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North Melbourne must fix dud drafting to end the mid-table madness

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31st August, 2019
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Today my list analysis and offseason preview series continues with the North Melbourne, who switch coaches mid year and had a decent run thereafter, but could rise no higher than 12th.

Don’t forget to check out my article on Gold Coast for more information on the analytical methods used in this piece, and also our dedicated AFL Trade Rumours and AFL Phantom Draft resources here on The Roar.

Five-year strategy

The past five years is a period that includes North’s peak under Brad Scott, making back-to-back preliminary finals in 2014 and 2015, before dropping away to become a team that has now missed the eight for three consecutive seasons.

Although the narrative around North has often been that the Kangaroos ‘topped up’ to maintain their competitiveness, a look at DVI spend suggests that is at least partially untrue.

The Kangaroos have still put the bulk of their investment each year into the draft, and their average spend of 82 per cent of DVI on the draft across this time period is the fourth-highest in the league, behind Sydney, GWS and West Coast.

North’s DVI sourced from trades is the sixth-least of any team in the competition over this period, suggesting they don’t have too many problems retaining their players, but perhaps also calling into question their willingness to move on valuable assets.

Of the nine players who have left North Melbourne for opposition clubs over this period of time, only two – Levi Greenwood and Ryan Bastinac – have gone on to play 20 or more games at their new homes.

North Melbourne Kangaroos Draft-Trade Analysis 2014-18
Source Spend
Year Organic Trade Draft Trade
2014 2254 756 77.2% 22.8%
2015 1903 1093 85.8% 14.2%
2016 1692 818 92.5% 7.5%
2017 2991 0 100.0% 0.0%
2018 3450 123 62.1% 37.9%
Total 12290 2790 82.4% 17.6%

Drafting

Although North have shown a willingness to prioritise the draft, placing the majority of their spending there over the last five years, their lack of access to DVI capital has meant their total draft investment over that period of time is still below the AFL average.

The fact three of these seasons saw them finish in the top eight – two in the final four – is no doubt a major contributor to this. North haven’t ‘bottomed out’ except for a 15th-placed finish in 2017, and as a result haven’t had as much organic capital to spend.

Of course, the reluctance to trade out current players in search of more DVI to pump into the draft – as teams like Carlton, Brisbane and Port Adelaide have done at times in the past five years – contributes to this as well.

More worrying than North’s lack of DVI to spend in the draft, though, is the poor results that the Roos have to date gotten from what they do have to play with.

Of the 38 players to join North Melbourne via the draft in the last five years, only one has gone on to play at least 50 games for the club so far – Jy Simpkin.

The next best for games played among North’s draftees is Ryan Clarke with 40, who is no longer at the club after being sold to Sydney for pocket change last offseason. No other new player has hit the 30-game mark.

Of the last five drafts, there are only two where North are meeting the expected return on investment – 2016, where in addition to Simpkin North acquired 2019 Rising Star nominees Nick Larkey and Cam Zurhaar, and 2018, where two more 2019 nominees Tarryn Thomas and Bailey Scott joined the club.

Tarryn Thomas

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos)

That Rising Star crop is a nice one to have – especially Thomas, believe me, he is going to be something very special – but the rest of North’s draft efforts don’t make for pretty reading.

Sam Durdin, Ed Vickers-Willis and Ben McKay are the only players left on North’s list from the 2014 and ’15 drafts, while Luke Davies-Uniacke is the only player – other than now-delisted Billy Hartung – to have spent any significant time at AFL level from the 2017 draft.

The Roos are well behind the pace for expected return from their investments so far in all three of those drafts, though the 2017 group can make a case for it being too early to judge.

North Melbourne Kangaroos Draft Analysis 2014-18
Year Drafted Spent Games Votes
2014 7 2325 75 2
2015 7 2571 106 15
2016 7 2321 105 38
2017 8 2991 43 0
2018 9 2218 29 0
Total 38 12426 358 55

Trading

North has spent the fourth-least total points on trading over the past five years – spending the equivalent of about pick 35 each year on trades.

This is, of course, not through choice – the Roos would gladly have spent everything they had in the bank to get players to the club over the last two years, if the stars they were hunting had agreed to come.

Despite this, they have had some pretty impressive returns, showing an ability to bargain hunt and get the most out of players that other clubs weren’t will to roll the dice on.

The most outstanding return is the 2014 free agency signings of Shaun Higgins and Jarrad Waite to the club. The expected return would’ve been 75 games and 42 AFLCA votes; North has gotten twice as many games and more than six times as many votes from the pair.

Jarrad Waite

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Marley Williams and Paul Ahern, bought for the cost of combined 49 DVI, have made the 2016 crop of trade-ins a strong performer too, and while North made its biggest trade spend in recent history to acquire four players last year, Jared Polec and Jasper Pittard have produced quality first season at the club to make it so far worth their while.

North Melbourne Kangaroos Trade Analysis 2014-18
Year Gained Lost Spent Games Votes
2014 2 1 685 151 271
2015 1 2 425 53 14
2016 3 2 189 109 12
2017 1 2 0 2 0
2018 4 2 1355 53 16
Total 11 9 2654 368 313

List profile

North’s list profile is pretty similar to the league average in terms of the number of players they hold in each category, but their selection policy shows some clear differences.

Almost 57 per cent of all games went to players in the ‘prime’ age group this season, compared to a league average of 43, and the reverse of this is seen in a lack of games going into youth – North putting under 25 per cent of games into this category, compared to a league average of 36.

North’s veterans performed well this season, but their prime and youth groups both fell short of the league average for AFLCA votes. Given the limited opportunities for youth this is not so bad, but given how heavily the club invested in prime-age players, their result is a bit worrying.

There are a few different ways these numbers could be interpreted – certainly at many times during the season, North fans were disappointed that young players did not seem to get the opportunities they could have.

A look from the other direction would suggest that in the absence of young players being so good as to demand a spot in the team, North has instead had to turn to players who may not be especially talented but have mature bodies to fill out the side.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

North Melbourne Kangaroos list profile
Age Players Games % of total Votes % of total
18-22 21 114 24.68% 35 12.59%
23-27 19 262 56.71% 167 60.07%
28+ 6 86 18.61% 76 27.34%

Under or over?

North fielded the sixth most-experienced and sixth-oldest team in the AFL this year, but ultimately finished 12th on the ladder with 10 wins, and a reasonable percentage of just under 100.

They were the more experienced side on the field in 16 of 22 matches, but only split these evenly with eight wins and eight losses (the league average would suggest a more experience side should win six of ten).

North actually had a reasonable record in a small sample size of matches where they went in as the less experienced side, winning two of four.

The Kangaroos had the fourth-best EUR of any side in the AFL this season, able to utilise 75 per cent of their list experience on a weekly basis – almost eight points about the league average, and just three points behind league-leaders West Coast.

Verdict: Underperformed. So far in this series we’ve talked about all six teams to finish below North on the ladder and the common themes have been: young, inexperienced, hit by injury. North is none of those things, yet still produced only a mediocre result, which is very concerning.

Jack Ziebell

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Contract watch

Out of contract
Todd Goldstein, Tom McKenzie.

Pre-agents
Ben Jacobs, Jamie Macmillan, Majak Daw, Mason Wood, Taylor Garner.

North has just four spots on the list open at the moment, assuming Goldstein and McKenzie both re-sign with the club, and one of those is a rookie spot.

That being the case, it’s going to be hard for the Roos to achieve much in the way of list turnover this offseason unless they trade out some players – which is an idea we’ll discuss later on.

This is not nearly so true in terms of 2020, when North has 24 players – more than half of its playing list – out of contract.

In the meantime, Goldstein is reportedly likely to sign a two-year deal with the club soon, however that’s been the story for a while now and it’s surprising it hasn’t come to fruition just yet.

Of the pre-agents, Mason Wood is one who is known to likely be leaving the club this offseason.

Free agency

Todd Goldstein is North’s only free agent and, as mentioned, is expected to re-sign with the club despite interest from St Kilda, who were offering him a longer deal on better money.

St Kilda by all reports are now strongly pursuing Paddy Ryder, suggesting they are well and truly confident Goldstein will not be coming to them, and this lends credibility to the notion that Goldstein will stay put.

An argument could have been made in past years that North should consider letting Goldstein walk out the door, but this is a more difficult prospect to consider after allowing Braydon Preuss to leave the club last year.

Tom Campbell would probably be North’s next ruck to step up if Goldstein isn’t available and while he can play the role, probably isn’t the ideal choice especially for the longterm.

Tristan Xerri is on the list but hasn’t debuted yet, and at 20 years old isn’t going to turn into a full-bodied AFL ruckman overnight.

This being the case it’s unsurprising that North were linked to two different opposition ruckman during the season – Peter Ladhams at Port Adelaide, who has since re-signed with the Power, and Darcy Cameron at Sydney.

North could become the most appealing destination for Cameron if Goldstein left, as he’d be able to come with confidence of being close in line for AFL games, but this seems unlikely to come about.

Goldstein has been mentioned among trade rumours before but has always been set on staying in Victoria, where there are relatively few clubs who would potentially target him.

Geelong is probably the club Goldstein would be the best fit at – they’ve struggled to find a confident first-choice player for this position in 2019, and Goldstein would give them that.

The Cats’ salary cap is understandably tight. Tim Kelly is on the way out, but only being paid a base contract. They would probably need some retirements if they’re to make room for new players.

That being the case, it’s hard to see Goldstein moving to another club, though the imagination will wander further and further the longer he is left on the table.

Todd Goldstein North Melbourne Kangaroos AFL 2017

(AAP Image/Julian Smith)

If Goldstein stays, then that does free North up to pursue a free agent from a rival club, with the confidence of knowing that doing so wouldn’t cost them any potential compensation pick.

Brandon Ellis from Richmond is the only free agent North have been linked to so far during this season, and after being heavily linked to Carlton appears potentially on the open market again after the Blues were reported to have decided against recruiting him.

I’ll talk more about Ellis in the next section, even though he is a free agent, because he’s in the same sort of conversation as a few other players who belong there.

Other than Ellis, two names who jump out at me as players who could be worth pursuing are Adam Tomlinson and Jamie Elliott.

Tomlinson appears likely to come home to Victoria this offseason but is yet to be linked strongly to any clubs in particular – potentially leaving room for North to make a strong offer.

Given Scott Thompson has retired and none of North’s young key defenders has shown form enough to put down a mortgage on his spot just yet, Tomlinson could fit into that role.

Elliott is worth considering on the logic that North has had some pretty good luck rehabbing players troubled by injury from other clubs over the past few years, and he might find that North is a good environment to get back to his best.

He probably seems likely to sign a deal of some kind with Collingwood, but they will find it hard to make him a big offer. If North is willing to roll the dice a little, it might be tempting enough.

Trade period

Although North were able to acquire a genuine winger by bringing in Jared Polec from Port Adelaide last offseason, it’s clear that the Roos are still targetting some more running power, judging by the players they’ve been linked to.

Brad Hill, Ed Langdon, Jack Martin and Brandon Ellis have all been mentioned in conversation with North Melbourne at some point during the year – all players with the right kind of traits the North are looking for, albeit in various levels of quality.

Hill, Langdon and Martin are all players that North appears to have missed out on. Ellis is probably the only one left the Kangaroos would be a chance of landing – and for cheap, as a free agent – so is he worth pursuing?

I’d argue probably not. While Ellis is a solid contributor at AFL level, he’s not likely to be someone who lifts North up the ladder in any significant way, and is more likely to keep a developing young player like Bailey Scott out of the side. It’s a no from me.

Darcy Cameron is one we’ve mentioned already that North have been linked to. The word is he is more likely to go to GWS, however, that was going around before we heard that Sam Jacobs was likely to become a Giant, and it’s not clear if that development may have changed Cameron’s priorities.

Carlton is the other club he has been linked to and you’d expect all things being equal they might be a more appealing destination, simply because Matthew Kreuzer’s inability to stay on the park means he’ll probably be a chance to get games there in 2020, compared to Todd Goldstein’s evergreen durability.

Tom Papley is probably the player North are most keenly in the race for, even though he’s been more prominently linked to Carlton in the media than the Kangaroos.

Tom Papley Sydney Swans AFL Finals 2016

(AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

The difficulty here for North is the same as it is for Carlton – Papley was recently revealed to be contracted for another four years at the Swans, and they are understood to have no interested in making a trade for him.

Part of that is just a poker face, of course, but the message is clear that any team who wants to bring Papley back to Victoria this offseason will have to pay a mighty price, and it’s questionable whether that’s the right path to go down.

North’s pick in this draft – currently No.7 – would get the Swans interested, but is probably too valuable to part with. And they shouldn’t be confident enough of performing well next year to put up their first-rounder then, either.

Their key to getting Papley over the line, if it can be done, might be to send Mason Wood to Sydney. It’s known that Wood is likely to leave the club this offseason, and the Swans along with Fremantle are one of two clubs believed to be interested in him.

How much Wood is worth, given his hot-and-cold form across his career, is debatable. Wood and North’s future second-round pick (given that Sydney have academy players coming through next year) is probably the best offer the Kangaroos should seriously consider making.

Anything more than that, while potentially fair for a player of Papley’s quality, is probably more than North should consider paying in their current position.

The other two players linked to a move out of the club have been Shaun Higgins and Ben McKay. Let’s talk McKay first, and then move on to the far thornier issue of what to do with Higgins.

McKay, the brother of Carlton’s Harry, was North’s first-round draft pick four years ago, but has only managed four games at the club in his time there.

When North’s key defenders were struck down by injury early in the season he had a chance to get into the team and hold his spot – but could only manage three matches before being dropped.

It’s understandable that McKay would feel frustrated after four years for so little progress and might consider a trade. But especially with Scott Thompson retiring, if he can’t get a gig as a tall back at North next year, he’s not going to get one anywhere else either.

I would suggest rather than trading him, it’s probably time to see if he can be revitalised by playing in a new position. Conveniently enough, he has an identical twin brother to model his game off of if he wants to play as a key forward, but he is also tall enough that he could try playing as a ruck.

Even if neither of these roles works out for him, they might teach him traits that help him become a better key defender. Or they might do nothing for him at all, but after such limited progress to date, it’s probably worth the roll of the dice.

Okay: Higgins. This is a much more emotional call for North because even if not the club’s best player he is certainly their classiest, and also… yes, he is the best, with all due respect to beautiful human being Ben Brown and anthropomorphised avalanche Ben Cunnington.

Shaun Higgins North Melbourne Kangaroos AFL 2017

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

A few weeks ago it was suggested that Higgins could move to Geelong based on rumours that he had been offered a contract extension by North (in addition to already being contracted for next year), and was unimpressed by the terms.

Higgins has since come out and said that the story was ‘baffling’ and ‘untrue’. Despite this, the talk of a potential move to Geelong seems to still hang in the air, albeit very thinly.

I suspect that Higgins would have no objection to finishing his career at North and is already probably fairly realistic about what the club is likely to achieve between now and when he hangs up the boots. A trade is probably only likely to occur if North pushes him.

Should they? Despite being 31, Higgins is one of few players at the club likely to have any sort of trade value on the open market. If they want to go down the path of moving players on for draft picks, he’s someone they will have to consider.

Draft

Picks inside 30: 7, 25.

North have only been linked to a small handful of players who they’re at all realistic to land in this trade period, and the only one of these that could potentially see their top pick moved on would be Tom Papley. I’d be surprised to see that happen.

So, unless there’s shuffling of some other kind, I suspect we will see that one taken to the draft. Who should they be looking at with it?

There’s a few names in the mix. Fisher McAsey might help address the club’s need for key defenders, though it’s arguably worth giving Sam Durdin and Ben McKay next year to have a real crack at the role before North goes looking for someone else.

Lachie Ash and Brodie Kemp are potentially in the mix at that selection, and Caleb Serong might be still on board too, though that’s less likely. Sam Flanders and Dylan Stephens would both be good fits for the club, in terms of the kind of role they play.

As a fan I have my own subjective opinion though and, even though he doesn’t generally feature around the pick 7 mark on most draft rankings, I’d love to see North draft Will Gould.

Gould is a 191cm defender who has an AFL-ready body and has been playing at senior level in the SANFL, and playing well, all year.

He’s a big lad – 98kg – and throws that around to create havoc in the backline, but he also has a beautiful booming kick out of defence like Matt Suckling or Shannon Hurn.

191cm is probably a little undersized to play as a key defender in the modern game, but Gould could be a third-tall, or a tall half-back flanker, or who knows, he could still grow a couple of centimetres, it’s not impossible.

He’s got a rare mix of traits that makes him hard to compare to any current AFL players and I’m a big fan of drafting these types who are a bit unique and who opposition clubs will find it difficult to find a match-up for.

He strikes me as someone who will make an impact at AFL level very quickly, and who fans will love to watch play the game. Get it done, North.

Will Gould

(Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Pick 25 is a bit harder to place, because it’s a very even draft and prospects some clubs rank in the top ten could easily slide to this point. A dream scenario here I’d say would be WA ruckman Luke Jackson, and it’s not impossible he’ll be available.

A dangerous goalkicker like Cody Weightman, Elijah Taylor or Cameron Taheny would also appeal if still on the board around this range.

What I said last year

“They certainly had a better season in 2018 than both neutral pundits and fans of the club would have expected, although the age and experience profile of their average team on the park suggests that if anything they should have been capable of more.

“They ultimately played less youth than would’ve been expected at the start of the year, and whether or not there is talent to be unearthed here is one of the great unknowns on North’s list…

“At the moment it’s a solid AFL team, but not one that seems likely to significantly improve – and that’s why the avid pursuit of top-tier talent makes a lot of sense.

“Like 17 other AFL clubs, North Melbourne’s best 22 looks a hell of a lot more impressive if you’re able to add Andrew Gaff and Josh Kelly to it over the next 12 months…

“If they ultimately turn the club down then it’s hard to see North rising above mid-table until they’ve got a clearer idea of just how talented their younger players are.”

Outlook

It’s telling about the direction North have gone in over the last two years that 2018’s list analysis was primarily focused around what might happen if they landed Andrew Gaff, while 2017’s was pretty much the same discussion but with Josh Kelly and Dustin Martin.

North may have made reasonable investments in the draft over the last two years but it wasn’t their ‘Plan A’, that was to go superstar shopping. Unfortunately, the doggies in the window were not for sale.

Don’t get me wrong, it was fun times during. That brief week or two where people actually thought Martin might come to North and the Victorian media went into meltdown over it was well worth the price of admission. And I enjoyed making increasingly bad Gaff puns last September-October.

Dustin Martin

Imagine this, but in blue and white (Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Realistically though, I don’t believe any of the trio were ever especially close to joining North Melbourne. North offered them big money, but they were always going to get well paid at their current clubs, and those clubs offered them a far great chance of success. What is there to say no to?

As a result North have made what has proportionally been an above-average investment in the draft, but point for point versus the league’s total spend it’s actually under par, and that is a situation made much, much worse still by North’s struggle to turn that spending into good outcomes on the field.

North’s drafting over the last five years has been the worst in the league, bar none. When you consider what they’ve put into it and what they’ve gotten out, no other club has gotten such a poor return for the volume of its investment.

The one area North can hang their hats on is that they are up there with the best for snapping up bargains on the trade market and turning them into valuable contributors at AFL level.

Jarrad Waite, Shaun Higgins, Paul Ahern, Marley Williams and Jasper Pittard are all players who’ve joined the club for nothing or close to in the last five years. All of them bar Ahern have gone on to be valuable regulars in the side, and it won’t be too long before he’s firmly in that camp also.

North needs to face a few realities which will shape the club’s strategy going forward. The first is that, being a small club in Victoria, it’s never going to be a destination club for the league’s top-tier talent, and pursuing that strategy, while enjoyably cheeky, is a waste of time.

That means the club’s primary focus has to be on the draft, and there must be significant effort done to improve the team’s poor results in this area. To be the worst in the league over the last five years (and I suspect the numbers in years prior wouldn’t look great either) is unacceptable.

This poor drafting has put North in a position where even though the list is quite mature and had a great run with injuries this year, the best it could achieve was to finish twelfth and still be two games outside the eight.

A full year of Rhyce Shaw coaching maybe at it’s absolute best might sneak North in to 7th or 8th, but I can’t imagine any higher.

Rhyce Shaw

(Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

For mine, the club simply has to go in a youth direction. And, as hard as it might be, this means the conversation should be had with senior players on the list to let them know that’s what the strategy is going to be, and offer them the chance to leave on good terms if they want to chase success elsewhere.

No one wants to see players leave the club, but it does have two potential benefits – it could bring North more assets to take to the draft, and it will open up more space in the 22 for the young kids to get in and have a crack at senior footy.

The club’s big strength over the past five years has been its ability to recycle players from other clubs so this should remain a regular habit. To rattle off a few quick names who strike me as potential bargains with the right traits for North: Darcy Moore, Jamie Elliott, Aiden Bonar, Lewis Taylor, Callum Ah Chee, and yes, even Harley Bennell.

Trade senior players out, or don’t. I’m happy to keep them as long as they understand what it means to stay. If they leave, please let it be on good terms. Keep looking for chances to recycle other clubs’ problem players. But most important, draft better. We simply must draft better.

The good news is the club has already taken at least some action of this by bringing Brady Rawlings back to Arden Street after a successful stint as West Coast’s list manager. It won’t be the only change off-field at North this offseason.

I know how painful it is for fans and the club to see players like Scott Thompson finish their AFL careers without a premiership to their name. It’s more painful still to contemplate actively pursuing a strategy that will in all likelihood mean condemning other veterans to the same fate.

But it’s time to stop asking what North can do to get their veterans the premiership they deserve, and instead starting asking the same question for their youth – because they deserve it too.

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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