Who You Calling Weak? Draft Class Variance

This year’s NHL draft class is weak. I don’t follow junior prospects closely, but that’s what I’ve heard from more knowledgeable sources. It’s a fair claim; Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier seem talented but not among the game-changing talents that have recently been drafted first overall.

However, it’s harder to judge the draft class past the very top. Scouting is hard, especially for hundreds of prospects across the world. It’s possible that while there is no clear star in the draft class, the rest of the draft is as strong as ever.

That would have big implications for draft strategy. The conventional wisdom is that teams may trade more picks this year because they believe the weak draft class makes the picks less valuable. But if the draft is typical after the first few picks, that would be a poor use of assets.

We don’t yet know how well this year’s draft class will do in the NHL. But, we can use historical data to ask questions that establish expectations: how well does each draft class typically perform, and how much does this vary by year?

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Exploiting Variance in the NHL Draft

Recently, one of my VanHAC slides was used to justify the Bruins’ decision to take Trent Frederic over Alex DeBrincat (and many others) in the first round of the 2016 NHL Draft. Needless to say, I haven’t slept soundly since then.

Unfortunately, crafting a solid rebuttal isn’t as easy as saying “DeBrincat has a higher ceiling.” To that end, I present a framework for evaluating these types of draft decisions. There are two basic questions to consider:

  1. What are the outcomes for each player?
  2. How can we appropriately value these outcomes?

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Eye on the Entry Draft: Which teams are set for future success?

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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:

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