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Monday’s FTB Blog: Prospecting for Goals

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He shoots, he scores. The tagline of hockey in any language.

NHL: SEP 24 Preseason - Canadiens at Maple Leafs Photo by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s Monday blog time again. Later today, the T25 gets going but for now, a story about prospects:

The first European Prospect Report I can find that I did for PPP was in the spring of 2016. I had a couple of things I wanted to accomplish with what became a regular feature for over five years. But after all those years, it’s time to call it quits: The European Report is no more.

We might have some other focus on prospects in the coming seasons, depending on interest from our writers, and if you’re really interested in watching prospects, let me know if you want to write about the Leafs’ drafted players. But I’ve done what I came to do, and with only Rodion Amirov as a top prospect playing in Europe — once his arm heals, there’s not a lot of really good stuff to watch.

I began with several goals. I wanted to see if a Sunday feature would work at PPP, since most SBNation blogs treat the weekends as dead zones, and I wasn’t sure that was valid. Once I was the boss, and could just take the lousy posting slot and give up any glory in the name of research, I moved the Report to Sunday. That was a valuable research tool, but it’s very true that PPP is largely a workday entertainment for people.

I also wanted to figure out this Nikita Zaitsev guy the Leafs were rumoured to be ready to sign. That was an extremely good introduction to the KHL, where it sits in the hockey world, and how a player there fares in the NHL. Zaitsev has now been declared “bad” and that’s all anyone cares to know about him, but I sure don’t begrudge the hours I spent figuring out what he was before he arrived in the NHL.

At the time Zaitsev was signed, a great deal of attention was paid to his points. And that’s never going to change. I’ve grown so tired of points as the final word on a player, particularly regarding defencemen, that I’ve started rudely calling it pointzalytics, and that’s not likely to change either. We’ve come so far in terms of how we can evaluate players in the NHL since 2016, that the gap between what we can hope to understand with confidence about an NHL player and one in any other league is vast.

I also wanted to figure out Yegor “but DeBrincat, though” Korshkov and Carl Grundström, and that was invaluable. Both are gone, but not forgotten by me, and I want to see where they end up because as much as it pains those who want to rate drafts as recent as 2016, they aren’t where they’ll end up yet. They’re close, though.

I wrote this on a day when our FTB was full of gifs of preseason KHL and SHL goals scored by prospects. Everyone is having fun with that, and I’m still at the point where I at least find it funny that this is what prospects fandom has morphed into. I want to quit while I’m still laughing, is the truth.

Back in my day, you had to follow the Swedish TV Twitter accounts to find goal videos, or link to unembeddable game recaps on weird Finnish sites. For one brief shining moment, you could use the KHL highlights, but then they sold the North American broadcast rights and geoblocked them all. Now there just seems to be streams everywhere, and you kids today don’t know how easy it is! You can’t even venture onto social media without seeing some clip of a lazy summer game where some guy knocks it into an open net while the goalie is trying to remember if the beach party is at 10 the next day or 11.

The Sochi Cup, a hilarious exercise where the Russian second tier national team goes to the resort town to play a few KHL teams, padded out with their junior prospects, is a lot of fun — primarily to see people shivering in the arena in the clothes they were just wearing on the beach. Prior to the pandemic, a Canadian team would go, and the Russians would show off their tough in the corners truculence against the masters of the art. Korshkov was in a line brawl once at that event.

Now the completely true and accurate, recorded on video evidence of hockey playing by a prospect in Sochi becomes a blip in a story the prospect fans tell together about players. It’s one plot point in a tale told by multitudes, and to be honest, I don’t recognize reality as I know it in their stories.

There’s a rule, though. There’s no wrong way to be a fan. And when the fandom grows, the people in it create the norms and the jargon, the in-jokes and the expectations. We’re all just telling stories, but don’t tell the mathematicians that. I can’t tell stories with plot points that hinge on an eyeblink in August. Just like when people wanted to figure out Zaitsev with his KHL points, this doesn’t do it for me.

That gap in understanding is what I’m struggling with, I think. There’s a guy — sorry, guy — who makes bar charts about prospects and he put forth the astonishing calculation that the Czech league is a top league on par with the SHL, and we all know that’s a long distance from true, but bar chart! It becomes part of the story the second it’s Tweeted. My friends, Torontonians, enemies, that’s way too close to drawing on the weather map with a Sharpie for me.

I’ve had so much practice saying, “I don’t know,” in the last two years, so much reinforcement that uncertainty is the base state, and the stories we tell to stave off the chaos of that unknowing are all fiction, that I’ve grown to accept the chaos more. I’ve grown even farther away from the desire for a neat tale of potential and opportunity and glory for all.

Prospect fandom likes their HEA ending.

The hardcore prospect fans watch a lot of games, let’s be clear. They have that deep understanding and context about the things prospects do in other leagues. But the little flashes of positive outcomes, delivered in a way that doesn’t led itself to contextualization, flatten out the entire cadre of prospects into a kind of sameness. Every drafted player is wonderful! And they are, that’s the trouble. In one sense, just by virtue of being drafted, a player is in a very exclusive club.

On draft day, someone I follow on Twitter who is a hockey fan, but not in the “deep dive into the reserve list” way, expressed confusion over the draft coverage. Everything was praise, nothing was critique, and they couldn’t parse out any differences from Power to Voit.

This is not new. Anyone who has read any prospect coverage or anyone’s draft guide is left overwhelmed at first with a sticky-sweet blast of cherry-scented, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all,” candy-coated gush. It takes skill to recalibrate your brain to find what isn’t said, and figure out what the difference is between the top and the bottom echelon.

This flattening out of the prospects into balls of potential, all of whom score goals occasionally, risks trivializing the importance of elite players while raising to importance trivial talents. This touches on the way people naturally perceive probabilities as binary choices, and that effect colours the consumption of the flickering images of prospects at their best that flutter by our eyes.

In that milieu I’m not sure there’s a market for something that amounts to, “Yeah that guy in the SHL is neato, but when you consider the role he plays, and the level of the goalies he’s facing, he’s not likely to ever be more than neato in Sweden.”

I think I even put this video in an article once:

I don’t consider saying a guy is going to be big in Sweden an insult, but for many, it’s akin to saying you don’t really want the hero and the love interest to get together. Believers want to believe until the bitter end. And I think that just makes people more bitter about the “failures” or the GM who drafted them, but to each their own really is the way to go here. Prospect fans love the whole world of youthful potential and fun that comes from talking about their fandom and sharing the little bits of joy that come when one of their guys scores a goal. Love is always in demand.

Not that market forces are driving my decisions, not entirely, but after five years of “but DeBrincat, though” and “HDU say Martins Dzierkals isn’t going to be on the top line!!!” and etcetera, it’s time to concede the field to “Wheee a goal!!!!” And god help the prospect whose shooting percentage tanks.

Wheeeee, a goal: