With the NHL Entry Draft on Sunday came the annual tradition: the running of the fans to YouTube. Since most hockey fans don’t watch hundreds of major junior, European hockey, and United States Hockey League games with notepads out, the only familiarity they have with the prospects that have suddenly joined their favourite team is from scouting reports, draft rankings, and YouTube highlight packages.
I certainly do it. I manage to watch a bit of major junior from time to time, but I prefer to watch junior hockey in person, so I tend to take in more local Junior A than CHL games. So when the team I cover, the Canucks, gets a slate of new prospects, I turn to YouTube to get my first look at them.
As I’ve been doing that this week, it got me thinking about how the draft creates unrealistic expectations and how some of those unrealistic expectations are echoed in free agency.
YouTube “scouting” has an inherent bias. Highlight packages tend to focus, naturally, on the highs and not the lows. Specifically, they focus on offense, giving fans an inaccurate representation of a player’s all-around game. Great passes, dekes, and goals are well-represented on YouTube, along with fights thanks to the HockeyFights.com, but you won’t see many highlight videos of steady defensive plays, pokechecks, and gap control.
What’s more, you don’t see the flaws in a prospect’s game. No one makes YouTube videos of a prospect making a bad pinch down the boards, losing their check in the slot, or failing to clear the zone on a penalty kill. Along with the endless optimism that fans tend to have about prospects, fuelled by the hype around the draft as 18-year-old kids are compared to established NHL stars, this leads to unrealistic expectations and, eventually, disappointment.
When a highly-touted prospect shows up to training camp and starts playing in pre-season games, allowing you to see more than just his best moments back-to-back, the reality can be deflating. Not every rush up the ice will result in a laserbeam wristshot to the top corner. His patented deke to the backhand that fooled so many junior goaltenders in his highlight videos doesn’t fool an NHL goalie and is easily stopped.
It’s not even necessarily that the prospect is bad; he’s just not the next Pavel Datsyuk or Martin St. Louis like the analysts at the draft suggested and he has flaws, like any hockey player. Maybe he’ll still be a star, but he’ll never quite be as good as he was on YouTube.
On YouTube, he never misses a pass, whiffs on an open net, or gets caught standing still by an opponent on the rush.
On YouTube, he’s perfect.
Highlight videos are small samples of small sample sizes, taking a handful of games and gleaning them for their juiciest morsels.
Free agency has the same problem. While you’ll certainly see more of established NHL players than young prospects playing in barely-televised leagues, it’s generally still a very small sample, particularly if they play on the opposite coast from your favourite team.
As soon as a free agent is signed, you think back to how well he played that one time against your team, check his stats and see that he scored 30 goals just a couple seasons ago, and think that he might be a good fit. That one gamewinning goal he scored against your team sticks out in your memory, but not the three times earlier in the game when he missed his defensive assignment, giving your team a great scoring chance.
You turn to YouTube and see video after video of great goals, passes and bodychecks. Naturally, you get excited.
When you see a player shift-after-shift, game-after-game, you get a different perspective. You start to notice the flaws that you never saw when he was an opponent. The highlights that came so compressed on YouTube are few and far between in real life. You start to wonder why you were so excited about your team signing him in the first place.
Someone commented to me recently that fans tend to overrate the players on their favourite team, and while this can be true, I frequently find the opposite to be more common. Familiarity breeds contempt and fans are often harder on the players on their team than they are on opponents.
In Vancouver, this is especially true with someone like David Booth. When he was first signed, fans were enthusiastic, as they had heard he played a power forward game, went hard to the net, and liked to shoot the puck from all areas of the ice. It was exactly the type of player fans in Vancouver had been clamouring for.
Now, many of those same fans are bemoaning that Booth is one-dimensional: always going hard to the net instead of trying to create plays and shooting the puck from all angles instead of looking for a better scoring chances. The same qualities that were so exciting when seen in small samples became a source of consternation. Is Booth a bad player? No, far from it. But he is a flawed player, just like pretty much everyone in the NHL.
Staying with Vancouver, consider Alex Edler, who seems to be very well-regarded in the NHL, earning an invitation to the All-Star Game in 2012. He’s consistently produced at around a 40+ point pace over the last five seasons. If you watch his highlight videos on YouTube, you’ll see a bomb of a slap shot, a few massive hits, and some nice passing plays. What’s not to like?
And yet, many fans in Vancouver will tell you that he’s inconsistent and frustrating. Is he a bad player? Definitely not. But he is flawed and the fans that have watched him intently for years are well aware of those flaws, to the point that they have started to overshadow his best qualities. It was to the point that when rumours were flying that he might get traded, there were a number of Canucks fans happy about the prospect.
If the Canucks did trade Edler, they would have had to find some way to replace the 24 minutes he plays every game and the 40+ points he scores every season. Fans would have immediately looked towards free agents or players potentially available in a trade, all players with significant flaws, but ones the fans are not familiar with yet.
The only time you might see a player from another conference is when they show up in the highlights on Sportscentre. One particularly nice goal, hit, or save might even make it into a Top-10 list and get replayed again and again, then uploaded to YouTube, where it will shape the perception of a player for years to come.
Then, when your team signs that player, a couple months into the season the flaws in their game will become apparent, and the cycle will begin over again. If only your team had signed Free Agent X, who never seems to make the kinds of mistakes Free Agent Y is making all the time.
No player can live up to the biased small sample size of a highlight video. If you can keep that in mind as your team’s prospects make their way up through the organization and your team goes shopping during free agency, you’ll end up a lot less disappointed.