FanPost

Why The Leafs Should Not Draft Good Skaters

People like to talk about Dylan Strome’s skating. "It's not top end." "It's not very good."

And then the Strome fans come back with "Yeah, well, he's gonna be working on it this Summer, and after the special training and all, it won’t be a problem anymore. And maybe he’ll never be a great skater, but he'll be perfectly ok. Middle of the pack."

Which I understand.

Only problem? The pack is moving.

And it's moving fast.

Los Lobos. Will the Wolf Survive. Well... yeah.

When people think about change, they tend to look into the future and imagine the world staying just like it is today.

Except, of course, for the piece they’ve just changed.

The problem is that while they were busy changing... the world kept on changing too.

Change feeds change.

So. Dylan Strome's gonna take more special training in skating. That's great. But we need to note that the NHL and the players in it and the hundreds bucking to make it aren't standing still either.

*

In fact, when it comes to the world of hockey and what’s changing, the #1 direction I would say that it’s moving in right now - and for the last few years - is that it's rapidly becoming more of a skater’s game.

The goons have been driven out already. The slow-footed and pylon-shaped are being steadily annihilated. And more and more, even mid-range veterans are under pressure.

And that’s a problem for a whole lot of players, not just kids like Strome, who are seen as not being great skaters.

And just on Strome for a minute. It's not that he's not talented. He is. He’s a serious, top-drawer talent. He's a sweet passer, he controls the puck well, he's got a nice shot, on and on. Plus, he's got that big frame we like to see.

But if the entire NHL is moving rapidly toward adding better skaters, this means that even while Strome's training to make himself into an acceptable, middle of the pack skater... the world isn’t standing still.

It’s racing on ahead.

And that means that within just a year or two, an NHL player whose skating we'd rate as "good" today, would only get a future "average" rating.

Which means that someone aiming to catch up to the middle of TODAY'S pack... will find themselvesl below the mid-point in 2-3 years time.

***

Let’s look at a real world example of how change feeds change.

Imagine a family buys a house in the burbs. They've decided to move way out, out to where it’s greener and quieter and the traffic is calm and there’s that nice small town feel. Now, when they imagine their future, they imagine they’re gonna continue to have all these nice things - PLUS, the extra bed-room and garage and lawn.

And they’re not dumb. They know there's a cost - a longer commute. But they’re willing to sacrifice, right? In exchange for the greenery and the quiet and all.

The problem is... this exact same pattern of thought is taking place inside the heads of a lot of other people. Who love the same features our happy family has just found.

And they're all talking to their families... and their friends... and co-workers... and then, a batch of them decide to move out... and have parties and housewarmings.... and everyone sees the great new place... and pretty soon, the green-space is all being developed... and it’s not all that quiet... and the small town feel gets buried under some Big Boxes.

And worst of all? The commute just got worse. Not only are there more people on the roads, but the small rural roads are now choked. And then comes the construction. And once it’s done, the expanded new road will almost instantly fill once more, with more people fleeing to more remote suburbs.

And as Kurt said... So it goes.

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Change... feeds change.

And often you're running just to stand still.

Because what you're doing as an individual is only one small part of what the world is doing. And what's hard to see is that when you are headed in your chosen direction, it's very likely that all sorts of other people are headed there as well.

The pack is moving. And often... it moves surprisingly fast.

We're used to this in the rest of our lives. You find a band or a restaurant or a movie, and there's only a few of you who like it, and then, BOOM - the world is onto it.

Or with computers and cellphones. We’re used to the fact that our hardware or software gets a big upgrade, and everything will move smoothly for a while... but then the games and the apps and the Game of Thrones in HD episodes pile in... and it all chokes up again.

Upgrades have to occur again and again, because the bar is always moving.

The pack is always moving.

Change feeds change.

***

[Now, note that skating is much more than "speed." It's 1st step, it's top end, it's the ability to change speed, it's agility, it's power. And yes, all of these aspects of skating tend to combine to amp up the speed, of skating, passing, and decision-making. But they aren't the exact same thing. However, as a word, "skating" works poorly in most of the ways we talk about hockey. So I'll often just swap "speed" into our examples.]

Now. How does this affect NHL decisions, such as Strome vs Marner?

Well, the NHL as a whole, hockey as a whole, is undergoing a rapid shift toward becoming more of a skater’s game.

And this is not something that’s only recently kicked in. It’s been going on more quietly for a few years now. And its being driven by multiple forces, which means it’s hard to see it stopping any time soon.

1st. One of the most obvious recent drivers of a shift toward better skaters in the NHL has been... the elimination of the goon. A small, simple, change - and largely one that's kicked in in the last 5 years - but one which pretty much guarantees there'll be an increase in the league-wide average skill of skaters. Because it usually involves swapping out a larger, slower, and better at fighting player... for someone likely smaller, faster, and better at skating.

2nd. The salary cap is another driver. Now, the cap has only been around for a decade. And it took some time for teams to realize that they often made one particular mistake. They signed mid-range, veteran guys to big money, long-term contracts, guys who ended up on the 3rd or 4th line. After a few years of this, teams began to realize that they had younger guys coming up who were faster than the vets, and who could maybe could score a couple of goals as well. But mostly... who were $2 to $3 million cheaper. So this added another big driver to the process, by pushing teams to turn over their older, slower, higher-paid vets more rapidly than they would have - and to swap in younger, faster guys.

So that's two major forces kicking in, mostly within the last 5 years, to drive a shift toward better skaters with more speed on the NHL's 3rd and 4th lines.

Sometimes new people do it better. LP. Halo.

Now, when the shift began - let's say 5 years ago - few people would have imagined that the same forces that drove the swapping out of a Colton Orr or a Colby Armstrong, and the swapping in of a Leo Komarov or a Brandon Kozun would also help influence high-end draft picks.

But they have.

And here’s why.

The dynamics of change often mean that a change - once begun - drives further change.

Change breeds change.

Ok, an example. Imagine you’ve just swapped out a guy on your 3rd line... plus another one on your 4th line. And in each case, you've swapped in better skaters - better movement, quicker.

Now, a knock-on effect of this is that the linemates [the same guys as before] have a chance to play a totally different game. And in fact, will be pressured to. In many cases, these guys had some offensive chops back in Junior. And so, this chance to change is great for them - they suddenly find they get to play real hockey again. And a lot of them had been stuck for years playing with line-mates who couldn't move, couldn’t give or handle a pass, had bad/damaged/foiled-up hands, etc. But now, suddenly, their new linemates can take a pass... or create an opportunity... work a give and go... maybe even shoot.

And so, the introduction of one new guy on these 3rd and 4th lines pulls the others upward, to play with more speed, raising the overall tempo of the game.

And then... the next round of impacts comes about as the opposing teams respond to that. Their scouts tell them that you've now begun to roll fast 3rd and 4th liners, guys who are generating some secondary scoring, guys who’ll counter-punch you. And since you can’t just punch their speed guys out anymore, your only option is... to match their speed.

And often, that means scrambling for some kids who can skate.

And so, speed spreads.

And thus, RIP Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren and Colby Armstrong and Dave Steckel and Jerred Smithson.

And hello Leo Komarov and Richard Panik and Brandon Kozun and Mike Santorelli and Josh Leivo.

***

Now. Odd though it may seem, here’s how better skating and more speed then works its way UP from the Bottom 6 to the Top 6 and the Top Pairings.

Before we dive in, I'm just gonna use a simple A-B-C-D-E grading system to rate our NHL skaters in this next bit.

And we’re gonna give an A grade to skaters like Jake Gardiner. And we’re gonna use the E as our lowest mark, and maybe set it aside for guys like Mark Fraser, when he had that knee-brace on. And in between, guys like Kadri and Leo and Rielly are nearer the top - and Dion and Clarkson and Cody nearer the bottom.

Here’s how the change in speed plays out.

If the league speeds up a notch, and you’re an A grade skater like a Kessel, you’re likely still gonna be ok. Still NHL material. You may not get 35 goals anymore, because there's not quite as many pylons on other teams' defences, and there are more young, fast guys back-checking you, but all in all, you’re still good. Well above the curve, even as it rises.

Whereas if you’re an E grade skater, well... you’re screwed, basically. Game over. There are a million guys who can skate as well as you, and 500,000 of them are taking Advanced Power Skating sources this Summer too. Call it a day.

Now, let’s look in the middle. Let's take a couple of Top 6 Forwards and Top Pairing D-men, and see how an increase in speed affects them. Guys like a Lupul, or a Dion.

On the whole, at this level of player, they're pretty good skaters. A lot of these guys, when they broke in, you’d have rated them above average skaters, let's say B grade. And on top of that, they had good enough size to let them hang in against the big boys, and had good hands or a good shot. Put all those things together - some speed, some size, some puck skills - and you could be a top end guy.

Now. Roll the film for 10 or 12 years, up to today. When both Lupul and Dion have just hit 30. And have played 700 and 780 NHL games, with some serious wear and tear from injuries.

Which means their skating, which was once a B, is now pretty likely - in terms not just of top-end speed, but that first step, and agility and so on - to be closer to a C.

Still though. They’re both big-bodied guys, have good hands, they know the game, both have great shots, and they can still hit, or hold off a guy, right? And skating-wise, they’re not nearly as badly off as an E-grade Fraser or an Orr, or even a D-grade banged up Gunnar or frigging Clarkson, right?

So both Lupul and Dion are still top-end players.

And so, in the past, you'd expect some downturn, but not too quick. And you certainly wouldn't imagine that changes taking place on the 3rd or 4th lines of other teams should mess that up.

And that was likely the thinking of Leaf management... when they offered up those long-term deals.

Problem.

If you’re a Dion, and the 3rd and 4th lines just got quicker, suddenly, every single line you’re out there against - not just the 1st and 2nd lines, but the 3rd and 4th lines too - have some guy, or more than one guy, who can just flat out beat you. Turn you like a turnstile. Seriously - fast.

And when that combines with you having increasingly limited speed and mobility, which Dion does, then you can’t risk jumping up into the rush the way you used to. Or at least, not as often.

And that means... your whole game changes. Because you already, as you got older, had to pretty much give up puck-carrying the way you used to. Rielly and Jake do it more now. And you were already having to guard and protect a pretty heavily when out against 1st and 2nd lines, right?

But now on top of that, you can’t even jump up into the rush, to be the trailer, the way you used to.

Or take when you‘re out there with the Kessel line, and the puck comes back to you to get that big shot off from the point. But it’s not quite like it was a few years ago, where the winger covering you was slow, and you had room, or could side-step him to get off a big blast.

Now, it seems like these little bastards charge out at you at light-speed. They’re all right there, in your face, and whipping back and forth ready to block your shot, and bust past you for a break-away. And do you know just how bad you look, trying to flail back down ice, from a standing start, against one of these kids in full flight?

Which means, if you’re Dion, you have to dial that full wind-up big boomer down. You just cannot afford another blocked shot, another break-away. So you shoot less, and when you do, it's dialled down more.

Net result of these impacts? Adding faster 3rd and 4th line forwards cuts down on the offence we get from our older, but a bit slower, top pairing D-man. And I'd wager that we've all seen, and noticed, these changes taking place.

It’s the same when a Dion has to defend. You can see it. Nowadays, he has to be a lot more careful who he chases into a corner. When their 3rd and 4th lines are so fast, it’s not like you can just risk charging in to lay the body on. Because they’re more likely to be cutting in behind you, or swinging in around the net, or looking to give or take a pass.

And that means that if you’re an aging, and slowing defenceman... you start to anchor to the front of the net more. Can’t afford to get lost, stranded, in the corner. Can’t afford to be chasing people. You've seen it, I've seen it.

So, if you’re a Dion Phaneuf, the addition of better skaters to the other team’s 3rd and 4th lines has meant that you’re more and more... driven back into a shell. You rush less, shoot less, crash the corners less. And you end up standing, in front of your net, more and more.

Now, maybe a Babcock will come in with a different system, and tell Dion to start taking more chances, etc. That could be. And maybe it'll work.

What I'm saying though, is that you can see the pressure rising on Dion, coming from these fairly new sources of threat, and that he's less well-equipped to handle them when they involve speed.

And all in all, what that means is that the usual aging curve you'd see, the long slow downturn, is very likely to be quicker and sharper than we'd imagined. Which is why they should have moved Dion a year ago, and should absolutely be considering it today.

Lippy Kids. Elbow.

Let’s take Lupul now.

A guy like Lupul is a predator. It’s what he’s paid to be. He’s got just enough size and just enough speed to give him that half-step and to let him hold it, and then he’s got some really nice hands and a nice release. So if he gets a mismatch, he can put the puck in the net. And that’s why he’s paid $5 million a year.

Now. Imagine you’re Lupul, and your actual foot speed is falling back toward the league average, and maybe even just a bit below. And this coming season, every team will swap out one or two more of those slow-footed checking wingers you love, and another one or two more of those hulking idiot D-men you steal your lunch money from.

So... what now for Lupul? I mean, at a Leafs practice two or three years ago, Lupul would run up against a guys like Colton and Colby and Smithson and Steckel. Now. Can you imagine Lupul being able to score against that lot? Of course you can. And he did it all day everyday when he's run into these kinds of guys during games.

But imagine him in practice today - up against their replacements, Komarov, Kozun, Santorelli, and company.

It’s trickier being King Joffrey today.

NHL-wide, more and more, Lupul is facing people he can’t get that first step on. Sure, he can still make room for himself, but more and more it’s from his stick-handling, or his size and reach.

It isn't just that he's aging. It's that he’s not getting to play against pylons nearly as often anymore.

And he’s got another problem. Nowadays, he’s got to watch his back. Even against the 3rd and 4th lines. Back in the day, if you gave the other team’s checkers a chance, the risk was that you were handing the puck over to a Colby Armstrong-type. But now? They now only have the puck and are off like frigging greyhounds, they can actually put it in the net.

Which means if you’re Lupul, you have to take fewer chances.

In sum, by injecting more speed and better skaters into the bottom 3rd and 4th lines, we've also increased the need for speed in the Top 6 and Top Pairing.

And this, player by player, the whole pack begins to move.

Pressure grows on first one player then another to raise their game, raise their speed, to move quicker and THINK quicker, whether to fend off the other team or to catch up with team-mates on the attack.

And as the too-slow players ares swapped out, the average speed - and the average level of skating - increases again. And with each turn, the pressure rises further on those remaining.

You’re either getting faster, or you’re getting left further behind.

The pack is moving.

***

Another thing to watch. Watch the playoffs this year. And sure, there’s lots of grit and obstruction and shot-blocking and guys playing on broken legs and all that stuff the announcers love to talk about.

But then, there’s that guy Kucherov too. Plus Tampa’s whaddatheycallem... The Triplets. Great skaters, speed.

Plus that Finnish kid on Chicago. 20 years old. Tuevo. You know, regular season, they hardly let him see the ice.

But in these playoffs? Boom.

And these kids can skate.

And not only did LA miss the playoffs, but the Hawks beat Anaheim - huge though Getzlaf and company were. And Tampa, with its Tiny Triplets and all those frigging Europeans, even managed to break down the Rangers kitty-bar-the-door defence.

The pack is moving.

Which means, right now, everybody in hockey is thinking... I’m gonna get me some speed! Even if it’s a smaller guy, I’m gonna get me at least one. Maybe I’ll get my OWN triplets!

And yes, even the old guard types are gonna do it.

Look at Brian Burke.

Who also now has Johnny Hockey.

New Bond Villain? The Man With The Albino Porcupine Hair.

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And the NHL's GMs are gonna justify these changes for lots of reasons. For some, it'll be because it’ll sell tickets and excite the crowd. Or maybe just to keep the media quiet, and give ‘em a story to focus on other than the absence of a quality goalie. Or maybe because they’ve already got this a kid in the system who can fill in for that aging but popular vet who’s paid $3 million too much.

But as each team makes these tiny little piecemeal decisions, decisions to add just... one... more... quick guy to the line-up, the whole league...

JUMPS.

And the skating ability and the speed of the entire game...

JUMPS another notch.

To my great and good friend... Miguelito. All The Wine... is all for you. From The National.

Ok. Let’s focus back on this year’s draft, and the questions this raises for kids like Strome.

Now. People who are far better hockey analysts than I say that Strome is maybe middle of the pack. Compared to today's skaters, right? So, let's call that mid-pack position a C.

Then they add, "But he’s gonna work at it, and get specialized training, and improve his skating, and... he’s gonna be fine." And if his training this Summer was the only thing going on, and his skating improved, then, ok, maybe he’d slide up a notch, to become a C+ or who knows, even a B- when compared to others.

But. We now have to take into consideration... the movement of the pack. The fact that the league as a whole is getting faster, quicker, stronger on their skates, more agile.

Which means that within about 2-3 years, as NHL rosters turn over - and they turn over rapidly - that if you want to be at least an average skater in the NHL, you won't be able to get there by improving to become what is today a C. Thode guys will rank as D's.

Strome's objective has to be to lead the target, right? Cause it's moving. So he needs to aim to become a B grade skater today, just to be mid-pack in the future.

The pack is moving.

And this movement isn't some totally new thing, or a fad. It's been building for the last few years.

And from what I can see, it’s gonna happen more, and maybe even faster, in the next year or two.

In my opinion:

You're gonna see older and slower D-men get shoved out.

You’re gonna see another wave of young European talent, coming after Kucherov and Teravainen and Tarasenko.

You’re gonna see a dozen new, tiny guys, like Kozun and Gaudreau and Johnson.

You’re gonna see more AHL kids drawn in to fill Bottom 6 roles.

And the league is gonna get faster, and have a lot more really good skaters.

***

Now, for Strome, the only part he CAN change is... his own skating. And it makes sense, that Strome wants to do more training. Great. And I don’t doubt his dedication or his capabilities.

But. Some things to note:

1st. Strome is already 6 foot 3. May grow some more. But he’s only 185 pounds. Which means, he’s gonna add some pounds. A lot of it muscle. And that’s great. But, even though he’s not gonna end up the size of a Lucic, at 6 foot 3 and 235 pounds, neither is he gonna stay 185. His brother Ryan - who is only 6 feet tall - is already past 195.

No, Strome’s quite likely to add 15-25 pounds more, and hit 200-210... maybe 215, 220.

And that means his skating - forget about improving, but just to stay even - has to improve enough to carry that extra weight. 15-25-35 pounds. That's more than a little.

And that's not easy. I’ve watched a lot of athletes mature. And while they often feel that as they get older they can better use their size and strength, it’s not always clear that they felt they gained quickness. Or agility.

Anyway, let’s assume that Strome can do it. That the new muscle can more than carry the new weight.

2nd. Let’s also imagine that his training is gonna move him ahead, and improve his overall skating ability.Our second question is... how much?

And this, for me, if I was gonna draft Strome, is what I'd be researching the shit out of.

How much room does he have to improve?

Sure, training will help him. That part’s easy. Every Olympic athlete, every boxer, every athlete in every sport seems - hell, every human on Earth these days seems to be training on something or other.

But we all also know that diminishing returns is a thing. Which is to say, pretty much anyone, in any activity, makes their biggest improvements early on. But you actually can’t keep on making big improvement after big improvement after big improvement.

Sorry.

A marathoner who trains hard will maybe see their times drop in quite quickly from 2:50 to 2:30... but the rate of decline to 2:20 is likely to be quite a bit slower... and then, to reduce it to 2:10... well... it might take quite a bit longer. Even with the training.

Because... diminishing returns.

It’s kindof a thing.

And 3rd, it’s also worth noting that Dylan Strome is not just a kid who loves hockey and is committed to training. He is. But he’s also the younger brother of an NHL’er. And from what I’ve read, Dylan has already done a batch of advanced training, early. And thus, already taken a lot of those gains. This is not some hick Nature Boy who’s wandered down out of the hills that’s never seen a gym or a power Skating video before.

Strome has already had years of capturing the early gains that are available from playing in his early years against older kids like his brother, and from taking advanced training early.

In short, he’s already well along his learning and development curve.

***

Which returns us to our question. As the returns to his skating training diminish, will they be enough to raise him from being a C to being a C+ or B- grade skater?

Or, as the league gets faster, and the standard rises... can he overcome the extra weight, train enough to catch up to the pack, and then - even as it's accelerating - move on out ahead?

I don't know.

This isn't just something that applies to Strome - it's a force being applied to every single hockey player.

And - as a personal note - I really like what I’ve seen of Dylan Strome. He's got top-end hockey skills. And also, speaking as someone who’s spent a lot of their life with stats, I know damn well that averages bury a lot of exceptional individuals.

Which means, sure, there’s a real chance that a Dylan Strome can beat the odds, and move ahead.

As can a Dion.

And as can a Lupul.

*

But what I want to say in conclusion is that for a team like the Leafs, who are:

- looking to draft smart

- looking to draft high-end talent

- looking to draft a home-run kid

- looking to draft someone who's out ahead of the curve

... then for the Leafs, it may not be good enough to just draft players who are ranked today as merely "good" skaters.

Because today’s "good" is tomorrow’s "average."

The Leafs need to draft today's "great" skaters.

The kids who the scouts describe as exceptional skaters, lightning quick, off-the-charts - that sort of thing.

Because... the pack is moving.

{This post is not part of the series on European scouting, which will continue later this week. However, it does relate.}

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