Professional hockey meets research and development

When Ottawa Senators general manager Bryan Murray got his first coaching job in the National Hockey League 32 years ago with the 1981-82 Washington Capitals, “player development” didn’t extend far beyond getting the guys to stop smoking.

Professional hockey meets research and development
Ottawa Senators director of player development Randy Lee, general manager Bryan Murray and director of player personnel Pierre Dorion take a moment for a photo in the Senators' fitness area at Scotiabank Place. (Ashley Fraser/Ottawa Citizen)

When Ottawa Senators general manager Bryan Murray got his first coaching job in the National Hockey League 32 years ago with the 1981-82 Washington Capitals, “player development” didn’t extend far beyond getting the guys to stop smoking.

Players weren’t inclined to do much more than show up and play hockey, and teams were by and large OK with that. It’s just the way it had always been done.

“It was a different world then,” said Murray. “When we had them during the season, we did a little bit of off-ice training, not a lot, but a little. But we didn’t do the strength training we do now, and we didn’t have the coaching in those areas that we have now.

“And, yeah, guys smoked. They came to camp to get into shape.”

The combination of a restrictive salary cap and the prohibitive cost of building a team through free agency is changing the game in the front office as well as on the ice. Whereas many borderline prospects would just fade away back then, teams like the Senators are employing the lessons of math and science to get the most out of their draft picks.

Professional hockey meets research and development.

For a hockey team to be competitive and successful in 2013, not only do its first-round picks have to pan out, but so do the players chosen in the fifth, sixth and seventh rounds.

In the past, if a late-round pick made it to the NHL, it would be considered a piece of good luck for the team. Some teams, like the early Edmonton Oilers, got very lucky.

Of the seven players chief scout Barry Fraser selected from 1979 to 1980 who would go on to form the nucleus of the team that won four Stanley Cups from 1984 to 1988, only three were selected in the first round: Paul Coffey, who was selected sixth in 1980, Kevin Lowe, selected 21st in 1979, Grant Fuhr, who was selected eighth in 1981.

Mark Messier (48th overall in 1979), Glenn Anderson (69th in 1979), Jari Kurri (69th in 1980) and Andy Moog (132nd in 1980) were all taken in later rounds.

And anyone who remembers the early Senators will recall the utter surprise of everyone, including team management, when Sami Salo, picked in the ninth round (239th overall) in 1996, turned out to be a player. This was pure luck, not design.

Indeed, there’s still some astonishment today that Daniel Alfredsson was picked almost as an afterthought in the sixth round, 133rd overall, in 1994.

But today, teams can’t afford to simply hope that their scouting department goes on a hot streak and runs the table.

Teams have to make something of what their scouts give them, which is why they are like helicopter moms these days, constantly looking over the shoulders of their draft picks, telling them what to eat, how to exercise, or when to show up for a development camp.

This strategy has paid dividends for the Senators in players such as Zack Smith, Mark Borowiecki, and Colin Greening.

They were all mid- to late-round draft picks with fair-to-middling chances of making it to the NHL, but they embraced the team’s mantra of development and made themselves good enough to become NHL regulars.

Devoting so much time and effort to player development is as much about money as it is about being competitive, says Randy Lee, Ottawa’s director of hockey operations and player development.

While teams will still try to buy a Stanley Cup by splurging on the free-agent market, there’s enough research, from the work of baseball statistician Bill James through books like Michael Lewis’s Moneyball and Soccernomics, by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, showing the strategy is often a waste of money no matter what sport it’s applied to.

Indeed, one of the worst times to buy is when the season has just ended, or when hockey’s free-agent sweepstakes begins.

All sorts of mistakes are made, Lewis writes in Moneyball, because overpaying for “shooting stars” represents “a tendency to be overly influenced by a guy’s most recent performance: What he did last was not necessarily what he would do next.”

Murray himself has learned that hard lesson a number of times throughout his career, most recently with the two-year, $10-million contract he gave Alex Kovalev (the Florida Panthers unaccountably didn’t learn from Ottawa’s mistake, giving Kovalev a $1 million deal for this season).

With the salary cap putting a lid on payrolls, today’s teams can’t afford to make expensive mistakes. And Ottawa, with the third-lowest payroll in the league at $52.754 million, has no intention of becoming a team that pushes the upper reaches of the salary cap.

“If you don’t develop your own talent, then you have to go out and buy it,” said Lee. “And if you do that, you’re going to overpay for it. Every team is trying to find a competitive advantage and you have to be creative to get an edge. You’re not just trying to stay competitive with the other teams — you’re trying to exceed them.”

Turning draft picks such as Smith, Greening, and Borowiecki into players meant that Murray didn’t have to scout the free-agent market for a third- or -fourth-line winger, or for a sixth- or seventh defenceman.

He didn’t have to re-sign a free agent like Jesse Winchester because he already had someone to fill the spot, Jim O’Brien, a first-round pick the Senators stuck with because they thought he could eventually become a player.

Murray could let a veteran like Matt Carkner go because Borowiecki could fill that spot.

In the past, said Murray, players would invariably fall by the wayside, just short of making the NHL. Or they wouldn’t last very long for a variety of reasons. Maybe they didn’t get the instruction or support they needed. Maybe they weren’t pushed enough. Maybe they just didn’t want to make it enough.

Today, teams can’t let their draft picks languish, he said. They have to be given the tools to succeed, and whether they decide to use those tools is up to them.

“I think there’s more opportunity for a player if he really wants to be a player today,” said Murray. “In the past, there were guys who were assigned to the minors who had the talent and might have just needed probably a year of good help to make it. But they never made it.

“There’s no question there are a couple of guys now on our team, who were drafted and were prospects but were not high-end prospects, that have ended up playing because they’ve made a huge commitment to playing.

“I mean, these people have really worked hard, they’ve done all the off-ice stuff they’ve had to do, and they’ve committed their summers.

“Part of the credit goes to the staff who urged them to do that, but a lot of credit goes to them for doing it, and making the statement ‘I’m going to be a player,’ and they’ve ended up playing in the NHL. Maybe 20 years ago, that player would have been a minor-league player at best and stayed there forever.”

While every NHL team today does extensive player development, the Senators are so hands-on, as it were, that they not only monitor what goes into their players, they monitor what comes out.

As perhaps the ultimate illustration of that, there’s this: To supplement their regular urine tests, Molly Morgan, the nutritionist who works for the Binghamton Senators, last fall introduced players to a smartphone app called IPee Daily.

First, a player takes a picture of his urine, then the app interprets the colour to assess the player’s daily hydration status. The information can then be used to devise a strategy to address his hydration needs during a game.

The Senators’ close surveillance of their prospects would have been unthinkable when Murray arrived in the NHL. Players would have rebelled at such close scrutiny. But even since the Senators returned to the league in 1992-93, the incremental expansion of the player-development regimen has been dramatic.

Only a few years ago, players might have found chicken wings as a snack on their charter flights. No more. Today it’s sushi.

And they have access to a growing fleet of coaches.

The Senators not only have a head coach, Paul MacLean, and two assistants, Dave Cameron and Mark Reeds. They also have Rick Wamsley as a goalie coach, former defenceman Jason Smith as a roving development coach, Tim Pattyson as a video coach, Chris Schwarz as a conditioning coach, and Marc Power as a skating coach.

Across the league, this is now the norm. It’s a far cry from 1981.

“I coached in the minors only one year,” said Murray. “I was by myself. When I started coaching in the NHL, it was by myself.”

Player development for Ottawa’s players starts the moment they are drafted, with Lee in their ear and beginning to chart a program for them on and off the ice.

The week after they’re drafted, they’re in Ottawa for a weeklong development camp.

To follow them when they return to college or junior hockey, Lee makes contact with their coaches and sets out the team’s hopes and expectations.

“We want to be partners in figuring out what the player’s developmental needs are,” he said.

“(The coaches) can’t see us as the opposition. They have to see us as concerned about that asset. We have to prove we’re there for the player.”

Lee, or another scout or coach, visits the players during the season, but he’s in almost daily contact with them through email as well.

He sends them video clips for review and posts on the web any seminar or tutorial that has been done for the players in Ottawa. They simply sign in to the database and can go over them when they have the time.

They deal with hydration, post-game recovery, and sleep issues, and with Molly Morgan in Binghamton and nutritional consultant Bruce Bonner in Ottawa, the players are taught to develop diets to suit their needs and body chemistry.

Borowiecki, for example, has problems keeping body fat on during the season, so he supplements his already staggering diet with a lot of high-fat dairy and an extra portion of red meat.

In Binghamton, Morgan actually takes the players on a supermarket tour to orient them to the foods they should and should not be eating. She also supplies them with another smartphone app that helps them make the right nutrition choices when they go shopping.

Through this, defenceman Patrick Wiercioch changed his diet.

“I started eating more greens,” he said.

“I wasn’t supplementing my diet with greens and she just kind of stressed to eat them daily, eat your spinaches, stuff that you don’t like to eat as often but is good in your diet.”

The other side to Lee’s close relationship with the team’s young players is that he wants to get to know them intimately. He wants to understand what makes him tick.

Like every other team, Murray says the Senators use statistics extensively to gauge the progress of players, and as factors in potential trades.

But the old-timer in Murray puts a big store in the human side. Like every other general manager, he wants to know who the player is.

“There’s so much statistical information available to teams today, but it’s not like we get on the computer and look everything up and that’s how we make our decisions,” he said. “What I’ve always felt is that it’s the personality of the player. I think you have to know what you’re getting. I think you have to know the person.

“You have to know his stats, but I’m more inclined to believe that if you get good people, you’ll end up with good players.”

Most of the time, getting to know a player is a straightforward process. Scouts will talk to the player and to coaches, parents and friends in an effort to form a picture.

But there are also persistent rumours that some teams use today’s social media in ways that are more than a little questionable, such as setting up dummy Twitter accounts to follow players and see what they reveal about their lives away from hockey.

Twenty years ago, when players left the rink, they could be pretty sure they were on their own.

In 2013, however, everyone’s connected. Always.

Knowing the player becomes an important factor when the team has to decide his future. The bottom line is still the same: Professional hockey is a cruel business and teams need to know when to cut their losses and say goodbye.

This is a decision the team wants to make before it offers the player an entry-level contract, because then it is stuck with him for three years no matter what happens.

“You can’t sign everyone, so you have to make sure you sign the right guy,” said Lee. “It’s an expensive mistake if he doesn’t pan out for you, or if you give up and he becomes a star somewhere else.

“So we ask a lot of questions. Does he get what it takes to be a pro? Will he adjust his game? Is he capable of self-evaluation?

“We don’t just ask: Can they play? We ask: Can they win? A guy might play great in the regular season but we want guys who are going to help us win. That’s the ultimate goal.”

Zack Smith was one of the guys who made the cut because, as Murray said, he decided he wanted to be a player.

A third-round pick (79th overall) in 2008, Smith always knew he wanted to play in the NHL, but didn’t know if he would be able to.

The Senators projected him as someone who would eventually challenge for an NHL job, but when that would be was the question.

Smith spent his first three seasons bouncing between Binghamton and Ottawa, but he was determined, said Lee, and took advantage of every special session the team offered, whether it was about skating, stickhandling, or taking faceoffs.

So in his third year, 2010-11, Smith spent most of his time in Ottawa.

In 2011-12, he was here for the season, and in September of 2012, he signed a four-year contract extension worth an average of $1.8 million annually.

Not bad for someone who might have been considered a borderline prospect.

Smith had no illusions about himself. He knew he wasn’t the world’s most talented player, so he understood he had to listen closely and work hard.

“If you look at Ottawa now, you can see the work ethic and determination of the guys they’ve drafted, guys who worked hard in the summer like Borowiecki and Colin Greening,” he said. “And I’d put myself in that group.

“The kind of players we are, I think to do our job, we have to spend a little more time training. I wouldn’t necessarily say we’re skilled, so development is definitely a big part of our game.

“They told me what kind of player I needed to be and what I had to do to get there, and I’ve improved a lot from year-to-year.”

All of this player development costs more money, but not a lot, said Murray. The staff is already in place, so it’s the price of bringing a player here for a development camp and putting him a hotel for a week.

It’s a small price to pay for avoiding mistakes like Alex Kovalev.

“If you miss out on your draft picks and your development, then you really have a big problem, there’s no question about it,” said Murray. “We can’t, and we don’t want to be a cap team at this point. We have to take advantage of anybody and everybody who is a prospect in our group, and give them the best chance to make it.

“So that’s why we’ve focused on this the way we have.”

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