With the Los Angeles Kings celebrating their Stanley Cup victory . . . The Quest begins anew.  Attention turns squarely to the 2012 Entry Draft, and the anticipation that surrounds the selections, the surrounding trades and the impact those moves will have on the futures of the individual clubs.  For the 29 clubs not drinking champagne from Lord Stanley’s Cup, they will be looking for that singular talent, that missing piece of the puzzle that will transform mediocracy into excellence, and excellence into championships.

As last week’s installment showed, the rampant optimism that invariably accompanies the countdown to the Draft is perhaps not fully warranted, given that fewer than 36% of those chosen will ever see a minute on NHL ice, and the majority of those will only have a glimpse.  Still, hope springs eternal at this time of year, and teams have transformed their fortunes through effective use of the draft.  Others have largely spurned the annual auction of young talent, preferring to develop their squads through trade and free agency.  So, we turn our focus to the 30 NHL clubs, and see how they have fared in the Draft over the past 12 years (coinciding with the NHL reaching its current number of teams).

Let’s start with an easy measure – comparing how well the individual teams have done in drafting talent that can – and does – play at the NHL level.  For this comparison, I’m again including all players drafted between 2000 and 2011, and then selecting those who played at least one regular season game on NHL ice.  (Playoffs are excluded to level the playing field among all teams – so Chris Kreider, for example, would not be counted, as he has not played any NHL regular season games, though he appeared in the playoffs.)

Here are the results:

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Not surprisingly, no team has succeeded in bringing more than half of its draftees into the NHL. Boston comes closest, at just under 45%.  Minnesota, Edmonton, Columbus, Colorado and Pittsburgh all have results north of 40%, suggesting that they have each done a commendable job in identifying and securing talent that can play at the NHL level.  There are no “absolutes” when it comes to evaluating a team’s draft performance.  Unlike batting averages, where you can use a benchmark of .300 to identify star-caliber hitters, there are no magic numbers for the Draft.  A player either plays – or he doesn’t.  Success is achieved by being better than your peers – no matter what the numbers may be.  It’s similar to 30 campers being chased by bears.  You don’t need to outrun the bears, just the other campers.

At the other end of the spectrum, Florida, Tampa Bay, Phoenix, Vancouver, Carolina and Detroit have not utilized the draft to their advantage – placing fewer than 30% of their drafted players in NHL competition.  Some of this is by choice . . . and some isn’t.   Tampa (pre-2008), Florida and Phoenix have thus far  had limited success in assembling competitive NHL talent through the draft, and have largely built their current squads through acquisition of veteran skaters – with a few notable exceptions.   Detroit, on the other hand, has had the luxury of not needing to use the draft as a primary development mechanism over the last decade.  Their core has been established and their system refined to a point that it requires only the periodic adjustment – just like a finely-tuned engine.   The Detroit lineup has not featured anyone that the club drafted more recently than Justin Abdelkader (2nd Round 2005).   As we will see in a minute, Detroit may not find many players through the draft – but the ones they find, they tend to keep.

The significance of the degree to which drafted players are retained by their selecting teams over the long term is an intriguing issue.  On the one hand, as noted in the last article, it is truly irrelevant to evaluation of the drafting prowess of a given organization.  A player who goes on to succeed with another NHL club is just as worthy a pick as one who stays with the same team over the long haul.  If a player moves on, the drafting team should get compensation via a trade that reflects that worth.  If they don’t, it is not a reflection on their drafting ability, but on their roster management and value assessments.   Retention is also impacted by myriad other factors unrelated to drafting.  Questions of depth at particular positions, timing, salary cap and priorities all come into play, and should not be retroactively viewed as transforming a good pick into a bad one, based upon subsequent events. Across the NHL, just  33.21% of draftees who have seen NHL ice time are still with their drafting teams. (For this purpose, I counted players as being with the organization if they ended last season on the NHL team, the AHL affiliate, or a junior club. Players in Europe who may be subject to a team’s rights were not counted.)  Here is what the retention numbers look like:

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Not surprisingly, Detroit and Carolina are at the top, accompanied by the Islanders.  The Red Wings and Hurricanes follow similar models –  carefully cobbling talent together, and retaining the basic core of the club to the extent possible.  That model is the luxury of past success, but also helps insure future success.   The Islanders have been struggling, but have been committed to the draft process – bringing just under 40% of its draftees to the NHL – then keeping them to form a core.

Of course, many will say that the Islanders’ situation is not a fair comparison, as securing a spot on that roster is far easier than doing so with a Detroit or Pittsburgh, for example.  The same could be said of Minnesota, Columbus or Edmonton – who also have high percentages of their draftees making it to the NHL.  It would not be surprising, given the fact that Minnesota and Columbus are 2000 expansion clubs, and Edmonton has fallen on hard times in recent years.  However, the numbers don’t support the conclusion.  While all have solid retention percentages, they are not at the top of the heap, by any stretch of the imagination. Thus, the talent they are drafting is finding playing time in other organizations after they move along.

Of course, as I indicated last week, the bulk of draft success comes from those players selected in the 1st Round – and preferably within the top few selections.  There is a significant drop-off in playing time, as represented by the PPI (explained in last week’s article), once you get past the #2 overall pick. Still, within the confines of the first round, you would expect to see a fairly linear relationship between draft position and PPI, such that the earlier the pick, the higher the PPI.  Again, there are no magic numbers here, and success truly needs to be viewed in comparison with other clubs. To do that, I looked at each team’s first round picks, calculated the PPI for each player chosen, then accumulated the average pick position and the average PPI for the entire 12 year period.  Each club was ranked sequentially, based upon both draft position and PPI, and the PPI ranking was subtracted from the draft selection ranking.  If there is a perfect correlation between draft position and the PPI of the players’ selected, the differential would be zero.  If the players performed better (in PPI) than the draft position would indicated, the differential would be positive.  Similarly, if the players underperformed, the differential would be negative.  Confused yet?  No worries, here is the chart, which should be a little clearer, which also shows the total number of first round picks that each club has received:

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So, in this view, Washington, Philadelphia, New Jersey and Ottawa are the big winners, suggesting that they have mined the lower regions of the first round for some gems over the past decade or so.  Indeed they have. The Flyers nabbed Justin Williams with the 28th pick in 2000, Mike Richards at #24 in 2003, and Claude Giroux at the 22nd slot.  For New Jersey, Zajac and Parise came in with the #20 and #17 picks, respectively, and Ottawa nabbed Volchenkov at #21, Eaves at #29 and Meszaros at #23.  Washington, on the other hand, used the “brute force” approach, amassing 17 1st round picks, and using them to get Semin (13th), Gordon (17th), Schultz (27th), Green (29th), Varlamov (23rd) and Carlson (27th), among others.  Note that the “usual suspects” in draft discussions do not appear near the top in this view.  The poster child here is Pittsburgh, who held overall pick numbers 5,1,2,1,2 from 2002 through 2006, and selected Ryan Whitney, Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Jordan Stall with those picks.  However, from a PPI perspective, those results are consistent with those draft positions, hence placing them relatively in the middle of the pack.

Columbus, who ranked 1st in draft position, underperforms slightly in the first round, with a differential of -3.  This again illustrates how fragile this whole drafting process truly is.  Although sporting the lowest overall average drafting position, Columbus has had only one pick in the top three – the 2002 #1, when they traded up to get Rick Nash.  Otherwise, it has been a sprinkling of picks ranging from #4 to #8, with which they have had mixed results – and that’s the nature of Round 1 of the NHL Entry Draft.  While Pittsburgh used its “pick luck” to tremendous advantage, Atlanta/Winnipeg, with the #2,#1 and #2 picks in 2000 through 2002 (Heatley, Kovalchuk & Lehtonen) could not replicate those results.  Of course, this is not a strict measure of merit, but rather how well actual draft results compare from a PPI perspective with what would be expected, based upon a straight-line correlation between PPI and draft position.  Columbus still ranked fourth in PPI, for example, so their track record in the first round is not bad, just perhaps not as good as might be expected.

Of course, the entire story cannot be told through statistics and numbers.  Behind the statistical veneer is the qualitative assessment of just how well those players play in their time on the ice.  How do you account for the guy you figured would be a top six scorer, but ends up as a third line grinder? The chronicles of the Draft are filled with just those types of situations, and you can’t really adequately assess those with numbers.  Similarly, what is acceptable “development time”?  The numbers suggest something in the 3- 4 year range, but again, the exceptions outnumber the rules.

What the numbers do suggest is that when the GMs gather in Pittsburgh next week, only a very few will succeed in finding that transforming combination of talent that is the Holy Grail of every NHL Entry Draft.