Who’s better at drafting: Darryl Sutter, or a hat?

Updated: August 23, 2016 at 2:00 pm by christian tiberi

Darryl Sutter was simultaneously one of the best and worst general managers of the Calgary Flames. During his tenure, he took the team out of the Young Guns era and into their most successful spell since the 1980s. On the other hand, he also ignored the looming spectre of old age and unsustainability and sent the team crashing into rebuild mode.

The latter is mostly due to his drafting. If he wasn’t trading draft picks away (“fun” fact! Sutter only drafted in the second round twice during his eight years), he was wasting them. There’s the infamous 2005 and 2006 drafts, where the best selection he made was his own son (who played all of 60 NHL games). Of the 59 players he selected, only ten have player more than 100 games, and most of those ten are depth players. TJ Brodie, Dion Phaneuf, and Mikael Backlund are pretty much his only impact picks through his whole career.

It’s absolutely stunning that a man who pretty much excelled at every other aspect of his job could fail so completely at drafting. Hindsight being 20/20 and all, we can look back and say he should’ve picked this player and this other player instead of this guy or Matt Pelech. That criticism can apply to every GM though. If given the chance to repick, everyone would grab certain NHLers.

The more interesting, and more fun, way to judge the quality of Darryl Sutter’s picks is to put someone else in the exact same spot, but without any hockey knowledge, previous experience, scouting reports, statistical data, or what have you. Someone who is equally likely to take a seventh rounder in the first round as they would take a first rounder. Someone who could use all their picks on goalies. That someone is a hat.

Credit for this idea goes to Jon Bois, who originally did it at SB Nation for a post about the NFL draft. You should read all of his work because he is pretty good.

Rules of the game:

  • I lied about the hat, it is only a concept. The “hat” is actually this educational and fun children’s math website. It’s easier to call it the hat, so we are calling it the hat.
  • The hat will pick a random number that corresponds to where a player was selected in their draft year. For example, if the hat spits out 204 for the 2010 draft, the hat has selected Mauro Jorg.
  • The hat is playing with the same constraints Darryl had when drafting. The pick the Flames had is the lower limit, and the last pick was the upper limit. The hat will have the same choices Sutter did.
  • To judge who had the better draft, we are using Hockey Reference’s point shares stat. The basic explanation is the amount of standings points a player contributed over the course of his career based on his offensive and defensive contributions. Whoever the hat picks, their point shares will be added up and then compared against the total point shares (TPS) of Darryl’s drafts.
  • I ran each draft ten times through each time to cut down on flukiness one way or the other. The victor of each draft will be whoever wins out of all ten drafts by the hat, but we’ll keep the individual total as well.
  • Mickey Renaud (2007) and Dan Ryder (2005) do not count, and the hat did not make selections in their spot.
  • The full results are here, for your interest.

2003

Preliminary thoughts: With the only top ten pick of his tenure, Sutter selected Dion Phaneuf. Without looking up his point shares (I didn’t look up the actual point share stats of Darryl’s drafts until the end. It was much more fun to keep the suspense for the last bit), I felt that Phaneuf would probably be very hard to beat. The hat would need to get really lucky to get one win.

Results: I was right. Phaneuf’s point share was 76.6. Even with Tim Ramholt and Greg Moore dragging him down by -0.3, the hat was unable to pull out a single victory against 2003 Darryl. The closest it got was on the 8th run through, where the hat picked Shane O’Brien (seriously) and Brian Elliott with the last two picks. That added up to 71.7 point shares.

Victor: Sutter, 10-0

Score thus far: 10-0 Darryl

2004

Preliminary thoughts: I felt the odds were in the hat’s favour for this one. This was technically Sutter’s most successful year, having picked four NHLers. The bad news was that the best one of those four was Adam Pardy. I also knew that, because of the rules of the game, the hat would have a high chance of picking Jannik Hansen, 287th overall, with the 279th overall pick. I felt that they would at least split it, 50/50

Results: The hat won, and it only picked Jannik Hansen once with that pick (the hat also picked him in the third round in one run through). Rarely did the hat ever need a combined effort of players to beat the 2004 draft class’s total point share of 26.7. The hat was able to grab Hansen, Ryan Callahan, Troy Brouwer, and Mark Streit in different drafts. Those players were enough to win.

Victor: hat, 7-3

Score thus far: 13-7 Darryl

2005

Preliminary thoughts: I felt the hat should easily take this one. The only way it could lose was if it rolled an absolute gutterball and drafted all zeroes. Even so, it would still be very close.

Results: The hat ran roughshod over Sutter. It drafted Rich Clune in the first round and it still beat Darryl and his 0.8 TPS handily. As I said, it could only take gutterballs to beat the hat in 2005, and that happened twice. We also had one tie, which was neat.

Victor: hat, 7-2-1

Score thus far: 15-14-1 Darryl

2006

Preliminary thoughts: I don’t recall Leland Irving having one good game out of the 13 he played, so maybe he could have a negative rating. I felt the hat could pick eight players who never even got to the NHL level and still win.

Results:  Nearly a clean sweep for the hat. As it turns out, point shares are generous to goalies, as Irving had a 1.8 PS for his 13 games. The best players the hat picked were James Reimer and Mathieu Perrault and it still won nearly every run through.

Victor: hat, 8-2

Score thus far: 22-17-1 hat

2007

Preliminary thoughts: Mikael Backlund would be a tough character to beat, and with only four picks, the chances of picking an equivalent player were diminished. Darryl would retake the lead.

Results: Yup. Backlund only has 17.6 point shares to his name, but that was enough to defeat nearly every one of the hat’s drafts. It didn’t help that the hat put all its eggs in one basket by selecting David Perron, Keith Aulie, and Carl Gunnarsson in the same draft.

Victor: Sutter, 9-1

Score thus far: 26-23-1 Darryl

2008

Preliminary thoughts: TJ Brodie is also a tough character to beat. Lance Bouma could also give the hat a rough time. I felt Darryl would sweep again.

Results: The hat did win twice, once because it selected TJ Brodie. Lance Bouma was not nearly as dangerous a player as I though (4.1 PS to Brodie’s 26.9), so the job was slightly easier, but not too easy for the hat. It lost 8-2.

Victor: Sutter, 8-2

Score thus far: 34-25-1 Darryl

2009

Preliminary thoughts: The hat could make up for previous mistakes quickly in this round. Sutter picked Tim Erixon, who quickly flunked out of the league, and Joni Ortio, who can’t get an AHL job now. Just by drafting an okay player every time, the hat could be 10-0.

Results: I thought way too highly of the hat’s ability to randomly pick players. Even though Darryl’s TPS was 6.8, he won 6-4. The hat stepped up to the plate and whiffed, selecting a whole bunch of zero players often. Sutter has won the whole game by this point.

Victor: Sutter, 6-4

Score thus far: 40-29-1

2010

Preliminary thoughts: Sutter didn’t have a pick until the third round, and his picks have pretty much turned out to be AHLers by this point. Micheal Ferland could redeem him, but up to this point, his contributions probably wouldn’t be able to stop the ship from sinking. The hat’s last chance at perfection.

Results: Micheal Ferland did redeem him, because all the rest of his picks who have played an NHL game are all negative point share guys. Ferland dragged the 2010 draft class kicking and screaming (total TPS is 0.1, Ferland is 0.8) to beat the hat three times and tie it once. We’re talking a draft class that could be outmatched if your only pick of note is Scott Wedgewood.

Victor: hat, 6-3-1

Final score: 43-35-2, Darryl Sutter. Tied 4-4 in overall drafts.

Final thoughts

Drafting is a process. It takes months of scouting, watching, traveling, interviewing, and pretty much everything in between. It takes hours of meetings and gut-churning decisions. It is doing as much research as possible on as many as 300 kids and then whittling that list down to seven or eight. They do this for first round picks as well as sixth round picks. It’s something you can’t screw up.

It also takes a whole lot of dumb luck (you can’t understate the fact that most of drafting is just waiting for someone else to screw up). The common perception is that when a player turns out to be good or bad, it’s because the GMs are geniuses and morons and the scouts just know or are blind, depending on the outcome. This is true, to an extent. There are those who find and pick stars because they know they will be stars. Some just pick because they want to roll the dice and then pat themselves on the back later. 

Our hat was the latter. It rolled the dice on every pick and 34 times, it won. Sutter definitely had some bad luck drafting, but he also had tons of resources that were there to try and cut that out. The hat had never seen these players play, it can’t understand what a goal is, or how high a player’s ceiling it. The hat doesn’t understand hockey. It just spits out numbers.

(I would like to note here that, at times, it felt like the hat really, really, really wanted to fail. With 70 chances to pick first rounders, it only picked two of them. It also really liked players in the 200s. This is what Sutter was competing against in this world I created: a self-defeating children’s math website.)

Darryl Sutter had a plan. He had a team of scouts that spent their years going to hockey games and watching tapes in their spare time. He had years of experience guiding him. He had so much at his disposal when he was making those 59 picks. A hat that drafted Zack Stortini with the ninth overall pick came excruciatingly close to beating him.