I can scarcely remember a month that reinforced the importance of the draft in my mind more so than the current one. Not only are we less than two weeks away from the 2009 draft, which features two potential franchise players, but we have just handed the Stanley Cup to one of the more purely draft-built champions in recent memory. Almost all the key players of the Penguinsí run Ė Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Marc-Andre Fleury, Jordan Staal, even Maxime Talbot! Ė were recent draft picks that have developed within the organization and were given time to gel as a team. With the Salary Cap limiting the possibilities of teams being able to load up on free agents and outspend their competition in the way they did during the 90s, this is likely to be the preferred model of building a great team going forward. Indeed, the other great young team in the NHL, the Chicago Blackhawks, is also a draft-built team.
I will go through the 10 most successful drafts in history, and show how they impacted the teams that achieved them. Of the ten drafts listed here, eight led to Stanley Cups within 8 years or less, and the entire group had a hand in 18 Stanley Cups total, almost half of those awarded since 1969 when the draft really began.
To establish the total value obtained through the draft, I have used each playerís career regular-season GVT, but with a twist: I have applied a discount rate of 10% to annual GVT. In other words, a playerís GVT in the year after the draft is divided by 1 (i.e. maintained), in the second year it is divided by 1.1, in the third year it is divided by 1.1^2, etc. The reasons for doing this are many. First of all, for any team, help now is always better than help later. Secondly, when a player starts producing right away, the team doesnít have to worry if heís ever going to live up to his potential, whether they should trade him, or other issues. Third of all, teams donít have rights to players forever, and the early years are the only ones that they really get ďon the cheapĒ. People may object to my precise value of 10%, and Iím open to discussion on it, but Iím certain that 0% is not the correct value. 10% means that we apply half the weight to production 8 to 9 years after the draft, which sounds about right.
To determine team success in the draft, I estimated how much discounted GVT each team could be expected to obtain based on the value of each of its picks. In other words, teams that pick late in the draft (say the Red Wings for much of the last 15 years) should be expected to draft weaker players, on average, than those picking earlier. My colleague Richard Pollock has spent much of the last two months estimating the value of a draft pick in each round, and my estimates match his:
We can see that by pick 60, which is now the beginning of the third round, the value of picks has become almost negligible, being less than 5 on the discounted GVT scale. To get a smooth curve, Iíve fitted a function that models well the observed values. (For you math geeks, the function is 310 / (Pick + 3.3)). As Richard has pointed out, about 2/3 of the total value available in the draft is within the first 40 picks, making first-round selections, and especially high first-round selections, very valuable.
Having fitted by curve, I also multiply the value of each pick by the total amount of talent that was available in the draft that year, as measured by aggregate discounted GVT. For example, 1979 was the best draft year in history, and thus every teamís pick in 1979 was more valuable. By contrast, players chosen in recent years have not had the time in their career to produce as much, and so picks from the last 6 or 7 years are less valuable in this analysis. Obviously, if I redo the analysis in a few years, we will see that they have increased in value. Both the 2003 draft, which produced Eric Staal, Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf and Dion Phaneuf, and the 2004 draft headlined by Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Mike Green, will probably go down as among the best in history once all is said and done.
Having established the methodology, I will now go through the 10 teams that have most exceeded expectations in a single draft year, indicating by how much they outperformed, and the key players that they chose along with their overall draft rank.
One of the most striking features about these drafts is that none of them have taken place after 1989. There are three main reasons for this. One is that the players drafted in the 1990s and 2000s have not completed their careers yet, and thus their GVT resumes are incomplete. Secondly, a lot of the best players in the NHL over the last 15 years have been European, and European players tend not to come over at 18, right after theyíre drafted; rather, they spend 2 to 3 years in a European Elite League before making the plunge, reducing their immediate value.
#11: Ottawa Senators, 1997. Value: 151
Key players: Marian Hossa (12), Magnus Arvedson (119), Karel Rachunek (229)
Iíve chosen to mention the 11th place draft as well for a few reasons. First of all, itís the only one of these that has taken place since 1989, showing that itís not been impossible to have a successful draft in recent years, itís just been rarer, possibly because improved scouting has leveled the playing field somewhat. The second reason is to show that you donít need to get multiple superstars to have a good draft. While Magnus Arvedson and Karel Rachunek are not names that will set the typical hockey fan into a frenzy, they did turn into decent NHLers, and Rachunek continues to have a solid career in Russia. The third reason is that the key player drafted was Marian Hossa, who turned out to be one of the best players of the next decade despite the ridicule he has recently been subjected to.
#10: New York Islanders, 1977. Value: 170
Key players: Mike Bossy (15), John Tonelli (33)
The Islanders only got two real players out of this draft, but what players they were! By 1977, the Islanders were already good, and as such were picking 15th out of 18 teams, but still managed to have the most successful draft of anyone. Mike Bossy turned out to be, by far, the best player available in 1977, breaking the NHL rookie scoring record and proving to be one of the most prolific goal scorers of all time, scoring 573 goals in an injury-shortened 10-year career. John Tonelli, while not a player of Bossyís caliber, still proved to be an excellent player. Both were members of the Islandersí four Stanley Cup winning teams.
#9: Philadelphia Flyers, 1972. Value: 170
Key players: Bill Barber (7), Tom Bladon (23), Jimmy Watson (39), Al MacAdam (55)
An expansion franchise only 5 years before, the Flyers didnít do anything special in the 1972 draft other than set the foundations for their Stanley Cup win 2 years later. Barber would become one of the best Flyers of all-time, and today still ranks 5th on the teamís all-time GVT list. Tom Bladon and Jimmy Watson, though possibly unknown to todayís fans, were solid, #2/#3 defensemen: both would play about 600 games in the NHL, most with the Flyers. Al MacAdam played only one season with the Flyers, winning the Cup, but he would serve the team one last time as part of a trade that brought Reggie Leach to Philadelphia. With these players, the Flyers would win the Cup in 1974 and 1975 and reach the finals again in 1976 and 1980.
#8: Montreal Canadiens, 1984. Value: 192
Key players: Patrick Roy (51), Stephane Richer (29), Petr Svoboda (5), Shayne Corson (8)
The 1984 draft has turned out to be the 3rd best in history, after 1979 and 1980, in part because it featured two of the best players of all-time. While Mario Lemieux was an obvious choice as the consensus #1 pick, and did nothing in his career to underperform those expectations, the other gem of the draft was a goaltender, discreetly chosen in the 3rd round by the Canadiens: Patrick Roy. Roy would go on to be only the greatest goaltender in NHL history. However, the Canadiens also in that year managed to draft 50-goal scorer Stephane Richer, reliable Petr Svoboda who would play 17 seasons in the league, and Shayne Corson, who would have another good career. Roy would be the key player for four Stanley Cup winners, and all of these players would be playing till 2001, and until 2004 in Corsonís case.
Tomorrow: The Top 7!
Tom Awad is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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