Evaluating a team's performance in the NHL Draft can be a tricky subject, because there are so many variables that go into whether or not a team is successful on draft day.
Aside from the scouting that goes into each selection, and making the "right" pick, there is also the player development aspect that follows it. Would a player be as successful if he were selected by a team that wasn't as patient with its younger players, or a team that didn't give them as many opportunities?
There is also a bit of a luck factor involved.
The NHL Draft, just like in every other sport, can be nothing more than a roll of the dice, especially once you get past the first six or seven picks in any given year. If Detroit knew that Pavel Datsyuk was going to be one of the best players of his generation, or a top-line player of any kind, it wouldn't have waited until the sixth round to pick him, giving every other team in the league at least five shots at him. The Chicago Blackhawks are geniuses for finding Brandon Saad in the second round, but it's never pointed out that they took three players ahead of him who have yet to play a game in the NHL.
No matter how good their scouts or player development people are, there's some luck there, and you're kidding yourself if you think otherwise.
NHL teams, for the most part, do a pretty good job of identifying the best players every year and more often than not nail the top of the draft. There are very few flameouts in those top slots. But as you go beyond that and get deeper into the draft, your odds of finding an NHL player plummet.
Here are the "success rates" for each portion of the draft between 1995 and 2005.
|Pick||Appeared In NHL||Played 100+ Games In NHL|
|Rest of First Round||88.6%||63.0%|
|Seventh Through Ninth Rounds||27.1%||11.6%|
That's a pretty steep drop from the top 10 to the back end of the first round, and then an enormous drop from the first round to the second round.
One of the smartest things a team can do if it isn't picking in the top five every year is to not only stockpile as many draft picks as it possibly can, but to make sure it doesn't trade off all of its picks.
This was one of the biggest failings the Pittsburgh Penguins have had over the years, and it's contributed to their poor drafts and, ultimately, many of the organizational changes they've gone through this offseason. Between 2006 and 2013 -- the Ray Shero era -- Pittsburgh had just 13 first-and second-round picks. The only teams in the NHL that had fewer over that stretch were Philadelphia, San Jose and Vancouver.
The Penguins made a habit out of trading picks (particularly second-rounders, and even a couple of first-rounders) for short-term rentals at the trade deadline who simply did not pan out -- specifically, guys like Douglas Murray and Jordan Leopold, not to mention a third-round pick for the free agent rights to Dan Hamhuis, who then opted not to sign with them. Poor scouting and player development also played a role, but unless you're picking at the top of the draft it should be all about quantity and giving yourself more chances to find somebody who can play. Pittsburgh did not do that.
At the other end of the spectrum, you have a team like the St. Louis Blues.
Over that same stretch, the Blues had a whopping 23 picks in the first and second rounds (including 10 in the first round), more than any other team in the league. (Chicago was second with 22.) Despite picking in the top five just twice -- with one of them being Erik Johnson, perhaps one of the weaker No. 1 overall picks in recent memory -- the Blues managed to produce a pretty significant chunk of their core, including Patrik Berglund (25th overall), Jaden Schwartz (14th overall) and Vladimir Tarasenko (16th overall). And that doesn't include guys like David Perron (26th overall) and Lars Eller (13th overall), whom they've been able to trade for other assets.
The Anaheim Ducks had a similar run (21 first-and second-round picks since 2006) and were able to select players such as Kyle Palmieri (their second first-round pick in 2009), Emerson Etem (their second first-round pick in 2010) and John Gibson.
That's why I kind of like what the Buffalo Sabres have done with their most recent rebuild. After having eight picks in the first two rounds over the past two years, they have seven more over the next two years. They've already started to see some return on all of those selections with Rasmus Ristolainen, Nikita Zadorov and Zemgus Girgensons getting their first NHL opportunities this past season. Girgensons, their second first-round pick in 2012, was at times one of their most reliable forwards in 2013-14.
Like any other aspect of the game, some teams are going to be better at scouting and player development than others. But no matter how good a team is in these areas, most of their picks are still going to end up failing. The best way to combat that is to gather as many as you can and be smart about trading away the ones you do have.
Sometimes it can be all about quantity.