Should The Devils Forfeit The Kovalchuk Pick?

Brent Morris
May 21 2012 04:19PM

He's been worth it.
Photo by .db via Wikimedia Commons

It was an unfortunate post-script to the summer-long Ilya Kovalchuk saga for Devils fans - they were happy that the thing was finally settled, Ilya had his 15-year contract, and it seemed to disinterested observers that the NHLPA had struck a blow for long-term contracts.

The NHL was beaten, but not defeated - less than a week after allowing the 2nd version of the Kovalchuk deal, the Sixth Avenue Suits took out the spiked penalty cudgel for the 1st version and smacked the Devils with a $3 million fine, forfeiture of their 2011 3rd round pick, and perhaps worst of all, the Devils also had to give up a 1st round draft pick within the next 4 drafts.

The Devils’ 2010-11 season promptly went pear-shaped and they ended up with the 4th overall pick, so there was no discussion of whether the Devils should use their forfeiture in the 2011 draft. This year is a different story - some of you may have dozed through much of this year’s playoffs, nodding off and on at mentions of blocked shots and Ed Olczyk’s tireless insistence that players have to get the puck to the net, but the Devils are currently playing for the Eastern Conference Championship.

They cannot pick any higher than 28th overall - the final four spots go to the teams that play for the Conference Championship. It would seem that even if the Devils lose this series against the Rangers, they should forfeit the pick, but I’m not so sure.

A BIRD IN THE HAND

There’s a concept in finance called ‘the time value of money’. The general thrust of it is that because of accruing interest and other potential gains that the money could have, $100 now is preferable to say, $101 six months from now. Translating this sort of thought to hockey, I like to think about the ‘time value of prospects’.

Aside from picks in the Top 10 of the draft, most draft picks don’t become NHL players until 4 or 5 years after they’re drafted. That means, thinking about this in the same way as the ‘time value of money’, all else being equal, having a 22 year old ‘NHL ready’ prospect is preferable to having a late 1st round draft pick even if we somehow knew that that late 1st round pick would be just as good (or even if he’s slightly better) than the prospect.

I think about this also when it comes to trading draft picks - I think a 1st round pick in the 2013 draft (from a perennial playoff team like the Wings, say) is worth about the same as a 2nd round pick in 2012, and that a 3rd round pick in 2012 is worth about the same as a 2nd round pick in 2013, and so on.

This is especially true when we consider the short shelf lives of NHL general managers compared to the aging arc of prospects - by the time a 3rd round pick in 2012 makes it to the NHL, if he makes it at all, it’ll probably be 2017, and half the general managers from 2012 will be doing something else.

ON THE OTHER HAND

How does this all apply to forfeiting the Devils’ pick? Well, even though the Devils are guaranteed to pick at least 28th this year, they’ve got some organizational holes. They are the oldest team in the NHL, and while they have some excellent defensive prospects, their forward depth is particularly poor.

It’s entirely possible that of the forwards the Devils have drafted in recent years, none of them currently outside the NHL will become regular NHL players. So while the Devils have always claimed they don’t draft for need, and that drafting for need is generally a bad idea, if they think they can get a forward to possibly shore up the system depth, might they not consider doing so?

It’s unlikely they are able to forfeit a pick this low again, but it also might hurt if in several years the organization’s forward depth is severely lacking. Giving up draft picks doesn’t hurt immediately - it hurts years down the road when there’s few entry-level contracts on the team and most of your players are signed at their true value or worse (see also: the Calgary Flames).

Let’s get into some numbers, though, as this is NHLNumbers, not NHLBrentMakesALotOfHandWaving - Scott Reynolds at Copper and Blue has examined drafts dating back to 1997, and has looked at where players were drafted and whether or not teams got a ‘top player’ out of their pick(s).

Top players are defined as forwards with 200 NHL GP and .5 points per game, or defensemen with 200 GP, 18:30 average time on ice, and .15 points per game. Top goalies are defined as having a career .910 save percentage or above with at least two seasons of 40 or more games played. Scott admits that his method is not perfect, but we can at least ballpark it.

This is examining players from 1997 to 2005:

Picks 1 to 7:  63.4%
Picks 8 to 13:  34.3%
Picks 14 to 25:  27.7%
Picks 26 to 30:  26.7%

We have to take some of these numbers with more than a few grains of salt, though, as there’s only 45 picks in the 26-30 sample, and one of the ‘top players’ is noted pylon Jeff Schultz.   Regardless, we still have to recognize that picking higher is still better than picking lower.  Not just because ostensibly a team has a better chance of getting a good player, but also because the pick is worth more in trade the higher it is.

According to these numbers, it would make more sense to keep the pick this year, as there’s only a slightly better chance of getting a top pick even if one picks from 8-25 in the next two years.  That’s by far the most likely outcome for the Devils - if we assume they’re 70% to make the playoffs next year, 50% to win in the first round and 40% to win in the second round, their odds of making the Conference Finals are 14%. 

I think these are generous estimates, and they would place the Devils in the 27-30 picks 28% of the time in the next two years.  Naturally, though, we can’t predict it’s all wine and roses in New Jersey’s future - there’s also a decent shot that the Devils will miss the playoffs in each of the next two years, leaving them more likely to be drafting in the 1-13 range.  In hindsight, not giving up a pick that low would be near-catastrophic.

Looking at these numbers and the explanation of the time value of prospects, it would behoove the Devils to consider not giving up the pick this year.  The only thing that would force Lou’s hand is the quality of the prospects - scuttlebutt is that this year’s draft class is not very strong. 

I’m also not sure if Lou is aware of these draft history numbers - one has to trust that his organization is at least slightly aware of the historical value of a draft pick in terms of the chances getting an above average NHL player.  Still, it seems quite easy to say ‘Give up the pick, it won’t be any lower’, but when it comes to NHL management, it’s never that simple.

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