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The Prospects for the Prospects

With the Stanley Cup now ensconced in Chicago for another annual visit, the thoughts of the hockey world turn squarely to Florida, where the 2015 NHL Entry Draft will be held next week. The lead-in to the draft is always an interesting time, as the true prospect aficionados emerge and rule the hockey news flow. I tip my hat to these folks, who can recite statistics back to age 10 for dozens and dozens of potential professionals.

I find myself somewhere in the middle when it comes to the Draft. While it an energizing phenomenon to bring young new talent into the organization — it is also a phenomenal gamble. The NHL General Managers’ Graveyard is littered with the bones of NHL executives who staked the future of the club — and their own careers — on “can’t miss” prospects . . .only to have them miss . . .badly. By the same token, players emerge from the unlikeliest places to have long and successful NHL careers — Joe Pavelski in Round 7 anyone? Pekka Rinne in Round 8? So, I find myself tempering my enthusiasm when it comes to the draft selections themselves. That allows me to be pleasantly surprised when guys like Marko Dano and Alexander Wennberg actually start producing at the NHL level early in their careers. It’s probably just the residual effects of Doug MacLean and Gilbert Brule, but it helps me keep my marginal grip on sanity.

It’s pretty well recognized that only a small fraction of players drafted will ever see meaningful time on NHL ice. The funnel gets really narrow, and “potential” only goes so far in securing an individual player’s future. That being said, what about the players who have made it to the big time? How did they get there? What does the route taken by players at both the league and team level say about the draft process, the impact of the salary cap, or the predictability of success based upon draft position? So, I looked at the rosters from each of the NHL teams at year end, and tracked where they were drafted — if at all. Some intriguing numbers emerged, so let’s dig in.

Overall, the rosters included 779 players, with individual teams listing anywhere from 23 to 33 players, according to their respective whims. Here’s how they break out — round by round — with “Other” referencing players who either were drafted in Rounds 8 or 9 under the old system, or who otherwise went undrafted and signed as free agents:

Rd. 1 Rd. 2 Rd. 3 Rd. 4 Rd. 5 Rd. 6 Rd. 7 Other
271 121 68 57 50 50 35 127
34.79% 15.53% 8.73% 7.32% 6.43% 6.42% 4.49% 16.30%

Not surprisingly, 1st round selections make up just over a third of the entire player pool in the NHL at this moment.. If you combine Round 2 and the “Others”, those amount to almost another third of the player pool. So, that leaves a final third to divvy up between five rounds of players — not terrific odds, in the absolute. However, NHL teams don’t deal in absolutes — they deal with realities. The foremost of these, of course, is the salary cap, which severely inhibits the ability of a team to stock its roster with 23 1st round draft picks. As it is, the existing pool of first rounders in the league amounts to nine years of first round picks. Add in the waiver rules and similar protections, and there is some guaranteed distribution of talent.

That’s not to say that teams don’t try to stock up with first rounders. However, the identities of the clubs that have been most successful at doing this may surprise you. The Minnesota Wild lead the NHL, with 14 first round picks on the roster. Add the four second rounders, and 18 of the 28 listed roster members come from the top two rounds. The remainder of their listed roster consists of three sixth round picks, two seventh rounders and five “others.” Five other clubs have a dozen first rounders on the squad, including Colorado, Florida, St. Louis, Washington and Winnipeg. Of these, Los Angeles is the most visibly invested in top rounders, with 21 of their roster players coming from the top three rounds. They won a Stanley Cup last year . . . but missed the playoffs this year.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Boston Bruins have only four first rounders on the roster, which some would argue is consistent with their . . . um, “frugal” approach to salary management. Still, with a recent Stanley Cup to their credit, their approach of finding nuggets in the later rounds has worked. Calgary has only five first round picks, while Dallas and Detroit made do with only six first rounders apiece . . . as do the Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks. Edmonton — where first overall picks go to die — has only seven first rounders on the roster at the moment (and all of them want the puck.) That’s the same number as the Blue Jackets, by the way.

So, if crunching the numbers tells us anything, it’s likely that the number of first round picks does not necessarily correlate with success, nor does the absence of first rounders suggest failure. WIth 1st and 2nd rounders accounting for almost exactly half of the rosters, front offices are left to mine the remaining rounds and the undrafted ranks for role players and potential undiscovered stars in the making. Numerically, there is little statistically significant difference between Rounds 3 through 7, and the single biggest source of the remaining roster contingent comes from the undrafted ranks. Most (17) NHL clubs have five or six of these players on the roster, with Calgary leading the pack at nine. Conversely, Anaheim, Arizona, Carolina, Los Angeles and Ottawa feature only one undrafted player. Again, no real correlation between these numbers and success on the ice.

An entirely different picture emerges when you examine goalies, and the route they take to the NHL. The examined rosters included 66 goalies, and more (14) came from the “Other” ranks than came from any other round, including the first round (12). The second and third rounds produced 10 selections each, while rounds four through seven combined fro the remaining 20 picks. Intriguingly, of the eleven NHL teams with at least one goalie selected in the 1st round, only four (Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Montreal and Tampa Bay) made the playoffs this past season. Statistically significant? Probably not. The numbers are skewed somewhat by the number of Europeans that play in goal in the NHL, and are less likely to go through the draft. However, it also suggests that the mercurial nature of the goalie makes General Managers quite leery of spending early round picks on any but the most stellar prospects in goal.

The bottom line of this appears to be . . . .there is no bottom line. On the one hand, you can look at the numbers and determine that rosters are stocked with the players from the top two rounds, to the extent the salary cap and waiver rules permit. On the other hand, you can say that there is not necessarily a salary correlation with draft round, and that the numbers suggest that NHL General Managers are “right” only about half the time — to the extend that approximately half of the NHL rosters come from rounds 3 through 7 or the undrafted ranks. Either way, it is clear that individual teams find an infinite variety of ways to compose their squads and find success . . .or not . . . and that success cannot be pinned to the round number in which the players were selected. However, for the prospects waiting to hear their names called next week — hope that your name is called in the first two rounds — or that you are an undrafted European player. Unless you’re a goalie, of course, in which case all bets are off. Stay tuned.