Two thoughtful observers of hockey made comments along the same lines in the last few days:
12. Two years ago, Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford explained his belief that you cannot truly judge a defenceman until he turns 24. Rutherford says it’s the hardest pro position to learn. While in special cases some become early superstars, you can find a diamond in the rough by waiting a little.
13. I was reminded of that while watching Calgary prospect TJ Brodie of the Abbotsford Heat. He started the 2010-11 season with the Flames and there were coaches saying he was ready for the big league. It didn’t work out. Now he’s 22, coming off a season where he dressed for 54 NHL games, playing very well for the stingiest defensive team in the AHL’s Western Conference. The Rutherford theory is strong in this one.
Bruce McCurdy, in response to me and Dennis King (with a gratuitous appearance from Ben Massey):
Dennis King: I think every dman who comes through Oilers org and isn’t a great skater gets 25 extra GP just because of Jason Smith #CoughColtonTeubert
Bruce McCurdy: Teubert has his issues but being a bad skater is isn’t really 1 of them.
DK: he’s not a good skater though
BM: I can just envision you tweeting crap about Gator in 1998 too
DK: You know I don’t believe that I would. Once I get a look at a guy I’ll put my opinion up there with anyone’s.
Ben Massey: #TeamTeubertIsGarbage
BMcCurdy: Did you used to write off Expos prospects when they were 22 & still learning to hit Triple A pitching? Or would you wait & see?
DK: If they had a couple of hundred ABs and they couldn’t hit fastballs And breaking stuff then yeah I would.
mc79: Not remotely the same thing. Teubert is more like a 22 year old struggling in A ball.
BMcCurdy: Well, there is only one “A” in “AHL”. So I guess you got me there.
mc79: Timeline isn’t the same. Best players in NHL hit league at 18 or 19. MLB, more like 21 or 22. His draft year alone, 8 D picked after him are already over 100 games.
BMcCurdy: Weren’t you the same guys whining about how the Oilers should develop guys in the AHL a la the Detroit Model?
mc79: Half of the Detroit model is an apprenticeship. The other half is guys who don’t suck.
DK: The Oilers got caught up in this; and still are because they can’t even get toilet paper for the exec bathroom without getting Steve Yzerman’s goddamn advice.
DK: Here’s a model to follow: find people who have a clue and won’t let Kevin Lowe manipulate them
BMcCurdy: I’m referring specifically to the Detroit development model.
BMcCurdy: My mistake to mention any team’s model. My entire point was about developing guys in minors not #NHL.
BMcCurdy: re: “best players” When do most stay-at-home blueliners start to become effective? Mid-20s, I’d say. Tons of examples.
BMcCurdy: 5 years ago I was preaching patience on Greene & Smid. It takes time for big stay-at-home defenders.
It’s a bit unfair for Bruce to say that he was preaching patience on Matt Greene and Ladislav Smid, I think. He loves pretty much every young Oilers player with all his heart and soul – see Stortini for an example. If there’s anyone under the age of 25 who he’s been willing to say can’t do some sort of a job for the Oilers, I’ve missed it. Also, developing those guys in the NHL comes at a cost, in terms of being on the wrong end of a series of beatings. More importantly, given the issue under discussion: when you compare where the Oilers defensive prospects who are in the 21-23 age range (Colten Teubert and Alex Plante) now are in terms of their development with where Ladislav Smid and Matt Greene were at a similar age, it’s hard to see much in the way of a comparison.
Rightly or wrongly, Smid was playing games in an NHL top four at age 20. Greene earned some games in a bottom pairing. They were bad, but then Teubert got slaughtered in a sheltered bottom pairing role last year and Plante has yet to even earn that much of a sniff, despite being a year older. I’m pretty sure that it’s not reasonable to say that Teubert/Plante are anywhere near the Greene/Smid trajectory.
“It takes time for big stay-at-home defenders” is the point that interests me though and one that Rutherford basically made as well. This is a question that I look at now and then and I have an awfully tough time finding much in the way of evidence to support it, no matter how I slice the evidence. Two quick looks at it. First, I looked at defencemen who played at least twenty minutes last year, while playing no more than 1:00 per game on the PP and at least 40 games. This produced a list of 24 guys. I’ve added in the system in which they were developed and when they first played 60 NHL games in a season.
Notably, the majority of these guys made it in the NHL by age 23. Even that’s kind of misleading – Josh Gorges was close to the 60 game threshold, playing with a good Sharks team, at age 21. Tim Gleason and Zbynek Michalek were both likely pushed back a year by the lockout – both looked to be full time NHLers at the end of the 2003-04 season when they were 21 years old. If you move those guys up a year, you end up with 12 defensive guys who made it by age 22 and 12 after. Of the 12 after though, the only CHL products were Marc Methot (drafted at 168), Bryce Salvador (drafted at 138), Johnny Oduya (only spent a year in the CHL, drafted 221, disappeared into Europe) and Johnny Boychuk (drafted 61st).
Seven of the 12 were NCAA guys, with the other coming from the Czech Republic. Given that NCAA grads aren’t 50%+ of the NHL defence corps and that the bulk of NHL defencemen are not guys drafted after the 100th pick, I’m not sure that I agree with the oft-repeated idea that defencemen take a while to develop. It sure looks to me like, of the defensive, stay-at-home types who were in the NHL last year, half of them were established NHLers by age 22 and, of those who weren’t, they tended to either be late bloomers, guys who played in the NCAA or guys who came out of Europe.
Want a different angle? I looked at guys who played a) at least 200 games after b) turning 25 and c) between 2008-2012. I’m looking for real pros here, the meat of the hockey defence group. This produced a group of 101 players who played 27,252 games between 2008-12. If you assume six defencemen per team per game, the league as a whole required 59,040 defenceman-games in that period, so we’re talking about a group of 101 guys who provided about 46% of the NHL’s defenceman games in that period. This group of players played 85% of the games that they could have played – some guys obviously joined the 25+ group a year in to the period I’m looking at or retired after 2011.
48 of the 101 guys in this sample had played at least 150 games by the end of their age 24 season, which is consistent with making it as a full-time defenceman by the time that you’re 23 years old at the latest. Again, the group of guys who made it later than that is kind of interesting. It’s a group of 53 players: 13 CHL grads, 21 NCAA grads, 17 Europeans and two guys who played in the SJHL. Just looking at the CHL guys for a minute, Bryan Allen wouldn’t be in this group if not for the 2004-05 lockout – he played 139 games before his age 25 season, and had his 2004-05 season wiped out. As when I sliced the data the other way, the CHL draftees are disproportionately late draft picks or undrafted players – half of the twelve who are left when you drop Allen from the analysis were drafted at 123 or later or undrafted.
I’ve heard people say what Bruce said a number of times; I’ve just never seen anyone who’s assembled data to back it up. I’ve looked at this issue from a number of different angles and I’ve never been able to find the data that supports the idea that CHL defencemen who aren’t NHLers at 23 are significant prospects. In other words, if there isn’t a good explanation for why a defenceman isn’t a full-time NHLer by 23, it’s hard for me to see much of a reason to hold out hope for him. You may not be entirely sure just how good he’ll be at the NHL level, but you should be confident that he’s an NHLer. Alex Plante’s at that threshold and, lockout or not, wasn’t going to be in the NHL this year. Teubert’s a year away and has 25 NHL games under his belt. He wouldn’t be in the NHL this year to start the season, despite the advantage of being the property of a team that’s desperate for defencemen.
I don’t think that the data has Teubert quite as a write-off yet, but if you add in the obvious facts that a) he couldn’t crack a terrible defence corps last year and b) didn’t look particularly close to doing so when he was pressed into service anyway, I think it’s more likely than not that his upside is that of a guy who maybe gets a few hundred games as a bottom of the roster player.
Brodie’s a bit of a different fish – he’d played 57 NHL games by the end of his age 21 season, on a far more legitimate team than Edmonton. If people were writing him off after his age 20 season in which he only played three games in Calgary, that’s kind of foolish. The question with him is a bit of a different question – how soon do guys need to move from being on the edge of an NHL roster to being a top four defenceman if they’re going to make it? In that case, Rutherford’s rule might be more helpful. It may take time for big NHL defenders to develop but, historically, they’re able to secure NHL roster spots at a relatively young age.Email Tyler Dellow at firstname.lastname@example.org