An Introduction to the Expansion Draft Project

The one question that people seem to have upon hearing the words “expansion draft historian” is a very simple one: “Why?”

I think it’s in our nature to assess the past and see what could have been done differently.  It’s the source of everything from a small discussion over a couple of drinks to a large debate in an academic setting to sweeping declarations made by politicians and power brokers.  And far too much of it is either absurd, biased, or simply dishonest.  History is about establishing a setting and a context before getting into the whys and wherefores.  Once this is secured, the analysis can really begin.

In sports, there’s a tendency to put things into too neat of a package without regard for the many parts that go into creating something.  Perhaps the most lazy thing of all is in retrospective drafts, or “Here’s how stupid this GM was: he used the 14th overall pick on someone *other* than this 7th-rounder who no one thought should be drafted at all and unexpectedly became an All-Star!  What a moron of a GM!”  It annoys me more than it probably should, but this is my lot in life.

I formulated the idea for this expansion draft project in the shower one day.  For reasons unknown, I was thinking about the 2000 expansion draft that loaded the roster of my beloved Columbus Blue Jackets, and wondered if things would have been different in the early years if Martin St. Louis had been taken by the team.  My quick conclusion was “no”, and then I started wondering if it would have made sense at all to have drafted St. Louis in the expansion draft in the first place.  By the time I was ready to head to work and begin my day, I’d decided that I was going to charge headlong into establishing the setting and context of those expansion drafts for everyone out there with even a passing interest to be able to see.

The amount of work and research that’s gone into this is enormous, and it’s never really done.  The process here has been:

  1. Figure out what was going on with each existing team in the time frame in question, as it has a huge impact on how players perform and how they’re perceived.
  2. Analyze their unprotected lists for the expansion draft.
  3. Pare the lists down according to some very basic factors: career minor leaguers, unsigned European veterans, enforcers, marginal pending free agents, and players who are at most one year away from retirement.
  4. Of the remaining players, figure out the most likely to be considered, even a little bit, for selection in the expansion draft.
  5. Compile at least two years of reports on each player who’s being considered.  If someone had a poor second half of the season leading into the expansion draft, I want to know why.  If they were in and out of the lineup with an injury, I want to know how bad it was, if it required surgery, and what the long-term prognosis is.  If someone had a blowup with their coach, I need to know if there’s a pattern of such issues and what the player’s reputation is.  If someone missed time with a personal matter, I want to know if it’s still going to be an issue going forward.  And as is the case with all historical research, it’s possible to do hours of research and then condense all of that down into one sentence.  Spending half a day and three cups of coffee going through 82 game reports for a specific player may well simply end up on a report as nothing more than “had an up-and-down 1997-98 season”.
  6. Scouting reports, if there are any, are generally more limited.  I’m not a scout.  I couldn’t pretend to be a scout if I wanted to.  I couldn’t look at a top prospect and tell you if his wrist shot is likely to get better or if it’s as good as it gets, and I have no way of knowing what the difference is between Sergei Brylin’s agility and Vadim Sharifijanov’s.  Now, if someone is particularly notable and shows up all over the place or was otherwise widely known (like Dave Manson’s slap shot, or Andrew Brunette’s speed, or Mike Richter’s calmness under pressure), I do note this.  But I think the ability to actually put it together and keep it together on the ice is more important than two MPH on the radar gun or 0.5 seconds on the stopwatch.
  7. Once all of the individual team draft boards are put together, I do a mock draft as would have reasonably taken place at the time.  I go into some detail of why I chose a particular player in a particular spot, and at times will veer off into extremely long essays to explain or dive into an important concept.

So yes, an absolutely staggering amount of work has gone into this, and it’s still not done.  I’ve lost a handful of pages that were ready to go that needed to be re-done, and I’ve gotten 95% of the way into some parts and then decided that it wasn’t actually useful and scrapped it.

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