Borrowing one of Bill James’ many brilliant ideas in baseball, I introduced the concept of NHL Equivalencies and Minor-League Translations a little over five years ago. A minor-league’s NHL Equivalency estimates how well a player’s scoring will translate from that league to the NHL. The AHL, for example, has an equivalency of 0.45, which means that a player who scores 80 points in 80 games in the ‘A’ will score – on average – 36 points in a full NHL season.
Initially, I looked mostly at leagues that sent players directly to the NHL, the idea being that we wanted to be able to make single year projections of minor-league and junior players. However, because it is derived from the performance of a large number of players, a League Equivalency is also a measure of League Difficulty. We can compare two leagues to one another either by looking at how players fare when they jump from one league to another, or how players from two different leagues fare in a third. More importantly, we can extrapolate to an NHL Equivalency, even for a league that doesn’t send anyone to the NHL. Which brings me to…
Minnesota High School Hockey Equivalencies, 2002-07:
N GPG PPG NHLE
NCAA 16 0.148 0.178 0.073
USHL 46 0.170 0.195 0.052
NAHL 30 0.242 0.256 0.052
I looked at every player in that five-year period who had 48 or more points during the 25- or 26-game season. Normally goals and assists translate similarly, but high school hockey has a very low number of assists. It’s unclear if this is due to refereeing or too many individual efforts, but it’s virtually impossible for a defenseman – or a pure playmaker – to crack the scoring leaders.
Overall, Minnesota hockey translates to the NCAA (NHLE = 0.41) at approximately 0.18, giving an NHLE of 0.073. The translation to the USHL is 0.195; its translation to the NCAA is 0.65; the overall NHLE is 0.052. Via a similar process, the NHLE via the NAHL is also 0.052. This puts the difficulty level of Minnesota H.S. hockey somewhere between 5.2% and 7.3% - which is not very high: the leading scorer in Minnesota over the course of a decade might be good for 20 points as an 18-year-old rookie in the NHL.
So how do we explain Phil Housley?
Year Team GP G A P
1981-82 South St. Paul 22 31 34 65
1982-83 Buffalo Sabres 77 19 47 66
Clearly the only player to jump straight from a Minnesota High School to the NHL is an outlier. NHL teams couldn’t draft high schoolers until 1979, and they gave a few of the best a shot at jumping directly to the NHL – Bobby Carpenter, Tom Barrasso, Phil Housley – but were also famously burned by Brian Lawton, who never lived up to the expectations of a #1 pick, both because of injuries and having something less than #1 pick talent. Therein lies the problem with high school hockey and high school sports in general: a huge variation in talent and strength of schedule. With top Canadian junior picks playing over 200 games before they get drafted, Brian Lawton’s 23 games as a senior simply didn’t tell us enough about him. When his scoring translated to the NHL at just half of Housley’s rate, he was seen publicly as a huge failure, and American players increasingly opted for a year or two of college hockey to help adjust to top competition. Privately, NHL teams owned up to the mistake of rushing high schoolers to the big leagues, and we’ve never seen a top high school draft pick again.
Gabriel Desjardins is a contributor to Puck Prospectus and runs the statistical hockey site behindthenet.ca