An Introduction to the NHL Draft

Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

The draft is one of the most publicized events of the NHL offseason and for good reason, it defines the future of the league. But the actual workings of the draft and reasonable expectations for it are a little less unknown.

This June 30th, the annual NHL Draft will be held at the Prudential Centre, home of the New Jersey Devils. Like the rest of the NHL season, this event has been shortened into a 1 day affair to deal with the compressed schedule the league had this season. Since many of our readers are not too familiar with the finer details of the event, I thought I would help provide an introduction to it.

Every year, approximately two hundred and ten North American and European amateurs and professionals have their NHL playing rights claimed by one of the 30 teams in the league. This number adjusts a little year to year as teams are awarded additional compensatory picks, or are required to forfeit them for wrongdoings of some sort by team management.

There are 7 rounds in the current model of the draft, with each team being given one pick in each round. Where a team gets to select their draft pick is determined by their finish in the regular season and can also be influenced by their playoff results. The Stanley Cup Winner will pick last in each round, the runner-up will pick 29th, the losers in the Conference Finals will pick at 27th and 28th overall, the remaining rankings to be determined by how the remaining teams finished in the regular season.

As you may know, the first overall pick in the draft each year is determined by a lottery among the non-playoff teams. While in past seasons only the five lowest-ranking teams were permitted an opportunity to draw for the first overall pick, the latest changes to the lottery have opened it up to all non-playoff teams. In previous years, a team finishing outside of the bottom five would move up four spots, which resulted in the 2011 Draft Lottery being won by New Jersey resulted in them moving from 8th to 4th.

However, the odds are still rather stacked to the lowest-place finishes as the odds for the latest NHL Draft Lottery were as follows:

1 - Florida - 25.0%
2 - Colorado - 18.8%
3 - Tampa Bay - 14.2%
4 - Nashville - 10.7%
5 - Carolina - 8.1%
6 - Calgary - 6.2%
7 - Edmonton - 4.7%
8 - Buffalo - 3.6%
9 - New Jersey - 2.7%
10 - Dallas - 2.1%
11 - Philadelphia - 1.5%
12 - Phoenix - 1.1%
13 - Winnipeg - 0.8%
14 - Columbus - 0.5%

The Colorado Avalanche were the winners of the 2013 NHL Draft Lottery

As you can see, there was a 76.8% chance a bottom-5 team would win the lottery and hold the 1st overall pick in the draft. Going by these odds, you could hold this Lottery 199 times and Columbus could still not gain an improvement in their position. This does create a balance against good teams struggling in a year suddenly winning a draft lottery to make their franchise much better but does create another issue. Right now, it is still a very rewarding process for teams to finish extremely poorly and be rewarded with a potential franchise player. However that is a whole other issue to properly discuss.

Naturally, the 1st round of the Draft generates the majority of the attention as this is typically where superstars are found. This does not mean that the whole 1st round offers star talent though, there can be huge drops in talent after every few picks especially in leaner draft years. Even in the area of the high picks, there are significant drops. Look no further than the draft year of 2004. Alexander Ovechkin went 1st overall, Evgeni Malkin went 2nd and then Cam Barker, Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler went 3rd, 4th and 5th. So it is important to keep in mind that a Top 10 pick, or even a Top 3 pick may not bring in a franchise player. Cam Barker is at best a replacement-level defencemen, Ladd and Wheeler are good players, but not what you would term stars. This is however the area of the draft that produces a litany of elite talents. Just between 2001 and 2006, Ilya Kovalchuk, Jason Spezza, Rick Nash, Eric Staal, Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom and Phil Kessel were taken with Top-5 draft picks.

*For the purposes of evaulation, a time period of 1996 to 2008 will be used to draw examples of the best players drafted out of each round of the draft.

This is not to say there are not very good players found outside of the Top 5 of the 1st round of course. These players include Marian Hossa, Martin Havlat, Niklas Kronwall, Alex Semin, Ales Hemsky, Jeff Carter, Ryan Getzlaf, Zach Parise, Corey Perry, Anze Kopitar, Tukka Rask, Claude Giroux, Logan Couture, Jordan Eberle and Erik Karlsson. While this can be argued to be a very impressive group, it is also the best of a group numbering 300 over the course of 12 years from 1996 to 2008.

Typically the aim of a team picking in the 1st round is to select a player capable of being a Top-6 forward, a Top-4 defencemen or a starting goaltender. They may not necessarily meet this ceiling, but their scouting profile should suggest they could be capable of reaching such a level in the NHL. This is usually the aim in the 2nd round of the draft as well, but the pickings much slimmer as well. As was noted by HabsWatch, while 65% of 1st-round draft picks can make the NHL and play a significant number of games, only 27% of 2nd-round draft picks make the same grade of success. So essentially, a team could pick twice in the 1st, four times in the 2nd round and still only come out with two serviceable NHL players.

The 2nd round does deliver some high-end results from time to time of course. Montreal's own P.K. Subban was a 2nd-round draft pick, as are many other prominent NHLers. These names include Shea Weber, Duncan Keith, Patrice Bergeron, David Backes, David Krejci, Ryan O'Reilly, Mike Cammalleri, Slava Voynov, Wayne Simmonds, Milan Lucic, Loui Eriksson, James Neal, Corey Crawford and Derek Stepan. These players do stand more as the exception than the rule, but it highlights the importance of teams keeping a good scouting staff to look at players not just favoured in the 1st round. More than a few teams can mark their 2nd-round selections as filling out key parts of their core. Much like the first round, teams try to select players who can potentially fill in key roles,

The 3rd round does not tend to give many generous results, but quality names have emerged. Montreal's own Alexei Emelin is a former 3rd-round pick as are Tomas Plekanec, Brian Gionta and Brandon Prust. Around the league Zdeno Chara, Craig Anderson, Jonathan Quick, Kris Letang, Patrick Sharp, Francois Beauchemain, Erik Cole, Brad Richards, Alex Edler and Brad Marchand stand out. This is a round however where teams become more realistic about what they can draft, selecting players more likely to top out as bottom-6 skaters and bottom-pairing defencemen.

The 4th and 5th rounds is where the talent hits a very thin point though, with few names spinning in to notable players. This is where teams can go for ‘reach picks' trying to find a high-end talent that has flown well under the radar or simply selecting players who are at best going to top out as depth players. Players like Ryan Callahan, Keith Yandle, Marc Savard (now retired), Christian Ehrhoff, Braden Holtby, James Reimer and Ryan Malone form the most known names out of the 4th round. The 5th round is very much the same. The better known names out of this group include Jamie Benn, Mikhail Grabovski, Kevin Bieksa, Ryan Miller, James Wisniewski and recently, rookie sensation Brendan Gallagher being the most notable names out of the group in recent years. But the talent does seem to thin

Looking at the 6th and 7th rounds, this is what you would call the true fringe of drafting. Players drafted out of these groups can pretty much only hope to rise above replacement-level status in the NHL. The last top names to come out of this group were from the late 1990s in Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Henrik Lundqvist and Montreal's Andrei Markov. Later on, Dennis Seidenberg and Joe Pavelski are about the most pronounced names seen. Since 2001, no one has come out of the 6th or 7th round that has even approached star, let alone superstar status in the NHL.

As you may know, teams will often swap draft picks in various trades whenever trading is permitted during the course of the NHL off-season or the season itself. This does not change much on draft day. Teams will often attempt to jockey for a higher pick in the draft, attempting to trade into the Top 5, the Top 10, or even the Top 100 depending upon what is available. Making a significant move in the draft can be quite costly in the early stages. Typically, moving up 5 spots or more will typically cost at least a trade involving a team's own 1st and 2nd-round pick, or a 2nd-round pick they have acquired from another team. An attempt at a larger jump of 10 spots could cost several picks, or the dealing of a significant player or prospect. Trading all the way up in to the Top 5 range from the 20s however, is what you might call a pyrrhic trade. A team could trade away so much of their core for a potential prospect they end up worse off for it. After all, not all Top-5 or Top-10 selections work out.

Teams should not be afraid to make a deal if they see an opportunity either. In 2003, New Jersey dealt a 1st and 3rd round pick to Edmonton in exchange for the pick that became Zach Parise. San Jose would deal their 1st and 2nd in 2007 to St Louis in exchange for the pick that selected Logan Couture. Ottawa would trade up in 2008, exchanging their 1st and 3rd-round picks to Nashville for the pick that became Erik Karlsson. St Louis dealt David Rundblad, a 1st-round pick in 2009 in exchange for Ottawa's 1st-round pick that then became Vladimir Tarasenko in 2010.

Trading up or down can also give poor returns. Florida would deal from 1st to 3rd in 2002, missing on the chance to select Rick Nash and instead acquiring Jay Bouwmeester. Columbus would deal down from 4th overall in 2004 to 8th overall, selecting current AHLer Alexandre Picard, missing out on having a choice of Andrew Ladd or Blake Wheeler. The Minnesota Wild, would trade up using their 1st and 3rd to move up in 2007 in order to select Colton Gilles, which hardly worked out in their favour. Florida would make up a move up in 2005, dealing their 1st round pick and a 2nd round pick to acquire Kenndal McArdle at 20th overall, who has failed to rise out of the minors since then.

When it comes to observing draft coverage, you should pay heed to the idea that like most things in life, do not buy into the hype. There will be discussion around prospects that compares them to current star players or even legends who have been named to the Hockey Hall of Fame. The best thing to do is to give such comparisons a pass. These comparisons do nothing more than place an unfair burden of expectation on prospects and at times, denigrate just how special some of the players they are compared to. It is a little presumptuous after all to say an 18-year old prospect is set to basically replicate the career of Steve Yzerman or Joe Sakic. It is better to seek deeper analysis whenever possible, scouting groups like McKeen's Hockey, Future Considerations and Hockey Prospect all offer comprehensive guides to the draft each season. A draft guide will provide good analysis of a prospect's strength and weaknesses and a projectable ceiling for the NHL and avoid lazy descriptions.

Following the draft, there will be many examinations of who ‘won' and ‘lost' at the draft table. These evaluations will be based off of pre-draft rankings, the opinions of media, scouts and fans and can be coloured by personal biases regarding certain prospects, or the teams drafting them. The proper evaluation of a draft class can take three, five or even ten years to see who among the group are truly the best.

The eternal question about any draft pick is naturally ‘when will he be ready for the NHL'. It is unfortunately a question that has no straight answer. While certainly one would expect the 1st overall pick in a draft to be ready right away, sometimes the rest of the group can take far longer. For players selected within the first two rounds, a reasonable waiting period is about three years for them to start challenging for a spot with their team. This is not to say they will make the team, but there should be strong indications at this point they will be able to push in to an NHL role. Prospects drafted in the later rounds can sometimes take as long as five years to give an indication they are shaping into an NHL role. It should be noted that goaltending prospects can take even longer, teams can wait six years or more for one to round out into a starter's role. There is naturally some players beating these timelines, or stretch them out but it is best to be conservative in projecting entry to the NHL for a prospect.

The NHL Draft is easily the most important period in the NHL offseason as it does more than anything to determine to the future of the league and the fortunes of the 30 teams. However the key word is future, what happens during the Draft is setting the future of the league, not the present and patience is required to see the results. Not everything will work out as planned, as the draft is not an exact science. But stories will emerge from each draft, players will rise to prominence where it was not expected as a team's scouting staff will find hidden rewards.

Enjoy the draft, but give the kids a chance. Most of them will not make it and many more will not live up to the lofty projections that were placed upon them. But some will rise and have their names enter the Hockey Hall of Fame. It is where it all starts and on June 30th, some new stories will definitely begin.


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