Reviewing the NHL Entry Draft 1990 to 1999

July 10 2013 09:57AM

When one thinks of the 90s and NHL drafting it usually draws up images of a draft wasteland, devoid of the flash and skill we enjoyed in the 80s and centered on the occasions like the one above. There were two catastrophic draft years in the 90s, both of them near the tail end. The decade of NHL drafting from 1990 to 1999 was something of a paradox where the overall numbers of NHL players actually stabilized remarkably, but simultaneously delivered few elite-level talents to the league.

This is a continuation of my analysis of the history of the NHL Entry Draft from 1979 to 2008. It is a quantitative analysis wherein I credit teams who found NHL talent, measured by playing 200+ NHL games, regardless of draft position. I will be adding a qualitative analysis in the final chapter of the series to pair with an overall view of the quantitative data, in order to more fully illustrate the history of the draft.

To begin with, we'll look at the chart of the overall draft success rate between 1990 to 1999. This is an accumulation of all of the picks selected by all of the teams involved. The total average success rate for the 90s is 21%, down slightly from 23% for the first decade of the draft. However, when one factors in the impact of the 1979 draft (a ridiculous success rate of 53%) on the average, the 90s were actually a relatively predictable period for many NHL teams.

What the 90s did not deliver was a steady supply of high-end talent to compare to the 1980s. In fact, despite a consistent level of games played by prospects selected during this period, the first round of the draft is filled with many prospects who would go on to become depth NHL players. There are a few notable exceptions, the Sedins, Scott Niedermayer, Owan Nolan, Jarome Iginla and some others, and of course there were some depth selections that outstripped even the most ambitious scouting reports like Tomas Holmstrom and Zdeno Chara. At the same time there were, for Canadian teams, several high-profile draft busts including Alex Daigle, Alexei Yashin, Jason Bonsignore, Rico Fata, Bryan Allen, and Todd Warriner to name a few. What the 90s delivered in quantity they generally lacked in overall quality. Again, this is an area in which I will examine a little more in the final article of the series.

What were the positives of the draft during the decade from 1990 to 1999?

Interestingly, the league added four teams over two years during this period, and the draft success rate of NHL players does not appear to suffer. If we account for the lag-time between a prospect's being drafted and their eventually playing in the NHL, on average between three to five years, one would expect to see a nosedive here as there would have been strain put upon the talent pool. Instead the draft success rate appears to remain relatively stable with the expansion teams enjoying a success rate well within the league average, and sometimes even exceeding it, taking into account their preferential draft position during the initial expansion phase.

Where I believe the inclusion of those four expansion teams comes into play is not the draft success rates for those years, but rather the rates for the years five to eight years earlier. The players taken in those years would have been some of the same players taken in expansion drafts or acquired through waivers by those expansion teams mentioned above, and a weakened roster, a reality for many expansion teams, will often press into service marginal talents who would otherwise not be playing. As a result there may be some inflated numbers of games played for the complementary and support players who were drafted in the last three years of the 80s and were later added to the rosters of these expansion teams.

The Crater

Now, about those two catastrophic draft years, 1997 and 1999. They were bad. Very bad. The worst in NHL history? Perhaps, although I guess that depends on whether it was your team that picked Patrik Stefan or Pavel Brendl, undoubtedly they are in the conversation.

So how bad were the '97 and '99 draft years? The success percentage rate were a meagre 17% and 15%, respectively, against a ten-year average of 21%. In terms of real numbers, a 15% success rate broken up over the approximately 27 NHL teams that existed for the majority of the 90s comes out to about 1.5 players per team. Whereas the decade average of between 21% and 22% comes out to just under 2 players per team. This isn't much of a difference in terms of real numbers, but consider that an NHL roster is made up of 23 players, with bodies constantly moving in and out of the lineup due to considerations of age, economy and performance. In much the same way that population demographics work with regards to replacement populations, a draft graduation rate of fewer than two players per year is often not enough to sustain any kind competitive advantage on most rosters.

The qualitative analysis will have to wait until the end of the series, but the early data supports the conclusion that the overall number of impact or elite players available during this time collapsed to historic lows even outside of the '97 and '99 drafts. Simply put, there was not enough skill to go around and teams were picking bottom rotation players, despite what scouting reports at the time might have suggested. At the same time, there were economic factors at work that siphoned off the best players from many small market teams once they had exited their affordable entry-level contracts, thus excacerbating the talent shortage.

The '97 and '99 drafts were catastrophic for teams that were in need of greater talent infusion into their systems. For teams that were already established or stocked with prospects, they could absorb this kind of downturn in the same way that a well-managed and balanced stock portfolio can weather a recession or economic turmoil over the short-term. At the same time, this was perhaps the peak of the economic assymetry in the NHL, when those teams with a clear financial advantage could exploit weaker teams to bolster a roster in the aftermath of a poor draft year. For these reasons the 90s are a particularly bad decade for many fans of Canadian teams as most of the Canadian franchises were in a process of rebuilding or restructuring to survive under the harsh Canadian dollar and recession. That the Jets, Flames, Oilers and Nordiques were all rebuilding during this period, as well as the efforts of the expansion Ottawa Senators to build through the draft, only lent to the sour perception many fans today have of that era of drafting and development.

This may sound like something of a stretch, but I believe that the very poor showing of the '97 and '99 draft years may have played a part in the NHL's determination to reshape the financial landscape during the lockout of 2005. Many of the teams that found themselves in dire financial straits in the four years leading up to the 2005 lockout had had extremely poor drafts in 97 and 99, and were approaching economic as well as organizational bankruptcy. While there may not be any direct conscious causative effect in the minds of the NHL's brass, I believe it was a contributing factor to the drama that played out that year.

It should also be noted that the 90s witnessed the emergence of the dead-puck era, when size was best paired with skill, but trumped it when it was one or the other. I know this is still the case within some circles of NHL scouting, but it was the norm in the 90s, an era when Derian Hatcher and Scott Stevens were widely viewed as archetypal defensemen. With that in mind, scouting groups were prioritizing players with size ahead of those with skill in the later rounds when those two traits began to diverge in the prospects available. It was also more difficult for a skilled player to play in the NHL against the larger, slower, players at a time when the clutch and grab game was ascendant.

While I have no hard evidence to back this up, I believe that amateur scouting during this period was undergoing a period of flux. The league had been moving steadily towards larger and larger players, where more physicality and a greater emphasis on defensive abilities ahead of skating and skill meant that draft boards were being drawn up in a different fashion. Once the game returned to emphasizing speed and skill ahead of sheer size we see the draft years begin to rebound in the following decade, with more skilled impact players entering the league. Perhaps even, the alteration of the rules to encourage scoring and creativity have a hand in the success that is attributed to the 2003 draft as many of those players really began to emerge following the 2005 lockout under the new rule structure.

A Lost Generation 

Drafting between 1990 and 1999 was a poor time to attempt to build a team. The elite-level talent was largely absent, and the collapse of the 1st round as a good generator of elite-level talent in 1997 and 1999 went a long way to making this decade something of a lost one for many hockey fans. Dominance quickly coalesced around the financial powerhouses of Dallas, Colorado, New Jersey, and Detroit,with all of them winning Stanley Cups during this time. While this is a larger group of franchises than had won during the previous decade, nevertheless the realpolitik of the times meant that there was virtually no room for any other challengers to develop and unseat those franchises.

Much is made amongst fans of the Flames or the Oilers of their miserable draft history, with the 90s being held up as an example of failure. Meanwhile the excellent job that the Nordiques did at the draft table, in spite of the limited talent available during this time, was cruelly taken from them and became, almost immediately and as a result of some lucky happenstance, an NHL powerhouse for the better part of the remainder of the decade.

There is the argument that the 90s were a poor decade for drafting because the talent that had entered the NHL over the course of the 80s was still so dominant that, like the baby boomer generation blocking the career development of later generations, there were simply no opportunities for players drafted during this period to succeed.

However, were this true we would see both the quantitative and qualitative numbers crater in the early to mid 90s when those dominant players from the 80s were still at peak performance. The opposite is true in that the rates begin to decline around the middle of the decade and then fall off precipitously (relatively speaking) just after the halfway mark of the decade at precisely the time when those roster spots would have started to become available. In the late 90s the high-end talent that is discovered in the draft simply wasn't there.

There are a number of factors that I have considered as being partially culpable for this. One is that the 90s also marked the dominance of veterans' hockey, when the rich teams valued a 30-year old player as much or more than a 25 year old because of the style of the game at the time. Another is that there were many teams who had to cut their budgets in order to survive and their development pipelines were the most common target. With fewer teams developing their drafted prospects there were fewer to both help support the lower-end teams as well as spread throughout the league as they became free-agents or through trade.

Perhaps something else to consider is that the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, while opening the way for many of the established players to emigrate to North America more freely than under the communist regime, also meant that the funding source for many of the player development programs in Communist Bloc countries vanished almost overnight. The delayed effect was that there were fewer players coming from Eastern Bloc countries who could help raise the level of the talent pool of draft prospects. Looking over the percentage of Russian-born players taken between 1993 and 1999 shows a steady decline until 1998 from 12.2% to 11.9%, 10.7%, 8.7%, 7.3%, 8.5% and 9.9%.

All in all, the 90s were a lost decade for anyone cheering for a team in a new or smaller market as well as those fans of the NHL Entry Draft. I don't have a definitive answer as to why it happened, but suffice to say that it may well happen again and fans would do well to temper their enthusiasm amid the seasonal hype that surrounds the NHL Entry Draft.

Next up, 2000 to 2008 - the land of milk and honey, the fable that has become the 2003 draft, and a curious development in draft cycles. 

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