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An Introduction to the NHL Entry Draft

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The entry 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 known.

Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

In June of every year, approximately two hundred ten North American and European amateurs and professionals have their NHL playing rights claimed by one of the thirty teams in the National Hockey 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.

Draft Positions and Lottery

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 the first round (and each subsequent round), the runner-up will pick 29th, the losers in the Conference Finals will pick at 27th and 28th overall, with the remaining rankings to be determined by how the other teams finished in the regular season.

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Photo credit: Andy Marlin/Getty Images

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, a recent change to the lottery has opened it up to all non-playoff teams. In previous years, a team finishing outside of the bottom five would move up four spots in the event of a draft lottery win. That happened to the New Jersey Devils when they won the 2011 draft lottery, moving from the eighth to the fourth overall selection position.

However, the odds are still rather stacked in favour of the lowest non-playoff finishers, as the chances of winning the 2015 NHL Draft Lottery, in order from worst (30th overall) to best (17th overall, or first spot outside playoff position) regular season record, illustrate:

  1. 20.0%
  2. 13.5%
  3. 11.5%
  4. 9.5%
  5. 8.5%
  6. 7.5%
  7. 6.5%
  8. 6.0%
  9. 5.0%
  10. 3.5%
  11. 3.0%
  12. 2.5%
  13. 2.0%
  14. 1.0%

The specific ball selections that will lead to a certain team landing the first overall pick have been outlined for the 2015 lottery. [NHL.com | PDF]

There is a 63.0% chance that a bottom-five team will win the lottery and hold the first overall pick in the draft. Going by these odds, you could hold this lottery 99 times and the team with the best regular season record in the draft lottery (17th overall) could still not win the right to draft at the first overall position. Last place doesn't guarantee the first overall pick in the draft, but it is still very rewarding for teams to finish extremely poorly and receive the opportunity to claim a potential franchise player. However, that is a whole other issue that can't be properly discussed in this article.

Rounds

There are seven rounds in the current model of the draft, with each team being given one pick in each round.

Naturally, the first 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 first round offers star talent, however, as there can be huge talent gaps from one pick position to the next, 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 first overall, Evgeni Malkin went second and then Cam Barker, Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler went third, fourth and fifth, respectively. So it is important to keep in mind that a top-ten pick — or even a top-three 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 call 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-five draft picks.

*For the purposes of evaluation, a time period from 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 five of the first round of course. Non top-five players include Marian Hossa, Martin Havlat, Niklas Kronwall, Alexander Semin, Ales Hemsky, Jeff Carter, Ryan Getzlaf, Zach Parise, Corey Perry, Anze Kopitar, Tuukka 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 300 in number over twelve draft years from 1996 to 2008.

Typically, the aim of a team picking in the first round is to select a player capable of being a top-six forward, a top-four 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 second round of the draft as well, but the pickings are much slimmer. As was noted by HabsWatch, while 65% of first round draft picks can make the NHL and play a significant number of games, only 27% of second-round draft picks find the same success. So, essentially, a team could pick twice in the first and four times in the second round and still only come out with two serviceable NHL players.

The second round does deliver some high-end results from time to time, of course. Montreal's own P.K. Subban was a second round draft pick, as are many other prominent NHLers,  including Shea Weber, Duncan Keith, Patrice Bergeron, David Backes, David Krejci, Ryan O'Reilly, Mike Cammalleri, Wayne Simmonds, 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 first round. More than a few teams can mark their second 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 third round does not tend to give many generous results, but quality names have emerged. Montreal's own Alexei Emelin is a former third 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 Beauchemin, 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-six skaters and bottom-pairing defencemen.

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James Wisniewski | Photo credit: Robert Laberge/Getty Images

The fourth and fifth rounds are where the talent hits a very thin point, with few names spinning in to notable players. This is the area of a draft where teams can go for ‘reach picks,' high-end talent that has flown well under the radar, or players who are at best going to fill depth positions. Players like Ryan Callahan, Keith Yandle, Marc Savard (now retired), Christian Ehrhoff, Braden Holtby, James Reimer and Ryan Malone are the most well-known names to be called in the fourth round. The fifth round is very much the same. Jamie Benn, Mikhail Grabovski, Kevin Bieksa, Ryan Miller, James Wisniewski and Canadiens' rookie sensation Brendan Gallagher are the most notable names out of the group in recent years.

Looking at the sixth and seventh 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. In more recent drafts, Dennis Seidenberg and Joe Pavelski are about the most pronounced names seen. Since 2001, no one has come out of the sixth or seventh round that has even approached star status, let alone become a superstar in the NHL.

Transactions

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 five, top ten, 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 five spots or more will cost at least a team's own first and second round picks, or a second round pick they have acquired from another team. An attempt at a larger jump of ten spots could cost several picks, or the dealing of a significant player or prospect. Trading all the way up into the top five range from the twenties, 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. As discussed earlier, not all top five or top ten selections work out.

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Valdimir Tarasenko on draft day | Photo credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Teams should not be afraid to make a deal if they see an opportunity. In 2003, New Jersey dealt a first and third round pick to Edmonton in exchange for the pick that became Zach Parise. San Jose sent their first and second round picks in 2007 to St. Louis in exchange for the pick used to select Logan Couture. Ottawa traded up in 2008, exchanging their first and third round picks to Nashville for the pick that became Erik Karlsson. St Louis dealt David Rundblad, a first round pick in 2009 in exchange for Ottawa's first round pick that then became Vladimir Tarasenko in 2010.

On the flipside, trading picks can also give poor returns. Florida traded down from the first to third overall selection in 2002 and missed on the chance to select Rick Nash, instead acquiring the rights to Jay Bouwmeester. Columbus dealt their fourth overall pick in 2004 in exchange for the eighth overall pick and one in the second round, selecting current AHLer Alexandre Picard and missing out on having a choice of Andrew Ladd or Blake Wheeler. The Minnesota Wild traded up using their assigned first and third round picks to move up in 2007 in order to select Colton Gillies, which hardly worked out in their favour. Florida made up a move up in 2005, dealing their first round pick and a second round pick to acquire Kenndal McArdle at 20th overall, who has failed to rise out of the minors.

Amateur Scouting and Analysis

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Pierre McGuire | Dave Sandford/Getty Images

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, fail to do justice to just how great the NHL careers were of some of the players they are compared to. It is a little presumptuous to say an 18-year old prospect is set to 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 strengths and weaknesses and offer a projected talent level once in the NHL.

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 and/or the opinions of media, scouts, and fans and can be coloured by personal biases regarding certain prospects or even 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 were truly the best picks.

From Prospect to NHLer

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 first 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 the NHL 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. Goaltending prospects can take even longer. Teams can wait six years or more for a netminder to be ready to perform in a starter's role. There are naturally some players who either beat these timelines or stretch them out, but it is best to be conservative in projecting entry to the NHL for a prospect.

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Alexandre Daigle | Photo credit: Elsa/Getty Images

The NHL Draft is easily the most important period in the NHL off-season as it does more than anything to determine 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. From each draft, a few players will rise to prominence from low expectations while the hype surrounding top prospects will fizzle with their subsequent underwhelming performance. Scouting staffs will be praised for finding hidden jewels or vilified for wasting top picks on busts.

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. The draft is where the tale of a hockey legend starts and this year's draft will see some new stories begin.