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NHL Draft prospects: Jesse Puljujärvi and Patrik Laine

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The consensus second and third choices for the 2016 NHL draft have a lot in common beyond just being Finnish. Choosing between them is consuming the attention of prospect watchers, but have we done it? Do we know which is better?

By Jan Leineberg - Own work, Public Domain

No two draft picks have been so intrinsically linked with each other since McEichel. So, okay, maybe the hockey world does this all the time—pit two guys against each other as if they are Bond and his villain or John McClane and this year's sidekick. The only thing missing with this pair of draft picks is a portmanteau. Unfortunately, Puljujaine just does not have much of a ring to it.

Unlike last year's opposites—one American, one Canadian, one NCAA, one OHL—these two are in the same league, played each other in the playoffs and played on a same line at the WJC. There is so much similarity, it's like casting a buddy cop movie with Henry Cavil and Matt Bomer. We need to define these guys, decide what sets them apart, but we have to be careful our desire to distinguish doesn't colour our interpretation of information.

Look at their Liiga regular season points data:

Now look again:

Both charts use the same numbers, but there's funny business going on with the vertical axis to distort the magnitude of the difference and make it seem to mean something significant. We do this when we choose between two things so often we invented an aphorism to describe it: a distinction without a difference.

To decide between this hot prospect and that, we taste the flavour of the wind, listen to the buzz in the air and decide which distinctions matter.

That buzz is the folk tales or urban myths of hockey. Opinions from well-informed observation and total hot takes get passed around and repeated until the pictures in our minds of these players become solidified into a simplified shape. They become caricatures who fit tropes, not nuanced profiles of complicated players.

They could have their own TV Tropes pages alongside the members of the Five Man Band the hero tropes you often see in the movies. In hockey it's The Sniper, the Big Guy, the Playmaker, the Two-Way player and the guy with the Big Hockey IQ.

First there was only one

Back before the buzz around this year's draft became a roar, the story had just one hero: Jesse Puljujärvi. Sure, the really tuned-in fans of Finnish hockey knew Laine's name, but in 2015, when Puljujärvi played in the World Junior Championships at 16, he was the single European player of the 2016 draft class that everyone knew.

Before a certain American muddied the waters by becoming a European player himself, Puljujärvi had the stage to himself, and he could expand to be all five tropes at once. He was a one man band. Size, skill, defence, offence, he had it all. This is a typical scouting report from the summer of 2015:

In a strong Finnish draft class, Jesse Puljujärvi will start the season as the nation’s top player and vye to be a first overall selection. He’s a hungry attacker who blends size, quick in-tight mobility and a seeing-eye shot earning him the reputation as one of the draft’s best shooters. Puljujärvi is a high volume shooter who attacks seams with quick powerful strides allowing him to separate from opposing checkers in a split second. Inside the offensive zone, Puljujarvi evades defenders using elusive cuts on the fly as he slashes off the half wall striking quickly. The promising Finn utilizes his lengthy reach to shield off pressure extremely well. He was outstanding at the 2015 World Junior Championship as the only 1998-born player and was, arguably, Finland’s most dangerous player.

A challenger emerges

And then along came Laine.

In July of 2015 the NHL put out their futures list and their story on it mentioned Laine in passing:

"Laine is another well-built skilled forward," Stubb said. "Sokolov is a classic Russian power forward with good hands, great skills and fine scoring touch."

When was the last time you heard the name Sokolov?

By September of that year, when Bob McKenzie released his rankings, Laine was in fourth place.

The elite-level first layer of this draft, based on voting points anyway, is four deep. Chychrun and Puljujarvi, who received identical rankings from all 10 scouts, and Laine‎ join Matthews (for now) at the top of the class.

The scouting reports on Laine at that time still sounded like this old one from Elite Prospects:

Laine is a towering forward with a knack for scoring goals. A good skater, albeit not the most agile forward in traffic. Has a set of soft hands combined with good vision, but prefers to use his heavy shot. Sometimes dangles too long. Likes to play physical, but doesn't get carried away by hitting the opponents. (EP 2014)

Laine had most of the boxes ticked to be a one man band himself with enough of a caveat on his skating that we can see why he wasn't ranked higher sooner.

Unidentical twins

As the hockey season wore on in Finland, and both players did well on men's teams, they became the inseparable duo in everyone's mind. The elite level in the 2016 draft class stopped being four deep and become three deep. And with Auston Matthews in Switzerland doing more than merely well in a men's league of similar stature to the Liiga, he had number one locked down, and the pair of Finns became twinned in the minds of many.

The World Junior Championship at mid-season showed the hockey world that these two players as linemates were a powerful and dominating force. And deciding who was better was the popular pastime of the tournament.

By February of 2016, Laine had moved into a consensus number two position in the rankings (which doesn't mean unanimous), and his scouting report was much more glowing:

A natural scorer, Laine's greatest asset is his intimidating shot. He's not a speedy skater, but possesses power and a long stride, and protects the puck well with his large frame and longer stick. Overall, skating has been a minor issue through Laine's development but has improved with some help from his ability to read the game. Laine has the hunger to create chances on his own from the wing and actively looks for and creates opportunities to use his shot. His elite wrist shot is notable for its quick release and his powerful one-timer from the top of the circle is a constant threat on the man-advantage. (Matias Strozyk, 2016)

Some scouting reports mention his pro season maturing his game, and in that phrase is a clue to his earlier lower ranking. But with nearly identical Liiga scoring stats, World Junior performances and glowing scouting reports, who is better than whom?

They are easier to tell apart than the Sedins:

You don't need to see the subtle differences in hairlines to tell the Sedins apart on the ice as they aren't both wingers like these two Finns are. With no such obvious distinction, we need to find some way to describe their differences.

Finding differences

It's time to turn to archetypes.

One scout offered an interesting comparison, using Teemu Selanne and Jari Kurri. The scout wasn’t comparing Laine to Selanne or Puljujarvi to Kurri, but was he was [sic] comparing the difference between this year’s generational Finns to the difference between yesteryear’s Finnish superstars.

"Laine is flashier; Puljujarvi is more complete," the scout said. "They’re both great players; they’re both going to get their goals, though they may go about it a little differently."

The Flashy Guy and the Complete Player. Finally, they each have their own distinct identities. And as we pass around these descriptions, choose what to repeat to each other, we are creating a distinction, but we are at risk of stretching the axis of the description to give the distinction more import than it may warrant. Is there really a difference there?

An objective look at their play on the ice is needed.

No one has done a better job of that that Canucks Army's Jeremy Davis, who corralled all the stats the Liiga had to offer and created some solid analysis of Mr. Flash and Mr. Complete. His graphs are all legit, no funny business.

But Davis struggles a little to find distinctions that are genuine differences even while he points out whose numbers appear to be better. The rate metrics for points show numbers so close that if you extrapolate them out over an imaginary season of even NHL length, you get real differences of goals or assists that you can count on one hand. One finger for the assists.

The shot differential and shot rate data is much more interesting and may hint at some actual skill differences in these two players, and Davis does a good job of putting the numbers in context with respect to the two different teams these two phenoms played on.

Davis raises a very important point when he discusses the zone start data that should be mentally applied to all of the numbers:

It was mentioned above, but it bears repeating now: Puljujärvi has a very high offensive zone start rate, while Laine's offensive starts are dead even with his defensive starts.

There could be a variety of reasons for this, and some of them may have more to do with coaching bias and assumptions than being a reflection of skill level. Perhaps the Tappara coach doesn't even pay attention to zone starts and is instead just rolling four lines incessantly.

Zone Starts are the ratio of offensive to defensive zone faceoffs and don't track shift starts at all. Coach usage is not the caveat on the data, it's what it's made up of. And coach usage influences all the numbers that Davis looked at.

Usage isn't the only mitigating factor we should be keeping in mind when we look at this sort of data. Quality of teammates, style of play or the teams, injuries, it all factors in, and then we need to consider that this is one season of play, a snapshot, not an MRI.

Another way to quantify the differences between our two heroes is by assigning values to the list of things a scout looks at. Miika Arponen, who has seen both players more times than I could hope to, has done a very thorough job of this.

Physically, Laine is already close to being NHL ready and will probably make the leap across the pond for next season. He is nothing but a lock to get picked in the top 3 in the upcoming draft.
Puljujärvi is a very complete player with a great understanding of the defensive side of the game too. He is on his way to becoming a very high draft pick in the next summer’s draft.

His result ranks Puljujärvi 0.25 percentage points higher than Laine. The opposite choice as Davis, arrived at in a very different way, but the distinction is so small, is it really a difference at all?

Judging the data

It's natural to look at a pair of numbers and assume that the larger number is better than the smaller number without considering what sort of margin for error and variance we should be mentally adding to it.

Once you've decided that bigger is better and not just an illusion, it's also fairly natural to make mistakes about how heavily to weight that difference, to mentally stretch the axis and take our conclusions from the dodgy graph even when it only exists in our minds.

Once we've done all that, we tell each other what we think we saw. Just like when we watch a game and report our eye-test out of our fallible memory and subjective experience. These are our urban legends, told and retold until you can't hope to find the truth.

The truth is often not the point.

Snopes describes Urban Legends this way:

Urban legends are narratives which put our fears and concerns into the form of stories or are tales which we use to confirm the rightness of our world view. As cautionary tales they warn us against engaging in risky behaviours by pointing out what has supposedly happened to others who did what we might be tempted to try.

The rightness of our world view is a thing we often want confirmed. It's comforting.

The more we smooth off the edges of our mental pictures of Laine and Puljujärvi and the more they become caricatures, tropes, masked actors in a pantomime, the more at risk we are of picking who we like for reasons that have nothing to do with who they are now or will be in the future, but are all about what we believe to be true about hockey. Or about ourselves. I've been known to pick one over the other just to be contrary, and I'm not the only one.

We aren't actually drafting these guys ourselves; our failings don't really matter. But even as armchair experts, trying to find distinctions with a genuine difference between these two might be as useful as arguing over which flavour of ice cream is best.

Chocolate! Strawberry! Argue away, but at the end of the day, they're both still ice cream. Don't forget that while you're focused on the details.

Which one would I pick if I had to?

Easy answer: I'll take the ice cream.