NHL Draft crops are often overhyped, so can advanced stats show that 2015 will be as good as believed?
By Ian Cooper, Phil Curry, IJay Palansky & Kellen Gracey
As any NHL player not named Jagr, Chelios or Howe can tell you, getting older sucks. But one consolation is the perspective it can bring. If you’ve been around long enough, you remember things that happened when you were young, and you can use that knowledge to make educated guesses about the future.
So, for example, those of us who are old enough to remember the 1997 NHL draft, which featured Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau as the top two picks, will recall the claims about how deep that crop was going to be. In fact, for people like Ian, who was an agent for several players who were picked in that draft, the promise was that the ’97 draft could be as deep as the one in 1979, which featured Rob Ramage as the top choice.
Ramage was a solid enough NHLer, but the draft really got in gear with guys like Mike Gartner (4th), Ray Bourque (8th), Brian Propp (14th), Michel Goulet (20th), and perhaps the greatest steal ever in NHL history with Mark Messier lasting until the 48th pick.
There was even a nice symmetry in that the majority of the ’97 draft class was born in 1979.
As it happens, that ’97 draft turned out to be a bit of a dud. Yes there were a few All-Stars taken after Thornton and Marleau (Marian Hossa chief among them), but there were also a ton of first round busts and few diamonds in the rough in the later rounds.
So here we are again in 2015, and once again we’re hearing bold claims about the once-in-a generation depth of this year’s group, most of whom were born in 1997 (not to wade into amateur numerology here, but what is it about hockey pundits that has them on this 18 year cycle?)
The obvious question is whether analytics can give us some insight into whether this draft is going to be more like the 1979 bumper crop or the 1997 dud factory.
Let’s get the top guys out of the way quickly. By all accounts Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel really are players to be excited about. In fact, we wouldn’t be surprised if they ended up being the most exciting top two since Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin went in the 2004 draft.
But like the ’97 draft, the outstanding top two picks in 2004 didn’t precede a glut of talent further down the draft order. In fact, as we noted a few months ago, the third pick that year was a guy named Cam Barker, who has the distinction of being arguably the worst defenseman ever picked third.
And 2004 isn’t the only example. History has shown repeatedly that having elite talent in the top two doesn’t necessarily presage a trickle-down.
Having smelled a bit of a rat in all the hype surrounding this year’s draft, we decided to drill down a bit further and see what we might expect from top rated forwards who aren’t named McDavid or Eichel.
We projected how many points this year’s top-ranked North American forwards will score when they reach ages 23 to 25. To get there, we started by analyzing two years of pre-draft data for current NHL players. We focused not only on point totals for each of the two years prior to the player being drafted, but also which league each player came from.
As it turns out, the biggest difference between our model and other similar measures is the importance of the player’s performance in the year before his draft year (the “draft minus one” year). It turns out that for top prospects who played in one of the Canadian Major Junior leagues (OHL, QMJHL, WHL) the draft minus one year is actually equally or even more predictive than the draft year itself. The reason for this may be that the best indication that a player is NHL-caliber is that he was able to perform at a high level even when he was a year (or more) younger than the majority of his opponents.
For players who excel at the NCAA level the draft minus one year is far less important. In other words, success as an NCAA freshman seems to be sufficient proof that a prospect truly has promise. This may be due to the fact that the older competition in the NCAA is in some ways more representative of the NHL game.
The table below shows what our model thinks 21 of the top 25 ranked North American forwards up for this year’s draft will produce as NHL players in the seasons when they’re between the ages of 23 and 25, just before they enter their peak performance years.
Because we had to exclude players who didn’t have two years of North American data, we don’t have projections for top prospects like Pavel Zacha (ranked eighth by NHL Central Scouting among North American skaters) and Evgeny Svechnikov (17th).
As you can see, none of the other top forwards projected to go early are sure-fire studs. For example, Dylan Strome (currently ranked fourth on Central Scouting’s list) and Lawson Crouse (fifth) are big question marks. Both are big kids (Strome is 6’ 3” and Crouse 6’ 4”), and in Strome’s case the scouts are no doubt excited about his “bloodlines” and the emergence of brother Ryan this past season as a potential elite scorer for the New York Islanders.
But whether you look at our model or the NHL measure (a projection developed by Gabe Desjardins), both project as bottom six forwards.
Mitch Marner, however, looks like the real deal.
Meanwhile, Dante Salituro (ranked 109th by Central Scouting) projects to be almost as good as teammate Travis Konecny (14th), and Conor Garland (ranked 86th) projects to be fairly productive at the NHL level.
Both are smaller players with offensive upside who could make some scout look like a genius given how late they’re likely to be picked.
As a side note, Brett Seney (198th), who had an impressive freshman season at Merrimack and could be a potential sleeper pick, had to be excluded from our analysis because he only played one year at the levels for which we had data. Nevertheless, if we’re right about how important an NCAA freshman season is, that shouldn’t scare scouts and their teams away from picking him.
Based on our analysis there’s little reason to think that all the talk about the depth of this year’s draft is anything more than hype. More likely than not most of the top guys this year will join the ranks of players like 1997 first rounders Sergei Samsonov, Daniel Cleary, and Brenden Morrow, all of whom had respectable but unremarkable NHL careers.
But there will also be more than a few first rounders like 1997 picks Jason Ward (11th; 336 NHL games played), Robert Dome (17th; 53), Mike Brown (20th; 34), Daniel Tkaczuk (6th; 19), Michel Riesen (14th; 12) and Matt Zultek (15th; 0).
And yes there will probably be a Hossa. But you shouldn’t rush to guess who that is and there may only be one.
Draft day is exciting because of the promise it holds. But we shouldn’t oversell it either.
The Department of Hockey Analytics employs advanced statistical methods and innovative approaches to better understand the game of hockey. Its three founders are Ian Cooper (@ian_doha), a lawyer, former player agent and Wharton Business School graduate; Dr. Phil Curry (@phil_doha), a professor of economics at the University of Waterloo; and IJay Palansky, a litigator at the law firm of Armstrong Teasdale, former high-stakes professional poker player, and Harvard Law School graduate. Please visit us online at www.depthockeyanalytics.com
Kellen Gracey (@kellengracey) is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Iowa, who is originally from St. Thomas, Ontario and is a recent St. Louis Blues fan.