Smid: sink? or swim? Some stats to set the stage



Why the heck are the Oilers playing Ladi Smid at such a young age? Shouldn’t he be developing his craft in the AHL rather than getting his baptism-by-fire at the NHL level? Haven’t we seen enough scenes like the above?

Such questions are cannon fodder for the ongoing Oilogosphere debate between those who like watching young players develop vs. those who lean towards veteran solutions to plug perceived holes on the roster. Those who have read my commentary over the past year will likely realize I have a strong preference towards the former. Bear in mind that I watched all the myriad of mistakes of a club that simultaneously * featured six emerging youngsters age 21 and under; today all six are in (or en route) the Hockey Hall of Fame, so that time it worked out all right. It doesn’t always, obviously, but perhaps that explains my bias.

(*1981-82)

This week the experience-vs.-potential debate has turned to young Smid, both in my previous post on Oil Droppings and in this comments thread over at
Lowetide. Are the Oilers rushing Ladi? In his defence I mentioned names like Chris Pronger, Jay Bouwmeester, Brent Burns, and Robyn Regehr as guys who were minus machines at the start of their career but took off once they gained the requisite experience. I immediately accused myself of cherry-picking and decided to do a little more rigorous research on the subject. So here goes …

Once again availing myself of the on-line bible Hockey-Reference.com, I went through 15 years of entry draft records, 1990-2004, identifying defencemen who were picked among the top 10 selections. HR doesn’t list their positions on that database, but let’s just say there were a lot more familiar names in that elite draft list than unfamiliar ones, so I just spot-checked the doubtfuls. I came up with a list of 45 blue-chip blue-liners that went near the top of their draft class. Interesting fact #1 is that 45/150 = exactly 30%, which "coincidentally" is the solution to the well-known roster equations 6 of 20 and 7 of 23.

None of the 45 were selected by the Oilers, and while a few (Hamrlik, Pronger, Brewer, Pitkanen) subsequently spent time in Edmonton, Smid is the only one to actually begin his career here.

Interestingly, every last one of the 45 blue-chippers has subsequently played in the NHL, anywhere from a cup of coffee (Boris Valabik, 2004, 7 games to date) to a long, distinguished career (Darryl Sydor, 1990, 1171 GP). As a group they have so far played 22,998 regular season games, more than 500 per, an average that will continue to soar since over 30 of these guys are still active. NHL scouts know their stuff.

[Amazing trivia: of the 25 Entry Drafts 1979-2003, 248 of the 250 players chosen in the Top 10 have actually played in the NHL! For extra points, name the two hotshots who never got a single cup of coffee. Answer below]

I’m particularly interested in the blue-chip defencemen’s performance as youngsters, and since Smid himself has just completed his 21-year-old season I chose that age as the cutoff ("hockey age" as defined by Hockey-reference.com). Of the 45 guys all but three (Ruslan Salei, Lance Ward, Lars Jonsson) played their first games at or before that age. 32 of the 45 had played at least 50 GP and 23, a rank majority, had over 100 NHL games by that age. As a group they averaged 113 GP through their 21-year-old season. Having completed his 21-year-old season with 142 GP, Ladi Smid ranks 21st, right in the middle of the pack.

So how did these guys fare in their early years? I chose +/- as the best available statistic of record. Interestingly, as a group these hot shot draft choices are virtually at the waterline with a collective -21 in those 23000 GP. Even more interesting are the splits:

Up to 21: 5069 GP, -291 (-0.057/GP)
22 & up: 17929 GP, +270 (+0.015/GP)
Totals: 22998 GP, -21, (-0.001/GP)


Surely that’s enough of a difference to be statistically significant.

Like most statistical studies, the samples are far from pure and we must recognize their limitations:
 For starters, +/- is not a perfect stat. (Eh, David?)
 Where ATOI numbers are available, virtually all played fewer minutes/GP in the early years, very probably against lesser QualComp (which is unavailable except for the most recent draft classes). Presumably coaches generally "sheltered" these guys early in their career, which would tend to reduce their raw minus figures.
 OTOH, guys drafted in the top 10 are generally coming in to non-playoff teams, so there might be an early-career bias towards minus figures due to team effects.
 As the team improves to the mean, the player’s stats should improve with them. But the player’s own improvement would contribute to that team improvement. Such self-referential data is apt to be corrupted no matter how you slice it.
 Conclusion: Handle with caution, but the career arcs from minus to plus of entire groups of players must to some extent reflect their growth as players.

One problem is that the data includes the early careers of all 45 players, but the mid-careers of a smaller number and the late careers of relatively few. Since two-thirds of them, 28 of 42, were minus players in the under-22 portion of their careers, this skews the overall result to make the entire group appear to be average (even) players when clearly they are not. To eliminate this built-in bias I therefore did a separate sort of just those 15 blue-chippers -- again, exactly 30% -- drafted in the Top 10 in the five drafts 1990-94. Some of these guys are still going strong, but their careers are pretty well defined at this point. I will show just this smaller table to confirm the method:


Year Pick Player ******** up to 21 22 & up

*************************** GP +/- GP +/-
---------------------------------------------
1990 7 Darryl Sydor ****** 182 -14 989 +38
1990 8 Derian Hatcher ***** 193 -1 852 +75
1990 9 John Slaney ********* 47 +3 221 -29
1990 10 Drake Berehowsky *** 50 -5 499 -43
1991 3 Scott Niedermayer * 213 +62 888 +122
1991 4 Scott Lachance ***** 166 +7 653 -83
1991 5 Aaron Ward *********** 5 +2 692 -44
1991 8 Richard Matvichuk ** 92 -14 704 +60
1992 1 Roman Hamrlik ***** 261 -77 815 +13
1992 3 Mike Rathje ******* 116 -26 652 +52
1992 5 Darius Kasparaitis * 155 +9 708 +30
1993 2 Chris Pronger ***** 202 -33 738 +186
1994 1 Ed Jovanovski ***** 212 -16 609 -26
1994 2 Oleg Tverdovsky *** 246 -17 467 -4
1994 10 Nolan Baumgartner *** 5 -1 126 +5

Up to 21: 2145 GP, -121 (-0.056/GP)
22 & up: 9613 GP, +352 (+0.037/GP)
Totals: 11758 GP, +231 (0.020/GP)

Given that exactly 2/3 (10 of 15) were minus players through age 21 this player sample would seem to be representative of the larger group. Results varied from player to player, from the freakish Niedermayer to the slow-developing Pronger, but as a group they improved by about +1 for every 10 GP after their 22nd birthdays.

The question remains why not play them in the AHL ‘til they’re 22 to learn the pro game and avoid those early-career minuses? Anaheim did this with Salei, who is not a bad comparable to Smid btw. But it was Ruslan's treatment that was exceptional for a high draft pick, not Ladi’s. Those same 15 top-drawer prospects that played 2145 GP at the NHL level by age 21 played just 402 AHL/IHL games during the same stage of their careers. Per player that's 143 GP in the NHL, just 27 in the minors. It would seem most teams conclude that for development purposes, AHL ≠ NHL. Defencemen training to compete at the top level must be exposed to opposition at the top level. Or so goes the common wisdom in the NHL. What the Oilers are doing with Smid is nothing out of the ordinary at all for a player of his pedigree.

Finally there is the matter of the CBA. As of 2008-09, players are free to move on after 7 years of NHL experience OR age 27 (with at least 4 years experience). Since virtually every player on the list would meet the second criterion, there is no reason to delay their start on the first. Thus the UFA clock begins ticking when the player graduates from junior, whether he is in the AHL or NHL. Time spent developing a guy more slowly in the AHL is potentially time lost at the productive end of those first 7 years.

So it is with Ladi Smid, who has surely already played the two "worst" seasons of his career. Now that Oilers and their fans have made the investment, it’s time to start reaping the return. I anticipate Smid building off of last year’s strong finish – he was an even player the last 14 games after returning (prematurely) from his knee injury, despite being paired with the guy many/most saw as Edmonton’s weakest defender, Matt Greene -- and become at least a break-even player in 2008-09.


Trivia answer: Ryan Sittler ( Philadelphia, 7th overall,1992) and Brent Krahn (Calgary, 6th overall, 2000)]


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