Jackets’ 1st Round Draft History Stacks Up Well In NHL

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As training camps begin whittling their ranks, and youngsters are returned to juniors and others are dispatched to the AHL, there remain those veterans who are scuttled to the waiver wire, ultimately bound for the minors, Europe or retirement.  It is an annual rite of passage in the NHL, and each year brings some surprises, some predicted downfalls (i.e. Wade Redden) and other moves that make fans rue prior indiscretions on prior draft days.

The Columbus Blue Jackets’ fan base seems particularly attuned to such perceived transgressions on the part of the front office. Thus, when it was announced today that the Phoenix Coyotes had placed former Columbus 1st Round pick Alexandre Picard (2004 Entry Draft) on waivers, the chirping began on the Twitterverse about the prior Columbus failures with first round draft choices.   Seeing a research opportunity, I dug into how all of the NHL teams have fare with their #1 overall picks in the entry drafts from 2000 (the year Columbus and Minnesota joined the league), through the 2009 season.  (Obviously, 2010 draft choices have not had the chance to play in an official NHL game as yet)

In my prior series on the vagaries of the NHL Draft (Part I Part II), I pointed out that the process of building a club through the draft is, at best, an inexact science, and that the rate of success, even in the first few rounds, is far below what one might expect.  I also opined that a valid measure of draft success is the number of games draftees played at the NHL level — whether or not for the club that drafted them.  Players can move from team to team for a variety of reasons, many of which have little to do with their intrinsic value as a player.  Changes in style, free agency, salary cap management and a host of other factors are more involved in player movement than pure player value.  Further, for the most part, when a drafted player moves to a new organization, value comes back the other way, theoretically of comparable value.  Accordingly, even if a draft choice does not stay with his first club, the first club most often recognizes some reward for that pick in terms of other players and/or draft picks coming back.

[table id=22 /]That being the case, I took a look at the games played for every top draft pick for each club for the last 10 years.  (See chart).  Keep in mind that a few different principles come into play when interpreting this data. First, expansion clubs and newer franchises are likely to have a higher utilization of first round draft picks than others.  Thus, it is not surprising to see Atlanta, Nashville, Minnesota and Columbus near the top.  Indeed, the Columbus, Minnesota and Nashville numbers are ridiculously close given the time frame and number of potential games involved.  Atlanta is boosted by the consecutive drafts of Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk in 2000 and 2001.

Secondly, there are franchises who are so well established and have such a depth of talent, that draftees simply have to “wait their turn” for a shot in the NHL.  Detroit, with only 957 games played by its top draft picks over the last 10 years, is an example.  For draft years 2009 back through 2005, the top picks for Detroit have registered a grand total of 3 games played at the NHL level.

Next, there are teams who are, well, just bad at drafting . . . at least in drafting top picks.  May I present the New York Rangers?  A grand total of 414 games played by its top picks over the last decade.  Remarkable enough until you consider that 324 of those games were played by just two players — Marc Staal (244 games) and Michael Del Zotto (80 games).  For Calgary, the combined total of games played for 7 of the 10 1st picks is . . . 32.   Only Dion Phaneuf (2003 — 404 games), Eric Nystrom (2002 — 202 games) and Chuck Kobasew (2001-410 games) have significant NHL time, and none of them remain with the organization.

Another important thing to consider is that the maturation process for draft picks, even top picks, is much longer than fans care to think about.  Only 5 top picks from 2009 played significant time last season, and fewer than half the picks from the 2007 and 2008 drafts have seen measurable NHL ice time.  Even the class of 2006 has only half of the 30 members playing over 20 games in total over the last four years.  It is only when you get back to the 2005 draft year that a clear majority of top picks has seen substantial playing time.  General Mangers repeatedly counsel patience, but the advice is seldom heeded.

Against this backdrop, let’s look at the Blue Jackets’ draft choices:

[table id=23 /]

Columbus fans tend to think of the “Doug MacLean Era” and the “After Doug MacLean Era”, with the latter being eminently preferable.  The former GM and President had a knack for promotion and hype that were second to none.  A tremendous talent to have if you are the President of an organization trying to establish hockey in a fledgling market.  Top marks to Doug on that score.  However, that same set of attributes is not necessarily what you are looking for in a General Manager.  With the hype provided for each top draft pick, anything short of Wayne Gretzky or Bobby Orr was going to be viewed as a disappointment, so this accounts for a good bit of the pessimistic slant that  Columbus fans tend to place upon their draft history.  However, it objectively stacks up favorably within the context of the league as a whole.

Certainly, the draft picks over the past few years under new GM Scott Howson appear solid and likely to bear fruit.  His first pick, Jakub Voracek, is already outpacing his 2007 brethren, and seems poised for a tremendous year.  After a year of maturation and the adoption of a system more geared toward utilizing his talents, 2008 pick Nikita Filatov is also ready to contribute at a major level, and if he does, he also will be well ahead of his class.  Similarly, 2009 selection John Moore has had an impressive camp, and will be tough to keep off the team.  Even if he starts the year in AHL Springfield, he will undoubtedly spend considerable time on the NHL ice.  2006 choice Derick Brassard was limited by injury in 2008-2009, and struggled to regain his form last season.  However, considering again that only half of his classmates have seen any real NHL playing time, he remains on schedule and certainly cannot be counted as a wasted pick.

Going back to the beginning, Rostislav Klesla may not be the next coming of Bobby Orr that Doug MacLean promised, but nobody asserts that he is not a legitimate NHL defenseman, either.  Sure, you can quibble with him as a #1 pick, but the fact remains that he has brought value to the organization, despite an injury plagued career.  Ditto with 2001 choice Pascal Leclaire.  A solid netminder who was injury-prone and rendered expendable by the emergence of Steve Mason in his Calder Trophy winning year.  He was moved to Ottawa for Antoine Vermette, who has been  a huge asset for Columbus at center.  Of course, no debate exists concerning the 2002 pick, Captain Rick Nash, who is one of the elite wingers in the game today.

No, all of the griping about prior drafts really boils down to the 2003, 2004 and 2005 picks of Zherdev, Picard and Brule.  The enigmatic Zherdev was an inconsistent contributor on the ice, a massive disruption in the locker room, and a general thorn in mangement’s side.  GM Scott Howson shipped him to the Rangers for Fedor Tyutin, who has been a largely consistent blue line contributor for the Blue Jackets.  Zherdev, in the meantime, quickly wore out his welcome in the Big Apple, hid out in the KHL for a year, and now resurfaces in Philadelphia.  As Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.”  It just might apply here.

Everyone agreed that Gilbert Brule had the makings of a true offensive star in the NHL when he was selected with the top pick in 2005.  Unfortunately, the reality did not live up to the hype.  Whether an organization short on talent rushed him, or his maturation process simply failed to catch up to his talent, Brule proved to be a project too time consuming and risky for the club to handle.  Traded to Edmonton for Raffi Torres, Brule has started to show some signs of gaining traction, but the jury remains out.  Torres is no longer in Columbus, but contributed 31 goals and 51 points over two years, including some timely goals in the stretch run leading to the franchise’s only playoff appearance, in 1999.

Picard simply never showed the NHL skill required to be a serious contender for the big club.  After repeated auditions, Howson finally traded him to Phoenix for Chad Kolarik, who remains in the Columbus organization, and will likely play in Springfield this year.   Of the ten picks, this is the single one that appears to have little redeeming value.  However, if Kolarik emerges as a significant player, even this pick could have a positive impact.

Stacked up against the NHL as a whole, the Jackets’ performance with top picks stacks up well.  You can’t draft a Gretzky or an Orr every year, and Columbus has more to show for its picks than others who have had more top choices, such as the Islanders and Tampa Bay.  Subject to the normal reservations, the youngest talent appears well ahead of schedule, and the early picks have resulted in Nash, Tyutin and Vermette on the ice.  Columbus is one of only five teams who have avoided having a top pick from the classes of 2006 or earlier with zero NHL games to their credit.  The other four are Colorado, Chicago, Ottawa and Pittsburgh.

Speaking of the Penguins, note that they are at the very top of the ladder, despite not being an expansion team.  They haven’t done too badly either, have they?