One of the core assertions I'll often make in Up and Coming is that NHL teams pay too little attention to scoring stats when it comes to the Entry Draft. However, that is not to say that the stats are the be-all and end-all of evaluating draft prospects. I'm positive that scouting plays a very important role in evaluating amateur players, though not the only role.
The importance of scouting can be seen when we look at the best age-17 seasons in QMJHL history. In the last Up and Coming, I converted all QMJHL player-seasons to the 'Lemieux standard' (70 games played, and a 5.01 league GPG average). A player's 'age' is calculated based on the modern rules for Entry Draft eligibility. If the player is first eligible for the draft after the year in question, he is assigned an age of 17 for that year. The results are below.
1. Sidney Crosby (2004-05) 298 points
2. Mario Lemieux (1983-84) 282 points
3. Pierre Larouche (1973-74) 243 points
4. Guy Lafleur (1969-70) 220 points
5. Pat LaFontaine (1982-83) 217 points
6. Alexandre Daigle (1992-93) 206 points
7. Real Cloutier (1973-74) 203 points
8. Dale Hawerchuk (1980-81) 190 points
9. Derick Brassard (2005-06) 189 points
10. Vincent Lecavalier (1997-98) 187 points
That's a very impressive list of names. Seven of these players have had extensive and very successful major-league careers with superb scoring numbers. Some are among the greatest players of their times. Crosby has only been playing for a few years, but is clearly the real deal (assuming he can stay healthy). It's far too early to tell how Brassard's career will turn out, so we will reserve all judgment of him at this point. That leaves just one player who does not fit in with the others: Alexandre Daigle.
Daigle was a much-desired player at the 1993 Entry Draft, and the Ottawa Senators didn't hesitate to snap him up with the 1st overall pick. He was billed as the next great player, and topped the list of prospects in a very good draft class. He was drafted ahead Chris Pronger and Paul Kariya, a decision which seems ridiculous in retrospect. He is now one of the greatest Entry Draft flops of all time.
But the numbers backed up his draft position. His age-15 season in Quebec midget AAA, and his age-16 and age-17 seasons in the QMJHL all pointed toward potential superstardom. Based solely on the stats, Daigle deserved to be one of the top picks in 1993, though Kariya, who went #4, had the best stats among draft-eligible players.
Daigle's first two seasons in the NHL showed some of his promise. He recorded 51 points as an 18-year-old rookie, then 37 points in 47 games as a 19-year-old in the strike-shortened year. After a terrible 1995-96 campaign, he was back up to 51 points in 1996-97, but at that point in his career, this was simply not enough, and he had been overshadowed by Alexei Yashin every year. It just got worse from there. He started being shuffled around the league, with each new team hoping he could live up to his former “can't-miss” potential, and each time finding out he could not. So what happened to him?
It became apparent that while he was certainly interested in the spotlight that comes with being a can't-miss wunderkind, he was much less interested in playing hockey, or at least working hard at playing hockey. After he was drafted, he was quoted as saying “I'm glad I got drafted first, because no one remembers number two.” Fans of Chris Pronger beg to differ, or Alexei Yashin for that matter. Daigle's game never developed because he apparently never put any effort into its development. He was interested in being a superstar, but not so keen on doing what it takes to be a superstar at the NHL level.
The real question is, was there any way to know about Daigle's problems with motivation and commitment before drafting him? Or perhaps a more general issue with immaturity or instability? Well, he was prone to the occasional violent outburst in junior, though some scouts probably considered this a positive. But one would hope that a solid psychological evaluation would have revealed Daigle's weaknesses. This is one very important role scouts can play: getting to know the player as a person, finding out what makes him tick. Daigle apparently cared little for the game, despite his immense natural talents. A good understanding of Daigle's personality should have shed some light on this.
Michael Lewis' Moneyball discusses the process by which the Oakland A's Billy Beane and his team of scouts and analysts use to whittle down a huge group of potential draftees into a smaller, more manageable list. Some number of these players are rejected outright, regardless of statistics or talent, due to possible psychological or emotional problems. These are players with problems the team could not afford to solve; resources would be more effectively invested in other players. This process is called “putting a Milo” on a player, named after an unstable ex-employee of Beane's.
Daigle should have had a Milo put on him. He had problems that perhaps could have been overcome with time and effort, but which indicated the investment required to sign a 1st overall pick would be better spent elsewhere (on Chris Pronger, for example). After quitting his hockey career the first time, he admitted to playing hockey not because he cared about it, but because he was good at it. This is nothing against Daigle as a person. The vast majority of the population would not have the commitment required to succeed at the NHL level; heaven knows I wouldn't. But when you're looking for NHL players, you need to know that they are willing to put in the effort to be NHL players.
Jason Bonsignore is another example of this type of player. Drafted by the Oilers 4th overall in 1994, Bonsignore certainly didn't have Daigle-like numbers, but his stats were very solid and suggested an early-round pick (though probably not as high as #4). Unlike Daigle, he also had the physical tools that make scouts drool, namely that he was 6'4” and built like a freight train. He only ever managed 79 NHL games in his career, recording 3 goals and 16 points. Bonsignore had the same essential issues as Daigle, lacking passion for the game, and being out of shape at times. Basically, he was too immature to succeed at the NHL level. Given time, he may have been able to work through his issues, but when you're investing in a 1st-round draft pick, you need to be sure the player will respond well to the pressures put upon him.
Perhaps if these players were drafted in a later round, if great expectations had not been thrust upon them, if they had been able to take the time to learn the maturity they needed to develop to their full potential, they would have been successful NHL players. You can argue that hindsight is 20/20, but it seems that NHL teams should have put a Milo on these players. Or to be fair, perhaps a mini-Milo: don't ignore them completely, but draft them in the 6th round if they're still available, and don't put too much pressure on them while they develop. Give them time to figure out what they need to do to become the players they can be.
Of course, the reality is that some team is always going to snap up a player like that in the early rounds, and they're never going to be available to a prudent team in the middle rounds of the draft. Which means these players will almost never end up with a team that realizes how they need to be treated to succeed. In some sense, then, Daigle and Bonsignore were doomed to fail. The teams that wanted to draft them in the first round were not the teams patient enough to give them the time they need for their skills to emerge at the highest level of the game.
A caveat: while Crosby is listed ahead of Lemieux on the table above, don't take that to necessarily mean he will ultimately have a better career than Lemieux. This is far too simplistic an analysis to make such an assertion. All that can be said is that Crosby had an astounding age-17 season, and that it indicates the potential for him to be a Lemieux-esque player.