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!