Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Importance Of The Draft

When I wrote a post outlining the fact that the Toronto Maple Leafs recent failures are due largely to a lack of good draft picks and a pattern of trading away draft picks, I was surprised to learn the reaction of David Johnson from Hockey Analysis. He called it a myth that you must draft well to win.

David attempted to cite the Detroit Red Wings and New Jersey Devils as examples of this. These are two teams that have done quite well in recent history, both winning multiple Stanley Cups. While Detroit remains atop the NHL standings, New Jersey is falling, but remains a playoff team. He showed that if we restrict ourselves to the first three rounds of the draft and the years 1993 to 2001, neither team have produced many stars via draft. New Jersey has the best pick in that period of Scott Gomez. Of course, there is no reason to restrict ourselves to that limited set of draft rounds and years. Among players still in the NHL, Detroit drafted Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Chris Osgood and others. That is an impressive list of players. All have appeared in All Star Games. Some will wind up in the Hockey Hall of Fame. New Jersey has drafted Martin Brodeur, Scott Niedermayer (with a draft pick that originally belonged to Toronto but was traded), Scott Gomez, Zach Parise and Brian Gionta. That is another list of good players with a couple Hall of Famers. All players on that list could appear in All Star Games in their careers (though Parise and Gionta have yet to do so). During that time, the players who contributed the most to Toronto that the Leafs drafted are likely Tomas Kaberle, Nik Antropov, Alexander Steen, Kyle Wellwood and Fredrik Modin. The only player on that list who is an All Star for the Leafs is Kaberle. The others are unlikely to ever appear in an All Star Game (Modin did in 2001 but after he was long gone from Toronto). This is no way proves that you must draft well to be successful, but it does show that the successful teams David selected as counterexamples have drafted much better than the Leafs.

In the comments of that post, David tried round two. Calgary is a pretty good team and only six players on their team were acquired via draft. Of those six, only Dion Phaneuf can be considered a star.

It is true that Calgary is pretty good, but they are not great. They currently sit in 11th place in the NHL and aside from 2004 have not won a single playoff series since 1989. That said Calgary is a much better team than Toronto is. Calgary shows that you do not have to draft your young core to win, but you do need to acquire a young core somehow. Calgary traded for Jarome Iginla and Robyn Regehr before either had played a single NHL game. They traded for Miikka Kiprusoff and Kristian Huselius before either had become NHL stars. They got a good young core, largely through trades.

To win in the NHL you need to produce good young players (through any method - draft is usually most convenient but not the only one). These players must grow up together and breakout to be stars together. If your team ever is ready to win the Stanley Cup, your good young core will have reached maturity. They may not all be young anymore, many will be in the primes of their careers. Toronto does not have this core of young players. Not only have they not drafted well, they also haven't acquired good young players through other methods. Usually they find players by recycling older free agents onto their roster. This is no way to build a winner in the future and if you are not winning now it is a path to nowhere.

Toronto has an opportunity now. They are expected to make some rebuilding trades under Cliff Fletcher before the trade deadline. They have players like Mats Sundin, Darcy Tucker and Pavel Kubina who they might be able to move for some good young talent. It's unlikely that the team can be successfully transformed in one month of trading, but a step in the right direction might be possible. The Leafs will also have one of the early picks in the draft and might be able to grab a future talent there.

David Johnson goes on to list all the players who have made an impact this season who were drafted by their current team. It is an interesting list showing Buffalo has drafted the largest percentage of their roster and Anaheim the lowest percentage. It makes no attempt to gage the quality of the roster players only their quantity. It makes no attempt to look for drafted players who were traded for good young talent. It doesn't add much to this discussion other than showing the team building philosophy of different teams. Brian Burke likes to trade in Anaheim. Darcy Regier has had no luck attracting free agents to Buffalo and thus has drafted most of his team. However, Anaheim successfully drafted Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry (both in the All Star Game) and Joffrey Lupul and Ladislav Smid (who they traded for Chris Pronger who is also in the All Star Game). That alone goes a long way toward building the current Anaheim team.

To win in the NHL today you must acquire a good core of players. The younger you acquire them the better, because old players are in decline and tend to get injured more often. Young players will have more good seasons in the future and give you a longer time window to build a winner. The most convenient way to obtain young players is through the draft - although other methods exist. If your group of young players are good enough and mature to stars together, you will have a winning team. The problem in Toronto is that they have not obtained these young players. They have not put enough emphasis on the draft. They have always been trying to win now and chase that elusive missing piece. It has cost pieces of the future each time and that traded away future is now affecting them in the standings.

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