International Scouting Services Blog: How stats can cloud prospect projection

The re-emergence of statistical superstars at the NHL level and the increasing popularity of fantasy sports has developed a tendency for people to put too much emphasis on the statistics that young players put up as they head towards being drafted. Sure, it’s great when a player is able to dominate and post huge numbers; that’s easy to get excited about. But it doesn’t really mean that much to a prospect’s potential at the next level.

This year’s draft is quickly becoming an excellent example of this fact. When the season started there were three clear favorites to be the top pick in the draft, but expectations for big numbers started to create questions about all three and other players who are statistically standing out are generating more attention. These questions aren’t just sprouting from the general public or the media, but from scouts as well. It may be fair and it may not, but there really isn’t a quantifiable way to measure this. Unlike baseball, hockey is a difficult sport to analyze through statistics – it’s possible, but nowhere near as effective as other sports and it requires a lot of thinking outside the box.

Generally, the statistics players are measured by are extremely limited and while you can tell that a player who scores 50 goals is likely a goal scorer, that number really means nothing when you are gauging the player for the next level. There are players who score 20 goals in their final junior year and find a way to put up 30 once they make it to the NHL.

While I downplay the impact statistics should have on projecting prospects it is important to mention they are still a valuable and necessary measurement in most cases. The fact remains that when you are evaluating someone for the future it does not matter what they are doing or have done, it only matters what they are capable of doing or what their potential capabilities could be. This is where the craft of scouting gets tricky.

My favorite example of this phenomenon this season is with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, or as a newspaper editor friend of mine refers to him, ‘NuHop.’

‘NuHop’ is an extraordinary talent who can dominate a game, but always leaves you thinking ‘this kid still has a lot of improving to do.’ Nugent-Hopkins currently sits eighth in Western League scoring and second in assists, but has been labeled by some media, scouts and fans as not being an elite talent because of his lack of goals. I have been lucky enough to watch this kid play since his only season of midget hockey and after 30-plus viewings over the past three years I have not left a game thinking anything other than he was the best player on the ice. He has that rare ability to make the players around him better than they are physically capable of being. Compare this to other players who are jumping up the rankings and scoring charts in Canadian leagues.

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Sean Couturier led the Quebec League in scoring as a 17-year-old and has put up another respectable point total so far this season. But anything less than a scoring title will have people suggesting he’s not that good which, of course, is a mistake. He is that good and he could end up being the steal of the draft even if he goes No. 2 overall.

Jonathan Huberdeau has been gaining support by the boatload because of his point production in the QMJHL. But Huberdeau, while an elite prospect and a great player, is a bit deceiving because of his statistics. Saint John has a tendency to play their top players a ton, which really inflates their opportunities to be successful. There is nothing wrong with this and Saint John has found a lot of success with the philosophy over the past couple seasons. But for scouts, it’s important to look past the numbers and understand how and why they are being put up.

The same can be said with Niagara’s Ryan Strome. Big numbers and some highlight reel goals have pushed him from a relative unknown to top 10 prospect. Strome found the spotlight, has run with it all season and has been a consistent impressive force in all viewings. But as Strome and Huberdeau rise, Ottawa’s Shane Prince currently sits second in Ontario League scoring and has received very little hype for it. Prince has come up in the rankings, but is still considered a second-tier prospect – a second or even third round pick – by some.

Statistics are great fun and big numbers are exciting, but don’t be fooled: great NHL players aren’t built on numbers, they are built on physical skills, technical and tactical understanding and reactions. The one true way to evaluate a hockey prospect remains to get out and watch the kid play live.

One-on-two with prospects Jonathan Huberdeau and Nathan Beaulieu

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Ross MacLean is the head scout for International Scouting Services and is considered one of the rising stars of the business. A young, diverse and versatile hockey mind, MacLean leads ISS’ network of scouts and puts his domestic and international hockey experience and knowledge towards ranking and providing industry-leading profiles and information on draft eligible players around the world.