Thursday, 23 June 2016

Unwritten Rules of the NHL Draft

Olli Maatta was a key piece of a Cup winning blueline, and went much later than he should have in 2012 (via alchetron.com)

In case you forgot, the NHL Draft is tomorrow. For me, it's like half Christmas. The teams all gather together in one room, break bread and wait for their own version of Santa Clause - Gary Bettman - to let them have their turn picking their presents. Well, maybe not, but that's how I see it.

With each pick, the GM and his scouting staff have the opportunity to select a player that may one day score the Stanley Cup winning goal for their franchise. Or, perhaps when that pick blossoms into a promising young player, they use him to trade for that savvy veteran that puts the team over the top.

The point is, every team is given seven chances a year to strike gold or find that diamond in the rough. If you don't celebrate Christmas or missed the Aladdin reference, everyone should be able to understand the economics at stake. The draft is all about maximizing your assets. A miss in the first two rounds any year is detrimental, but hitting on a pick in rounds 3-7 is where a team can really separate itself from the pack. If a GM can make the most of these later round selections they can take what is a relatively equal league-wide commodity and turn it into an exceptional one. Not only does this ultimately lead to a better team on the ice but also allots a GM more trade chips than his peers. The bottom line is, championship teams are built through the draft.

This has never been truer than with the installment of the salary cap. It is impossible to compete for the Cup without some young, cheap talent contributing in the playoffs. This has been evidenced by the Brian Rust's, Connor Sheary's and Chris Tierney's of the 2016 playoff season; but also with Tyler Toffoli, Brandon Saad and Tampa Bay's triplet line in recent years.
Ondrej Palat was drafted in the 7th round of the 2011 draft (via lightning.nhl.com)

Because of the importance of entry-level deals to contending teams, NHL teams pour hours of analysis into finding their next gem by watching, interviewing and crunching numbers to attempt to make the right decision. However, once you step back from the numbers, certain patterns begin to emerge - patterns which could allow teams to improve their draft strategy. A consideration of these patterns might prevent one from choosing Al Montoya 6th overall when Pekka Rinne is available in the 8th Round (as it went in 2004). Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but we must learn from the past if we hope to better our future.

Below are some patterns I have noticed over years of following the draft. While it's important to note that there is always an exception to the rule, these patterns serve as another tool to have in your pocket when preparing for that fateful day in June. I looked at a decade's worth of drafts (2002-2012) to determine my (now written) unwritten rules of the NHL draft:

1. Pick A Defenseman in Round 2 or 3 (Unless you have a top 5 selection)

This is a very specific rule, but hear me out. Unless you have the opportunity to pick one of the top 2 defensemen in the draft (Doughty, Hedman, Ekblad, etc), it's probably better to hold off and use a 2nd or 3rd rounder to fill that organizational need. While it's not foolproof, you have a good chance to find at least a top 4 defenseman in one of these later rounds, and potentially even a future Norris winner. Here's a list of defenseman picked in the 2nd & 3rd rounds from 2002-2012:
  Duncan Keith                           Kevin Klein                  Alex Goligoski                       Andrej Sekera                            Alex Edler                      Marc-Eduard Vlasic                 Kris Letang                              Jeff Petry                      P.K. Subban                             Slava Voynov                       Roman Josi                    Travis Hamonic                     Tyson Barrie                            Justin Faulk                   Damon Severson                 Shayne Gostisbehere               Colton Parayko
Pretty impressive list, eh? For reference, here's a list of defenseman taken in the top 10 in those same drafts that haven't lived up to their billing. 

         Brayden Cobourn                      Cam Barker                    Ladislav Smid
         Boris Valabik                             Keaton Ellerby               Jared Cowen
         Luke Schenn                              Griffin Reinhart              Derick Pouliot
Cam Barker never lived up to his draft billing at #3 overall in 2004 (via nwsportsbeat.com)
While there are some serviceable names in that group, I'm sure there is some buyer's remorse about taking these guys in the top 10. This trend has seemingly continued as Chris Bigras and Madison Bowey are looking like solid picks from the 2013 2nd round. 

What's this mean for 2016? 
Pass on Bean, McAvoy and wait.

What's it mean for 2017?
Connor Timmins and Noel Hoefenmayer may be better value selections than their higher ranked counterparts.

2. Size Doesn't Matter

While this hasn't always been the most popular opinion, it's definitely gained some traction in recent years. The classic example is Marty St. Louis (who went undrafted) but these cases are becoming more and more prevalent. It's easy for scouts to become enamored with a prospect's size heading into the draft and how that size will help him at the NHL level. Every team wants that prototypical number one, two-way center with size ala Anze Kopitar or Jonathan Toews, but one player should never be chosen over another purely based on size alone.

The NHL has become all about speed and skill, represented by the fact that Patrick Kane (5'11'') walked away with the Ted Lindsay, Hart and Art Ross trophies; Joe Pavelski (5'11") lead his team to the Stanley Cup Final, and Johnny Gaudreau (5'09") finished 6th overall in scoring. As the saying goes, "it's not about the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog". Here are some examples of small guys who deserved to go higher in their draft.

  • Johnny Gaudreau (4th round)
  • Tyler Johnson (undrafted)
  • Brad Marchand (3rd round)
  • Brendan Gallagher (5th round)
  • Joe Pavelski (7th round)
  • Claude Giroux (22nd OV)
  • Mats Zuccarello (undrafted)

What's this mean for 2016? 
Consider Clayton Keller over Logan Brown, and don't wait on Alex Debrincat. 

What's it mean for 2017?
Don't ignore the abilities of Yamamoto, Suzuki, and Henry in favor of larger players like Vilardi, Rasmussen and Strome.


3. Grab a Faller

I think all hockey fans will remember this moment from 2003:
video


Shame on them indeed, Pierre. Every year there's a player that falls from where he is originally projected. This can happen for a number of reasons - size, work ethic, off ice issues, etc. Many NHL franchises view these as red flags. Because jobs are on the line, scouts & GMs tend to go with a "safe" pick rather than one that might actually be better for their team. In many cases, prospects can be over scouted. This occurs when a highly touted player is watched and scrutinized so much that people will find flaws with his personality or game that might not actually exist or affect his game on the ice.

There's always a team that benefits from this situation and grabs a player that falls to them - usually in the mid to late first round. Other than Parise, some of the most notable "fallers" in the drafts from 2002-2012 are:
  • Sean Couturier - Projected top 3, selected #6
  • Cam Fowler - Projected top 5, selected #12
  • Brandon Saad - Projected 15 - 25, selected #43
  • Olli Maatta - Projected 10-15, selected #22
  • Filip Forsberg - Projected top 5, selected #11
Not bad company to be in, especially when you consider the impact (or lack thereof) of players selected in front of them.

What's this mean for 2016?
Usually, you never know who's a "faller" until he falls, but Jacob Chychrun keeps falling in the projections. What once was a surefire top 5 pick is now slated to go ~#10, so he would be the best example.

What's it mean for 2017?
Again, this one usually has to wait until draft day - but there has been movement at the top. Don't be surprised if Nolan Patrick and/or Timothy Liljegren fall out of some of the top spots and go on to induce regret.


4. Goalies Are Fickle

I'm a big believer that you don't pick a goalie in the first round unless there's absolutely no question surrounding his ability (ala Carey Price, Marc - Andre Fleury). They are just too big of a wildcard and take much longer to develop. Most of the time a goalie doesn't even make his NHL debut on the team that drafted him. The goalie market is more saturated than ever and many quality net-minders can be found via free agency or had for cheap on the trade market, so why waste a first or second rounder on one? If I'm a GM, I am waiting until the later rounds and taking a chance on a big European goalie. The evidence speaks for itself.
Pekka Rinne was selected in the 8th round in 2004. A year later, the NHL reduced the draft from nine rounds to seven. (via rantsports.com)

2004
First Round: Al Montoya  (6th OV), Marek Swartz 
Later Rounds: Kari Ramo, Anton Khudobin, Pekka Rinne (8th round) Jaroslav Halak (9th round) &  Brian Elliott (9th round).
2005
First Round: Carey Price, Tuuka Rask 
Later Rounds: Ondrej Pavelec, Jonathan Quick (3rd round) & Ben Bishop (3rd round)
2006
First Round: Jonathan Bernier, Riku Helenius, Semyon Varlamov & Leland Irving
Later Rounds: Michael Neuvirth, Jonas Enroth, Steve Mason, James Reimer
2007
17 selected in 2007, Scott Darling (6th round) the only of note.
2008
Holtby (4th round) was the 9th goalie selected.
2010
Mrazek (round 5), Andersen (round 7)

It's a little too early to judge goalies taken after 2010, but Korpisalo in round three and Hellebuyck in round five are looking like solid selections that would fall into this pattern as well.

Fun Fact: The 2003 draft was even great for goalies. Marc-Andre Fleury, Corey Crawford & Jimmy Howard were the first three selected in that draft. Two are Stanley Cup Champions.

What's this mean for 2016?
Considering no goalie is projected to go in the first round, so this rule doesn't really apply for this draft.

What's it mean for 2017?
Another year without goalies ranked in the first round - perhaps teams are catching on. Either way, Windsor's Michael Dipietro could be a sleeper.


5. Team Specific Drafting

Pick a London Knight

This rule could not be truer than this draft, with at least three Knights set to go in the first round. It's no secret that the London Knights are one of the best franchises in the entire CHL, proven by the fact that they are reigning Memorial Cup Champions and have participated in the tournament four of the last five seasons. It should come as no surprise that teams should be looking at the Knights when making draft selections. What's most impressive, however, is the impact each of these picks has on their NHL franchise. Clearly, the Hunters are great at instilling habits a brand of hockey that translates well to the NHL level.
Patrick Kane headlines an impressive list of former London Knights in the NHL (via Getty Images)

Not only do they produce top players like Patrick Kane, Rick Nash and Corey Perry, but also a number of complimentary players that are able to step into the NHL almost immediately. Dave Bolland, Marc Methot, Vladislav Namestnikov, Chris Tierney are all examples. Overall, 56.6% of London Knights drafted between 2002-2012 have played in the NHL, mostly as significant contributors. If I'm a scout, I take those odds all day.

Other notablesNazem Kadri, Dennis Wideman, Dan Girardi (undrafted), Olli Maatta, Sam Gagner, Steve Mason
Knights selected after 2012: Max Domi, Bo Horvat, Nikita Zadorov, Mitch Marner, Christian Dvorak

What's it mean for 2016?
Do not wait on Max Jones or Cliff Pu

What's it mean for 2017?
Not as strong of a Knights contingent in this years' draft, but look for Robert Thomas and Alex Formenton to be solid selections (potentially) past the first round.


Pick a Kelowna Rockets Defenseman

Kelowna is a breeding ground for top defensemen. I'm not sure if it's the water in the Okanagan or the Rockets hockey staff, but they know how to find and produce elite NHL defensemen. Here are the defenders selected from the Rockets during that decade:
  • Duncan Keith
  • Josh Gorges
  • Damon Severson
  • Tyson Barrie
  • Shea Weber
  • Alexander Edler
  • Tyler Myers
  • Luke Schenn
I dare you to find a better group than that from a single CHL team.

What's this mean for 2016?
Lucas Johansen could be the next name added to this list.

What's it mean for 2017?
Grab Cal Foote sooner than later.


In Closing...

The NHL draft is far from a science and these "unwritten rules" should be only seen as another guideline towards making the right decision. I left a few other trends off the list, but here are a couple more look out for:
  • Pick Europeans late 
  • Beware wingers early
  • Keep it in the family - go for ex-NHLer's sons
These aren't as foolproof as the others but still something to consider. Please keep these trends in mind when watchng your team this weekend and let me know if I forgot anything!


Tuesday, 24 May 2016

How NHL Expansion Affects the 2016 Off-season

Marc-Andre Fleury is just one big name goalie that could be on the move this summer because of NHL expansion rules. 
Unless you've been living under a rock, you know the NHL plans to expand to 32 teams in June of 2017 between the Stanley Cup Final and Entry Draft. Right now, the likely destinations look to be Las Vegas and one of Seattle or Quebec City. The latter could depend on what happens with the Arizona Coyotes, but none of that matters right now. What matters is that this is the final off-season before the expansions draft and it could be anything but ordinary. Expect to see some shrewd, unexpected moves by general managers with the gift of foresight, or those with their hands tied. At the end of the day, this is all about asset management. 

So, what will be different? First, we must examine the rules of expansion in order to see what variables we are dealing with. They are as follows (via ESPN):

  • Teams will have two options in who they protect: either they safeguard seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie; or they protect eight skaters (whether they're defensemen or forwards) and one goalie.
  • First- and second-year pros -- including those playing pro hockey at any level -- will be exempt from the expansion draft. But if they're entering their third year of pro hockey, they're no longer exempt. Teams would have to either protect them or expose them
  • Unsigned draft picks (think college or European players) are exempt from the expansion draft for two years from their draft year but not in Year 3, so teams will have to either rush to sign those guys or simply expose them in the expansion draft.
  • The total salaries for the players made available by each team in the expansion draft must be at least 25 percent of the previous season's payroll for that team. Daly explained: "The other variation that makes this expansion draft different is we would contemplate having some thresholds based on salary to make sure that the expansion club can be competitive based on the ranges we have in the CBA. Teams would have some obligation to expose a level of salary. And in terms of drafting players, teams would have to draft a certain threshold of salary." 
ASSUMPTIONS: Players playing who have just finished the first year of their Entry-Level Contract (ELC) will be exempt. (i.e. Shayne Gostisbehere needs to be protected but Max Domi is exempt). 

The 25% rule will NOT have to be implemented, as NMCs have to be protected and honored and it will likely happen naturally with teams wanting to shed themselves of high priced contracts. I DID NOT count players with NMCs expiring in summer of 2017 (Gionta, Wideman, Vermette etc.)

Based on this criteria, I did my best to assess each team's realistic protected list.

Option 1 - 7 F, 3 D, 1 G
Option 2 - 8 S, 1 G



From here, we can make a few guess-timations on potential trends this off-season. Keep this in mind:

BuyersHurricanes, Flames, Sabres, Coyotes, Oilers, Panthers, Canadiens, Devils, Flyers, Leafs, Canucks,

Sellers: Ducks, Blackhawks, Avalanche, Blue Jackets, Stars, Red Wings, Wild, Predators, Islanders, Rangers, Senators, Penguins, Sharks, Blues, Lightning, Jets.

Stand Pat: Bruins, Kings, Caps

Those bolded are teams that are those who will be most urgent in regards to making moves because of expansion. 


Trade Frenzy on the Horizon

With so many valuable young players hanging in the balance, look for this off-season to be far more trade-oriented, starting at the Entry Draft in June. Not only that, but look for these deals to mimic those you would normally see at the trade deadline with big name established players with even bigger contracts given up for draft picks and prospects which are exempt from protection. Expect to see fewer teams being in on the coveted free agents, and even fewer NMCs handed out unless it's to a top player in their position. Those teams with some protected spots to spare are the ones who gain to benefit from these conditions. It could cause a shift in power to bring NHL parity to new levels. 


Buyers Market for Goaltending

On my list above there are roughly fifteen teams that have quality goaltenders left unprotected, whether that be a promising prospect like Malcolm Subban or some of the best in the league like Fleury or Bishop. These teams (Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Colorado) would be wise to trade one this off-season to gain an asset exempt from protection. Problem is, they are only a handful of teams in need of a goaltender. This leaves some GMs hands tied - you either sell low or risk losing a valuable asset for nothing. This allows a team like Calgary or Toronto to be patient with their goaltending situation. It might be best to try and sign one to a 1 year deal in hopes a top goaltender will be available for cheap as the expansion draft nears.

Defensemen A-Plenty

Lou Lamirello should be on the phone right now with the number of top four defensemen on the table. A position that is usually near impossible to trade for will suddenly be up for grabs because of expansion. The likes of Trevor Van Riemsdyk, Simon Depres, Marco Scandella and Jack Johnson could all be on the move. Not to mention promising young defenders such as Slater Koekkoek, Micro Mueller, Dylan McIlrath and Brayden McNabb.  The Leafs, Oilers and Canucks are all teams that stand to benefit from this type of market. Look for some of these teams (Chicago, most notably) to make a side deal with expansion teams for draft picks to persuade them against picking their unprotected players, much like the Sharks did in 2000 to keep Evgeni Nabokov safe.

Grey Areas

Some grey areas still exist as expansion details that could have huge consequences are still getting hammered out. The 25% of salary is one, and NMCs expiring in 2017 are another, but here's the biggest one:
 I have a hard time wrapping my head around this one, but it's the reason Nylander was left off my exempt list. If this is the case and applies to all rookies this season, many of those exempt would need protecting and leave even more valuable players up for grabs. What doesn't make sense is that Nylander IS still in his first year of his ELC and going into his second. If the only players eligible for exemption are rookies next season, why make the parameters include second year players? Am I the only one who feels like they are crazy? 

The only distinction that makes sense to me is that Nylander played 37 games in the AHL prior to this past season. Perhaps he crossed some imaginary line (like 25 games for Calder voting) that leaves him unprotected, as it was almost half of a season. The kicker is that if he had been drafted out of North America this would not be an issue because he wouldn't have been eligible to play in the AHL until age 20. Another high profile player this applies to is Artemi Panarin. Although he was an NHL rookie in 2015/16, he has played professional hockey in Europe. The NHL will have to decide if the parameters around first and second year players will only apply to leagues in North America, which could affect a myriad of young players eligibility.

One thing that is certain is that the NHL needs to hammer out these details, and fast. NHL GMs need a clear idea of what they stand to lose come expansion before they can make an accurate plan of how to address their needs this off-season.