Tyler/Taylor: my two cents. (Actual value: 2¢)

As an Oilers fan with an audience, I feel it’s my duty to publicly take a side in the civil strife tearing my city asunder. The issue is one no Canadian city has faced since 1996: who should the team take with the #1 pick in the June 25 NHL Entry Draft?

Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin, the two young forwards at the top of the table, are universally considered to be near-even, and ahead of the peloton by a mile. The debate between them isn’t really all that intense: I was kidding about that part. It is generally accepted that the Oilers can’t go foreseeably wrong with either player, and there are convincing arguments on both sides.

The Oilers front office and scouting staff has, for much of its history, indisputably added massive net negative value to the performance of the team. They have done much worse than someone who collected no independent data and had no theoretical framework would have. But in this case, unless they go off the board, there will be no conceivable grounds for after-the-fact criticism—certainly not on the part of fans like myself who are pretty casually informed. I’m not going out on a limb here, just casting one vote.

Hall has the longer resumé. Though he is older than Seguin by just 79 days, he has been talked about for much, much longer. He went second overall in the 2007 OHL draft; Seguin went 9th the next year. After last year’s NHL draft, Hall was seen as the clear leader among North American skaters, with Seguin another tier further down. Seguin had a fast start to this OHL season, which prompted Central Scouting to move him ahead of Hall in the fall 2010 preliminary prospect rankings. (Hall caught him in the midterms; Seguin is the final #1.) Seguin went on to finish level with Hall in scoring numbers—if you ignore the six extra regular-season games Seguin played. Hall led a terrific OHL team in plus-minus; Seguin didn’t lead his mediocre one.

Generally, in the world of sports, when one prospect has a particularly good year and catches up to someone who has been ahead in the past, we assume that the player who started out behind somehow has “momentum” that will go on carrying him forward. We’re very good at physics metaphors and not so good at intuitively anticipating regression to the mean—at sensing that an unexpected spurt of productivity or progress may be a matter of small-sample good luck. Hall shouldn’t be discounted for having the higher established level of performance.

There is talk that the Oilers are leaning toward Seguin because they “need” a quality centre. As far as I’m concerned, drafting for perceived “need” is plain asinine unless you’re an NFL general manager. The Oilers should take whichever player they are honestly convinced is the best. If they take Hall, we’ll at least know that’s why they took him.

And Seguin got cut from the World Junior Championships team. Yeah, yeah, I know: Hall failed to make the team his first time out too, in 2009. But he had an extra year of eligibility because of his birthdate and was nearly 300 days younger, at that time, than Seguin was for his own first tryout in 2010. Despite the birthdate disadvantage, Hall was one of the last cuts in ’09, and of course was the third-best scorer in the tournament this time out, in his age-18 year.

Seguin, by contrast, was sent home almost immediately in 2010 as an about-to-turn-18-in-roughly-thirty-seconds. His supporters have argued that Hockey Canada probably didn’t want to bump some 19-year-old returning gold medallist to make room for Seguin, but the selectors must have known that 2010 might have been Seguin’s only chance ever to play in the U20. Does anybody else think “He didn’t even make the World Junior team!” is something Edmontonians might find themselves muttering angrily, right after the sentence “What were they thinking?”, in the year 2014?

The knocks on Hall don’t really impress me much. Hall’s “reckless”, say the Seguinists: he’ll go anywhere and will absorb any hit to get to the puck…in other words, he’s a winner, as Oiler head scout Stu MacGregor pointed out; this is just a way of redefining the kid’s best personal qualities and his record of success as weaknesses. Having a Ryan Smyth-esque style of play might cost him some years at the far end of his career, but those are years the team that drafts him won’t control anyway.

Hall’s 6’1″, well-conditioned, and has a first-rate genetic pedigree. Nobody has suggested, as far as I know, that he’s careless in open ice. This kind of half-hearted carping has been heard about every elite prospect since Bobby Orr. There were also murmurs that Hall wasn’t liked by his Windsor teammates, but the Memorial Cup TV broadcasts have silenced those; they are literally unbelievable now.

There exists legitimate concern about Hall possibly being overrated because, unlike Seguin, he’s been part of a team that would still have been excellent without him. Certainly the Oilers have been burned before by the allure of impressive individual statistics assembled on OHL powerhouses. But Hall’s Spitfires have been so good that it’s not unrealistic to believe that the team contains several legitimate future stars. The last back-to-back Memorial Cup winner, the ’94-’95 Kamloops Blazers, had Jarome Iginla, Shane Doan, Darcy Tucker, and a bunch of other good NHL or NHL-grade players. Getting an Iginla or a Doan, even with the #1 pick in a draft, would have to count as a success.

As it happens, the Oilers had the #6 pick in ’95 and passed on both Iggy and Doan (both Alberta kids, like Hall) to grab the immortal Steve Kelly—in front of a home crowd chanting “Doan! Doan! Doan!” Not knowing how to split up the credit for a stacked junior team, Glen Sather and Barry Fraser backed away from the people’s choice and talked themselves into the kid who was all physical “upside”. It’s not a strictly analogous situation: just for starters, the local media pretty much knew immediately that the Kelly pick stunk, whereas today they’re lining up behind Seguin. Still… consider this a barely audible “gulp” of uncertainty.

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