andre Burakovsky, Connor McMichael and others playing time despite those players being solidly net-positive players (think also about Nate Schmidt being benched for Mike Weber in the playoffs in 2016, or Mathieu Perreault’s time in Washington, generally). Dale Hunter spent valuable time and energy (not to mention the cost in goals) trying to coerce Ovechkin into playing better defense (a “low-frequency, low-value skill” for a winger). And the organization was fairly open in discussing the “tug-of-war between the coaching staff — staffs — that have had [Jakub Vrana] and the way he was playing”... which arguably led them to point number four (which also could apply to, say, Perreault).

That’s not to say, of course, that skilled young players (or skilled veterans) should be allowed to freelance and do whatever they want on (or off) the ice just because they can put up points. Rather, it’s important to approach weaknesses (and strengths) with a level of attention commensurate with the impact of that aspect of a player’s game. Coaches around the League preach “playing the right way,” and it’s important... but so is coaching the right way. After all, with the investments teams are making in these players, it’s in everyone’s best interest to maximize the returns.