In the salary cap era in the NHL, the entry draft has become a top priority for general managers. Acquiring players like Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Johnny Gaudreau, or Aaron Ekblad is most easily done at the draft table. More and more, GMs are recognizing that players peak at a young age, making long-term deals for early-20-somethings a wise investment, even if valuations are fueled by projection.
Here’s a sample of contracts for under-25-year-olds:
*image courtesy of capfriendly.com.
Against that backdrop, the value of an NHL draft pick has received a good deal of spotlight. Michael Schuckers has done a good deal of recent work in quantifying the value of each draft pick. DTMAboutHeart has done similar work recently and Eric Tulsky’s draft pick values remain in public use.
What is the real value of an NHL pick?
Which teams are well set up to capitalize on the young talent available in the upcoming draft?
Which teams have shown a commitment to restocking their rosters with youth (i.e. a “bright future”)?
Conversely, which teams have aging rosters with few prospects for adding youth going forward (i.e. a “now or never” mentality)?
Let’s dive in.
The Real Value of a Draft Pick
Michael Schuckers has done a wealth of work in developing relative draft pick values. I won’t go into the details of his process here as that work is a standalone read but I recommend reading through the work he’s done to get a sense of how the pick values were created.
For our purposes, let’s look at how draft picks are valued:
As part of his process, Schuckers adjusted his relational values so that pick number one has an “expected pick value” of 1000. This number itself doesn’t mean anything – it’s just a benchmark to help us make comparisons between different picks.
The first note is the extreme dropoff within the first few picks. Within the top-eight selections, the value of each subsequent pick is about 10% lower than the previous draft slot.
While the percentage dropoffs continue to be between ~3-6% from pick to pick in the first round, the actual expected value of the draft choices has fallen far enough by the middle of the first round that the difference from one selection to the next is relatively minor.
In fact, there is approximately as much difference in expected value between the 1st and 3rd picks, the 14th and 24th picks, and the 24th and 211th picks.
Part of the takeaway here is pretty intuitive to those who follow the draft. The first few selections are very valuable – that’s where a team can select the McDavid, Matthews, Ekblad types. By the middle of the first round, there aren’t vast differences from one selection to the next.
The part that should catch some attention is the value of middle round picks. If a GM is operating without any preconceptions or imposed context (i.e. “I want to draft this guy because I’ve seen him play” or, “We need a big-bodied defenseman in the system” or, “I know his dad. What a heckuva great NHLer” then there’s little reason to value a third round choice much more than a fourth or fifth round choice. Trading down to amass more total selections is then theoretically optimal, giving the GM more similarly valuable chances at uncovering a talent instead of a fewer, negligibly better picks.
Two 4th round picks are better than one 2nd rounder. And so on.
With this in mind, which teams are best set to add young talent to their organizational depth charts at the 2017 entry draft?
*for a larger, interactive view of any of the viz featured in this piece, please check the dashboards on my viz profile here.
Above is a current-ish projection for each team’s total expected draft pick values. A number of completely debatable assumptions have been made, including the actual draft order, the fourth overall selection to the Vegas Golden Knights, no trades of first round choices, and Columbus as the Stanley Cup Champions (thereby choosing last).
It’s also important to note that some conditional pick trades (for example, the Peter Holland trade) won’t be settled until season’s end. Some shuffling will occur.
We can also look at the same data in this way:
Chicago, Philadelphia, and Carolina currently have the greatest number of total picks (x-axis) while Vancouver, the Islanders, Anaheim, Ottawa, and Washington have the fewest.
By either view, we can see that Colorado, Arizona, and Buffalo will add the most expected value at the draft, mostly on the strength of their top selection. It’s an interesting first glance but there’s a little too much noise to make any conclusions about team intent as first round picks skew the total team values.
Stephen Burtch made a great suggestion to examine the same information with the first rounders removed to better focus on teams that seem to be collecting valuable draft picks without the overriding influence of standings-based first round selections.
Let’s take a look:
Picks outside of the first round are easier to acquire and a number of those post-R1 picks have already been dealt*. That suggests that the ranking here reveals the desire of some teams to stockpile draft choices in an effort to rebuild.
*this link to CapFriendly also details all of the pending conditional picks.
Carolina, Toronto, and New Jersey slide into the top-five here based on their overall quantity and quality of draft pick expected values. Buffalo and Philadelphia remain near the top, showing that these teams have quality first rounders in hand and have made a priority of collecting additional picks.
Conversely, fans in Boston, Minnesota, Ottawa, Washington, and Rangers fans have good cause to be worried. A combination of few picks and mostly lower selections has these teams at the bottom of the league in expected value for the upcoming draft.
But we can take this even deeper. Let’s compare each team’s draft situation with their average skater age.
Again, we’ve left out first round choices here, which makes it difficult to assess team intentions because of the skewing power of the first few choices. If we were to include first rounders, you could move Colorado, Buffalo, and Vancouver off of the chart to the far right. In the real world, these picks will be hugely impactful. For our purposes, it masks team intent.
One more note before we discuss this view. The average age calculations are courtesy of quanthockey.com, which includes a simple adjustment for games played by players of each age. If you have a 20-year-old who barely plays, that skater won’t affect the team’s average age as much.
Let’s move on with those qualifiers in mind.
Carolina, Buffalo, Winnipeg, and Toronto stand out in the “bright future” quadrant for their mixture of below league-average skater age and quality/quantity of post-R1 draft picks. Buffalo is primed for another top choice in the first round too, which may help soften the blow of another season well-back of the playoffs.
Philiadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit are of note in the “rebuilding on the fly” quad – that is, teams with above average skater age and above average expected pick values. These teams boast rosters led by an older staff but their GMs have a store of upcoming picks to continue adding prospect depth to the system.
In the top-left quad, Ottawa, Columbus and Edmonton (though the Oilers are close to the average expected value line) boast rosters led by younger-than-average skaters. However, the organizations don’t currently have the picks needed to continue bolstering their prospect ranks at a league average level.
No team epitomizes the “now or never” mentality quite like the Rangers. NYR owns the league’s highest weighted average skater age and the team has the fourth-lowest expected value for picks past round one. The team is old and not currently focused on adding additional prospect depth.
It’s now or never in New York.
Some concluding thoughts
In the not-so-distant future, teams will make a flurry of deals involving draft picks at the NHL’s trade deadline. Bottom-dwelling teams will attempt to acquire first round picks from contenders in exchange for their veteran players.
But not all first rounders are created equal. For teams that acquire first round selections after the 23rd pick, those GMs might better serve their organization by aiming for two or three second or third round picks instead. The difference in value from pick to pick after 24th overall is negligible, though this line of thinking may not be prominent among general managers.
Some teams are already well-positioned for the draft. Carolina, Buffalo, Toronto, New Jersey, and Philadelphia have already amassed a number of the best post-R1 collection of draft choices.
For Carolina, Toronto, and Buffalo, their current reliance on young players and their slew of upcoming picks shows their commitment to a youth movement. For the New York Rangers, the time to win is now.