The 2018 HPN AFL Preview – Part Two

This year HPN will do a brief club-by-club season preview of the upcoming AFL season. HPN will break down the teams both subjectively, and will predict how they will go on both our standard prediction method based on Pythagorean Expectation and Strength of Schedule, and a more detailed player based team analysis.

This post will look at clubs from Geelong to North Melbourne. For a bit more detail on the Marginal Player Approximate Value (mPAV) measures used here, please see part one of our preview, but for simplicity’s sake here’s what different mPAVs mean:

Average individual game mPAV (average marginal per-game PAV by definition) 0
Average player mPAV (average marginal per-game PAV for all players who played a game) -0.06
Replacement level (23rd best per-game marginal PAV on an average list) -0.13

The mPAV based team predictions are essentially based on the quality of each ranking of player within a list, and how many games each list “rank” might be expected to play. That is to say, it factors in the tendency for players to miss games and it accounts for list change.

Below is the team strength ratings for 2017 which we’ll often refer to in our previews.



Strengths: The midfield unit

Thousands of words have been written by hundreds of football writers about the potential chaos that will eventuate from Ablett’s move back to Geelong, so we will keep it brief here. Using mPAV, we predict the Cats midfield to be the second strongest in 2018 (behind Adelaide), with theassumption that everyone stays fit and the rest of the ground doesn’t fall apart around them. Ablett rated 4th for total mPAV, adding to Dangerfield (1st), Selwood (14th) and Duncan (33rd). It’s possible that Dangerfield and Ablett will spend more time than would be optimal up forward, and Duncan might have to cover the potential deficiencies down back, but this unit should scare the wooden spoon fodder of the competition.

Weaknesses: The end of list contributors down back

Geelong have a enviable amount of top end talent, some solid mid list contributors, and a lot of questions at the bottom end of the list; especially for a premiership contender. The retirement of Andrew Mackie was always going to happen, but ready made replacements for his role don’t seem to be banging down the door. Geelong give defensive games to players hovering around replacement level, from Bews to Guthrie to Kolodjashnij to Thurlow. All four of these names have shown potential at times, but some (or all) will have to improve if Geelong want to be taken seriously in September.

The big question: Is it premiership or bust for the Cats?

The Cats clearly have a lot of mature, top end talent, but the cost for assembling a squad like the current outfit is a long term lack of high draft picks, and the gradual talent that comes with that. The Cats have just two of their own top 20 draft picks on their list, drafted from 2010 onwards – in the last four drafts the top 20 cohort is just Nakia Cockatoo. There appears to be little to no consideration of a future window, or a long build for Geelong, just the here and now. Yet, there are still lingering issues with the best 22, from the role of the second key forward to a potential overstock of inside midfield types, let alone the defensive issues laid out above. The 2018 Cats outfit might be the perfect test of whether a handful of superstars can overcome major list issues to win a flag.

Prediction: Pythag 4th (71% chance of finals). mPAV 3rd (77%).

Gold Coast

Strength and weakness: A fresh start

We’re only being slightly facetious here, the biggest thing for the Suns really is that they’ll change this year. All reports in the media suggest that the environment at Gold Coast wasn’t great under Eade. An emblematic and extremely funny story was that former Suns Henry Schade and Daniel Gorringe even deserted Balwyn after Eade signed as coach. Stuart Dew, for his part, is carefully couching the challenge as “significant” and using language that effectively acknowledges he and Mark Evans are there as rescue mission or cleanup crew.

A highly touted and modern new coach in Dew should render most of what we can observe about last season fairly irrelevant for the Suns. They’ve also replaced their football manager and list manager, so the churn is near total.

Gold Coast were an okay offensive team last year, with the forward area being their strongest part of the ground. That’s unlikely to happen in 2018 due to both personnel and coaching changes. The loss of Matera and Ablett is likely to blunt their attack in 2018. With Lynch having a down year, Matera rated as the Suns’ most valuable offensive player in 2017 by quite a margin (followed by Peter Wright), and in his reduced number of games Ablett rated 5th in offensive value.

Off mPAV Age in 2018
Wright, Peter 0.22 0.04 22
Lynch, Tom 0.14 0.01 26
Ainsworth, Ben 0.10 -0.14 20
Martin, Jack 0.09 -0.05 23
Hall, Aaron 0.08 0.14 28
Barlow, Michael 0.07 0.07 31
Lyons, Jarryd 0.04 0.17 26
Ah Chee, Callum 0.02 -0.21 21

Gold Coast’s two key forwards probably remain their best offensive options, followed by a group of fairly young small forwards and older part-time midfielders. So far only Martin and the pinch-hitters in Hall, Lyons and Barlow have been better than the league average – the other small forward options are extremely questionable at this stage.

It is also probably unlikely that a Dew-coached Suns will continue to focus more on offence than defence, so we should expect to see the Suns present quite a different profile in 2018 for that reason as well.

Recall the way Paul Roos changed the Demons when he took over, and of course the way Ross Lyon has coached for over a decade. These are the most recent former Sydney coaches to move to senior roles at other clubs and similar to those coaches, Dew will probably take a “defence first” theory of development to Carrara. The preseason has suggested a greater focus on defensive and man-marking pressure. The Suns were easily 18th for tackles count and tackle differential last season, and must have felt like they were being bullied and brutalised at times. It’s early days, but they did manage to win the tackle count in both JLT matches this year. We may be talking about the dreary and dour Suns by mid-year.

The big question: Can they keep fit?

Rarely are the Suns protagonists in this league, they’re mostly the subject of other people’s stories, and this year that story is who gets to pinch Tom Lynch from them.

However, we think another key question which actually treats the Suns as their own club with their own interests and goals, is a query about the humble medical department. In 2015 and 2016, the Suns had severe injury crises that had their reserves on the verge of forfeiting. In 2017, the toll was less severe but only three blokes played every game, and they lost Ablett, Day, Barlow, Matera, Hanley, Thompson, Rischitelli, Kolodjashnij, Ah Chee, Witts, and May for periods of time. If this team is going to get itself together it has to find a way to keep players on the park. So far they’re looking okay this year, with Hall and Hanley the only concerns for the moment (both out for under a month). Some continuity would do them a world of good.

Prediction: Pythag 17th (6% chance of finals). mPAV 18th (6%).


Strength: Defence

Last year, GWS’s strongest area of the ground was the backline. While their forwardline misfired at times and they didn’t dominate territory through the middle to obtain a strong inside-50 balance, they were the 5th best side at repelling inside-50s and one of the best sides at preventing opposition marks inside 50.

Despite this, it’s been identified by some as a potential area of weakness this year due to personnel change. The Giants have suffered a number of losses in defence, but we don’t actually think that’s likely to massively hamper them. They’ve lost Nathan Wilson, who was probably the best player in the GWS defensive unit but not the best defender as such – his value came across the ground more broadly. A quick look at their current defensive depth chart reveals that they should be able to cobble together an effective defence but wouldn’t want to lose even one more player right now.

Player Def mPAV mPAV Role Availability
Shaw, Heath 0.31 0.06 Pure Defender Yes
Davis, Phil 0.30 0.03 Pure Defender Yes
Corr, Aidan 0.26 -0.05 Pure Defender Yes
Haynes, Nick 0.23 0.02 General Defender Yes
Wilson, Nathan 0.20 0.12 General Defender No – Traded
Tomlinson, Adam 0.16 -0.11 General Defender Yes
Williams, Zac 0.08 0.05 General Defender No – Achilles
Whitfield, Lachie 0.03 0.16 General Midfielder Yes
Buntine, Matt 0.03 -0.32 Pure Defender 4-5 weeks (knee)
Kennedy, Adam 0.01 -0.18 Utility 2-3 weeks (knee)

The six currently available players gives a plausible back 6. Davis, Corr, Haynes and Tomnlinson are a tall group, but the latter two have played mobile roles so should be able to defend smaller. Whitfield would be expected to step into the aggressive Wilson halfback role. Heath Shaw is, for now, still Heath Shaw. Beyond this group the Giants will have to get creative or rely on untested players – Deledio or Griffin can play small defender roles, Keeffe is at the club as a replacement level tall, Tim Mohr still exists. The Giants defence isn’t in crisis, but it mightn’t take much to make it look a touch brittle.

Weakness: Midfield style?

The Giants look pretty good in most areas on exposed performances, and it’s hard to find weaknesses other than “even good teams lose”. One of the major indicators of how GWS play is that they were by far the best stoppage team last year. The Giants won roughly 121% of their opponent’s clearances in 2017, way ahead of St Kilda at 107% in second spot. This tends to suggests that the Giants playstyle produces lopsided clearances, that they are happy creating stoppages to use them as a major method of generating attack.

The corollary of this is that they were a fair bit worse in clearance ratio in losses this year – mostly breaking even or losing the count. Overall their clearance ratio was 114% in losses and 125% in wins, but the only two losses where, despite losing, they produced the big clearance ratios typical of their year were a 1 point loss to Carlton and a 13 point loss to the Swans. Crucially, they ‘merely’ broke even with the grand finalists Adelaide and Richmond in clearances twice each, and lost all four games pretty easily.

It seems strange to suggest that a club’s clear area of statistical strength could represent a weakness, but since it indicates a preferred gameplan it may be that a focus on clearances can force them into a plan-B and stifle their preferred method of play. That might mean extra numbers around the ball, diligent man marking, defensive midfield structures to grind out repeated stoppages if necessary. For opponents this might be a way to at least slow the machine down.

The big question: Do they have enough depth to challenge in 2018?

There’s not much mystery about the Giants except for that which comes with the unknowability of the future. We know what they’re capable of, we know how their best team looks, we know they’re carrying through a development and list management plan they’ve had for a few years. Twice they’ve run into the eventual premiers in the preliminary final, because even the best sides are vulnerable to the vicissitudes of chance and luck.

But have the Giants run out of depth after shedding another load of players in the offseason? According to our mPAV, which rather shocked us in ranking the Giants 14th, the Giants have only 19 players who were above replacement level last season on their books for 2018, and one of those is Zac Williams who likely won’t play a game this year.

This particular model docks them harshly for lack of depth because it’s unlikely all 19 of those players will play every week and it assumes nothing about unexposed players. According to mPAV and our prediction system, the Giants will likely have to give around 170 games to players that didn’t display themselves as being best 22 last year. The hope is that Griffin and Deledio contribute this year to cover some of that, and that the near-constant stream of Giants draftees and other mature recruits fill the rest of the gap. That’s always a dice roll, however, and they could strike out.

The Giants’s best 15 or so players are superb. They will almost certainly be a contender if they can avoid a spate of injuries and only play 30-32 players across the year, but perhaps more than any other club, they will be keen to avoid digging into the untested depths of their list.

Prediction: Pythag 6th (66% chance of finals). mPAV 14th (21%).


Strengths: Offensive flexibility

It’s not the powerhouse of 2015 or before, but the Hawks forward line still has the potential to rack up scores, and in a variety of manners. Roughead remains the focal point of the forward line, but McEvoy and O’Brien have shown enough that any second tall defender has to stick near them. A step smaller, Jack Gunston still has the ability to manufacture goals and opportunities from a wide variety of situations, whether marks on the lead or gathers on the run. Breust still needs constant attention from defenders, further opening up the space, and Rioli still brings danger for defenders.

These guys are on the older side, but that doesn’t matter for 2018 and if the Hawks are gunning to make a charge, it will be from this unit kicking them away, not the defenders keeping the opposition quiet.

Weaknesses: The backline

The Hawks were hit by a lot of injuries down back last year, with Frawley and Stratton struggling to get on the park, but even considering this, the backline was weak.

The prescence of Luke Hodge was able to cover a lot of gaps, with the former captain able to play both tall and small while conducting the defence like Lorin Maazel (that’s a classical music reference there folks). Plenty of the younger guys have shown promise, from Sicily to Brand and especially Ryan Burton, who could be nearly anything at this point of his career. But there’s no avoiding how weak they were as a whole last year, and how this could continue this season.

The big question: How much impact did “conscious deceleration” have on their 2017 season?

Alistair Clarkson, in an interview before the season, said that the club made a decision to “take a different path”, and not fight that hard to make finals; seemingly proof that you can take the boy out of the Melbourne Football Club, but you can never take the Melbourne Football Club mentality out of the boy. Whether playing the kids, chucking players around the ground and not bringing players back from injuries quickly is a form of tanking or not (it certainly is), the goals for Hawthorn were different. Clarkson identified that Hawthorn faced little to no chance of making an impact in September even if they did make the finals, let alone the toll of another heavy season on a group that had made deep runs year on year for the best part of a decade. The Hawks had no picks to tank for, just development of their current young players, which might be a worthwhile aspiration in itself.

Before 2017 there was a major question mark around much of the young talent on the Hawthorn list, primarily because in a talented side they had little chance to display their ability (or lack thereof) at AFL level. Going into 2018, Clarkson’s staff have a better idea of the shape of their youth. What is much more uncertain is how much better Hawthorn could have gone with their full focus turned towards making finals; the HPN player prediction model (which should be able to at least partially account for this) suggests that finals is a small possibility this year.

Prediction: Pythag 13th (24% chance of finals). mPAV 13th (22%).


Strengths: Midfield depth and strength

Melbourne’s best area of the ground was the centre in 2017, despite the loss of Gawn and a bit of a lack of truly dominant midfielders. The group they fielded was good enough to get more inside-50s than they conceded, helping protect and support the weaker parts of the field.

The motto of the Dees seems to have been breadth of talent, and while the frontline group of Oliver, Viney, Lewis, Jones and Tyson was very good, they had a wide spread of contributors, in the likes of Petracca, Hunt, Neal-Bullen, Harmes and Hannan. To varying extents these are also genuine forwards or defenders, and it has given the Dees a solid amount of flexibility. The way they were able to recover and thrive through the loss of Gawn was a testament to this flexibility, as going from having a dominant ruckman to spare parts pinch-hitting could have been quite dislocating for them.

Weaknesses: Unsettled forward line structure

The Dees were forced to get creative due to player absences in 2017, and really suffered from a lack of a settled plan for what to do in their forward 50. Part of the reason was instability in which talls they had available and how they used them. The absences of Hogan and Gawn led to the Dees juggling Pedersen, Watts and McDonald through forward and ruck roles. This revealed McDonald as a pretty handy marking forward but it also saw Watts rucking and sometimes left them trying to use Garlett as a goalsquare marking target for extended periods.

Jesse Hogan battled through a nightmare of a year, so if he’s back and able to fully focus on footy that’s a big upside for the Dees to build around. Lever’s arrival is probably the biggest gamechanger, because it means Tom McDonald will probably keep playing forward, as hos brother and Sam Frost are more than capable as tall defenders. Watts departing and Gawn fit means Pedersen is either forward or in the VFL.

Overall, their biggest problem in 2017 has probably been resolved. A structure of Gawn rucking, Hogan and McDonald forward (and Pedersen fwd-ruck, if wanted) then Lever, Oscar McDonald and Frost in defence seems like it’ll work, and be more stable than what the Dees were forced to do in 2017.

The big question: Can they finally make the jump to the finals?

There’s a reason virtually everyone is talking about this. For two years running the Dees have looked like breaking through. They racked up some impressive morale-boosting and curse-breaking victories along the way. Both years, they torpedoed their own chances with uncharacteristically poor efforts against lowly sides (the Carlton game in 2016, the Collingwood game in 2017). There’s simply nothing for it but trying again and not letting that happen this time.

Prediction: Pythag 7th (56% chance of finals). mPAV 6th (73%).

North Melbourne

Strengths: Ben Brown and friends

North Melbourne were pretty much exactly average in forward-50 efficiency in 2017. Brown and Waite were their best offensive players, with Goldstein providing a viable decoy target and Higgins, Wood and Turner filling out the core of a pretty respectable offensive unit.

There’s no reason to think that’ll change in 2018, the main query being over Waite’s advancing years and who steps in there eventually. Given the surplus of viable ruck options, one logical option would be to use one of Daw or Preuss as an extra tall once Waite is out of the picture.

Weaknesses: Lack of quality midfield

We rated the North midfield as only a bit below average in 2017, but this rating is based on inside-50 differential and, as a measure of dominance through the middle of the ground, it is in some cases most strongly contributed to by other roles like half-backs and defensive forwards. North’s most valuable midfielders in 2017 were the following:

Mid mPAV mPAV Role
Cunnington, Ben 0.27 0.13 Pure Midfielder
Higgins, Shaun 0.25 0.30 General Midfielder
Ziebell, Jack 0.22 0.24 General Midfielder
Swallow, Andrew 0.18 0.07 Pure Midfielder
Dumont, Trent 0.14 0.09 General Midfielder
McDonald, Luke 0.06 0.11 General Midfielder
Gibson, Sam -0.01 -0.10 General Midfielder
Hrovat, Nathan -0.03 -0.17 Mid Forward
Zurhaar, Cameron -0.03 -0.16 Mid Forward

Cunnington and Ziebell are honest hard workers and Higgins has value both midfield and forward but collectively this group were the worst clearance team in the competition in spite of their ruck division more than breaking even in the hitout stakes. The premium ruck service should continue but North desperately need to find ways to actually take advantage of it. North Melbourne had quite a low kick to handball ratio (ie, they don’t handball much), but rather than being an indicator of preferred style we think this probably suggests they’re just not winning and retaining the footy in close very well.

The big question: Are the children really the future?

Since two surprise preliminary finals from the lower reaches of the eight, North have aggressively pursued a youth-based rebuild policy coupled with an attempt to use spare cap space for poaching purposes, but they’re struggling to unearth quality young talent so far.

All eyes will be on Luke Davies-Uniacke, given the midfield issues described above, because he’s the sort of quality midfielder they desperately need to fulfil expectations. North played a large number of teenagers in 2017. Below are North’s kids, players who played in 2017.

mPAV Off mPAV Def mPAV Mid mPAV total Age turned 2018
Durdin, Sam -0.14 0.14 -0.13 -0.12 22
Zurhaar, Cameron 0.04 -0.17 -0.03 -0.16 20
Mountford, Declan -0.08 -0.04 -0.06 -0.18 21
Clarke, Ryan -0.08 -0.05 -0.07 -0.21 21
Vickers-Willis, Ed -0.17 0.05 -0.13 -0.25 22
Simpkin, Jy -0.02 -0.18 -0.11 -0.31 20
Nielson, Dan -0.20 0.04 -0.17 -0.33 22
Williams, Josh -0.08 -0.13 -0.14 -0.35 20
Hibberd, Mitchell -0.19 -0.06 -0.13 -0.38 22
Wagner, Corey -0.13 -0.13 -0.13 -0.40 21
McKay, Ben -0.19 -0.17 -0.13 -0.48 21
Larkey, Nick -0.18 -0.19 -0.18 -0.55 20

This table may represent a ranked list of those most likely to succeed. While young players mostly don’t hit league average output (-0.06 total PAV) or replacement level (-0.13, good enough to be 23rd best at an average club), this still isn’t an amazing set of prospects at a developing club. Compare it to, say, Melbourne, who have Oliver, Petracca, Neal-Bullen and McDonald in a similar age bracket tracking better than any of them, plus Brayshaw and Stretch better than all but three of the North group.

It’s not all gloom, after all some of these kids are only entering their second season. Some players will improve, but others will fade. What also stands out here is that the group looks to contain more forwards and defenders than midfielders, which just highlights how much is riding on the success of LDU.

Prediction: Pythag 14th (20% chance of finals). mPAV 17th (9%).

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