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Blue Chippers or Volatile Goods?

How Valuable is the First Overall Section in the NHL Entry Draft?

Source: www.nhl.com
Source: www.nhl.com


With the Toronto Maple Leafs firmly entrenched in last place (as of 17 February 2016) in the National Hockey League (NHL) standings, Leafs Nation has already circled 29 February as D-Date, because a closer look at the NHL calendar would reveal that it is the trade deadline for this season. Following the Leafs somewhat surprising trade of long-time captain Dion Phanuef to their Ontario rival (none other than the Ottawa Senators) in a stunning nine-player blockbuster deal on 10 February, the exodus of Leafs players from the roster has hit full stride through the deadline. Most of the attention was on the seven pending unrestricted free agents (Brad Boyes, Michael Grabner, Shawn Matthias, P.A. Parenteau, Roman Polak, James Reimer, and Nick Spaling) which the team sold off for much-needed draft picks as Toronto’s “complete rebuild” continues under the guidance of Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello, Kyle Dubas, Mark Hunter, and Mike Babcock. While the return could be modest for some (if not all) of these players, given that most of them (perhaps with the exception of Optimus Reim) are depth players and not exactly difference makers, they have drawn interest from teams because they can offer Stanley Cup contenders depth during a postseason run, not to mention that virtually all of them are very cap-friendly as they have cheap and expiring contracts. The Maple Leafs will now basically dress a skeleton lineup littered with American Hockey League and East Coast Hockey League-calibre players on a nightly basis beginning 1 March. The end result is that no matter how hard and structured the hockey club plays under the guidance of Coach Babcock, losing will be a common theme, meaning that the Leafs should finish very close to the bottom of the NHL standing at the end of the regular season, if not dead last!

All the “pain” that Coach Babcock has referred comes with the potential for a big payoff later. If Toronto were to finish in 30th place at the conclusion of regular season, the Maple Leafs will have a 20% chance of winning the draft lottery scheduled on 16 April(and in fact will be guaranteed to select no later than fourth overall in the first round). Some Leafs fans are still lamenting the fact that the team did not earn the right to draft expected generational talent Connor McDavid last year. However, they can look forward to seeing Toronto announce the selection of Auston Matthews on 24 June at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft in Buffalo, New York, if the ping pong balls bounce the Maple Leafs’ way. Yet how many first overall picks actually pan out and achieve their full potential? For every legend such as Mario Lemieux, there is a bust, such as Alexandre Daigle. Let us take a closer look at whether having the first overall selection of an annual entry draft is analogous to having a golden ticket to employing a future-Hall-of-Famer, or if it’s closer to taking on an unsure commodity that is no more than mere hype.


Calder Memorial Trophy Winners:

Since the inception of the NHL Entry Draft in 1963, there have been a total of fifty-three first overall selections. To this date, this short list has produced ten Calder Memorial Trophy winners: (1) Gilbert Perreault, drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in 1970; (2) Denis Potvin, chosen by the New York Islanders in 1973; (3) Bobby Smith, selected by the Minnesota North Stars in 1978; (4) Dale Hawerchuk, picked by the Winnipeg Jets in 1981; (5) Mario Lemieux, drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1984; (6) Bryan Berard, chosen by the Ottawa Senators in 1995; (7) Alexander Ovechkin, selected by the Washington Capitals in 2004; (8) Patrick Kane, picked by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2007; (9) Nathan MacKinnon, drafted by the Colorado Avalanche in 2013; and (10) Aaron Ekblad, chosen by the Florida Panthers in 2014.

Based on this data, this means that the probability of landing a newly-minted NHL player who would go on to become the Rookie of Year after his first campaign is only 18.87%. Of course, it should be noted that Sidney Crosby would in all likelihood have won the Calder Memorial Trophy in 2006 if Ovechkin did not have to delay his NHL debut by a year due to the 2004-2005 NHL lockout, which led to the cancellation of the season. We should also be mindful that the 2016 Calder Memorial Trophy winner has yet to be announced, seeing that we are only about two-thirds of the way through this season.


Members of the Hockey Hall of Fame:

As much as the chances of unearthing a future Rookie of the Year seems low, the odds of recruiting a future Hall-of-Famer is even bleaker, at least on the surface. Among the fifty-three first overall picks, there are only seven players who have been ultimately immortalized and inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame: (1) Perreault; (2) Guy Lafleur, selected by the Montreal Canadiens in 1971; (3) Potvin; (4) Hawerchuk; (5) Lemieux; (6) Mike Modano, picked by the Minnesota North Stars in 1988; and (7) Mats Sundin, drafted by the Quebec Nordiques in 1989. Therefore, statistically speaking, the chance of being able to get the NHL rights of a future Hall-of-Famer via the first overall selection is a mere 13.21% (7/53). However, I surmise that adjustments should be made because factoring first overall picks who are still active players into the calculations would bias the results.

If we were to exclude the seventeen players who are still playing in the NHL from the equation — (1) Chris Phillips, chosen by the Ottawa Senators in 1996; (2) Joe Thornton, selected by the Boston Bruins in 1997; (3) Vincent Lecavalier, picked by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1998; (4) Rick Nash, drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2002; (5) Marc-Andre Fleury, chosen by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2003; (6) Ovechkin; (7) Crosby, selected by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2005; (8) Erik Johnson, picked by the St. Louis Blues in 2006; (9) Patrick Kane, drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2007; (10) Steven Stamkos, chosen by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2008; (11) John Tavares, selected by the New York Islanders in 2009; (12) Taylor Hall, picked by the Edmonton Oilers in 2010; (13) Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in 2011; (14) Nail Yakupov, chosen by the Edmonton Oilers in 2012; (15) Nathan MacKinnon, selected by the Colorado Avalanche in 2013; (16) Aaron Ekblad, picked by the Florida Panthers in 2014; and (17) McDavid, drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in 2015; — then the probability of being able to secure a future Hall-of-Famer using the first overall selection would improve to a marginally better 19.44%.


Final Words:

As we have seen from the above analysis, the chances of successfully choosing a Calder Memorial Trophy winner is only 18.87%, and the probability of successfully selecting a Hall-of-Famer is a remote 13.21% prior to adjustments and an unlikely 19.44% after adjustments are made. On the other hand, only three players who were taken first overall failed to appear in a single NHL game—(1) Claude Gauthier, chosen by the Detroit Red Wings in 1964; (2) Andre Veilleux, selected by the New York Rangers in 1965; and (3) Rick Pagnutti, picked by the Los Angeles Kings in 1967—all  from the era before the 1967 NHL expansion. So even though the likelihood of picking a player who fails to have at least a cup of coffee in the NHL is quite low at 5.33% (3/53), the truth of the matter is that the odds of being able to find that “can’t be missed” diamond in the rough seems to be an inexact science no matter how we dissect the fifty-three first overall selections.