Tools, results, and why Jake Virtanen isn’t the next Cam Neely

When the Canucks selected Jake Virtanen 6th overall, there was a certain segment of Canucks fans that was disappointed and upset. To a certain extent, I was among them, as I was personally hoping to see William Nylander, but I certainly saw the upside and potential in Virtanen.

What Virtanen represents, in many ways, is a difference of opinion on drafting strategy, one that I liken to similar differences of opinion seen in baseball in the book “Moneyball.” It’s an issue of tools vs results.

Scouts and GMs who believe primarily in the former in baseball, for example, might draft a pitcher with a 98-mph fastball and wicked slider, regardless of whether he effectively strikes out batters or forces them into ground balls or pop flies.

The other view would focus primarily on the results, as expressed by statistics. Does a pitcher get outs, whether by striking out batters or forcing them into bad contact? Does he avoid walks? If so, then it hardly matters how hard he can throw the ball or how impressively his curve ball hooks; in their view, current results beget future results. The reality is that the best method combines the two, with the numbers finding what the eyes can’t and vice versa.

This does not translate particularly well to hockey, mainly because the statistics we have available for Junior and European hockey are incredibly rudimentary: mainly just goals and assists. We don’t have access even to ice time, let alone underlying puck possession numbers. The best we can manage are approximations and estimates.

All this is to say that Benning seems to look for tools over results and when it comes to physical tools, Jake Virtanen is near the top of the draft class. As I pointed out Friday, some scouts stated he had the best shot in the draft and was among the fastest skaters. McKeen’s Hockey had him ranked 4th in skating, noting his “raw strength and power” in his skating stride, 2nd in shooting, recognizing his hard shot and accuracy, and 3rd in bodychecking, thanks to his combination of size and speed.

Virtanen, then, has all the physical tools you could ask for: he has the size, strength, speed, and shot to be a star player in the NHL. While he lacks some of the mental tools — hockey sense and vision — that is true of any number of scoring wingers whose primary focus is putting the puck in the net.

They’re the same physical tools that made Cam Neely a Hall of Famer, so you can understand why Jeff Angus made the comparison in an article on the Canucks website. Considering the long-felt desire for the Canucks to make up for their mistake in trading Neely along with Virtanen and Neely growing up just a few scant kilometres away from each other — albeit, 30 years apart — makes the comparison particularly tempting.

The difference is results, even if we only have the basics with which to work. Virtanen absolutely got some results out of his physical tools, scoring 45 goals and 71 points in 71 games, but Cam Neely, as a 17-year-old, scored 56 goals and 120 points in 72 games and followed that up with 9 goals and 20 points in 14 playoff games. Certainly, it was a different era, but Neely was 15th in the WHL in points, while Virtanen was 35th.

Saying that someone won’t be Cam Neely is hardly an insult, of course. No one since has come even close to being as dominant a power forward as Neely in his prime.

It’s the combination of tools and results that made Neely such a rare and impressive prospect: you don’t often get both to that degree. Milan Lucic, for example, had just 19 points in 62 games in the season prior to being drafted, but had the right mix of physical tools to convince the Bruins he was worth drafting in the second round.

More often, it seems, results are a more reliable measure for predicting a prospect’s success, which is why some were clamouring for the Canucks to pick Nikolaj Ehlers, who had 49 goals and 104 points in 63 games in the QMJHL, or William Nylander, who had 15 goals and 27 points in 35 games against men in the Allsvenskan and 16 points in 7 games at the U-18 tournament.

Obviously, these two players had top-notch physical and mental tools that allowed them to produce these results, but they clearly weren’t the tools that Jim Benning was looking for. Judging by Benning picking Virtanen and the rest of the draft, he was specifically looking for size and strength, with both Ehlers and Nylander under 6′ and 170 lbs.

The Canucks drafted just one player under 6’0″, Swedish defenceman Gustav Forsling in the fifth round, who was surely a player Thomas Gradin campaigned for. Predictably, this was the one pick praised by those who prize results, noting his strong performance for Sweden’s U-18 team and decent totals in Sweden’s SuperElit. Even then, Forsling has a lot of the right tools, with Corey Pronman even describing him as “toolsy.”

Jared McCann was another “toolsy” player, possessing supposedly elite skills according to some reports, but short-of-elite numbers, scoring 62 points in 64 games while playing more of a defensive role. He has the hands, hockey sense, and two-way game that make him attractive to someone like Benning.

The Canucks’ other four selections were 6’7″, 6’5″, and 6’4″, with none of them producing results of note. Nikita Tryamkin, the hulking Russian defenceman, is intriguing, but Mackenze Stewart and Kyle Pettit are the kinds of picks that make me question Benning’s priorities and how he rates tools over results.

The most optimistic ceiling I can see for Stewart is Andrew Alberts. For Pettit, I could maybe see him as a non-fighting Zenon Konopka if absolutely everything falls into place for him.

But, here’s the issue. Every once in a while, there’s a guy like Milan Lucic who beats the odds. While Pettit is a far cry from Lucic, drafting with an eye for tools over results sometimes unearths gems. It’s entirely possible that Pettit’s 10 points in 53 games in his draft year is not an accurate representation of who he could become. The results we have access to in hockey simply don’t give us enough information to reliably override the tools that an intelligent and seasoned scout can see.

Now, whether the Canucks’ scouts are good enough to override simply looking at results is another matter entirely.

18 comments

  1. T-Canuck
    June 30, 2014

    There is no doubt that the evaluation of the upcoming talent available to be drafted is some what of a science or sorcery if you have a crystal ball. However Jimbo has years of scouting experience which one would hope is why he is where he is in Vancouver today.
    I think that the lack of scouting ability in Vancouver was a glaring concern for the current leaders and hopefully will under go some changes in philosophy.
    That said the choice to pick Virtanen, I hope was do to the considerable preparation that Jimbo put into scouting before he came to Vancouver. Otherwise I can only surmise that we as fans have another leadership team that is overly influenced by the press and playing it safe with them.
    I choose to believe that Jimbo has scouting talent and will pass his knowledge down through out the organization for a change in culture that Vancouver so desperately needs.
    But like I said at this point until some results begin to come in from the decisions made from the new management team this is just wishful thinking.
    Go Canucks Go

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: +10 (from 10 votes)
  2. James
    June 30, 2014

    *cough* Jordan Schroeder. *cough*

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: +5 (from 5 votes)
  3. Fank
    June 30, 2014

    I read a lot of the coverage of potential picks for the 6 slot. From what I saw, the fan base had divergent opinions and that’s all good.

    I read the reports on Virtanen and wasn’t sold one way or another. I liked what I heard about Reinhart and felt that we needed someone to replace Henrik down the line. But it looked like Tallon was never really serious about trading the #1.

    I do believe that the management team was influenced by what they saw in the playoffs and they saw the need for fast, big bodies who can bang along the boards and fight for rebounds in the dirty areas. I think that you could argue that Virtanen will have a lower ceiling based on the results he produced in his draft years.

    However, I’m also inclined to give Trader Jim the benefit of the doubt. At the end of the day, it was his decision to draft Virtanen and he likes his overall blend of toughness, size, speed and skill. He’s got the ability to survive an extended battle in the playoffs with the big boys in the conference and that was criteria number 1. Virtanen wants to play for his local team and that’s a factor that they considered as well.

    Of course, we’ll know in about 3-4 years if Trader Jim made the right call.

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: +15 (from 15 votes)
  4. J21
    June 30, 2014

    The tale told in Moneyball – and the reason why Michael Lewis was likely interested in it – went far beyond baseball (and the movie portrayed this really poorly, for what it’s worth). It was actually a small, unimportant part of a civilizational battle we see in all walks of life: essentially the battle between reason and ignorance. Those who are so hellbent on seeing the world a certain way that they will explain away all conflicting information. The people who have been able to overcome this cognitive dissonance are the ones who go places.

    It’s still too early to judge, but I’m really, really concerned that we currently have some operatives from Team Ignorance at the helm.

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: +2 (from 20 votes)
  5. Chris the Curmudgeon
    June 30, 2014

    I agree that it is important to look at the tools, but the question can become, which tools are important to draft highly for? There is exactly one intangible quality that truly distinguishes a 1st line forward from a 3rd line forward, and it’s hockey IQ. That means the ability to outthink the opponent, to see what others miss, to create “results” from one’s “tools” at the highest level. Few of the players in the NHL who have actually led their teams to the pinnacle of success have done so without these intangibles. People look at a Dustin Brown or a Milan Lucic, who are ostensibly more about physical gifts than hockey IQ, and forget that it is in fact the Gaboriks and Kopitars, Carters and Doughtys, the Krejcis and Bergerons, the Kanes, Toews and Keiths that are truly irreplaceable on those teams. The big beefy sandpapery guys play a part, sure, but guys who can center a 100 point line or play 30 minutes a night including PP on the back end are the true gems. This is where I take issue with the strategy. Nylander, Ehlers, these are the guys with the most important tool in hockey, the one resting on their shoulders, and the thing that Virtanen has been said to lack.

    I’m willing to give Benning some benefit of the doubt here, as he has seemingly played some part in building success in the past, to the extent you give him credit for Boston’s Cup winner. However, I’m extremely concerned about the onus being put on physical attributes at the expense of the intangibles that top players on winning teams always possess.

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: +4 (from 14 votes)
    • Neil B
      July 1, 2014

      Well, then, you derive some comfort that the #24 pick was widely declared to have one of the highest Ice-Q (ghod I hate that term) in this year’s draft. According to scouting consensus, he drafted possibly the best pure sniper at #6, possibly the smartest 2-way centre at #24, and possibly the best goalie in the draft.

      VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
      Rating: +2 (from 2 votes)
  6. akidd
    June 30, 2014

    i’ve been trying to figure out a way to feel good about this draft and i find solace in the fact that benning made a strong play for reinhart. so he valued him, a smart skilled, not overly huge player, as much as virtanen, mccann, and shinkaruk put together. that’s a good sign.

    i bet he didn’t like we he saw from those particular skill guys available at this draft. maybe he figured that toolsy jake was the the best player available and is gonna wait til next year to draft the the smart skilled top liner.

    so that’s good, right? he values results but it’s gotta be the right guy. that’s what i’m hoping. and he was up front about building for the pacific divison. so i guess waif-like nylander wasn’t a fit for this custom job.

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: +7 (from 9 votes)
  7. nateb123
    June 30, 2014

    To call Jake Virtanen low in hockey IQ is to misunderstand the situation he was in. His linemates played second line minutes, just like him, and even got some time on the 2nd PP unit, just like he did. However, they were just awful. Fazleev and Mahon were the worst players on the team (really no worse than the majority of the Hitmen, but exposed to harder competition over longer minutes). Even Brassart, who was very much negative in GF% Rel, could at least bury a puck, and Jake was very apt at dishing pucks to him in the slot.

    Benning was very smart about picking the most undervalued asset in the draft with arguably the most potential. Next year will be exciting for the kid, especially as he will get time on the 1st line and his numbers will increase significantly. That includes assists haha

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: +13 (from 13 votes)
  8. Lemming
    June 30, 2014

    What I hate most isn’t that Benning seemed to draft so many big guys, it’s that he drafted so many unskilled guys. With so many examinations on whether size wins games or not coming up false, it’s so sad to see Benning and Linden (and Aquillini?) falling into this stupid trap.

    Draft for skill, not size.

    I was so disappointed they took Virtanen, and left guys like Ehlers, Nylander, and Ho Sang on the board.

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: -7 (from 13 votes)
  9. BBoone
    July 1, 2014

    I would agree that results trump tools with a mature NHL player. However with drafted players
    isn’t the wild card ” How good is the team at teaching and developing the player in question ? ”
    ” You can’t teach talent” has stood the test of time. Perhaps hiring Willie D speaks to a Linden view that the best approach is to draft talent and put a lot of emphasis into ” Playing the Canuck way ” . Clearly he feels that learning to get fit and working at it works for the average working person. It will be instructive to look at who else they hire to firm up the teaching /training end of the organization. They certainly have the resources to be cutting edge in that field.

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: +3 (from 3 votes)
  10. Chinook
    July 1, 2014

    Jake Virtanen – the next Teemu Selanne

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: +2 (from 4 votes)
  11. sabr686
    July 1, 2014

    Word is Canucks will announce the signing of UFA Goalie Ryan Miller minutes from now. I hope his skin is thicker than it looks on TV…

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: +2 (from 2 votes)
  12. REM
    July 1, 2014

    If Virtanen is a pure sniper as he seems to be, that trumps all the hockey IQ talk. They’re putting pieces together and Horvat and McCann are said to have high hockey IQ. A pure sniper is the complement you need with a smart, set up centre. If every piece has the same skill set you’re probably not putting a very good team together.

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: +6 (from 6 votes)
    • Erik Lonnrot
      July 2, 2014

      Though he wouldn’t have been my first pick, I’m with you on the complementary players thing. You could do a lot worse than putting a big, fast, strong sniper next to Bo Horvat.

      VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
      Rating: +2 (from 2 votes)
  13. Neil B
    July 1, 2014

    Just a thought: what if Trader Jim recognized that the bottom spots in the draft aren’t likely making the Bigs, and he decided to draft players for Utica instead? He can’t say “yeah, these kids don’t have a chance, but we want our farm teams playing the same type of hockey as us, and we want our farm teams to be a character-building environment, so that’s who we pursued in the bottom of the draft”, but it kinda looks to me like that was in the back of his mind.

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: +2 (from 2 votes)
  14. Lenny
    July 1, 2014

    Tools versus results. Neither is a sure fire method in drafting.
    Look at the numbers A Daigle and Pavel Brendl put up in their draft year.
    They had great results in junior but were NHL busts.
    If results were really the only way to draft, then a Burrows hockey story would never happen.

    Phil Esposito was a lousy skater but get him the puck in the slot and it’s in the net.
    Look how small Ronning, Gionta, Gallagher and St Louis are, and one concluded size isn’t everything. The ability to gauge the future success of an athlete is surely an arcane art.
    Environment, confidence, drive to improve and win can affect future results.

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: +3 (from 3 votes)
  15. DanD
    July 2, 2014

    Well said Daniel. I would have liked to see a more results based approach. I think Benning has a good gut instinct overall, but I hope he and the scouting department will incorporate a balance between tools and results.

    One other variable that makes drafts difficult to predict is a player’s ability to learn quickly and effectively. You might be able to categorize this under “hockey IQ,” but to me it is slightly different. You can obviously do interviews, talk to coaches, and watch practices, but ultimately it is very difficult to predict how hard a player will apply himself to his craft, and how quickly and deeply he will learn the skills and systems required to play in the NHL.

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)
  16. mancaesar
    July 4, 2014

    Sometimes the guys with the highest hockey IQ are also the hardest ones to coach. Virtanen’s old coach in Abbotsford says he’s a coachable guy and has a tremendous work ethic. Wingers have fewer responsibilities than centers have. I’m sure Jake is capable of learning how to play the wing. The NHL is so fast that a lot of times the naturally creative guys blow it trying to be clever and end up taking too much time to make a play. A gifted skater with a hard and accurate shot and a big frame can definitely succeed in the NHL. Durability, coaching, fitness and opportunity will make the difference.

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)