Player Development and the 80/20 Rule

by Striker on May 23, 2019


I’d like to thank Dobber for the opportunity to share some thoughts on player development and how it can be tracked by playing the numbers. In a Statistics and Odds of Probability class I attended long ago, the one thing I took away from the class was the saying that almost everything in life follows a pattern, or at least 80% of the time. The other 20% swings wildly from positive to negative and can’t be tracked or assumed but the 80% can give or take a few percentage points in any given year. It’s like an Angus Read poll: “accurate eight times out of 10” the instructor used to say.


I like to call this the 80/20 rule and I have applied this basic premise to my hockey pool drafts and fantasy leagues since shortly after the 1980-81 season.


Before the creation of the internet we had to run hockey pools manually. That meant sitting down with the Vancouver Province newspaper every Tuesday morning and manually cross-referencing stats from one week to the next and figuring out the points in any given system. Thinking back to those days, it was crazy. We were (and are) hockey freaks, and these aren’t hockey pools or fantasy leagues for me but my favorite hobby. My wife has a sign that hangs by my desk that reads: “We postpone this marriage for hockey season.” I don’t have the heart to tell her hockey season never really ends, they just stop playing games for a few months. Ha-ha!


This processing of numbers soon led me to projecting a player’s goal and point production by year, from their rookie season onward. This was a long labor-intensive process of looking at each teams’ rosters and projecting who would or wouldn’t play. And if they did, what sort of production could be anticipated? At what rate of increase based on years played? Hours, weeks and months of math done with a calculator for each and every player, with three-year average playing a significant role for players who had established themselves as full-time NHL players. Patterns started appearing and it became very apparent to me that the 80/20 was alive and well in NHL and could be applied to player development.


In the early days before the first NHL lockout in 2004-05 these patterns were reflected in years of NHL service: a three- to four-year development model for forwards and a four- to six-year development model for defensemen. This was the norm, pre 2005-06. What I started to notice coming out of the 2004-05 lockout is that the business side of hockey started to delay the rate of advancement for prospects, the creation of the cap with the changes to waiver rights, arbitration rights and UFA eligibility started to delay the advancement of a significant number of prospects, it was slow at first but gained traction and by the 2012-13 lockout had clearly defined itself over an extremely large sample size. The model I developed moved away from years of service to NHL regular season games played. The basic formula is this:

Forwards under 6-3 or 215 plus pounds require: in or around 200 NHL regular season games to show us their breakthrough season. Breakthrough for me means they beat their best season to date by at least 25%.

For defensemen and forwards 6-3 or taller and/or 215-plus pounds, the games needed to achieve this breakthrough is: 400. Twice as long. Most will get that it takes far longer for defensemen to learn the game and be given the ice time they need to be successful offensively, in most cases 80% need to become sound defensively before earning the offensive opportunities available with their respective teams.


Where it starts to get murky is with big-bodied forwards at or near the height and weights above. I would far prefer the NHL started to use the metric system and listed players heights and weights in centimeters and kilograms as an inch is 2.5 centimeters and a player might be just under 6-3 by a quarter of an inch and be listed at 6-2, so 6-3 isn’t totally hard-and-fast specifically. But why does it take these larger humans so much longer? I relate this to simple physics. These players need to grow into their massive frames and when kids and these are kids go through major growth spurts their skills suffer and they need to grow into their new bodies. I experienced this personally when I was young and had a major growth spurt at 12. I was a competitive swimmer and during that significant growth spurt I became slower for over a year and got bumped from A pool to B pool and it wasn’t until I filled out that bone mass with muscle – and that muscle had time to learn – that I got better again. Physics.


Are these rules hard and fast? Basically yes, the people that beat the curve fall into the 20% but for a player to achieve these things other things need to fall into place. Your opportunity to be deployed in a scoring role in the NHL requires skill, pedigree and opportunity. If you lack any of these qualities, your chances of being a solid scorer are unlikely although again not impossible. Dan Boyle was never drafted, and I think things turned out OK for him. Again, an exception to the rule and he falls into the 20%. Nor is it age specific. The age you enter the NHL doesn’t significantly impact these formulas although your maturity if entering the NHL out of a full College program or from Europe or the KHL may allow for less development time in the minors, but your NHL development time isn’t significantly accelerated.


Skill is obvious to all, I assume. Pedigree for the most part is draft position but there are a few other types for players who went undrafted in college and/or overseas who come out (or come over) as UFA’s. Their pedigrees relate to their accomplishments outside the NHL. If you aren’t selected in the first round or early in the second round your chances of getting a cup of coffee in the NHL are seriously limited. This is no different than any other business model. Teams invest significant money and time into scouting and player development, the higher your draft position the more time and money that is spent on you, and teams want a return on their investment, that creates the first opportunity. The next opportunity is ice time both at even strength and on specialty teams. These need to be earned once you arrive and when earned the last opportunity is who you get to play with.


Prior to the 2004-05 lockout older players played well into their 30s and still dominated the NHL but that CBA and the 2012-13 CBA have forever altered that model. Along with the implementation of the cap were changes to waiver rights, arbitration rights and UFA status. Today all come significantly faster than in the years prior to these two CBA’s and they, along with the cap, have forced teams to get younger players into the NHL for monetary reasons. The simple explanation is players move up and down between the NHL and AHL far more today than prior to the first lockout in their early development years.


If drafted high, unless you crash and burn you will be given the opportunity to become an NHL player. Depending upon your pedigree how you get deployed initially in the NHL is impacted. High first-round picks (top-5 even moving towards top-10 today) will generally find their way up the lineup far faster than later picks and quite quickly after being drafted. Later first rounders can take several years of development spent in Major Junior and or the AHL or College and the AHL as they aren’t NHL-ready or a team simply doesn’t have room and holds a prospect back for business reasons. Unless and there is always an unless they simply kick the door down. Dylan Larkin was the first U20 prospect to crack Detroit’s roster as a rookie since Nicklas Lidstrom did so two decades prior. He simply kicked the door down and others have as well. This always reminds me of a great saying from JJ. Richards the father of a very good friend of mine. “There is always room at the top.” True in both life and sports.


'When' a player hits these thresholds of 200 and or 400 games can impact when their breakthrough occurs. If a player straddles two seasons at these thresholds we may not perceive his breakthrough as coming till the season following. Injuries can derail and/or delay development meaning it could push the number of games needed. Think of a player like Robby Fabbri in St. Louis. The poor kid looked to be fast tracking to stardom only to sustain two significant injuries. He may need an extra hundred games now to make up for the lost development time. An exception to the rule but not necessarily part of the 20% if that makes any sense. Life has few hard-and-fast rules, but the purpose of this development model is to be right 80% of the time, not perfect. No one is perfect including me, although I strive for perfection in hopes of achieving excellence. Winning!


That’s a wrap for now. In future articles I will be starting to identify players who met these criteria last season and before next season starts, I will start to identify players who will be hitting these thresholds next season.


If you have any questions please feel free to use the comments section below and I will respond when able or you can email me at [email protected] if you wish to keep our discussion private. I comment to Daily Ramblings here almost daily and that is a must read for any hockey pool fan. If you would like you can follow me on twitter at @striker0777.


Thanks for reading.


Thoughts from the bench.