With the World Cup officially kicked off and taking over the country’s sporting conscience for the next three or four weeks (or, at least until the US is eliminated) the NHL Draft is now less than two weeks away and rapidly approaching. The Sabres, as everyone knows by now, hold the 2nd overall selection and a pair of 2nd round selections. With news that Tim Murray is looking to acquire another 1st round pick the team should have ample opportunity to find young talent to help speed up the rebuild.
Rightly so, the 2nd overall selection is garnering the most chatter amongst fans and media alike. While people have every right to be optimistic about the prospect of grabbing a top end talent with the 2nd selection, many members of the MSM and fan base think that drafting 2nd is a lay up, and are under the impression that whoever the Sabres tab as their selection (and defacto new face of the franchise) will single-handedly lead the team out of the abyss and one day have their number hanging next to Gare, LaFontaine, and the French Connection.
While I’m all for optimism, I think it’s best to rein in expectations just a bit. This is not to say I don’t think the team will end up with a very talented player, in fact I’m very confident that Tim Murray and his staff will make the right choice at number two. That being said every draft slot has its fair share of Patrik Stefans and Brian Lawtons; nothing is guaranteed.
It is widely known that the NHL Draft more resembles the MLB Draft rather than the NFL or NBA when it comes to draft picks actually having impactful careers, and that average career numbers decrease significantly with each pick and round. The drop is obviously not as precipitous from pick to pick in the first round when compared to picks in the second round and beyond, but it is still apparent.
It is expected that either Sam Reinhart or Sam Bennett will be Buffalo Sabres come June 27, so let’s look at forwards selected in the top five. When looking at the top five picks in the draft dating back to 1970, forwards that were selected first overall had an average career of 840 games and put up just under 800 points. Compare that with forwards selected 5th overall; those players averaged 619 games and 430 points, a career that is over three season shorter, on average, than those picked just four spots higher. Those who went 2nd overall played an average of 755 games and amassed 616 points.
By including younger players drafted between 2008 and 2010, it’s highly likely the average games played and points for a career are a bit lower than they will eventually be; the disparity in career lengths between draft slots should remain. With that being the case, points per game becomes a more accurate portrayal of what can expected. The .82 points per game clip put up by 2nd overall selections are slightly below the .84 clip that Thomas Vanek is currently playing at. Everyone can agree that Vanek is a very good player; they can also agree that Vanek is certainly not a premier player in the NHL.
If the Florida Panthers opt to pass on Barrie defenseman Aaron Ekblad the Sabres will be forced into an interesting decision. If Tim Murray decides to grab Ekblad at two, and given the potential departures of Christian Ehrhoff and/or Tyler Myers it’s a possibility, the expectations of fans and media alike should (obviously) be very different. When looking at defensemen who went in the top five the story is similar to the forwards, but slightly different. Only 10 blue liners have gone first off the board, and those ten averaged out to roughly 831 games and just over 400 points for a career; roughly the same career span as forwards but obviously less offensive production. 18 defensemen went in the number five slot, the most out of any selection in the top five. Those players put up average career numbers of 613 games and 284 points; a career span over two and a half years less than first overall picks. The nine defensemen who went second overall played an average of 736 games and 372 points; while the points per game is basically even (.50 for 2nd overall picks and .48 for 1st) the career span of a 2nd selection is over a season shorter.The average points per game of 2nd overall selections is similar to the clip that former Sabre Brian Campbell has maintained (.51). While Ekblad and Campbell appear to be very different in terms of style of play, Campbell provides a good comparison offensively to defensemen drafted in the Sabres’ current draft slot.
Jason Gregor wrote an article for Oilers Nation in 2011 breaking down draft picks a little differently. Gregor broke down the 1996-2005 drafts by round. In the piece he broke down the players drafted in four categories: bust, short-lived, decent, and dominant. A bust is a player who played fewer than 100 games, short-lived is a player out of the league after less than 300, while a dominant player is one who is considered elite by opposing fans and media. Of the 286 first round picks during that time frame, Gregor found that 25 (8.8%) became dominant players, while 113 (39.5%) were short-lived NHLers or busts. There are some issues with Gregor’s method. For one, there is no way to tell the difference between a top 10 pick and a player drafted in picks 20-30, and Gregor’s opinion of what constitutes a dominant player is obviously subjective to his views. Even with that being the case, the numbers illustrate how rare it is to find a premier talent, regardless of where you draft.
TSN’s Scott Cullen went a little more in-depth, using drafts from 1995 to 2004. He broke down the draft by groups of five for the first two rounds, and assigned each player draft in the slot a number. 10 represented a generational talent, 9 an elite player, 8 a first line forward or top defenseman, 7 a top six forward or top four defenseman, 6 a top nine forward or top six defenseman, and so on. While the rankings are similar to Gregor’s in that they are subjective, Cullen’s breakdown is more precise in that it paints a better picture of what the Sabres (or at least its fans) can expect. Cullen found that top five picks garnered an average ranking of 6.84, or slightly below a top six forward (For those that are interested in what to expect with the Sabres pick at #31, they averaged a 2.66, which Cullen deemed a very good minor leaguer).
The Sabres’ pick at 31st overall is also one to keep an eye on, assuming they don’t trade it. The average NHL career for forwards drafted at number 31 was only 172 games and only produced an average of 70 points for a career. The numbers for defensemen were even less, with an average of 63 games and 11 points. In his research Gregor found that the odds of selecting what amounted to a decent NHLer (using his system) was a paltry 23.7%. This would indicate that not much expectation should be placed on whomever the Sabres grab with the first pick of the second round, and would suggest the team would be better served trading the pick as part of a package for an established NHL player or to acquire that additional first round pick that Tim Murray desires.
These numbers are not meant to turn draft day excitement into dread for fans, but rather to try to keep fans a bit more realistic. Obviously the player who dons the Sabres jersey in Philadelphia at the end of the month will have sky-high expectations almost immediately, and rightly so, but if he doesn’t light the league up right away let’s keep things in perspective.