SECOND THOUGHTS: The Crapshoot
by Chris Dilks/Columnist
Wednesday concluded the NCAA's early signing period, during which recruits can send in their National Letters of Intent and make their commitment to the school that recruited them a little more official.
I say "a little more official," because as many college hockey fans have learned, nothing is really official until a players steps on campus. In the months between now and the start of next hockey season, there is still plenty of time for a player to choose to play in a Canadian major junior league, or sign with an NHL team, or decide that he needs to play another year of junior hockey.
Despite this, the early signing period remains significant in the college hockey world because once a player sends in his Letter of Intent, teams are officially allowed to discuss and release information on a player. That means it's usually the first time more casual fans start talking about a team's recruiting for that year.
I always enjoy any time someone is willing to talk about anything to do with college hockey, but it does come with a few problems. First, there's the inevitable woofing from most fan bases about how great their incoming players are. I'm thoroughly convinced that North Dakota or Minnesota could sign Helen Keller, and the next day, all we'd hear about from their fans is how great her hands are. The other problem, slightly more annoying problem with this recruiting is that it's also the time that a lot of tired clichés about recruiting get brought out.
I've often heard people describe the college hockey recruiting process as a "crapshoot." I'll definitely agree that the job of watching 16-20 year olds and picking who will be the best 2-6 years down the line is far from an exact science, but I also don't think it's as random as people make it out to be. I doubt assistant coaches would spend weeks on the road traveling to desolate locations in the upper Midwest and western Canada if they could just as easily draw names out of a hat. So while I disagree with the "crapshoot" analogy, I think a much better analogy comes from a different table inside the casino.
There's a card game called No Limit Texas Hold'em, which you may have seen on ESPN once or twice in lieu of any sort of hockey coverage. If you're not familiar with the game, each player gets dealt two cards face down, and then a series of five community cards come on the board, and the player that makes the best five card poker hands wins.
Where does recruiting fall into this? Recruiting a player is like being dealt a two-card starting hand in No Limit Texas Hold'em. While that starting hand has a certain value, that value can be drastically changed once the community cards come onto the board, just as a player's value as a junior hockey player can drastically change once he moves into the world of college hockey.
Ask any casual poker and they'll tell you multiple stories about the time they got dealt pocket aces, the best possible starting hand, only to see them beaten by a much worse hand, just as most college hockey fans can tell you about highly recruited players like Adam Pineault or Ryan Sittler that never developed into great players. Or a casual poker player may tell you about the time they got dealt an awful starting hand, only to end up making a full house and winning a big pot, just as every college hockey fan has a story about the little-recruited walk-on who went on to a star for their team.
But that anecdotal evidence doesn't mean that either is completely random. A pro poker player knows that if he plays enough hands, eventually the odds will even out, and if he keeps betting with the best hand, eventually he'll win more than he loses. College hockey recruiting may not have the mathematical odds to back up that argument in the same way that Texas Hold'em does, but the principle remains the same. People may bring up that a team of blue chips recruits in Minnesota lost to lowly Holy Cross, but that argument forgets that the reason that upset was so huge was that Minnesota has won so consistently in the past with those blue-chip players, and in the long-run, Minnesota will much more often than a team like Holy Cross. Coaches and experienced college hockey fans know that in the long run, it's the safer bet that usually wins.
So as the faxes finish rolling in from the young players that have signed to play college hockey, and the teams start sending out press releases on those players, remember that anecdotal evidence doesn't always make something true, and just because recruiting isn't an exact science that is right 100% of the time, doesn't mean that it doesn't hold some value.