DRAFTING FOR SUCCESS

Byron Bader
May 09 2014 08:30AM

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-via Dave Shaver

The NHL draft is one of the most important parts of any NHL team’s year. It is a team’s opportunity to pick up players that, down the road, may turn into franchise cornerstones or at least pieces that will them be successful. Unlike free agency or trades, the draft is an opportunity to add pivotal assets at basically no charge, with the added bonus of (likely) having the player through his prime playing years.

Despite the importance of the draft, there is no guarantee a team is going to end up with that elite player they covet or even a player who ends of being an NHL regular. Some have even suggested that teams could pick players ranked similarly at random and have a better success rate than picking the player they think might be the best player available, through scouting, analysis and gut reaction. 

Detroit has long been admired as a team that drafts well and knows how to develop players. The team is regarded as one of the very best at finding hidden gems in the later rounds and turning them into uber-elite talent (e.g., Lidstrom, Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Fedorov, etc.). But, over the long-run, how do they compare to other NHL teams and draft success?  Alternatively, how successful is a bottom feeder team (i.e., a team that has done very little over the past decade) at drafting and developing talent compared to the better teams?

Lets take a look...

Team Busts 50+ Games 200 + Games Total 50G % 200G % Playoffs Cup Finals Elite  Elite Players
Anaheim 36 22 9 58 37.9% 15.5% 6 1 2 Getzlaf; Perry
Boston 35 16 11 51 31.4% 21.6% 8 2 3 Bergeron; Kessel; Seguin
Buffalo 36 23 11 59 39.0% 18.6% 4 0 1 Vanek
Calgary 42 13 5 55 23.6% 9.1% 5 1 0  
Carolina 37 16 6 53 30.2% 11.3% 2 1 1 E. Staal
Chicago 51 21 11 72 29.2% 15.3% 6 2 3 Kane; Toews; Keith
Colorado 38 20 9 58 34.5% 15.5% 5 0 3 MacKinnon; Duchene; Landeskog
Columbus 41 25 11 66 37.9% 16.7% 2 0 1 Johansen
Dallas 37 15 8 52 28.8% 15.4% 5 0 1 Benn
Detroit 38 14 7 52 26.9% 13.5% 10 2 0  
Edmonton 31 26 8 57 45.6% 14.0% 1 1 1 Hall
Florida 41 18 9 59 30.5% 15.3% 1 0 0  
Los Angeles 45 21 10 66 31.8% 15.2% 5 1 3 Doughty; Kopitar; Quick
Minnesota 39 17 8 56 30.4% 14.3% 4 0 1 Koivu
Montreal 38 20 14 58 34.5% 24.1% 8 0 3 Pacioretty; Subban; Price
Nashville 41 22 9 63 34.9% 14.3% 7 0 2 Weber; Suter
New Jersey 39 14 4 53 26.4% 7.5% 7 1 1 Parise
NY Islanders 47 20 12 67 29.9% 17.9% 3 0 1 Tavares
NY Rangers 41 19 9 60 31.7% 15.0% 8 0 0  
Ottawa 38 20 10 58 34.5% 17.2% 7 1 1 Karlsson
Philadelphia 42 16 9 58 27.6% 15.5% 8 1 1 Giroux
Phoenix 39 14 9 53 26.4% 17.0% 4 0 1 Ekman-Larsson
Pittsburgh 37 19 10 56 33.9% 17.9% 8 2 3 Crosby; Malkin; Letang
San Jose 37 21 11 58 36.2% 19.0% 10 0 3 Couture; Vlasic; Pavelski
St. Louis 44 20 10 64 31.3% 15.6% 5 0 1 Pietrangelo
Tampa Bay 43 17 4 60 28.3% 6.7% 5 1 1 Stamkos
Toronto 35 13 7 48 27.1% 14.6% 2 0 1 Rask
Vancouver 37 9 7 46 19.6% 15.2% 7 1 1 Kesler
Washington 43 20 10 63 31.7% 15.9% 7 0 2 Backstrom; Ovechkin
Winnipeg 46 11 6 55 20.0% 10.9% 1 0 0  
Average 39.8 18.1 8.8 57.8 31.1% 15.2% 5.4 0.6 1.4  
Stan. Dev. 4.2 4.0 2.3 5.8 5.5% 3.6% 2.6 0.7 1.0  


The table above is a summary of each team’s drafting success rate from 2003 to 2013. If drafted before 2010, success constitutes playing over 50 games; if drafted after 2010, success constitutes playing over 30 games; players drafted from 2010 – 2013 that haven’t played over 30 games yet were completely omitted. List is in alphabetical order.

THE NUMBERS

Teams, on average, have 31% of their players play at least 50 games and only 15% (so far) go on to play at least 250 games. In other words, in order to be treading water, a team should expect that two of their seven draft picks should at least play in the NHL at some point, and one of the seven should go on to be an impact player that plays at least 2.5 seasons.

Furthermore, the average team drafted 1 elite player between 2003 – 2013 (one a decade). A number of teams have drafted 2 and a select few have drafted 3 or 4 star players over that time. Not surprisingly, the clubs that have drafted the most elite talent over the past decade also tend to be very good. Alternatively, a team that hasn’t been able to draft an elite talent in the past 10 years, especially an org that has been consistently drafting in the top-10 (e.g., Edmonton, Winnipeg/Atlanta, Florida), should be making some significant adjustments in how they evaluate and/or develop their draft picks.

Now let’s have a look at some specific teams and their drafting success rates. I’ve chosen four that jumped out at me: Detroit, Edmonton, Boston and Calgary.

DETROIT

Detroit has made the playoffs every single year for the past 23 seasons. However, that was mostly due to two elite cores that were running together for a decade (the Yzerman, Fedorov, Shanahan, Lidstrom era and the Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Lidstrom era). The Wings have actually only graduated 27% of its draftees to the NHL since 2003, slightly below the league average.

While Detroit certainly has a reputation for developing players the right way, they also are much more selective about who gets a real shot in the NHL. They have been so good for so long that it has been nearly impossible for a newly Detroit-drafted player to get a long look in the NHL. Interestingly, Detroit has actually not developed an elite player through drafting since they picked Zetterberg and Datsyuk in the late 1990’s. Johan Franzen (2004) and Nik Kronwall (2000) might be the only skaters close to that distinction. 

So while the Red Wings franchise is known for their ability to find elite talent late in the draft, they haven't done it for about 14 years. However, 50% of the players (7 in total) that have come up to play at least 50 games have gone on to play at least 200 games. This supports the notion that Detroit likes to let prospects ripen on the vine. When players do come up, they are ready to produce and stay in the bigs. 

EDMONTON

Edmonton has actually graduated the most draftees to NHL players since 2003. The team has been in rebuild mode for the better part of a decade and has only made the playoffs once since 2003.

Yet, here they are at the top of the heap in terms of bringing players through the system to become NHLers.  Given Edmonton’s success, or lack thereof, does this mean that Edmonton is rushing their draft picks into the league?

I would say it most certainly does. While the Oilers lead the league in converting draftees to NHLers, only 30% of those players (8 in total) have gone on to play 200+ games in the NHL so far, by far the biggest drop off between 50-game players and 200-game players. Edmonton will likely have Nugent-Hopkins and Yakopov crossing the 200-game barrier in the near future, but the drop off between 50 to 200 game players is still substantial.   

BOSTON

Boston is an intriguing case and perhaps even the class of the league when it comes to drafting. They have drafted 3 elite players in the past 10 years where most teams have drafted 1. They’ve traded away 2 of those players, but have made the playoffs 8 times in the past decade and will likely be a top-tier team for the next 5 years.

The Bruins have turned 22% of their players into regular NHLers with 200+ games under their belt.  Essentially, Boston is converting three players every two years into useful big leaguers. They, along with the Canadiens, lead the league in converting draftees to this level of 200+ game guys. 

Also, while they didn’t draft Rask, they acquired him for nothing very early into his professional career when Toronto decided he was expendable. They have groomed Rask into one of the best goalies in the league. It’s unclear whether Boston is using a different drafting strategy to analyze the upcoming talent or implementing a unique way to develop the players they draft or both.

What is clear is that what they are doing seems to be working.

CALGARY

Since 2003, Calgary has been one of the very worst drafting teams in the entire league. They convert draftees to NHLers or regular NHLers far less than the league average (23.9%). Additionally, they are one of only five teams that have not drafted one elite player in the past ten years. In addition, they are the only team in the entire NHL that hasn’t had a 2nd rounder (a top 31 – 60 pick) play 50 games or more since 2003 - in part, no doubt, because Darryl Sutter's favourite bargaining chip seemed to be second round picks. 

These dire circumstances appear to be changing given the apparent depth of their current prospect pool.  Many up and coming players will likely play at least 50 games in the NHL, with several of those potentially crossing over the 200 mark.  As well, with any luck, there is 1 or 2 elite players in the system or soon to join it since the club is picking 4th in the upcoming draft. When we look back in five years, if the players are developed right, the Flames’ drafting over the 2010’s might turn out to be very good. It can’t get much worse than their drafting in the 2000’s, that’s for sure.

SUM IT UP

The draft is the one of the most important aspects of an organization's quest for success. Whether you’re drafting to become good in a few years or drafting for impact right now, you have to go about it the right way. GMs that can hit on 2-3 draft picks out of 7 year after year will likely develop a good team that can last for years, as it constantly infuses ample new and ready talent to the mix. 

Peter Chiarelli and the Boston Bruins certainly seem to be doing everything right. You want a model for how to build a winner without tanking for a slew of top- 5 draft picks, follow the recipe of the President’s trophy winner. Learning what they look for when drafting, how they look for it and how they develop their draftees may be the best thing any bottom-feeder team could do to accelerate their team’s drive to become a great team that stands the test of time.  

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Byron has always been curious about numbers and stats, especially related to hockey. His background includes schooling heavily-focused on psychology, economics and statistics and a professional background revolving around reseach, segmentation, data mining and statistics. His love for hockey is as deep as the ocean is wide. Tell him your questions and let him into your heart. Twitter: @Baderader; Email: byron.bader@gmail.com