Breaking down the draft's 'birthday bias'

This draft's top prospect, Sean Couturier, should be at a disadvantage, according to Malcolm Gladwell. Claus Andersen/Getty Images

There was an anomaly last year with the NHL draft's top prospects: Most were born between April and June.

If you're a fan of writer Malcolm Gladwell, you know why that's odd. Generally, most hockey players are born between January and March, which Gladwell addressed in his book "Outliers." It's because the Canadian age-class hockey programs have a cutoff date of Jan. 1. So, Gladwell says, "Coaches start streaming the best hockey players into elite programs, where they practice more and play more games and get better coaching, as early as 8 or 9. 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."

This has been called the birthday bias, but, as of late, there have been several counterarguments of why Gladwell is wrong, or at least not entirely right.

There's one thing Gladwell is right about: There is a birthday bias, and it does affect who gets selected in the NHL draft. However, there are a few things that need to be reconsidered.

1. Draft prospects

The 2010 class was an outlier, and the 2011 class has us back to normal -- about 37 percent of the top North American skaters were born in the first quarter. That's consistent with the original 1988 study (PDF) that examined the relationship between birth months and success in the sport.

One argument against Gladwell is that he's overstating the effects of the birthday bias when he says that Canada is "squandering the talents of hundreds of boys with late birthdays."

If we're thinking about just NHL players, he is blowing it out of proportion. Talent will win out as players physically mature and the effects of the birthday bias diminish. But if the goal of a December baby is to be selected in the NHL draft, the birthday bias does hurt his chances.

If we look at the past four years of top North American skaters in the NHL draft pool, about 34 percent of players were born in the first quarter (Q1), 27 percent in Q2, 21 percent in Q3 and 18 percent in Q4. So by age 18, when players become draft-eligible, the bias is still applicable.

2. Can younger kids 'catch up'?

Gladwell says the birthday bias begins as early as age 8 or 9. But we talked to a few medical professionals, including Dr. Eric Small, who specializes in pediatric sports medicine. And they say it probably wouldn't show its effects until age 10 or 11. That's when there is an increase in growth hormones, which makes the older kids a lot stronger.

In a recent Globe and Mail article, Carleton University economist Frances Woolley wrote, "During their time in Juniors, younger players grow and catch up with the older ones. Indeed, because the NHL draft has a September cut-off, October-born players are actually older than January ones when the draft happens."

But some kids don't have a chance to catch up. Because the older kids are stronger, they're more intimidating, which not only pushes the younger kids to lower leagues but also pushes some of them out of hockey. However, those who stick to it might have a fighting chance because, contrary to popular belief, coordination is independent of age. And if you're a December baby who isn't coordinated? Well, you could come after my job.

3. Avoid January babies?

Although there are more Q1 and Q2 birthdays among NHL prospects, NHL teams might be better served by drafting players born later in the year. Woolley writes, "If 40 percent of Major Junior players are born in the first quarter, but only about 30 percent of Canadian-born NHLers are, then January-born Major Junior players must, on average, have a lower chance of making into the NHL than December-born players."

So once these Q1 babies are drafted, it seems there is some factor working against them. Our best guess is that the birthday bias begins to fade away as players stop growing and have time to develop.

4. One more problem ...

When we focus on the NHL, the birthday bias isn't a huge deal. If you're talented enough, a late birthday won't slow you down.

But most kids won't be NHLers, much less draft prospects. They just want to play competitively into their teens without getting crushed every time on the ice. There have been several proposed solutions, including one that changes that cutoff date every year; Gladwell thinks there should be a parallel league with a late-summer cutoff date.

But perhaps the most creative solution is from Bruce McCurdy, a blogger at The Copper and Blue as well as a former hockey dad. He proposes that each level of minor hockey should have a different cutoff date: "What will happen under such a system is a kid with any birthday will at some point get an extra year at some level or other, and will at that point switch from being near the young end of the pool to among the oldest."

But if we think back to what Small said, the key time is around age 11, when the growth hormones start kicking in. So, while messing with cutoff dates would, in theory, even the playing field, there are still kids who would gain a significant advantage of being much older when those hormones kick in.

And that might be the curse -- and the beauty -- of discussing this topic. The circumstances give some people an advantage over others. And changing the circumstances puts another group at a disadvantage. So perhaps the birthday bias is just one more of those things in life that simply isn't fair.