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.

Comments (6)

  1. danielson. an excellent insightful post, especially when you observe fans tend to denigrate their best players because they remember dropped passes that were intercepted, pucks that were not cleared crisply, and forwards who went uncovered, Alex Edler failures being a case in point. if Vancouver trades him, then chances are they’ll get someone not three-quarters as good. cheers.

  2. Most people think the word fan comes from the word fanatic. In reality I think the word fan is derived from the word Fickle.

  3. It’s always funny after the draft, almost like Groundhog Day. People always take about how such and such prospect is going to be the next superstar and is not like the other guys who did not pan out before him.

    Case and point, I am a Canucks fan. I remember when the Canucks drafted Jordan Schroeder who “fell” in the draft. We all thought that the Canucks were so lucky and that his high skill level would overcome his diminutive size. So far, they have not and most people do not expect much from him anymore.

    Present day, the Canucks have drafted Hunter Shinkaruk. The majority of Canucks are very excited and can’t believe we got Shinkaruk as he “fell” so far in the draft. These same fans know he will be the next team superstar and that his high skill level will overcome his diminutive size.

    Who knows if either of these guys will be superstars, but every year it is the same. Fans quickly forget and the newest guys drafted will always be the next superstars for their given team. One thing that is for sure though, is that there will be unrealistic expectations.

  4. Even if Jordan Subban doesn’t pant out the Habs should’ve spent a 2014 late-round pick to move up a few spots and get him. It’s a coupon on PK Subban’s contract extension.

    Even if Jordan Subban ends up a complete bust, the Habs screwed up big time not getting him in the 4th round.

  5. Same thing happens with stats. Fans look and say “OMG OMFG, he scored like 70 points and we got him in the 3rd round!!!” Nevermind that it was in the QMJHL, where they practically hand out points and there are 38 other guys that did the same.

    It all has to be taken with a grain of salt, though certain things on the scouting report will almost always show you who is a bust. “Skating needs work”, “Not defensively responsible”, ” Will never be much of an offensive producer” or “Not a team-first player” are almost always dealbreakers once it comes time to try and make the bigs. Lots of other things can be taught, but if you have an attitude problem, can’t skate, or can’t at least chip in a little offensively (with the rare exception of extremely defensive d-men), you don’t belong in the NHL and it won’t be getting better.

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