Teams missing hidden gems in NHL draft: Beedie study

Jun 23, 2011

by David Shoalts, Globe and Mail

A study by three academics at Simon Fraser University shows a surprising trend at the NHL draft and puts a dent in one long-held belief.

Peter Tingling, an assistant professor at the B.C. university’s faculty of business administration, and colleagues Kamal Masri and Matt Martell studied the NHL draft results from 1995 through 2003 and concluded teams miss a lot of good players in the later rounds because they dedicate their resources to the early rounds where the picks are easier.

While the authors confirmed the obvious, that players taken in the first round have the best chance of a meaningful NHL career (65 per cent of them by the authors’ count), they also discovered that players taken in the fourth through seventh rounds all have the same rate of success (roughly 11 per cent).

But on average, NHL teams harvest just two successful players a draft, so the authors concluded, in a study to be published in the July edition of the academic journal Sports and Business Management, teams lack consistency in evaluating teenage amateur players. They say teams’ rate of success in the last four rounds of the draft in the years they studied were no better than if they made their selections by simply drawing names. Outside of the first round, the authors discovered the order in which teams drafted did not give them an advantage in picking better players.

“People are focusing on the first 100 players [in the draft],” Tingling said Wednesday. “We say if you focus on the back half, you can pick up some gems.”

And this is where an NHL axiom took a hit. The Detroit Red Wings have long been held up as a team that finds gems in the late rounds, thanks to the drafting of players such as Pavel Datsyuk (171st overall in 1998) and Henrik Zetterberg (210th overall in 1999).

But when they studied the drafting success of individual teams, the authors found the Red Wings were slightly worse than most NHL teams at drafting players who had successful careers, which they defined as playing more than 160 NHL games. From 1995 through 2003, the Red Wings did not pick one such player in five draft years, a failure rate of 55.5 per cent. The Toronto Maple Leafs, a team long held up as inept evaluators or talent or prone to trading away picks, were in a group of teams that only had two years out of nine when they wound up with no successful players.

What that showed, the authors feel, is the Red Wings’ European scouting, under the direction of Hakan Andersson, outperformed the North American staff.

However, the authors also concluded the differences between the teams were so slight that no team could be considered to be superior to any other at drafting players. When they studied the draft results from 1981 through 2003, they found that of the 5,981 players selected by NHL teams, only 20.1 per cent played 160 or more NHL games and 58.3 per cent of them never played even one NHL game.

That was one of the only conclusions Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford was willing to agree with. The big problem with the draft, he said, is that scouts and general managers have to analyze 18-year-old players and project how they will perform as adults, which naturally makes drafting the guessing game the authors say it is.

“First of all, we’re drafting very young players,” Rutherford said. “So for a number of years all organizations are going to have some that don’t turn out, some that turn out and some that turn out better than you think. If you look at it over time, there is not as great a difference as you might think.”

Tingling readily agrees the age of the players in the draft causes great difficulty but still believes NHL teams can do a better job.

“Drafting is intrinsically difficult, we acknowledge this,” Tingling said. “It would be a whole lot easier if [the players] were not 18 years old. People say it’s like picking a Nobel Prize winner from a Grade 8 chemistry class. But if we did everything easy life would be a lot more simple.”

It is good business sense for teams to concentrate harder on finding good NHL players in the last four rounds of the draft, Tingling said. In a salary-cap world like the NHL, the cheapest players are the ones you draft, and good players taken in late rounds can be obtained for less money than inferior players simply because the inferior ones were drafted earlier.

Too often, teams are unwilling to apply unconventional thinking to draft picks, Tingling said. One example is Dustin Byfuglien, one of the NHL’s top scoring defencemen for the Atlanta Thrashers last season, who was taken in the eighth round of the 2003 entry draft by the Chicago Blackhawks.

He lasted that long, the authors said, because he let his weight balloon to 275 pounds and teams were scared off by his lack of conditioning despite his skills. But Byfuglien worked hard on his conditioning after he was drafted and became a top NHL player.

Another mistake teams make, Tingling said, is getting their scouts together before the draft to finalize their plans. Too often, the scouts simply confirm what teams already have decided about the top players and little information is gleaned about the lesser-known players.

This article was published in the Wednesday, June 22 edition of the Globe and Mail. Click here to read the article and related news online.