The cliché, “he’s won everywhere he’s been” is so commonly used in sport circles that it was the premise of the 2014 movie Draft Day, staring Kevin Costner and Jennifer Garnner. The importance of winning, and its’ impact on a player’s opportunity to advance to the next level, has been of interest to me for sometime now. While it is easy to explain the relationship between team success and draft success by saying that better teams are better because they have better players, I think it's overly simplistic and ignores other significant factors at play. In the case of the Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL), winning, and having the opportunity to represent the league at the OHL Cup, has a distinct influence on the number of players that are selected from each team at the OHL Priority Selection Draft in April each year. The discrepancy between the number of players selected from teams that do not make the playoffs, compared to those that do make the playoffs, at the OHL draft, is something everyone should be aware of, especially come tryout time. While being a good player on a bad team does not preclude one from catching a scout’s eye, and eventually being drafted, it’s important to be aware of the impact that one’s environment can have on your opportunity to advance to the Ontario Hockey League (OHL).
Looking at past OHL drafts it is easy to see the impact that winning has on the number of players selected from a particular team. In 2014, among the teams in the GTHL that did not make the league playoffs, there was an average of 4 players taken at the OHL Priority Selection (players per team: 6,5,2,1). When compared to the number of players drafted off of playoff teams in that year, which was an average of 7 players (13,13,7,7,6,4,3,2), it is clear that OHL teams are considerably more comfortable drafting from successful teams. In 2015 the numbers reflected the same preference for drafting predominantly off of playoff teams, with non-playoff teams averaging just 2 players (2,2,2,0), while playoff teams averaged 9 players (14,12,12,11,10,6,4,4). Again, it’s easy to say that OHL teams favour GTHL playoff teams because they believe that the consistently better team will have the best players. However, I believe a large part of this preference is due with the increased exposure to OHL scouts that playoff teams receive. With the playoffs for the GTHL beginning in late-January, a player on a non-playoff team has to both make an impression on a scout throughout the course of a regular season and have this impression last for up to 10 more weeks until the OHL draft. This is a serious challenge, especially considering other draft eligible players still have the opportunity to improve their draft stock as their teams continue to play meaningful games. In addition, having the opportunity to see players on playoff teams more often, as they play more games, enables scouts to feel more ‘certain’ about particular players, as opposed to those on non-playoff teams, likely furthering a preference for players on playoff teams come draft day.
The value of an extended exposure period, and being on a winning team, is further exemplified when one considers the draft success of minor-midget teams that are invited to the OHL Cup. The OHL Cup is a minor-midget, invitation only, tournament hosted by the OHL in late-March, only weeks prior to the OHL Priority Selection, and is used as a showcase for OHL scouts, coaches and general managers. Once again, considering the GTHL, of those teams that both made the playoffs and earned an invitation to the OHL Cup the average number of players drafted increased again to 9 players per team (13,13,7,7,3) in 2014, and 11 per team in 2015 (14,12,12,11,6). The role that the OHL Cup plays in a hockey player’s career progression was summed up in an article by Teri Pecoskie of the Hamilton Spectator, who in the article interviewed Hamilton Bulldog coach George Burnett and Darrel Woodley of OHL Central Scouting. According to the article, half of the OHL's current players have, at one time, played in this tournament, illustrating its’ role in both the developing players, and increasing their exposure to OHL scouts.
While I do agree, that generally speaking, teams that fare better in the standing tend to have better players, I believe that there are other factors at play that lead to the degree of disparity between non-playoff, playoff, and OHL Cup GTHL teams at the OHL Priority Selection Draft. The most significant of these factors, in my opinion, is recency bias among OHL scouts, coaches and general managers. Recency bias is the belief that the short-term past is a predictor of the future. In the context of hockey, it can commonly be seen at the NHL level when teams give big money to a player, after a career season, in free-agency only to see the player regress to their career average production levels (i.e. David Clarkson). Kyle Dubas confirmed, in a speech delivered at the Sloan MIT Hockey Analytics Conference, that this bias is indeed something that affects hockey talent evaluation at every level, and is something to be wary of when evaluating talent. How this affects the OHL draft is that players on teams that make the playoffs, and continue to play beyond their non-playoff competition, have the opportunity to exploit this bias with strong late-season, playoff, and OHL Cup performances. This gives them an opportunity to climb team’s draft boards, and overturn a season’s worth of scouting notes with a few strong late-season performances. Recency bias disadvantages players who have been unable to demonstrate their talent for weeks, as their team has already been eliminated in their league, and in my opinion significantly contributes to the domination of GTHL playoff teams at the OHL Priority Selection Draft over the past two years.
Good team, or bad team, it is clear that if you’re a talented young player OHL teams are certainly going to notice you. It’s also clear that if you’re on a winning team the odds of hearing your name come draft day are significantly higher than if you’re on a non-playoff team. The impact of winning should certainly be something one considers at each tryout season, especially if you’re very serious about a future career in hockey, as it does have an impact on a player’s opportunities. Being on a bad team doesn’t mean that you won’t be scouted or drafted, it just means that being on a good team, as you can see, does provide some advantage and certainly helps, at least in the short-term.
Note: Teri Pecoskie’s article in the Hamilton Spectator can be found here: (http://www.pressreader.com/canada/the-hamilton-spectator/20160318/282179355199924/textview)
Note: Kyle Dubas’ speech at the Sloan MIT Hockey Analytics Conference can be seen here: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ha1TKFMId0)