With the NHL Draft finally getting underway tomorrow evening, the value of draft picks is usually a topic of discussion around this time of year. Every media outlet, whether it be Sportsnet or TSN, has taken a stab at trying to determine the true value of a given draft pick. The measuring stick most used to figure out if a draft pick was successful is NHL games played. While I also implement the games played factor, I’ve opted to go in a bit of a different direction. Instead of trying to quantify the value of a given pick (or range of picks) I focused on the value of a pick in regards to the trade market.
I took the basic stats (games played, goals, assists, points) of every player who dressed in at least one NHL game this season. I also included if and where in the draft every player was selected, and how he was acquired by his current club, with the help of HockeyDB, Hockey Reference, and various team websites.
This is only one season of data so the results of the data do not reflect any decades long recipe for success or anything, but it does paint a pretty nice picture of where the league is today and where it may be headed.
The first order of business was to find out how much space on a roster do players acquired via the draft take up? There are obviously three main ways teams go about acquiring players: via draft, trade, and free agency (players signed as undrafted, college, or junior free agents are included in free agents); less than two percent of players in the league were acquired by their current teams via the waiver wire. As for the three main avenues clubs can take, the averages didn’t show anything overly surprising; the average roster was filled out roughly 38% via the draft, nearly 30% by way of trade, and just above 29% via free agency. It certainly makes sense for rosters to have more players that were acquired via the draft than any other option, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. When looking at who accounted for all the points scored throughout the league the data showed that 47.93% of points league-wide were scored by players who were acquired via the draft. Players that were brought in via trade were responsible for 29.5% of the points, and free agent signings accounted for 21.95%. Already there is a huge jump when comparing the amount of drafted players on a roster and the points they are responsible for, and a fairly decent drop when looking at the points produced by free agent signings in relation to the number of free agents on the average roster.
With the importance of the draft outlined, the next step is to figure out where in the draft teams are getting their production from. I broke down the players into six categories: players drafted between 1st and 15th overall, players drafted 16th to 30th overall, players drafted in the 2nd round, players drafted in the 3rd round, players drafted in the 4th round and beyond, and undrafted players. The 1st round was separated into two categories to split the lottery picks from the rest of the round.
Looking at where teams get their scoring from there were some interesting numbers. Only four of 16 playoff teams got less than 50% of their scoring from players drafted in the first two rounds; the other 12 teams were all above the 60% mark. While it’s important to note that some of those players were acquired by means other than the draft, their draft position is still a key figure.
I also looked at each team’s top scorers. When looking at each team I saw there was a noticeable drop in scoring between each team’s fifth or sixth top scorer and the rest of the team. With that in mind I took a look at the draft positions of every team’s top five scorers, as well as their average points. The average draft position of the top five scorers was 48.33 and they averaged just under 52 points this season.
As Corey Pronman wrote recently the NHL Draft is more about luck than skill, especially as you get deeper into the draft (those with ESPN Insider can read the article here). Pronman found that over a 20 year period no team showed an ability to draft consistently good (or bad) in terms of the prospects they selected relative to where they were drafted gauged by games played. This may have to do with how scouting has evolved. As the blank spaces on the NHL scouting map continue to get filled in every team knows just about all there is to know about a given prospect; the days of Pekka Rinne sliding to the 8th round are likely over.
How does this have anything to do with how teams are built now and their production? If anything it magnifies the importance of teams getting their selections that fall in the top 60 or 75 overall right; the odds of making up for it by getting a sleeper in the 4th or 5th round are slim. There are obviously exceptions (see Palat, Ondrej), but consistently striking out on your picks that fall outside the top five (hello, Edmonton Oilers) is a recipe for disaster.
This brings us to the value of these picks when trading. In the NHL, draft picks are the biggest form of currency; 2nd and 3rd round picks are thrown around in trades like are going out of style, usually for rentals around the deadline. This is surprising when you consider the talent still available in the 30-60 overall range. Looking at the best teams in the league they are filled with high impact players drafted in the second round. The Likes of Brandon Saad (43rd), Duncan Keith (54th), Patrice Bergeron (45th), and Tyler Toffoli (47th) are just a few of the players that are available once the 1st round comes to an end.
When looking at the players that teams are giving up these draft picks for it is clear they aren’t getting good value for their investment. The player that immediately comes to mind for me is Dominic Moore. Moore has obviously made a good career for himself as a 3rd or 4th line center (usually 4th line) who is solid in his own end and in the faceoff circle and can kill penalties. Moore has played nearly 700 NHL games and has cracked the 40 point mark once his career. He is also the definition of a suitcase, as he’s played for nine teams in a 12 year career. In a three year span from 2009 to 2012 he was dealt for a 2nd round pick three times, all at the trade deadline. His stats for the three teams that acquired him read as 62 regular season games, 3 goals, 18 assists, 21 points. He chipped in 5 points in 22 playoff games, and was not re-signed by any of the three clubs. An average top five scorer this season was drafted in the middle of the second round and put up 52 points (.63 points per game), yet three teams felt it worthwhile to give up a pick in that range for a player who has put up a point every three games for his career; not good value in my book.
Other players who were swapped for second round picks in recent times include Riley Nash, Tyler Kennedy, Douglas Murray, Jimmy Hayes, Andrew Cogliano, Ian White, and Jordan Leopold. None of these players have ever eclipsed 50 points in a season and they all average under .50 points per game for their career.
I understand that one season’s worth of averages is not the overall barometer of whether or not a team is getting equal value when trading away draft picks, but it does show how undervalued teams view picks that are outside the 1st round. The Sportsnet article that is linked in the opening paragraph goes more in depth on this. It was found that the value of a late first round selection from a contending team is actually closer in value to any third round pick than it is to a top five pick. This again illustrates that it may not be in the best interest of teams to throw away those 2nd and 3rd round picks in order to get a player whose production is somewhat minimal for only 15 or 20 games.
This also shows that the draft is still worth paying attention to even after the bright lights are turned off after Friday night’s selections. The odds of the Sabres (or any team) getting themselves the next Brandon Saad or Shea Weber (49th overall) are inherently lower in the 2nd and 3rd rounds than in the top half of the first, but as Stephen Burtch puts it in the Sportsnet article, the lottery tickets in the 2nd and 3rd round are significantly cheaper than those in the first, but accumulating as many of the cheap lottery tickets as possible still increases your chances of hitting the lottery.