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Analytics, "value chart" bring new dynamic to Jackets' draft day strategy

Tuesday, 06.17.2014 / 7:00 AM / News
By Rob Mixer  - BlueJackets.com
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Analytics, \"value chart\" bring new dynamic to Jackets\' draft day strategy
The Blue Jackets introduced a new analytic tool to help guide pick-for-pick trades in 2009 and it\'s revolutionized their draft day decision-making.

The phone at the Blue Jackets' draft table rang off the hook last year.

Armed with three first-round picks in a draft class that was widely considered to be ripe with top-end talent, GM Jarmo Kekalainen had a myriad of options and no shortage of offers sent his way. It was no secret that the Blue Jackets were willing to move one or two of those picks in exchange for immediate help, but the possibilities of moving up or down in the order were also in play.

Numerous options and trade offers also mean there are many decisions to be made, and the Blue Jackets go about their business perhaps differently than most NHL teams when it comes to trading picks.

The decision-making process usually begins with a simple question.

"What does the chart say?" Kekalainen will ask Josh Flynn, the Blue Jackets' director of hockey administration and resident analytics guru.

And that's where the story begins - the story of the value chart.

Flynn, who attended law school in Denver and joined the Blue Jackets front office under former GM Scott Howson, had always been intrigued by the endless possibilities presented by advanced metrics - often referred to as "fancy stats" - and was inspired by value charts used by teams at the NFL Draft.

If there was the slightest hint of a competitive advantage contained within the concept of a value chart, Flynn was willing to explore it - and now, it's an integral part of every pick-for-pick trade the Blue Jackets consider. 

He wanted to create something similar for hockey, and after some research it was evident that few teams - if any - had attempted anything like it in the NHL. It was dangerous to compare the NFL and NHL drafts, Flynn said, because NFL prospects are typically "pro-ready" whereas NHL prospects are 17-18 years old and there are also specific financial implications in the NFL depending on where the pick falls in the draft order. 

The NFL's draft pick value chart (credit: SB Nation)

And in the NFL, value charts are based on what picks are actually worth, based on previously completed pick-for-pick trades - NOT what each pick has produced in terms of player quality over a period of time.

Flynn wanted to tweak his value chart model to better suit the unpredictable nature of drafting in the NHL - by evaluating what picks produce down the road.

In hockey, you don't necessarily draft well today...you draft well four or five years down the road.

"I wanted to come up with something to help guide us through pick-for-pick trades, but the problem was that, in the NFL, players are going straight into your lineup," Flynn told BlueJackets.com. "I decided to think about value of picks this way: what is each pick worth in terms of what the asset will produce for the club that owns it?

"Can you define a pick's 'success' based on how many games the player plays? You don't want to rank picks based on how many points the player produces, because then you get into roles and positions and it gets too complicated. I said 'you know what, we're not going to look at it objectively.' When Tyler Wright (former director of amateur scouting) was here, I'd tell him: when I compare you to other players based solely on games played, you and Pavel Bure are the same player. And no offense to Tyler, but I'd rather have Pavel Bure with my pick, you know? What I ended up doing was grading the players based on what they became at their peak, and tweaked it based on how long they sustained that level of play."

And it wouldn't be a new endeavor without a hiccup, right? When grading each pick, Flynn noticed that some lower picks had produced better than higher picks, but there were not enough instances to determine a pattern.

"When you look at a period of 10-12 years and there's a 25 percent success rate in the second round, pick 46 may have produced six guys and pick 45 produced a few less, but you'd still rather have the 45th pick." Flynn said. "We have a tool that we can go into the draft with and guide our decisions on trades with a real, solid idea of what a pick is worth."

The value chart used by the Blue Jackets is born from a complex system that uses data compiled from a dozen years of NHL drafts - dating back to when the draft was nine rounds deep - and from that data, Flynn developed a rubric of grading picks on a 1-10 scale (for example, picks 1-210 in a seven-round draft) based on what they produced over time.

Flynn then "clustered" the picks together to create a firm value for each one, and then, places them into a formula that determines the pick's final value on the chart. 

"Basically, if pick 65 in 2006 produces a player who never played an NHL game, that pick is going to get a zero," Flynn said. "On the flip side, you can figure out that the No. 1 overall pick is generally going to get a higher rankings on the value chart because it has always produced an NHL player.

"The system is designed to show what picks are intrinsically worth, and it helps us weigh draft positions against each other in terms of value. The chart is based on what we think each pick will produce, and it's backed up by a dozen years of information."

The Blue Jackets first employed the value chart at the 2009 NHL Draft, the summer after they qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in franchise history. They held the No. 16 overall pick (the same position they begin this year's draft with), and they collected additional draft picks in a series of separate trades, moving back in the first round, out of the first round, and then back up to No. 21 overall to select defenseman John Moore from the USHL's Chicago Steel.

In each of those deals, Howson and Flynn consulted the value chart to determine whether the additional picks on the table held more total value base on what they had yielded in that 12-year window - which is essentially the compilation and analysis of approximately 3,000 draft picks.

Scenario:

- Team X wants to move up in the draft, calls Columbus.

- The Blue Jackets weigh the trade offer based on a) which picks are being offered and b) whether the player they want will be available if they move back.

- Team X offers two picks (71 and 105) in exchange for the 64th pick owned by Columbus.

- Using the value chart, those picks are evaluated and weighed against the 64th pick's ranking. If the chart shows that 71 and 105 have historically done better than the 64th pick, they make the deal.

One of the advantages of the value chart is that the Blue Jackets can apply it to competing trade offers for the same pick. In 2013, they struck a deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins to move back from No. 44 overall, acquiring picks No. 50 and No. 89 in the trade - only after using the value chart to determine that this particular trade offered them the best probability to select not one but two future NHL players.

Columbus had targeted Swift Current Broncos defenseman Dillon Heatherington with the 44th pick, and figured he would likely be available even if they moved back. Not only were the Blue Jackets able to get Heatherington, they used the extra pick to select ultra-skilled winger Oliver Bjorkstrand from the powerhouse Portland Winterhawks, another player they had high on their list.

The value chart is just one example of how the Blue Jackets have implemented analytics and emerging forms of player evaluation into their decision-making process. In an age where the mere mention of statistics like Corsi and Fenwick generates an abundance of buzz, the Blue Jackets have embraced original methods like the value chart and also utilized advanced metrics in an effort help ask more questions.

It has been five years since the Blue Jackets began using the value chart at the NHL Draft, and it was the first analytical tool used in their hockey operations department - but it certainly was not the last.

"The more information we have to make a decision, the better, and the value chart contains a ton of information," Flynn said. "When we go to the chart to make a trade, we're extremely confident that we're going to arrive at the right decision - and there's data to back it up."

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