“Moneyball”, a 2003 book by Michael Lewis about the Oakland Athletics and their sabermetric approach to success in major league baseball, produced a new way of thinking in all sports. Athletics GM, Billy Beane, was looking for a way to do more with less. Hamstringed by a small budget in disparity-rich major league baseball, Beane needed to devise a system to essentially, cheat the system. Analytics became the backbone of his approach and the results have been astounding.

Here are 5 ways Beane’s approach to success can benefit NHL franchises:

 

Analytics

 Both baseball and hockey produce statistics. While baseball is much more conducive to advanced statistics, considering it is a sport based upon isolated events (pitcher vs. batter), hockey is slowly adopting more analytical approaches to measuring effectiveness in isolated situations (ie. Corsi Rating and Fenwick).

Remember, before the creation of Rotisserie League Baseball by author/editor, Daniel Okrent, baseball didn’t have statistics like WHIP (Walks plus Hits per Inning Pitched). And, everyone thought sabermetrician guru Bill James was crazy for looking at ways of combining traditional statistics with emerging statistics to produce efficiency ratings and values, such as: Secondary Average: [(Total Bases - Hits) + Walks + Stolen Bases] / At bats—which attempts to measure a player’s contribution to an offense in ways not reflected in batting average.

Finding ways to analyze players in isolated in-game situations can go a long way to determining value. Does Player A seem more valuable than he really is because he is playing with Player B? We have a specific deficiency on our team and Player C from Team D is exceptional at a skillset that fills our void. Player F isn’t performing efficiently in our system, but he has a strong value across the league. Can we capitalize on a deal to bring in undervalued players that fit well in our system by unloading Player F?

Hockey is still in a state of infancy when it comes to advanced statistics and analytics, but the winds of change are coming. More and more statistics are emerging and advanced thinking is becoming a priority for NHL teams, as evidenced by the recent hiring of analytics wunderkind Kyle Dubas by the Toronto Maple Leafs.

 

Capology

This is where the two major sports drastically vary. Major League Baseball is notorious for it’s disparity in team payrolls across the league (2014 Season Opening Day Payrolls: LA Dodgers: $235,295,219; Oakland Athletics: $83,401,400), while hockey employs a salary cap system (2014-15 Season Salary Cap: $69,000,000), where teams must not exceed the cap and must field a team about a salary floor. Current projected payrolls for the upcoming NHL season have the Philadelphia Flyers sitting at $72,061,429 ($3,061,429 above the allowable cap) and the Calgary Flames sitting at $51,711,667 with a couple of spots remaining on the active roster.

In baseball, it’s obvious. Teams like the Oakland A’s need to find a way to compete with the big payroll teams. They need to find an edge.

With the playing field essentially equal from a financial standpoint, do NHL front offices really need to do more with less? Absolutely! Case-in-point, the Chicago Blackhawks, come the 2015-16 season, will be looking at 5 players (Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Corey Crawford) taking up nearly $40 million of their cap space. The Blackhawks are going to have some tough decisions to make. Do you break up pieces of your core, or do you try and find ways to complement your core at a better value?

No matter what, in professional sports, marquee players are going to make oodles and oodles of money. And, every team needs them to succeed. Pittsburgh needs Sidney Crosby, just like Chicago needs Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. The real question is, does Pittsburgh need Pascal Dupuis at nearly $4 million per year, or is there someone making $1 million or $2 million who can do just as good a job or better?

The top guys are going to demand big money, but it’s your second, third and fourth line guys who will need deeper analysis and consideration.

 

The Amateur Draft

Both MLB and the NHL employ an amateur draft system for acquiring rights to prospects. In both the NHL and MLB, this system is essential to sustainability and the accumulation of wealth. Drafting well is important to success. Knowing what is important to team success and drafting accordingly is invaluable.

Going back to the hiring of Kyle Dubas in Toronto; if the Leafs adapt Dubas’ viewpoint of the colossal importance of puck possession to success in hockey, then they will need to draft accordingly. This approach to selecting players to fit a specific culture and mindset is comparable to Billy Beane and his obsession with employing selective hitters at the plate. Beane is famous for drafting position players who rack up massive amounts of walks, thus making opposing pitchers throw more, causing teams to have to dip into their bullpen earlier in games.

While Beane’s motto in Oakland is all about no easy outs, will a mutation of this approach be what we see in Leaf Nation?

 

Free Agency

The craziest and most irresponsible annual event is the opening of the NHL’s free agency free-for-all on July 1st. Fans (me included), bury their face in laptops, cell phones, tablets and TVs to see who’s going where and for how much. Every year at this time it’s like walking through the halls of “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” for me. I gasp, grunt, whine, groan and contort my face like Jim Carrey as I look at the term and amounts that free agents sign for.

Calgary gave Deryk Engelland how much for how long!? Brooks Orpik got what!? Benoit Pouliot to the Oilers for $20 million!? David Bolland!? Bolland!? Bolland!?

I think that a lot of teams wake up the next morning with a bad case of buyer’s remorse. But, not every team gets the shopping bug during this time (The Stanley Cup Champion LA Kings didn’t add any additional pieces, other than resigning their own RFAs and UFAs).

Other teams carefully add in compliments at economical prices to help round out their deficiencies, like the Pittsburgh Penguins signing Christian Erhoff to a 1-year, $4 million pact to offset the loss of Matt Niskanen—potentially getting a better player at a cheaper, short-term deal.

One again, the use of analytics, capology, and careful cultural analysis, can help teams make better decisions during free agency.

 

Developing a Culture

The Oakland A’s have a famous and uniquely designed culture. Their values are clearly defined. They sacrifice ego for the betterment of the team. There are no A-Rods in their clubhouse and they preach a brand of baseball that isn’t conducive to producing big, contract year-type numbers. Most players—unless they’re a pitcher—aren’t going to go into Oakland, play a few years and then sign with the New York Yankees for 10 years, $250 million. Players won’t accumulate MVP statistics playing A’s brand baseball. This is a tough sell for attracting players. But, the players they do bring in buy into the system whole-heartedly, systematically weeding out potential bad apples.

In order to build a successful system like this, you need to have the right people in place at the top. People like Paul Depodesto (former A’s Assistant to the GM), who would be virtually unknown to the public if it weren’t for Michael Lewis and “Moneyball”, were essential to the development of the Oakland A’s “more with less” system. A cohesive, driven and collaborative front office is paramount to developing and implementing a successful plan for success. It starts with ownership and filters all the way down to the players.

A perfect example of sustained cultural success in the NHL is the Detroit Red Wings. From 1967 until 1983, the Red Wings only appeared in the playoffs twice. They were abysmal. Things didn’t start to change until they looked at changing the culture.

When Scotty Bowman pulled Steve Yzerman aside and convinced him to play a different brand of hockey—two-way, 200-foot hockey—it was a turning point. He told Yzerman that he would probably have to sacrifice scoring titles to do it, but promised they would be replaced with Stanley Cups. Turns out he was right. Between 1991 and 2013, the Red Wings appeared in the Stanley Cup playoffs 22 consecutive times.

When Steve Yzerman—criticized for being a one-dimensional player earlier in his career—changed his game, the rest of the team followed suit. In subsequent years, the Red Wings thrived with the culture of complete team hockey. With the Red Wings, no one player overshadows the team. Everyone understands the value of sacrificing individual awards for the greatest team award.

When Detroit enacted their cultural plan for success, they factored in everything, from the way they drafted, to their player developmental model (well-known for not rushing young prospects and bringing them into the fold once they are believed to be truly “ready”). This has allowed them to make efficient use of late picks (Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Jonathan Ericsson, Darren Helm) and instil their values in their players as they earn their stripes, coming up through the ranks.

 

There comes a time in every former athlete’s life when he or she evaluates what went wrong and what could have been handled better. What could I have done to change my fate? Why didn’t I make it, while many others around me did?

My moment of clarity happened when I began coaching. It’s like that rebellious teenager who grows up to become a parent of a rebellious teenager. There’s a moment where you shake your head and think: “If only I knew back then what I know now.”

Below are the 5 biggest regrets of my hockey career:

 

1.  Self-Belief

One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t have a strong sense of self-worth. Likely, it had to do with the fact that I was born in December and that I was a late-bloomer (I grew 10 inches in grade 11). When you’re always a year younger and a foot shorter than everyone you’re playing with and against, it’s pretty easy to develop a complex.

On top of that, I grew up in the era of every coach trying to emulate Bear Bryant and Mike Keenan. It was the 90s, the era of the tough guy. The rules of hockey weren’t what they are now and the game didn’t favour a player of my size and strengths (or lack thereof). Coaches were gruff and compliments were few and far between. If you couldn’t build confidence off of your own accomplishments (if you had any to boast about) and motivate yourself, you simply weren’t built to last.  

What would I have done differently?

I would have spent more time having fun and enjoying the moment rather than worrying about what I couldn’t control. It’s important to understand that your weaknesses, or perceived weaknesses in a lot of cases, don’t need to define you. My love of the game was always strong, but I let my fear of failure control my life. Eventually, when I did grow and my physical talents began to peak, I was still shackled by a debilitating mindset.

 

2.  Preparation

A consistent routine was something that I never took to as a player. I was never one of those players who obsessed over superstitious rituals leading into games. I played with lots of quirky guys who did some pretty funny things to get ready for games, but I never bought into it. I didn’t understand it.

Back then I used to laugh at these guys and then complain about being at the rink too early. I didn’t like the anticipation. Back then, I chalked it up to boredom, but now, I realize I was scared.

Once again, the dominating force that is the fear of failure was overwhelming me. I didn’t look at games as an opportunity. I looked at them as a way to be exposed. What if I screw up and we lose because of me? If I have a bad game will I get released?

Going into games with that mindset and lack of mental preparation was severely debilitating for my career. Instead of playing the game with eager anticipation and confident calmness, I was flying by the seat of my pants.

What would I have done differently?

I would have developed a routine early to help bring consistency to my approach and calm my nerves. I would have also spent more time practicing mental toughness training exercises such as: visualization, meditation, and positive results training. A better mental approach to the game can make all the difference in the world for an athlete.

 

3.  Training and Diet

As a budding young athlete in the late 90s and early 2000s, I was one of many victims of poor training advisement and diet practices. Back then, the obsession was with size and strength. The mantra was to get “bigger and stronger”. It was like a broken record, and everyone was guilty of it.

I spent most of my prime years trying to look more like Arnold Schwarzenegger and less like Wayne Gretzky, and crammed my face with protein shakes, creatine supplements, steak, porridge and eggs. All I was really doing was training myself to be cumbersome, lethargic and ineffective.

What would I have done differently?

I would have told all of those meathead coaches, scouts and “advisors” to go pound sand. I would have focused on developing my strengths: Speed and mobility, and trained to be more flexible and explosive and increase my endurance. Instead of clambering to play at 205 pounds (a terrible weight for me to play at, being 6 foot 1), I would have played at a leaner, more effective 190 pounds.

 

4.  Practice – Attention to Detail

One of the things I regret is not being a better student of the game. I had a pretty good hockey IQ (most players who reach the OHL/NCAA or beyond have to), but I wasn’t a very good student of the game. I didn’t embrace the little things that make the difference between being two steps ahead or two steps behind, like: angles, stick positioning, tracking, and gap control.

I took that stuff for granted and didn’t spend enough time on small details within my game—things I could easily control and develop. This was paramount to me not reaching my potential.

What would I have done differently?

I would have listened to my coaches more closely and embraced their message. So many times my NCAA coaches said: “Jamie, you need to cleanup your play in our end and take better angles when closing on guys and employ better stick positioning.” At the time this stuff seemed so trivial. I felt like they were picking on me. In hindsight, I see how short-sighted I was and how careless it was to not spend more time refining these aspects of my game.

I should have spent more time watching video and working on rounding out my game in practice. I always “worked hard”. I just wasn’t “working smart”.

 

5.  Focus

Once again, I put too much faith in people, while growing up, that didn’t have my best interests in mind. These people weren’t malicious—they were doing what they thought was best. They just didn’t have the knowledge to prepare me for the journey to becoming a pro.

On my way to reaching the levels of junior, the NCAA and pro hockey, my focus was always on points and statistical results. It blinded me from what was important to development and success. I took too many risks and wasn’t reliable enough for a lot of scouts to take a chance on. The point totals were there, but the stability wasn’t. When I reached the NCAA, this began to really work against me.

What would I have done differently?

I would have ignored those who said I needed to reach specific point totals to reach my dreams. I would have adjusted my focus to development over results. “Advisors” would say to me: “40 points will get you a scholarship to a good program. Since you’re not big, you need to be a point producer.” I put too much stock in this and my development suffered because of it.

If I could go back, I would have taken a much different approach. I would have understood that my abilities and potential would open doors, not my statistics. If I would have understood that back then, there is no doubt in my mind that more doors would have been opened.

Two years ago when the notion of unionizing major junior hockey in North America was introduced, the majority of the public shook their heads and laughed. Public perception was that these are amateur hockey players who get everything handed to them on a silver platter. Why would these kids need a union?

The initial launch of the CHLPA, although mired in controversy and ultimately unsuccessful, did one particular thing. It started the conversation about whether or not players are actually employees and whether or not they are being exploited. If you ask Canadian Hockey League (CHL) President, David Branch, major junior players are “Student-Athletes” (hahaha, more on that one later) who are amateur athletes that receive stipends and educational support. Given that major junior athletes are amateur players, there is no legal requirement or precedence for them to be unionized.

The NCAA (major junior’s major competition for prime grade beef) stipulates major junior as an organization employing professional athletes according to legislated Bylaw 12.2.3.2.4 and thus, deems any player who signs a major junior standard contract and competes in major junior competition as in violation of amateurism. This is where the war over 16-year-old kids begins between the CHL and the NCAA and why the birth of “School Boy” packages in the CHL was needed to maintain an edge in recruitment battles.

So, if we make the assumption that major junior hockey players do qualify as employees under North American labour laws, is a players union justifiable? In order to answer this question, I will break down some of the most common arguments against unionization of the CHL:

1)      A player’s union will cripple smaller market teams in the CHL.

This argument is based on the notion that only certain CHL teams actually generate profits and that most teams barely scratch by. Below are some general revenue streams for the CHL and its teams:

  • Ticket Sales
  • Food Concessions
  • Merchandise
  • TV Revenue (On Feb. 18, 2014, the CHL and Sportsnet Announced 12-Year Multiplatform Rights Extension)
  • CHL Video Game Rights (On May 21, 2010, The CHL and Electronic Arts announced a partnership that saw the junior league included in the video game maker’s popular NHL series)
  • Corporate Sponsorship
  • Major Event Revenue (Events such as the World Junior Championships, the Mastercard Memorial Cup, CHL Top Prospect Game, Canada-Russia Super Series, Outdoor Games generate multi-millions in revenue for the CHL)
  • NHL kickbacks for CHL teams who have players drafted by NHL teams and/or sign NHL contracts

The problem with examining CHL revenues is that everything is kept pretty close to the vest. There simply isn’t enough transparency to know for sure how much money teams actually make. David Branch claims that only a handful of teams are profitable, but this is extremely hard to fathom by looking at the lucrative potential of running a business that doesn’t pay its employees.

To put things into perspective, the average attendance in the OHL during the 2013-14 season was 4,041 per game. At an average of $20 per ticket, based on 34 home games, it equates to average annual ticket revenue of $2,747,880 per team (Not including revenues from pre-season and playoff games).

The ECHL (A minor pro league that employs unionized, paid employees) matches up accordingly in average attendance and ticket revenues. ECHL average attendance for the 2013-14 was 4,282, with an average ticket price around $20. Based on 36 regular season home games, this puts annual ticket revenues at a comparable $3,083,040 (Not including revenues from pre-season and playoff games).

The glaring differences between the CHL and ECHL, aside from age, are as follows:

  • Salary: the ECHL has a $12,400 weekly salary cap, amounting to $347,200 in annual salary costs per team and an average annual player salary of $17,360. (To draw some comparison, On average, undergraduate students paid $5,772 in tuition fees in 2013/2014 in Canada, amounting to what teams would compensate players in the form of a scholarship package per year of service. Also, keep in mind that the majority of major junior players don’t end up using this money due to restrictions and other factors.)
  • Housing Costs: (This is essentially a wash as both ECHL and CHL teams cover housing costs)
  • Travel: ECHL road trips are notoriously long, with some teams like the Alaska Aces having to fly to all destinations
  • Limited Revenue Streams: Absence of lucrative revenue streams like major multi-million-dollar events, multi-platform TV deals for the ECHL

It would seem pretty clear that while comparing the ECHL and the CHL, there doesn’t seem to be a reason to suspect that CHL teams should be crying poor, at least not at a quick glance.

So why the secrecy? I think we know the answer to that.

What is the benefit of a player’s union?

A union will help to ensure transparency and proper dispersal of revenues to ensure players are receiving adequate benefits packages including: medical, mental health support, education packages and expense reimbursements. The union will provide structure and continuity across the CHL.

2)      The CHL already provides comprehensive benefits above and beyond what is fair. They get free post-secondary schooling for Pete’s Sake!

While the CHL has included scholarship money in their agreements with players, the promise of free schooling comes with some fine print. Access to scholarship money is accompanied by the following restrictions:

1)      Players have an 18-month window that opens after their 20th birthday to register for post-secondary courses. If they fail to do so, their scholarship money will be revoked. Even though many people are starting post-secondary programs later in life, CHL President, David Branch, stated that this rule is in place to discourage players from delaying commencing their post-secondary education, which includes players who spend a few years trying to reach their NHL dreams through the minor leagues (Fact: Most players need 3 – 4 seasons in the minor leagues to cut their teeth in leagues like the AHL and ECHL in order to reach the NHL).

2)      If you sign an NHL contract, your scholarship money will be revoked. (Fact: Many players sign NHL contracts and never end up playing in the NHL or seeing NHL money. These are short-term, two or three-way contracts that pay them standard AHL or ECHL money.  This is what happens to the majority of players drafted by NHL teams and all of these players must find new careers once their playing days end).

3)      For every season played at the minor pro level (AHL, ECHL, CHL, SPHL, Europe), you will lose a year of scholarship money. CHL President David Branch mentioned in an interview on CBC’s The Current, that minor pro players are “well-compensated” and don’t require the assistance of scholarship money. My guess is Mr. Branch hasn’t ridden the buses in the minor leagues while chasing the very dream that is his company’s major selling point, for 500 bucks a week.

As far as the benefits of full medical coverage, something can be learned from what WHLer Tim Bozon and his family experienced this past season (full article courtesy of CBC).

What is the benefit of a player’s union?

The player’s union will ensure that education packages are consistent in their makeup. Access and restrictions will be clearly defined and agreed upon.

3)      The players need to quit whining and toughen up. They are pampered enough already as it is.

Most people that make this argument seem to forget that these players are as young as 16-years-old, living away from home, away from their support system and sometimes living in a completely different country. These are not men. They are teenagers who happen to be involved in a pro-style setting where the stakes are high and money is the major driving force.

It is the “Old Boys” mentality of never showing weakness that has created a toxic culture in hockey. A union would help to remove this stigma and provide players with the support they need to handle the rigors and stresses of what is essentially a pro hockey landscape. We need not look any further than the Terry Trafford tragedy of this past season to understand that support for mental health awareness and proper protocols are desperately needed to handle difficult transitions for young players.

David Branch has addressed these issues stating that protocols are in place to help players deal with mental health issues. Each team has the support of a “liaison” – for several teams this is a police officer or principal – to help kids work through issues. For one, a police officer isn’t a mental health professional, and two, when I played junior hockey, we had a cop who was our “liaison” and his specialization was getting us out of speeding tickets and avoiding the drunk tank at 3 a.m.

What is the benefit of a player’s union?

Once again, a player’s union will be able to negotiate and establish proper protocols and professional support for players in regards to mental health.

4)      How will players pay union dues? This is just a big cash grab.

Usually, union dues are taken out of an employee’s paycheque at a percentage of their wage. For example, when I played in the ECHL, I made $550 a week and paid roughly $25 per week for union dues. It worked out to about $700 for the season, which to me was a major bargain, considering the fact that I required two major surgeries that season on my knee and face (which amounted to tens of thousands of dollars in medical expenses) and reaped the benefits of having a collective voice to help negotiate better living conditions for players, including room and board and accommodations on the road on top of scheduling.

Since players already receive stipend compensation, worst case scenario would be that stipends increase from an average of $50 a week to $75 or $100 a week to ensure players can cover their dues. Or, if it comes to the point where players are paid minimal salaries, the dues would simply be taken out as a percentage of their wages. There are several ways to go about covering these costs. To say it can’t be done is simply lazy thinking—which is ironically what people who are against unions deem unionized employees to be.

5)      Junior hockey players are amateurs and should not be paid.

On principal, I agree with this. I think is potentially dangerous to give hockey players at young, impressionable and vulnerable ages wads of cash. Often, with the lifestyle these kids are exposed to, these funds will be spent on alcohol and parties. A smarter idea might be to setup an expense reimbursement plan where players can submit receipts to have expenses such as: fuel, clothing, recreation (movies, meals, books, etc.), and other reasonable expenses covered, up to a maximum monthly amount. This way teams can control the way in which compensation is being spent, promoting accountability.

Another option is for additional compensation, beyond weekly stipends for minimal expenses, to be distributed into trusts which can be accessed at a later date. Many times, this is what agents of professional athletes will do with large portions of signing bonuses for young athletes.

What is the benefit of a player’s union?

A player’s union would help to ensure that benefits and compensation are being directly tied to rising revenue streams. As teams make greater profits off the backs of the players, the players will experience greater support and healthier development.

How are CHL players being exploited?

1)      Education:

David Branch has been quoted as saying that CHL players are “Student-Athletes”. Branch is saying that the CHL puts a major emphasis on academics and schooling. The fact is academics in leagues like the OHL are a long, long way down the list of priorities for players, somewhere just below making sure that you packed enough socks for a road trip.

In CHL leagues, where players can play upwards of 100 games over the course of a season, education takes a backseat to hockey. Many players miss weeks upon weeks of class time as they traipse around the countryside on vast road trips. Often practice times are scheduled during school hours, with players often having to take “independent study” classes or “Co-ops” (I once had a teacher give one of the players I coached course credit for doing laundry after practices at the rink).

During my 4 seasons coaching Tier II junior “A” hockey in Ontario, I coached over 30 former major junior players. The majority of these kids, who were 19 or 20 years-old, were on average 1 to 2 years behind in their academics due to their intense major junior hockey schedules. With such a poor emphasis on education, it is no wonder that less than 20% of major junior players go on to achieve post-secondary degrees.

2)      Professional Mental Health Support:

The hockey culture is stressful for anyone, and even more so for junior hockey players where the stakes are high and minds and bodies are still developing. The bill of goods that is sold to every 16-year-old prospect’s family is the dream of someday playing in the NHL. Teams exploit this dream in every way possible.

The game of hockey is surrounded with negative statistics and long-shot odds, from scoring percentages, to turnover rates, to the fact that only one team can win each year, to the miniscule odds of making it to the NHL. What accompany these negative statistics are strong feelings of self-doubt, hopelessness, and depression. It’s no surprise that there are higher alcohol and drug abuse statistics related to current and former hockey players from junior to the NHL.

It’s a vicious cycle of suffering in silence due to stigma, to coping through popular forms of self-abuse. I experienced it as a player over and over again and on many occasions contemplated suicide. There isn’t enough support in place to help players deal with difficult realities and transitions that the overwhelming majority of players must face once their hockey careers end at the major junior level.  

Summary:

Whether people like it or not, a player’s union in the CHL is coming. It might not be this time around, or even the next, but the discussion is only building momentum and eventually the door is going to get kicked in. We should also keep in mind that the dark cloud that is concussions in hockey is picking up speed at an alarming rate as more research is being funded and more evidence and data about long-term effects of head injuries are emerging. The glaring truth is that CHL players are being exploited on several levels. When there is a situation of exploitation, a collective stance is needed to ensure governance and accountability prevails. It’s not about greed and compensation, but rather about what is fair and ethical.

Generally, players taken in the last two rounds of the NHL Draft are long-shots to ever play in the NHL. More often than not, these players shuttle around the bus leagues for a few years before moving on to the “regular” workforce, if they even play beyond the amateur levels. The odd time, players emerge from the late rounds to become serviceable, contributing NHL regulars (a la Grant Clitsome: Drafted 271st overall in 2004) or even NHL stars (Ever head of a guy named Pavel Datsyuk? Drafted 171st overall in 1998).

With the odd exceptions in mind, is there a way for NHL teams to get an edge when selecting players in the later rounds? My opinion might be a bit biased, but I believe there is a smart formula for selecting players deep into the draft. Grapes likely won’t agree with this, but my belief is that teams should primarily look at picking current NCAA or NCAA-bound players (which would be NCAA players who have just completed their freshman season or players who are committed to NCAA programs for the following season).

The most obvious advantage to selecting an NCAA player is outlined in the NHL rules governing prospect rights. When selecting a major junior player, NHL teams have a two-year window to get the prospect under contract before potentially losing their rights to free agency. NCAA players, or players bound for NCAA programs, offer a longer rights retention period. If an NHL team selects an 18-year-old Boston College commit, they have four years to sign the player before they risk losing their rights.

When NHL teams map out their draft plan, the expectation is for their first round pick to play in the NHL either right away or within two years. Their second and third-rounders will likely be under contract within two years and hopefully making the jump to the NHL within three to four years. Beyond that, there is really no expectation—only hope.

With that in mind, what is it about NCAA players that might be attractive to an NHL team? Firstly, a lot of NCAA players were late bloomers—players that might have had late growth spurts or weren’t superstars at the age of 15 or 16. Where you might have an OHL player going into his draft year with two seasons of top notch calibre hockey under his belt (a veteran who is closer to his peak), an NCAA player at 18 is really only just getting started in his development. Also, the NCAA schedule is more geared towards learning systems, building strength and playing against older men.

Another aspect that is involved is attitude and mindset. The mindset of a 20-year-old major junior player who hasn’t lived up to expectations within the two seasons after being drafted is completely different than the NCAA player who has had two tough seasons after being drafted but still has hope with his junior and senior seasons on the horizon. The window doesn’t close as quickly on an NCAA player as it does on a major junior player. When there is even a small crack left open in that window of opportunity, it can mean the world.

Much ado has recently been made over top-rated NHL prospect Sam Bennett (OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs star forward) and his failure to complete a chin-up at the 2014 NHL Draft Combine. Some people shake their head and say: “Oh, he’s not going to be able to play in the NHL. Too weak. You gotta be big and strong to play with the big boys.” I’ve also heard: “What an embarrassment. The kid is so cocky he doesn’t even train. I wouldn’t want a lazy kid with no drive on my team.”

Does Bennett deserve the criticism for failing to do a chin-up? The answer is an emphatic NO.

There are two main reasons why Sam Bennett not being able to a chin-up should have no effect whatsoever on what slot he gets drafted in and the rest of his career:

1.  The Potential for Improvement

A 17-year-old kid who dominated one of the best junior leagues in the world that can’t perform a single chin-up, should actually make NHL GM’s eyes light up. Unlike a player like Aaron Ekblad, who already looks like a 40-year-old, grizzled vet and probably doesn’t need to bring his I.D. to the liquor store, Bennett presents an immense raw talent that has the potential to get that much better (from a physical standpoint). As strong as Bennett already is on the puck and the mean streak and edge he already plays with, just think about how much more of a force he’ll be when he physically matures.

The NHL draft is essentially a guessing game. Teams are selecting players on projection. At 17 and 18, most of the players that are selected in the draft will need 1 – 2 years of additional seasoning in junior, along with 1 – 3 years of apprenticeship in the minors. With the exception of players like Sidney Crosby and Eric Lindros—who both could have played in the NHL at 17—the draft is about selecting players on a projection of what they could become. Mostly, teams are not selecting players they expect to step in and lead their team from day 1. They are selecting players with the vision that in 3 – 4 years, that player will develop into an impact NHL performer.

  1. Combine Testing is Misleading and False Indicator of Value

Does the fact that Sam Bennett can’t do a chin-up mean that he can’t compete in the NHL? If the answer to that question for you is yes, then Mario Lemieux never would have won the 1984-85 NHL Rookie of the Year award, on route to a 100-point season. If the answer to that question was yes, Wayne Gretzky never would have played a single game in the NHL.

Yes, Lemieux and Gretzky are exceptional talents and maybe it’s not fair to generalize that you don’t need to be strong to play in the NHL, but what these examples do tell us is that the biggest priority in hockey isn’t strength. In fact, that’s what makes hockey so great. It’s the beautiful mosaic of intelligence, elusiveness and finesse that sets the game apart from all of the other “hard-nosed” sports. It’s the fact that a player like Mario Lemieux, who used to smoke a pack a day along with a diet of cheeseburgers and fries, could go out and perform like a man amongst boys.

Don’t get me wrong, training is certainly important—especially in today’s game where players are better conditioned than ever before. That being said, being able to lift a house over your head isn’t going to make you a better player.

When I was coming through the junior ranks, the NCAA and the minors, there was a universal obsession with size and strength in hockey. I was always one of those players who had a hard time putting and keeping weight on. Every coach, scout and average Joe would tell me that I wasn’t big enough to succeed in hockey and I’d need to get bigger and stronger.

So every summer I would take Creatine, drink protein shakes like nobody’s business and lift weights until I couldn’t move, all in the name of “getting bigger and stronger.” Each year I would go into pre-season fitness testing and try and push my name up the leaderboard, hoping that I would impress my coaches, increasing my role and playing time.

At the end of the day, did it make me a better player? No. In fact, it actually worked against me.

In my first year in the minors, I went into camp with the body of Zeus. I was 6 foot 1, 205 pounds with 8% body fat. I was a beast! During fitness testing I finished near the leaders in the bench press test (we had to keep pace with a cadence meter and bench press our body weight as many times as we could), first in the vertical jump test, second in the long-jump test and third in the deadlift test (oh, and I was able to rip out quite a few chin ups).

At the end of the testing, my name was in the top 3 out of 50 camp attendees. I was pretty damn proud of myself. Coaches patted me on the back and said, “Good job.” I went to bed that night dreaming of all the power play minutes I’d be racking up and thinking about whether it would be 2 or 3 weeks before I got called up. I was finally “bigger and stronger” and I couldn’t wait for all the great things to start happening in my career.

Fast forward two weeks.

After a sluggish, uninspiring camp that saw me get shifted from defence to forward (which is usually a bad omen in training camp), I was standing in the coach’s office getting the “You worked hard but it just comes down to the numbers game right now, kid” speech. Later that day I was packing my bags and looking for another opportunity.

The reason I shit the bed in camp was because I was too big and bulky. Adding the muscle weight to be able to rip out wide-grip pull-ups and bench press a house had taken away from my speed and quickness. I had done what everyone had said to do. I got bigger and stronger. I led the damn fitness testing in overall scoring, for Chrissakes!

That season, I ended up signing with a team in Europe and after a couple more months, my playing weight was down from 205 to 190. I was quicker, more flexible and a lot more dynamic.

The valuable lesson I learned was that I would never listen to the blowhards again about how much I should weigh or how much I should be able to bench press. Strength in hockey can’t be isolated and measured like it can in other sports like football, baseball or basketball—where you can time how fast a player can run or how high they can jump to catch a pass or throw down a dunk. In hockey, the strength to protect the puck and win battles has more to do with balance, positioning, intelligence and competitiveness. The guy who can bench press the most doesn’t have the hardest shot and the guy who can do the most chin-ups isn’t the hardest body checker.

So my message to Sam Bennett is to forget the chin-up and keep your chin up, because you’ve got an exciting career ahead of you, no matter what the pundits say.

Sidney Crosby is one of those players (The really, really good ones) that you either love or hate. Gretzky was the same way and so was Mario Lemieux. Critics of the Penguins superstar call him a “whiner” and “crybaby” for his actions when things don’t go his way.

For players like Crosby, Gretzky and Lemieux, most of the criticism is fuelled by jealousy. One of my friends hates Crosby because “he is always whining to the refs and retaliates when he gets hit.” This coming from a guy who used to rack up 100 minutes in unsportsmanlike penalties a year. Hmmm…

When you hate someone with such rage, nothing cuts deeper than when everything goes their way. For Crosby haters, there has been a lot to bang their head against the wall about. A Stanley Cup, 2 Olympic gold medals, trophies, trophies and more trophies! But, when the Pittsburgh Penguins were ousted from the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs by the New York Rangers—a series in which Crosby only registered 3 points in 7 games—haters had something to celebrate. Crybaby Crosby lost and a big case can be made to paint him as the scapegoat.

A game 7 loss to the Rangers isn’t that big of a shock—the Rangers are a damn good team—it’s Crosby’s performance, or lack thereof. This season’s Art Ross Trophy winner and favorite to win the Hart Trophy just wasn’t himself.

Below are 5 things that explain Crosby’s lack of offensive production vs. the Rangers.

 

1. Henrik Lundqvist

 The best part about hockey is that you never know who will win. A team can absolutely dominate a game and lose 1 – 0 all because a hot goalie steals the show. Playoffs are where legends are born and where the true worth of a goalie is measured. In this series, “King Henrik” was outstanding and even more so when it counted. With his team down 3 – 1 in the series, Lundqvist zoned in and turned in three clutch performances, including a 2 – 1 game 7 win in which the Rangers were outshot 36 to 20. Overall, Lundqvist turned in a 1.87 GAA and .940 Save % in the series while facing an average of 31.14 shots per game, easily making him the series MVP. Simply put, King Henrik was a royal pain in the ass for the Penguins.

 

 2. Ryan McDonough and Dan Girardi

 There is a reoccurring fact that explains why it’s much tougher for superstar players to excel in the playoffs, which is that teams can focus more intently on matchups and defensive schemes. One thing that helps is having two of the league’s best defensive defensemen in your lineup. Both Ryan McDonough and Dan Girardi are premier minute-munching defenders who make their living limiting chances against.

To put into perspective how valuable these guys are, the Rangers traded their captain at the deadline in order to ensure they could keep them both. It’s not often you see a team in the midst of a successful season trade their captain heading into the playoffs. You’re really tempting karma doing this.

Most teams only have one player of the calibre of McDonough or Girardi, if at all. Having two of this ilk puts a team in a unique position where they can ensure that one is always on the ice against a targeted star player.

 

 3. Bruising Blueshirts

 Whether people think it’s bush league hockey or not, bullying is and always will be a part of hockey. It’s bred deep within the nature of the game. It’s the after-the-whistle facewash or the subtle cross check in the back. It’s the finished check with an extra push and the constant chirping. It’s no secret that playing this way against a superstar in today’s game has its benefits. And by “today’s game”, I mean the instigator rule era.

Even before I can start the argument that pest tactics and bullying are a part of Crosby’s offensive shortcomings in the series, critics begin shaking their head and throwing out playoff hero examples like Wayne Gretzky and Steve Yzerman. They say: “Teams tried to matchup and limit Gretz and Stevie Y, but they were able to raise their game and excel through it all.” In part, this is very true, and it is a testament to their greatness. However, the one thing that Gretzky and Yzerman never had to contend with was the crosschecks in the back of the head, the face wash after the whistle and finished check after finished check after finished check. Why? Because there was no instigator rule and when teams tried to play like that against Gretz and Stevie, Semenko, Probert and Kocur were quick to make sure that never happened again. Players like Brian Boyle and Derek Dorsett wouldn’t have been able to run around carefree, grinding and chirping Gretzky or Yzerman.

 

 4. Alain Vigneault

 One of the biggest reasons the Rangers were able to pull off such a spectacular comeback had to do with the adjustments the coaching staff was able to make as the series progressed. Alain Vigneault and his coaching staff deserve a lot of credit for adjustments they made to their defensive system, especially against the Crosby line. Earlier in the series, Crosby was able to create a bit of separation, especially in the neutral zone, allowing him to generate speed and flow. As the series progressed, gaps were tighter and the Rangers did a better job of owning the centre of the ice, especially in the defensive zone. These adjustments made it difficult for the skilled Penguins forwards to generate quality grade “A” chances, resulting in a lot of perimeter chances and blocked shots.

 

 5. Olympic Year

 Olympic years are always extremely taxing on star players. It’s the reason the NHL is so adamantly against its players participating. Just ask the New York Islanders. In an Olympic year, NHL players have to add in an Olympic summer evaluation camp and the Olympics (6 – 7 intense games for medalists), along with extra travel and media obligations to a compressed schedule. With Olympians traipsing to Sochi, Russia this year and playing compressed schedules after the break, the wear and tear is evident come playoff time.

Game 7 marked the 99th meaningful game of the season for Crosby, not including pre-season games. 99 games is a hell of a lot of hockey, especially when you’re averaging more than 20 minutes a night, playing against the other team’s best defenders in era where star players aren’t protected like they used to be. Keep in mind, game 7 also marked Martin St. Louis’s 100th game of the season and he was only able to muster 2 points in 7 series games. The fact is, even star players start to run out of gas, especially star players like Crosby, who play a strong two-way game.

2014_NHL_Draft

Although the weather isn’t necessarily suggesting it, June 27th is approaching quickly, which means the debate over who will go first overall in the 2014 NHL Draft is beginning to heat up. In my opinion, there are only three names that are seriously in contention at this point: Aaron Ekblad (D, Barrie Colts, OHL), Sam Reinhart (F, Kootnay Ice, WHL) and Sam Bennett (F, Kingston Frontenacs, OHL). Nothing against Oshawa’s Michael Dal Colle, Prince Albert’s Leon Draisaitl, or Peterborough’s Nick Ritchie, but I believe Ekblad, Reinhart and Bennett are the cream of the crop for this year’s draft.

Before I get into who I’d pick and why, I want to say that I’m not a big fan of the 18-year-old draft. I won’t get into specific detail as I’ve already stated my case in a previous article titled: “Why the NHL Draft Age Should Be 20”. With that out of the way, I’ll begin my assessment.

Below is my assessment of the Top Three 2014 NHL Draft prospects:

Aaron Ekblad, D, Barrie Colts (OHL)

6’4, 216 lbs, Born: February 7, 1996

Statistics:

      Regular Season       Playoffs      
Season Team Lge GP G A Pts PIM +/- GP G A Pts PIM
2011-12 Barrie Colts OHL 63 10 19 29 34 -5 13 2 3 5 6
2012-13 Barrie Colts OHL 54 7 27 34 64 29 22 7 10 17 28
2013-14 Barrie Colts OHL 58 23 30 53 91 7          
2013-14 Barrie Colts OHL 9 2 4 6 14

 Assessment:

I’ve had the chance to watch Ekblad about 12 times over the past two seasons and overall was very pleased with his game. He’s a physically mature player for his age and plays a very calm and controlled game. He has the makings of a strong leader and has already been dealing with the pressures of being a highly touted prospect and the accompanying out-of-this-world expectations. 

Strengths:

  • Size and strength.
  • Pro-ready shot.
  • Poise well beyond his years.
  • Ability to read the game at a high level and make consistently smart decisions.

Weaknesses:

  • Skating and foot-speed.
  • Not that this is a weakness, but rather something to keep in mind when drafting 18-year-olds, but from a “tools” standpoint, what you see now, is probably pretty close to what you’re ever going to get. Where other players have more room to improve, I believe Ekblad is pretty close to his physical peak.
  • Not too sound too Eddie Shore and Grapes-like here, but I don’t see much of a mean streak to Ekblad’s game. He has often been compared to Chris Pronger and Zdeno Chara—two players who have considerable mean streaks.

Projection:

  • Top 4 NHL defenseman for years and years to come
  • 30 – 40 points from the backend, 25+ minutes a night.
  • Solid two-way defenseman
  • A better skating Shea Weber with less bite and offensive punch

Sam Reinhart, F, Kootnay Ice, WHL

6’1, 186 lbs, Born: November 6, 1995

Statistics:

Regular Season               Playoffs      
Season Team Lge GP G A Pts PIM +/- GP G A Pts PIM
2010-11 Kootenay Ice WHL 4 2 0 2 0 4 7 0 0 0 0
2011-12 Kootenay Ice WHL 67 28 34 62 2 16 4 1 1 2 0
2012-13 Kootenay Ice WHL 72 35 50 85 22 8 5 0 1 1 4
2013-14 Kootenay Ice WHL 60 36 69 105 11 24          
2013-14 Kootenay Ice WHL 11 6 17 23 2

Assessment:

Sam Reinhart is the player I viewed the least of the top three—two WHL games and a tournament showing at the WJHCs. The youngest brother of the hockey powerhouse Reinhart family, Sam is a combination of everything. His strongest attribute might be his hockey sense, which is off the charts, amid a blend of an overall, well-rounded game. He’s not going to dazzle you and you may not notice him all the time, but by the sound of the final buzzer, he will have made an impact in all three zones.

Strengths:

  • Cerebral approach to the game
  • Puckhandling skills and vision
  • Positioning and anticipation

Weaknesses:

  • Skating (Although it shouldn’t hold him back anymore than it has held John Tavares back)
  • Size and strength at this point in his development

Projection:

  • Top two-line, playmaking center
  • Good two-way, responsible forward
  • Similar to Tyler Seguin and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins at the same stage

Sam Bennett, F, Kingston Frontenacs, OHL

6’0, 183 lbs, Born: June 20, 1996

 Statistics:

      Regular Season       Playoffs      
Season Team League GP G A Pts PIM +/- GP G A Pts PIM
2012-13 Kingston Frontenacs OHL 60 18 22 40 87 -2 4 0 3 3 2
2013-14 Kingston Frontenacs OHL 57 36 55 91 118 34 7 5 4 9 18

Assessment:

I’ve had the opportunity to see more of Sam Bennett than either of the other two top prospects. Sometimes this can work against the prospect as you tend to see more warts the more you watch a player. However, it’s quite the contrary with Bennett. The more I watch him, the more he amazes me. He’s a dynamic blend of skill, speed, smarts and compete. His stock is rocketing through the roof and it seems his ceiling keeps rising along with his immensely growing talent.

Strengths:

  • Compete level and tenacity
  • Dynamic skill-set, especially his hands
  • Speed and a lightning quick release

Weaknesses:

  • Sometimes his mean streak can lead to untimely, undisciplined penalties (However, it’s much easier to tame a tiger than to instill ferocity in a house cat)
  • Size for the fearless style of game he plays (Will need to fill out to be durable at the NHL level).

Projection:

  • Top line, dynamic, two-way forward
  • Think Pavel Datsyuk with more bite

Now that we’ve established that all three players are going to be impact NHL players in the not too distant future, who is going to go No. 1? With the Florida Panthers winning the 2014 NHL Draft lottery, we need to examine their greatest need and the direction the franchise is looking to take in order to determine who will go first.

The Florida Panthers are a franchise that is in a state of complete ruin with little, but some, glimmer of potential within their system. Besides goaltending (Luongo, the prodigal son returned), the Panthers are in dire need of everything. Their top scorer this season was rookie Nick Bjugstad with a whopping 38 points and their top three defensemen are either in their late 30s or contemplating leaving for bigger paydays in the KHL. The fact is the Panthers are in a position where they can simply take the best player available.

So, if I put on my GM hat and look at the depth of the organization, cap space available this off-season and the immediate needs of the franchise, I’m picking Aaron Ekblad. The long and short of it is that Florida needs to make a splash and they need to find an anchor to rebuild around. And when it comes to rebuilding, I’ve always felt it’s best to build around a solid backend, unless the top available player is named Sidney Crosby.

Ekblad also fills the Panthers need to spark interest from their fan base and show them that they are serious about becoming relevant sooner than later. Of the three top prospects available, Ekblad is by far the most hyped, polished and NHL ready. With Luongo between the pipes and Ekblad, Erik Gudbranson, and Dimitri Kulikov (If the Panthers can convince him to stay in the NHL) anchoring the d-core for years to come, this Panthers team could have a legitimate shot at becoming relevant within two to three seasons.

Florida is currently sitting at just under $14 million cap space heading into the off-season which likely will jump after letting some UFAs go and resigning some key RFAs. Basically, the Panthers will be able to make a splash in the free agent market this off-season, if they so choose. With a decent amount of depth in the free agent pool this summer, Florida could try and augment their offense by offering deals to offensively minded forwards such as: Marian Gaborik, Matt Moulson, Paul Stastny, Mike Cammalleri, or Milan Michalek.

Selecting Ekblad, signing 2 to 3 impact forwards and signing a steady blueliner in the mold of Brooks Orpik or Matt Greene, all of a sudden, the Florida Panthers are in the position to make a push for a playoff spot as soon as next season.

With the second pick, Buffalo will take Sam Bennett and his crowd-pleasing, dynamic, in-your-face style. He’s an exciting player to watch and has the added ability to make something happen out of nowhere. The reason I would take Bennett in this position over Reinhart is that Buffalo doesn’t have the type of complimentary scorers in place that will help Reinhart to thrive. Bennett offers more electricity, and in Buffalo, the lights have been off for far too long.

In the third spot, the Oilers will take Reinhart, and immediately put themselves in the position of being extremely top-heavy. Reinhart is going to play right away, so look for Edmonton to package a deal including one or more of (Eberle, Gagner, Yakupov or Nuge) to make room and bring in some much needed defensive stability.