In Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers,” which came out nearly nine years ago, the author lays out a simple but compelling reason why more elite hockey players back then tended to be born in the early months of the year instead of the later ones. The logic is summarized nicely in a Q&A he did with ESPN.com late in 2008:
“In Canada, the eligibility cutoff for age-class hockey programs is Jan. 1. … But who tends to be the ‘best’ player at age 8 or 9? The oldest, of course — the kids born nearest the cut-off date, who can be as much as almost a year older than kids born at the other end of the cut-off date. When you are 8 years old, 10 or 11 extra months of maturity means a lot. So those kids get special attention. That’s why there are more players in the NHL born in January and February and March than any other months.”
ESPN checked into the theory and, sure enough, for all NHL players at the time born between 1980 and 1990, there were an average of 50 players per month born in January-June (the first six months of the year) and just 35 per month in July-December, the last six months.
I remember reading about this several years ago, and it probably became lodged in a weird part of my brain — only to resurface Tuesday afternoon as I sat and watched Minnesota Wild prospects participate in a scrimmage at Xcel Energy Center.
During the intermission, I noticed that two of the Wild’s highest choices in last month’s draft (in which the organization lacked a first- or second-rounder) — third-rounder Ivan Lodnia (pictured) and fourth-rounder Bryce Misley — were born on Aug. 31, 1999 and Sept. 5, 1999, respectively. For this draft, players born between Jan. 1, 1997 and Sept. 15, 1999 were eligible to be chosen. That’s standard each year: the youngest player chosen in any class must turn 18 by Sept. 15 of his draft year.
So the Wild took two of the youngest players available — players a mere couple weeks away from the cutoff date — which made me wonder if that was just a coincidence or an actual strategy. If Canadian youth hockey leaned toward the oldest players who are more developed, would it stand to reason that when drafting prospects, you would want the youngest ones available who theoretically have more room for growth? Or, at the very least, if there are two comparable players of relatively equal skill and one is almost a full year younger than the other, would a younger age be an attractive tiebreaker of sorts?
I reached out to Wild assistant GM Brent Flahr, and I expected to get a quick but polite response along the lines of, “nope, it’s a coincidence.” Instead — and bear in mind I didn’t mention Gladwell at all in my initial inquiry to him — he wrote back: “It’s not off the wall at all. It’s kind of the Gladwell theory and we’ve discussed it a number of times with our staff.”
Flahr went on to provide plenty of context, saying that in a lot of cases by the time players are draft-eligible their development has evened out so that months don’t matter too much. He added that the organization tries not to penalize players with “late” birthdays, i.e. those born late in 1998 this year.
“There is a negative stigma attached to them by certain scouts,” Flahr wrote. “What we have to remember is that we’re evaluating the players, we’re trying to project where they will be in five years, and the players can’t control when they were born.”
That negative stigma seems like a real thing if we refer back to the ESPN study. There were 158 total players at that time in the NHL born between 1980 and 1990 in January, February or March and just 97 born in October, November or December. Those players, per the Gladwell theory, get short-shrift in Canadian youth hockey because they’re too young … and then get docked by some when it’s draft time because they’re older than other eligible peers.
On the flip side, and back to the original point, players with birthdays just before the draft cutoff can be deemed more attractive than others. It’s something the Wild pays attention to far more than a guy like me who just happened to notice it during a break in the action.
In the cases of Lodnia and Misley — players who are still just 17 and the two youngest of all the prospects you can watch one more time at the X at 5 p.m. Thursday in another scrimmage, before the team hosts a block party from 6-9 p.m. — it’s at least a nice bonus.
“In some cases, our scouts will lean to the younger player for sure and I’ve heard a thousand times that they are only a couple days away from being in next year’s draft,” Flahr wrote. “There are outliers on both sides of the spectrum and it’s something we’ll always monitor analytically.”