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All cake, no icing: Three offseason strategies to fix the dreadful Demons

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27th August, 2019
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Today my AFL list analysis and offseason preview series continues with the club that fell from preliminary finalists to seventeenth on the ladder in 2019, the Melbourne Demons.

Before we get started, a reminder that this is one in a series of what will be many articles with some in-depth anaylsis into clubs’ list management. Some of it may be confusing if you’re reading this as a one-off.

The mechanisms I’m using to analyse clubs were detailed more clearly in my article on the Gold Coast Suns, and I recommend reading that if you’re confused by anything you find here.

Five-year strategy

Melbourne have followed a textbook strategy of hitting the draft hard for multiple years before beginning to pursue mature talent from rival clubs as a way of maximising the current talent on their list with the goal of rising up the ladder.

You can see this clear shift in gear in the below table. In 2014-15 they put a huge investment into the draft with four first-round picks – Christian Petracca, Angus Brayshaw, Clayton Oliver and Sam Weideman – arriving at the club in this time.

However from 2016 onwards they’ve spent around half of their DVI every year on trade recruits – dipping their toes in the water with Jordan Lewis and Michael Hibberd that year, before paying big prices for the likes of Jake Lever and Steven May to join the club over the past two offseasons.

This might seem at a glance like a ‘balanced’ approach – roughly half into trades, roughly half into the draft. But compared to the leaguewide average, it’s a very trade-heavy approach. Over the past five years, the league average has hovered between a 72-25 or 70-30 split.

Melbourne Demons Draft-Trade Analysis 2014-18
Source Spend
Year Organic Trade Draft Trade
2014 3862 2234 95.3% 4.7%
2015 4289 926 81.1% 18.9%
2016 1102 57 37.3% 62.7%
2017 3232 606 53.3% 46.7%
2018 755 2689 49.2% 50.8%
Total 13240 6512 71.9% 28.1%

Drafting

Melbourne’s change in investment strategy is, unsurprisingly, strongly reflected in the results we’re seeing them get from the draft. The years where they’ve made strong investment have had abundant return, the years they’ve neglected it are performing below par.

The biggest boon in this period has been the drafting of Clayton Oliver at pick No.4 in 2015. Four years into his career he has already been All Australian once and has produced a return of 188 career AFLCA votes.

Clayton Oliver

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

This is not just the highest of any player in that draft year, but is actually a better total than anyone from the 2014 draft has achieved either – despite have an extra year under their belts.

Looking at the 2016-18 period, Melbourne are taking roughly the same number of new players in at the draft on average over this period of time, but investing much less DVI into them.

That would suggest they are acquiring players of worse quality, a logic that appears to be confirmed by the numbers that follow.

Although they’re giving these players games about as regularly as the league average, they’re getting a below-average return from them in terms of game-impact as measured by AFLCA votes.

Melbourne Demons Draft Analysis 2014-18
Year Drafted Spent Games Votes
2014 7 5808 398 126
2015 7 4229 168 188
2016 6 432 58 5
2017 4 2044 91 13
2018 10 1693 40 0
Total 34 14206 755 332

Trading

So the Dees have departed from the draft a bit over the last three years – that means they’ve been trading, and so this is where you’d be hoping to see some nice-looking numbers.

Last year Melbourne spent pick 6 to recruit Steven May (and Kade Kolodjashnij) from Gold Coast, and the year before they traded out roughly the same equivalent value to acquire Jake Lever from Adelaide.

What should be therefore ringing alarm bells for the Dees is that their recruits from those two offseasons have so far combined for just 36 games and six AFLCA votes.

Just how bad are those numbers? Comparing it to the average result for a team making a trade investment of that size over the past two years, you would expect to get back 117 games and 69 votes to be on par.

Even investing those points into the draft would generate an expected return so far of 70 games and 7 votes. The whole idea of trading is to get a quicker impact than going to the draft, so for a trade investment to be lagging behind the average draft return is a really poor result.

There is, admittedly, a poor trend in the AFL that we tend to judge a trade decision by the early impact it has on a club’s fortunes, and then take a long time to change our minds.

Particularly for 23-year-old Lever, there’s abundant time in which to make Melbourne a good return on their investment in him. How much his longterm game is impacted by his second ACL injury will be a significant factor here.

Jake Lever

(Photo by Daniel Pockett/AFL Media/Getty Images)

The time factor is more pressing for 27-year-old May. The numbers do indicate that players begin to decline a bit from 28 onwards (though certainly a significant proportion will buck the trend). The time is now for him to have an impact at the club.

Melbourne Demons Trade Analysis 2014-18
Year Gained Lost Spent Games Votes
2014 4 3 288 185 26
2015 3 3 986 100 35
2016 3 1 727 113 63
2017 2 2 1794 19 3
2018 3 3 1751 17 3
Total 15 12 5546 434 130

List profile

The Dees have had one of the younger lists in the AFL for a while, thanks to their many years of heavy investment in the draft. However, the maturing of those players, combined turning their attention to trade, has seen this shift a bit older.

They now have 19 players in the ‘prime’ age group of 23-27, which is a bit up on the league average of 16. They have roughly the normal amount of youth players, and a few less veterans than the average side.

However, their 2019 selection has trended younger than this. They’ve put 44 per cent of games into youth, much higher than the leaguewide average of 36, with this primarily being driven by the lack of veteran players at AFL level.

Their youth were about on-par for AFLCA vote production this year with the rest of the competition, but their prime and veteran age players both lagged well behind.

Melbourne Demons list profile
Age Players Games % of total Votes % of total
18-22 23 204 44.16% 60 28.17%
23-27 19 194 41.99% 138 64.79%
28+ 5 64 13.85% 15 7.04%
Total 47 462 100.00% 213 100.00%

Under or over?

The 22 that Melbourne put on the park was ultimately 12th for average games experience and 13th for average age. They were the more experienced side than their opponents just five times this year, and the older side only six.

What’s frustrating is that even when they did have an age/experience advantage over their opponents, they struggled to make it count – winning only one of these matches.

In fact, their winning percentage was better – albeit not by a lot – when they were the younger or less experienced team than their opponents. However, it was still well below the league average on either measure.

A common narrative when it comes to Melbourne this year has been the degree to which injury affected their season, but the numbers suggest this isn’t as much of a shield for poor form as they’d like it to be.

They ranked 10th across the year for EUR, using an average of 65.9 per cent of list experience on any given week, which is just narrowly below the leaguewide average.

Verdict: Underperformed. While the Dees’ young profile suggests expectations on them were probably higher than was realistic, they still fell well short of even a modified level of expectation.

Christian Petracca

(Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Contract watch

Out of contract
Kade Chandler, Kyle Dunkley, Sam Frost, Jeff Garlett, Declan Keilty, Jay Kennedy Harris, Jay Lockhart, Nathan Jones, Tim Smith, Billy Stretch, Corey Wagner.

Pre-agents
Jack Viney.

The standout name here that has already made headlines in 2019 is co-captain Nathan Jones. The 31-year-old has played 286 games for the club, but at the moment hasn’t signed a deal for next year.

Media reports suggest Jones was offered a one-year deal at below the average AFL wage to continue his career in 2020, and has knocked it back, expecting better remuneration.

Melbourne have a difficult and emotional decision here, but if we try to remove emotion for the equation, I feel like it’s a fairly straightforward decision to tell Jones his time at the club will come to an end.

The analytics I’ve done here don’t consider what type of player clubs have made investments into, but I believe the eyeball alone can make it clear that the Demons have acquired a significant number of players with similar traits – physical, competitive, inside-leaning midfielders.

This is a good strategy in some respects because the end result is a team that plays tough, uncompromising footy. That’s what took them to a prelim final last year.

However, it lacks the diversity of talent needed to realise a gameplan capable of holding up at AFL level over a period of multiple years. Melbourne are all cake and no icing, and other clubs haven’t taken long to dismantle them.

The hard-as-nails kids Melbourne drafted have pushed Jones out of his preferred role on the ball and in fact there are so many of them that they are pushing each other out of the way also.

Jack Viney, Clayton Oliver, Angus Brayshaw, James Harmes and Christian Petracca are all players who will be at their best when they’re starting at the centre bounces, but you can’t fit all of them in there, let alone Nathan Jones on top.

This has pushed Jones to play more of an outside midfield role over the past two seasons, and it’s just not his forte. His clearance and contested possession numbers have declined, but there hasn’t been the spike you’d hope for in uncontested ball or metres gained to balance that out.

He’ll be 32 by the start of next season, and Melbourne’s logjam inside the contest isn’t going to be less crowded any time soon – so either you can teach an old dog new tricks or it’s time for him to move on.

This would be a horrible way for a player like Jones, considering what he’s given to Melbourne and what he’s endured for their sake over the course of his career, to end his time at the club.

But is him struggling through 2020 only to face the axe then any better? If he were any other player at any other club, it’s an easy choice.

Nathan Jones

(Photo by Daniel Pockett/AFL Media/Getty Images)

In terms of pre-agency, Jack Viney will be a restricted free agent next year. As co-captain of the club there appears no risk he’d leave, but given the above-described excess of options to play inside midfield at Melbourne, should the Dees be considering giving one of these players up? We’ll discuss that more, soon.

Free agency

Nathan Jones and Corey Wagner are Melbourne’s only free agents this year, both of them unresricted.

We’ve already discussed Jones – I would suspect he’s unlikely to find a second club if the Dees decide to withdraw their contract offer, with Gold Coast probably the only team who should consider him, and I’m sceptical that he would find that appealing.

Wagner presumably either stays at Melbourne or is delisted.

In terms of attracting a free agent to the club, I don’t expect Melbourne to be heavily involved this year. Their narrative last year was that they needed to lose Jesse Hogan to afford Steven May, suggesting there’s not much room to move in the salary cap.

However, they have been linked with GWS’ Adam Tomlinson, who, if they can find a way to get him on the list, is a very good fit for them. Probably their two biggest needs are players who can fill key positions, and players who can play outside midfield – and Tomlinson is both.

Two other names to consider would be Jamie Elliott and Ricky Henderson. Elliott would offer a different kind of threat to a forward line which has badly lacked it this year, while Henderson is exactly the kind of smooth-moving winger that would help balance out their current midfield mix.

I don’t see either of those players leaving their current clubs, but hypothetically, it’s worth at least asking the question.

If they are after some cheap key defender depth then I would also say Ryan Schoenmakers at Hawthorn could come into consideration.

Trade period

It’s one of the unfortunate realities of AFL that analysis of this type is made difficult by the lack of any public information on clubs’ salary caps.

I can see why the AFLPA doesn’t want the details of every player’s contract to be made public – that would open them up to a lot of abuse if they’re performing below what their pay-packet says we should expect.

However, I don’t see what would be so problematic about releasing what percentage of the salary cap each club is paying in any given year, and maybe even some de-identified data about how many contracts clubs have in each payment band.

A discussion for another time perhaps – the point is that, as already suggested, Melbourne appear to be pretty close to full in terms of the salary cap, but exactly how much we don’t know. What we do know, is they have still been linked to some opposition players.

One of these is Adelaide key defender Alex Keath. Keath started the year in what was bordering on All Australian form before probably tailing off a little in the second half of the season, but still appears to be a quality option in that part of the ground.

However, having instead more DVI than the equivalent of pick 1 into two key defenders over the last two years, I’d strongly suggest this is one Melbourne should not pursue. They need to assess whether May and Lever can function in those roles first – if they can, there’s no need to spend further on a player like this.

Similarly, Zak Jones is one who naturally gets thrown around for them, given he’s the brother of Nathan. While I like Jones as a player, I’d suggest he is probably too similar to the others on their list for him to be a good investment for them.

Instead I’d argue Melbourne’s top priority this trade period should be to bring in players who can help balance out their midfield, and no one on the market is a more perfect fit for them than Fremantle’s Brad Hill.

Hill is fast, creative and dynamic – everything that Melbourne isn’t. If scientists spent ten years working in a lab to create the perfect player to fix Melbourne, that player would be exactly Brad Hill.

Brad Hill

(Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Also a good fit is his Fremantle teammate, Ed Langdon. Where Hill is an elite talent on the wing, Langdon is probably more an above-average roleplayer – he’s not going to fix the problem on his own, but he’s younger and cheaper than Hill and would go at least some of the way to rebalancing the club’s midfield.

What’s unusual about Melbourne for a club that played in a preliminary final last year is that right now they have an incredibly valuable trade asset in the form of pick 2 in the draft.

My first course of action if running Melbourne would be to offer this selection to Fremantle in exchange for getting both Hill and Langdon to the club. That’s a double-whammy that would make Melbourne’s midfield instantly one of the best and more well-balanced in the competition.

Hill however seems more likely at this stage to join St Kilda, who are reportedly offering him as much as $900,000 per season. With the Dees’ salary cap position being what we suspect it is, I’d be shocked if they can compete with a deal like that.

Langdon however seems certain to join the club, with their pick 20 likely being enough to get the deal done.

The other player I would be considering for Melbourne to target is Gold Coast draftee Ben King.

I discussed him a bit from a Gold Coast perspective yesterday, and suggested that so far the rumours of him potentially looking to leave the club feel a bit Purple Monkey Dishwasher to me – but, hypothetically, if he were on the market for the Dees, he’s a good fit.

After trading out Jesse Hogan at the end of last year with an eye to Steven May balancing out their backs and forwards, both ends of the ground have been out of whack this year – as much due to injury as anything else.

I would be targetting King as a developing forward to play alongside Sam Weideman. This would give Melbourne the option of either returning McDonald to the backline for some stability, or keeping him forward and having one of those three get the opposition’s third-best defender.

Again, I don’t expect it to come to fruition. But if King does want a move to Victoria, then the Demons, having pick 2, are best suited to trade for him.

Ben King

(Photo by Graham Denholm/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Karl Amon is one who has also been linked to Melbourne recently, and I think he’s a perfect fit, especially if he comes in addition to Langdon and/or Hill. Won’t be too expensive but plays the right kind of role for the Dees.

Of course, the other end of the equation, especially given a potentially tight salary cap, is whether or not there are any players who might leave Melbourne.

So far despite a dismal season, there’s been no rumour to suggest any players are so disaffected as to want out of the club.

That said, there was some talk that Christian Petracca had a meeting with the club last week to let them know he is concerned with a lack of midfield time this year.

That’s not expected to lead to him asking for a trade, but it does provide an indication of what will still be Melbourne’s biggest problem next year – too many players in the same position.

Would you therefore consider trying to trade one of them out and look to remove the headache entirely? It’s a nervous proposition, especially given they’re all largely at a lower value than they were last year.

Oliver as the best of them has to be safe, and Viney as the co-captain – presumable sole captain next year – would be also.

That leaves Brayshaw who some have thrown up for a move to Fremantle given that his brother plays there, Petracca, and Harmes.

Personally, this isn’t a path I’d be going down just yet, unless the circumstances are that you’ve got Brad Hill agreeing to join the club but need to make salary cap room of some kind.

If they’re going to keep all of them then the 2020 preseason has to be spent figuring out which is most capable of finding a new role that doesn’t depend on being at the centre bounces.

Perhaps Harmes can play in the backline. Perhaps Petracca should be a permanent forward playing out of the goal square. We already know he’s not keen on that – so this conversation needs to be had soon.

Draft

Picks inside 30: 2, 20.

We’ve discussed two options above for what to do with pick 2 – trade it for Brad Hill and Ed Langdon, or trade it for Ben King. But the third option, of course, is to keep it, and take it to the draft.

What happens then depends a lot on what decision the AFL makes regarding Gold Coast’s request for a priority pick at the top of the order.

Melbourne are the club who stand to suffer the most if this happens, given there’s a clear top-two in this draft and they’ll be pushed out of it if the AFL give the Suns a handout.

Let’s say that doesn’t happen – the clear top two in this draft is Matt Rowell and Noah Anderson, and so pick 2 should logically be whichever of them doesn’t get taken by Gold Coast at the first selection.

The Dees would want to desperately hope in that scenario that Gold Coast go with Rowell, allowing them to grab Anderson, because Rowell would just be another nuggety inside midfielder to pile on top of that centre bounce logjam.

Anderson is someone who could develop into a contested ball player as well, but he’s more versatile than that. He could play on the wing or he could play at half-forward and not be out of place.

Noah Anderson

(Photo by Mark Brake/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

If Gold Coast do get that priority selection, then Melbourne move down to pick three and will likely be choosing from a range of players that is fairly even.

I’d say their best choice at that point is probably half-back flanker Hayden Young. He’s probably the classiest player in this year’s draft.

Half-back isn’t necessarily Melbourne’s top priority position to target, but Young could make it work there. That said, I’d be looking to see if he can make an impact a winger or even half-forward at AFL level first.

Young doesn’t have the runs on the board that the top two players have, but he’s arguably a better fit for Melbourne than either of them is.

Lachie Ash, Sam Flanders and Dylan Stephens are probably the other three players that strike me as good fits for Melbourne, but they’re not likely to have a pick around the right mark for any of them unless they get creative.

Pick 20 probably isn’t worth much discussion, as I expect they’ll trade it for Langdon.

What I said last year

“Really, there’s not too many ways things can go wrong for Melbourne. They have so much elite young talent right now that as long as they make smart decisions going forward, they should remain at the pointy end of the ladder for a long time to come.

“The only trap they risk falling into is that of going after quick fixes to try and win now rather than simply being patient and wait for that elite young talent to hit its prime…

“When the elite young talent they already have is at its peak they’ll still want to have some good kids pushing to be in the best 22 – keeping the mature players already in there honest, and providing some of the youthful enthusiasm that helps drive teams.

“Melbourne fans have been patient for a very long time, and you can trust them to be patient a few years longer. Keeping making the same good decisions that have gotten you to this point, and soon both club and fans will be richly rewarded.”

Outlook

Including the opening sentence of that section again in this article is really the best comedy I’ve produced all year, and at first glance the sentiment that Melbourne would continue to head in an upwards direction appears miles off the mark given their 2019 results.

That said, I’ll back myself in on this one a little.

Melbourne’s disastrous 2019 has prompted plenty of discussion as to which of the past two seasons was the ‘aberration’. I’d say neither of them properly reflects the reality of the club’s list position at the corresponding time – “it’s never as good or as bad as it looks”, as the saying goes – but 2018 was closer to an accurate picture of where the list is at than 2019 has been.

Melbourne still have a significant amount of talent that is either yet to hit its peak, or still has plenty of time at the peak left. If they can line the pieces of the puzzle up correctly at some point over the next few years, there’s no reason why they can’t still enjoy significant success.

I’ve proposed three offseason strategies in this article. For summary, here they are again, in order of preference:

1) Trade pick 2 for Brad Hill and Ed Langdon – potentially moving on a player if you need to, to make the salary cap work. Take pick 20 to the draft.

2) Trade pick 2 for Ben King and pick 20 for Ed Langdon.

3) Trade pick 20 for Ed Langdon, and take pick 2 to the draft – or if you can downgrade it for two picks, like say two first-rounders from GWS, consider that.

If they can bring Adam Tomlinson to the club on top of any one of those strategies then that’s a nice coup as well, but probably not entirely necessary. Karl Amon would also be a great get regardless of which path they go down.

Go down any one of those three paths and I believe Melbourne’s list will have all or most of what it needs on it to be a successful club in the long term. The problem is, good list management isn’t the only thing you need to be successful.

Probably my biggest worry at the moment is how much mental trauma this season has done to the playing group – and, if they decide to move on someone like Nathan Jones and/or one of their younger inside midfielders to help the balance there, what more damage that might do.

I also question to what degree Melbourne are aware that they simply can’t fit all these players of the same type into their team.

Despite it already being a problem towards the end of last year, they picked another inside mid Tom Sparrow with their first pick in the draft, and then yet another in Kyle Dunkley in this year’s mid-season draft.

They were a very poor side at the start of the season and despite having 22 games in which to try and find solutions, they didn’t really seem to improve over the year at all, despite shifting around no less than four members of their coaching staff over the course of the midseason break.

Simon Goodwin

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

This doesn’t fill me with a great deal of confidence that the Dees have a good handle on what the best direction to go in is, or that the current staff will be able to get the best out of their list, even if they have the right players to be successful.

One ordinary season is withstandable, two won’t be. If they don’t make significant positive improvement in 2020, heads will roll.

Thanks to Stats Insider, the AFL Coaches Association, and Draftguru for providing data and tools to make the analysis in this article possible.

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