Monday, June 30, 2014

Taking a Closer Look: The Polarizing Selection of Goaltender Mason McDonald

For many Calgary Flames fans, a Friday evening filled with revelry and celebration came crashing to a screeching halt early Saturday morning. If the drafting of Sam Bennett at No. 4 was the bachelor party, the selection of Mason McDonald at No. 34 was waking up on the bathroom floor the next day with a wicked hangover.

However, despite the despair, fury and widespread outcry from  a large percentage of Flames supporters over picking a goalie that early in in the NHL Draft, I'm here to tell you that Calgary's second pick is not necessarily the mistake so many think.

Getting back to the party. Friday night really was a moment of elation for Flames Nation as NHL Central Scouting's No. 1 ranked North American skater was drafted by the Calgary Flames at No. 4. Bennett will become the most highly touted prospect of all-time to put on a Flames sweater. And, by drafting another potential superstar centre on the heels of the selection of Sean Monahan last year, Calgary GM Brad Treliving showed that the foundation of the rebuild is strength up the middle and as I explained in this piece from Saturday, that is absolutely the right approach. Soon, the Flames will enjoy the kind of homegrown depth at centre they haven't had in over 20 years.

But, then came Saturday and for many, a sobering crash back to reality when much of the goodwill built up by the club on Friday went out the window with the selection of -- oh god, no, a goaltender with the Flames first pick of the 2nd round. There were instantly tweets of anger and frustration as passionate fans threw up their arms and for some, their breakfast also, over the controversial selection of the Halifax-born McDonald.

To be completely honest, my initial reaction was one of surprise also. Due to goaltenders' reputation to develop late and unpredictably, the general unwritten rule is you never draft a goalie in the first round. In that case, shouldn't drafting a goalie four picks into the 2nd round also be frowned upon?

However, given 24 hours to digest and assess, I've completely changed my mind. Not only do I understand why the hockey club made the decision to draft McDonald at that point, but I heartily endorse it.

There are a lot of strong opinions about what happened and I'm not here to change your mind, but I do encourage you to have an open mind as you review my reasons why I don't think this was nearly as bad of a pick as many might think.

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10 Reasons to Like the Selection of Mason McDonald 


1. Myth: It's Best to Draft Goalies Late

Because many goalies taken early in NHL drafts never pan out, some have interpreted this to mean you might just as well wait until late in the draft to find your goalie of the future. The perceived effectiveness of this approach was perpetuated this spring thanks to the play of New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who -- as it was constantly pointed out, was a 7th round pick in 2000.

Well I'm here to tell you that waiting and hoping you can get a Lundqvist in the late rounds is about as wise of a draft strategy as counting on winning the lottery for your retirement income.

In a 17-year span from 1995 to 2011, Lundqvist is the only impact starting goalie to come out of the 7th round and there have been 65 drafted during that time. There were a handful of guys that made brief cameos as NHL No. 1 goalies -- Cristobal Huet (LA, Mtl, Wsh, Chi) the most notable, but the body of work for Huet or others like Fredrik Norrena (Clb) or Johan Holmqvist (TB) was generally ineffective.

Next, I widened the sample size to include rounds 4-9 (draft was nine rounds long from 1995-2004) and in addition to Lundqvist, you can then add in Braden Holtby (2008, 4th round), Ryan Miller (1999, 5th round), Mike Smith (2001, 5th round), Karri Ramo (2004, 6th round), Pekka Rinne (2004, 8th round) and Jaroslav Halak (2003, 9th round) for a total of seven projected 2014-15 starters. But, that's also just seven out of 298 goalies selected in the 4th round and beyond over that span.

I will also add in Miikka Kiprusoff (1995, 5th round) and Evgeni Nabokov (1994, 9th round) to the list of impact goaltenders from rounds 4-9 but still, you're looking at just nine out of 298 goalies becoming solid No. 1 goalies, which works out to a minuscule 3%.


2. Myth: You Shouldn't Draft Goalies Early

Once you start digging into it, you quickly realize that perception isn't reality. Look around the NHL and assess team's depth charts heading into 2014-15 and you'll find that a majority of the NHL's No. 1 goalies are high draft picks. From what we know right now and yes, there will be goalie battles that will go into training camp (e.g. Ottawa, St. Louis, Carolina), it is quite possible that 17 of the NHL's 30 starters next season will have been 1st or 2nd round picks.
  • 1st Round (9) - Jonathan Bernier Tor, Semyon Varlamov Col, Carey Price Mtl, Tuukka Rask Bos, Cory Schneider NJ, Marc-Andre Fleury Pit, Kari Lehtonen Dal, Cam Ward Car, Roberto Luongo Fla
  • 2nd Round (8) - John Gibson Ana, Robin Lehner Ott, Jake Allen Stl, Jhonas Enroth Buf, Ondrej Pavelec Wpg, Corey Crawford Chi, Jimmy Howard Det, Josh Harding Min

Add in others from rounds 1 and 2 that had prolonged stints (i.e. four or more years) as starters like Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Marty Biron and in total, 22 out of 85 goaltenders drafted in rounds one or two from 1995 through 2011 are either a No. 1 goalie right now, or once were a bonafide No. 1 goaltender. That's a success rate of 26%, considerably higher than the aforementioned 3% from those drafted in rounds 4 and beyond.


3. NHL Teams Draft Better Than They Used To

I just roll my eyes these days every time I hear a draft reference to Alexandre Daigle. People, that was over 20 years ago! At some point, you have to acknowledge how different the player evaluation landscape is now and throw out that moldy, old historical data -- especially in respect to the early rounds. Yes, there is still a component of luck, for sure, but the NHL Draft is not the same degree of a crap-shoot as it once was. Recently, Eric Duhatschek wrote in The Globe and Mail how the age of a total miss at the top of the draft is becoming a rarity.

Personally, I attribute this improvement league-wide in player evaluation and development to a variety of factors including the overwhelming access of information we have now such as:
  • Increased Opportunities to View Players -- Before, we had the playoffs to evaluate players in high competition. Now, we also have prospect games, national team development camps, national team programs, exhibition series against teams like Russia, international tournaments that are so much more scrutinized now at the younger ages like U-17 and U-18. 
  • Ability to View Almost Any Game -- Whether it's major junior, college, junior A. Without setting foot outside your home office, scouts can watch and re-watch almost any player as much as they choose. 
  • Availability of Statistical Analysis -- As the burgeoning advanced stats community continues to grow and with teams showing an increased interest in leveraging additional player data, the types of statistics that are becoming more common in the NHL are now starting to also show up in other leagues.

The good news is that the general trend of teams drafting better in recent years includes the drafting of those enigmatic goaltenders. I took the above figure that 26% of goalies drafted in rounds one or two since 1995 are (or were) No. 1 goalies and split the sample period in half.  Sure enough, there's been an even greater success rate lately. If you go back only as far as 2003, 33% of goalies drafted in rounds one or two between then and 2011 are expected to be NHL starters next year. That compares to 20% in the eight years prior to that.
  • 2003 to 2011 - 13 out of 40 (33%, or 1-in-3)
  • 1995 to 2002 - 9 out of 45 (20%, or 1-in-5)


4. Franchise Goalies Go Early

If you look around the NHL at who most of the top goalies are -- Price, Rask, Varlamov, most are early draft picks. There are exceptions with guys like Jonathan Quick and Lundqvist, but your best bet if you're looking to luck out on a stud No. 1 keeper is to roll the dice on one early.

The aforementioned trio were three of the top four finishers in this year's Vezina voting and each were among the first three goaltenders selected in their draft year.
  • Rask - The winner, was the 2nd goalie picked in 2005.
  • Varlamov - The runner-up, was the 3rd goalie drafted in 2006
  • Price - The 4th place finisher and Canadian Olympic team goaltender, was the 1st goalie taken in 2005. 


5. Flames Rarely Take the First Goalie

While the Flames have a reputation, especially around Calgary, as blowing it whenever they choose a goalie early, it's not nearly as chronic of an issue as it seems. You need to go all the way back to 1990 and the selection of Trevor Kidd at No. 11 to find the last time the Flames were the first team to select a goalie in the draft. While that pick is often chastised in these parts as a terrible pick because Martin Brodeur was the second goalie selected, Kidd was not a flop. He did have a lengthy NHL career that included being a starter for five seasons.

The only other time Calgary was first to pick a goalie was in 1988 when GM Cliff Fletcher made Jason Muzzatti the final pick of the 1st round.

Over the weekend, Leland Irving was the name most frequently brought up in respect to McDonald when discussing highly drafted goaltenders by the Flames, who didn't pan out. However, I don't think that's a fair comparison when discussing McDonald as Irving was not the No. 1 ranked goalie. Irving was the 4th ranked goalie according to NHL's Central Scouting and indeed, three goalies were already taken ahead of him when Calgary selected him 26th overall.

Also of note, the selection of Irving is the only occurrence of the Flames taking a goalie in the first two rounds since 2003 when as documented above, the success rate for drafting goalies in the NHL has greatly improved.

Prior to that, Calgary's success rate when drafting a goalie was 1 in 5, or exactly what the NHL average was during that period.
  • 2006, round 1, 26th - Leland Irving (GM Darryl Sutter), 4th goalie taken
  • 2001, round 2, 26th - Andrei Medvedev (GM Craig Button), 5th goalie taken
  • 2000, round 1, 9th - Brent Krahn (GM Craig Button), 2nd goalie taken
  • 1997, round 2, 6th - Evan Lindsay (GM Al Coates ), 5th goalie taken
  • 1990, round 1, 11th - Trevor Kidd (GM Cliff Fletcher), 1st goalie taken
  • 1988, round 1, 21st - Jason Muzzatti (GM Cliff Fletcher), 1st goalie taken

6. No Such Thing as a Safe Bet

The other popular assumption people want to make is that by selecting a goalie early, you're missing out on a 'can't miss' position player. This type of speculation was certainly rampant this weekend.

Sure, guys like Ryan MacInnis, Brett Pollock, Roland McKeown and Jack Dougherty appear to be great prospects the Flames passed on at No. 34 in order to draft McDonald. But it will be many years before we know for sure. Further, history has shown that the Flames selection of goalies over position players over the past two decades has hardly been an exercise fraught with regrets.

As you'll see -- and I define "NHL regulars" as having played in at least 250 games, there's not much credence to the claim that the Flames would have been any better off by selecting a position player than when they did select a goalie in the first or second round:
  • 2006 - Right after Irving, Dallas chose D Ivan Vishnevskiy (5 gm, 0-2-2). Only 1 of the next 8 (or 2 of the next 16) position players drafted became NHL regulars.
  • 2001 - Right after Medvedev, St. Louis chose C Jay McClement (682 gm, 75-129-204). Only 1 of the next 13 position players drafted -- that being McClement -- became an NHL regular.
  • 2000 - Right after Krahn, Chicago chose C Mikhail Yakubov (53 gm, 2-10-12). Only 1 of the next 8 position players drafted became an NHL regular.
  • 1997 - Right after Lindsay, Tampa Bay chose D Kyle Kos (did not make NHL). None of the next 13 position players drafted became NHL regulars.

7. Start a Run, Don't Finish a Run

Treliving said it himself afterwards. If they wanted to take the best goalie on their list, they had to do it right then at No. 34. NHL managers talk, there's plenty of intel out there on the draft floor and once you also factor in history and common sense, you know that the Flames would have had no shot at McDonald had they tried to wait until their No. 54 pick to grab him.

Sure enough, the run of goalies -- four in a span of six picks -- started right after the selection of McDonald. Had Calgary waited until their other 2nd round pick and assuming the other team picks unfolded the same way, the Flames would have been the 4th team to choose a goalie. Had they waited until their 3rd round pick at No. 64, their would have been five goalies gone by that point.

While goalies can develop late, you still would much rather have the No. 1 ranked player on your list instead of the 6th ranked player so drafting the No. 1 guy at the goalie position and doing so with a 2nd round pick makes good sense. Washington chose just five picks after the Flames and by then, the Capitals were quite possibly settling for the fourth-ranked guy on their goaltender list.

It's actually a scenario not unlike the Emile Poirier situation last year. The Flames passed on a few highly-touted players to draft Poirier at No. 22, which seemed early. At the time, many wondered why, considering how far down Poirier was ranked, Calgary didn't wait until 28th pick to grab him. Again, GMs talk, teams know what's going on and the speculation last year was Poirier would not have made it past Montreal at No. 25 as they had interviewed him in-person also and were reportedly very interested. Thus, Calgary struck when it did. It was the same with McDonald, they liked him and in order to get him, they had to take him right then.


8. Flames Badly Needed a Goalie

One problem teams will never complain about in the NHL is having too many top, NHL-ready goalies. While the future appears bright with past draft picks Jon Gillies and Joni Ortio in the pipeline, you just never know.

Gillies looked phenomenal for the first half of his second NCAA season last year but after a tough go with Team USA at the World Junior Championships, he had a rather ordinary second half. Ortio looked fine in nine appearances with the Flames last year but he's only got one full season in North America under his belt. He is not yet a sure thing either. In fact, even Ramo -- a pending UFA after this season, is a wild card still when it comes to his future with the club.

Factor in the fact that Ortio is 23 and Gillies is six months away from his 21st birthday and the Flames badly needed an 18-year-old top-rated goalie prospect to add to the depth chart and in such a situation where you have a critical positional need, why not add the guy your scouts feel was the best goaltender in the draft rather than settling for a goalie further down your list you aren't nearly as high on.


9. Goalie is the Most Critical Position

If there's one position on a team where you can justify taking a chance on a guy early it's at goaltender. If they pan out, they can be the backbone of your franchise for over a decade. Yes, the risk is higher but the reward is also significantly higher.


10. Flames Recent Draft Record is Much Improved

Perhaps I need to take some of the blame for the stigma that the Flames have always been a bad drafting team. After all, I awakened so many bad, haunting memories when I wrote my From A-to-Z: Calgary Flames Draft Primer. However, while referencing names like Rico Fata, Niklas Sundblad, Greg Nemisz and Tim Erixon is still a popular pastime, you're not paying very close attention if you haven't noticed the vast improvement in the Flames drafting the previous four years.

Since 2010, which was Sutter's last year as GM and a year in which Calgary didn't make its first pick until round three, right through Feaster's solid three years at the helm -- despite the still uncertain Mark Jankowski selection, the Flames have enjoyed some tremendous results at the draft table with many of the players tracking towards being good NHL players.

  • 2010 - Max Reinhart (3rd), Bill Arnold (4th), Michael Ferland (5th)
  • 2011 - Sven Baertschi (1st), Markus Granlund (2nd), Tyler Wotherspoon (2nd), Johnny Gaudreau (4th)
  • 2012 - Patrick Sieloff (2nd), Jon Gillies (3rd), Brett Kulak (4th)
  • 2013 - Sean Monahan (1st), Emile Poirier (1st), Morgan Klimchuk (1st)


You can't deny how much better stocked the prospect cupboards are now compared to the past couple decades when the quantity of players graduating from the AHL to the NHL and nore so, the quality of player being promoted as I wrote about here, was underwhelming.


Conclusion

Mason McDonald may never play in an NHL game. Even based on the improved success rate of late in the NHL when using a high draft pick to select a goalie, there is still a 67 percent chance that McDonald's career will turn out more like Irving's than Mike Vernon's.

But regardless, I won't change my mind that given the situation they were in, the factors I've detailed above, taking that opportunity at No. 34 to draft who the Flames thought was the best goaltender available in the draft was the smart thing to do.

As for those of you, who agree with taking a goalie when they did but do not agree with the particular goalie they selected, we'll leave that debate for another day.

9 comments:

  1. Very good piece of work. As concerns the point 7, I'm also thinking that is rather good to be upfront of the trend.

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  2. I'd craft an argument about how I think this is erronous but cult of hockey did a better job then I ever could so I'll just link...

    http://blogs.edmontonjournal.com/2012/03/22/you-cant-draft-goalies-and-neither-can-anybody-else/

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  3. While I have editorialized in parts, the raw numbers I've included are what they are and there is no subjectivity in them at all. This includes the very tiny success rate (3%) of finding goalies with a late draft pick and the improving success rate in recent years that teams are securing top goalies with high draft picks. Also, it's fact the players chosen by other teams right after where the Flames have drafted goalies in rounds 1 and 2 before have not panned out either (point No. 6). I have read the other article before but I would argue that no 'law' is forever and things evolve. Three entry drafts have taken place since that article is written and we all need to be open minded that tendencies can change. There is more information available to teams/scouts now than ever before so it is only natural that this is going to help teams draft better than they used to. Thanks for reading and I appreciate the feedback. It's all good discussion. Cheers.

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  4. Excellent work!!

    You should head over to Flames Nation, your blog has generated a lot of discussion.

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  5. I don't think you're sexing up the numbers but I do think that you use them to make conclusions that they don't justify.

    For example you note that 17 of 30 starters next year being from rounds 1 & 2 that means that the other 13 come from round three or later. there isn't a big difference between 17 & 13 and in a sample size of 30 you're looking at an high possibility of results influenced by random variance.

    Furthermore, while acknowledging the small sample size, I think it's notable that of the 1st round picks you noted most of them aren't playing for the team that drafted them (and I'm pretty sure if you asked Pittsburgh if they'd like a do-over on MA Fluery they'd take you up on it). The teams that made those picks aren't the ones primarily benefitting from these players prime years.

    With few exceptions starting goalies just aren't as valuable as #1C's or #1D. They're cheaper in trade and develop slower so you can't leverage their team controlled contract years as much. I can't help but come to a conclusion that it's better to take flyers of goalies later in the draft while exploring other means of acquiring them.

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    1. FYI: As much as I disagree with your findings here I love your blog. In a internet filled with Bleacher Reports It's a rare bit of quality.

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    2. I agree you'd never take a chance on a goalie if with some certainty you could select a #1C or #1D or for that matter, even a #2C or a #2D -- but was that calibre of player still available at No. 34 in this year's draft? History suggests not.

      Selecting a position player instead of a goalie when Flames selected Irving or Krahn likely wouldn't have made any difference at all if you review the consensus next position players available in both of those instances. It's quite likely Calgary would have drafted a D or F that was a flop instead.

      Personally, if you're not sure your next D, F, or G is going to be a top flight NHL player, I can't fault a team desperately in need of a young goalie with rolling the dice and selecting their top-ranked G, rather than their No. 7 ranked C or their No. 6 ranked D.

      Odds are always better if you try for a single. Given improved state of the minor leagues -- and another very high pick (or two) coming next year, don't mind the home run swing in that place. I wouldn't have liked it at No. 12 or at No. 23, but No. 34 -- I get it.

      Thanks for the kind words, appreciate the feedback.

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  6. Nice to read someone who doesn't say, "Drafting goalies is voodoo."

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  7. Some people don't agree with my perspective and I'm not here to sway opinion, just provide some facts and recent history for people to consider.

    Trends change and evolve and we need to revisit old myths from time to time to ensure they're still relevant and accurate. This one could be evolving. I'm not suggesting Mason McDonald will work out but as I said in the article, I understand the move and was a worthwhile gamble.

    Five years from now, there will be many 'hindsight experts' but truth is, there are no guarantees with anyone you'd be drafting at No. 34.

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