NHL Draft Preview: Exploring the Conventional Wisdom

Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images

The history of the NHL draft has been, to use a polite term, inconsistent. In the 1970s, when the whole concept was still relatively new, nothing made the slightest bit of sense. Things had stabilized a bit by the 1980s, although there were still wide disparities in approaches and every now and then a team would just decide not to show up. The 1990s were filled with draft floor intrigue and costly busts, and even at the turn of the century, it was still fairly common to see the no. 1 pick traded away.

But by the time this current decade arrived, we were well into the cap era and most teams were approaching things in pretty much the same way. “Build through the draft” is every team’s mantra, top picks are almost never traded, the days of the overseas sleeper are long past, and everyone seems to be working from essentially the same information. The bad news is that all of this makes the draft a lot less fun. The good news is that, in theory at least, it should make things a little bit easier to predict.

This year’s draft is in Sunrise, Florida, with Round 1 happening tonight in prime time and everything else squished into a few hours tomorrow.1 In an attempt to figure out what might happen, let’s take a look at some pieces of conventional wisdom that have emerged over the years, and how they could apply to some of the top prospects who’ll be hearing their names called.

Conventional wisdom no. 1: Sure-thing franchise players are gold

In the cap era, there’s been at least some vague sense of uncertainty over the top pick in every year with the exception of 2005 (Sidney Crosby) and maybe 2008 (Steven Stamkos). Other than that, we’ve always had some degree of suspense over whose name would be called first.

That ends this year. Breaking: The Oilers are going to take Connor McDavid with the no. 1 overall pick.2 And after that, inside sources indicate that the Sabres are leaning toward Jack Eichel.

And that makes perfect sense, because McDavid and Eichel are two of the most highly regarded draft prospects the league has ever seen. McDavid has been hyped as the next Crosby for years, and he’s considered such a sure thing that there was plenty of speculation certain teams were tanking the 2014-15 season to increase their odds of landing him. (But don’t worry, the NHL assured us this never happens.)

Ironically, after all of that intentional losing, the draft lottery was won by the one terrible team in the league that really was trying its very best. While the Oilers’ lottery win wasn’t the ideal outcome for the league, it certainly shook up a franchise that’s been mired in misery for almost a decade. McDavid has the talent to single-handedly make the Oilers an instant playoff possibility, and he probably makes them Stanley Cup contenders sooner or later. He’s that good.

Eichel is good, too, and in any other year he would be a lock to go no. 1. This isn’t any other year, though, so when the Sabres lost the lottery and GM Tim Murray didn’t try especially hard to mask his disappointment, it was natural to view Eichel as a consolation prize. True as that may be, he’s one hell of a Plan B, and the few Sabres fans who haven’t already moved into the “We never wanted McDavid anyway” denial stage will get there pretty quickly once they get to watch him up close.

So McDavid will go first and Eichel will go second. That much we know. After that, things get interesting.

Conventional wisdom no. 2: Forwards are easier to project than defensemen

Recent history has borne this out. In 2009, the top two picks were John Tavares and Victor Hedman. Both were excellent choices, the kind of guys you build a franchise around, and both stepped into the NHL immediately. But Tavares has been considered an established NHL elite for years now — he’s been an All-Star twice, a Hart finalist, and an Olympian — while Hedman just had his superstar coming-out party during this year’s playoff run. Sometimes, by the time a defenseman has fully developed, he turns out not to be the player you thought he was. The Blues are still losing sleep over the decision to take Erik Johnson first overall in 2006 instead of Phil Kessel or Nicklas Backstrom or (cover your eyes, Blues fans) Jonathan Toews.

Given that sort of development curve, NHL general managers could be forgiven for wanting to take the forward over a defenseman. There’s less risk involved, and you’re closer to seeing the payoff. In a league in which GMs often don’t get more than a few years to start demonstrating results, that matters. That kind of thinking led to Seth Jones dropping from the consensus first overall pick down to no. 4 in 2013, behind three forwards. And it probably helps explain why we saw seven straight years of forwards going first overall following Johnson.

Of course, there’s no hard-and-fast rule. The Panthers are presumably perfectly happy after selecting Aaron Ekblad first overall in last year’s draft, given that he just won the Calder as rookie of the year. And sometimes a stud defenseman is worth the wait; ask any Senators fan if they’d like a do-over on Alexandre Daigle over Chris Pronger. But the fact remains that when you’re faced with a choice between a relatively equal forward and defenseman, the forward is going to be the safer pick.3

All of which brings us to picks no. 3 through no. 8 in this year’s draft, which is where things will start to get unpredictable. For most of the year, there’s been a consensus that the next tier after the McDavid/Eichel two-headed monster consists of three players: high-scoring junior forwards Dylan Strome and Mitch Marner, and all-around college defenseman Noah Hanifin. That would seem to put two teams — the Arizona Coyotes at no. 3 and the Toronto Maple Leafs at no. 4 — into the quandary of deciding whether they’re willing to gamble on Hanifin or make a safer bet on Strome or Marner.4 So far, most mock drafts seem to be leaning toward Hanifin ahead of one or both forwards.

For what’s it worth, Hanifin bristled a bit at the question yesterday, as you’d expect a defenseman would. “The GMs know what they’re doing, they’re smart,” he said. “It’s not to find who’s going to develop the quickest, it’s who’s they think is going to be the best player down the road. If it’s a forward or a defenseman, it doesn’t really matter. It’s whatever they think is going to help their team the most.”

To further complicate matters, two European-born junior players, forward Pavel Zacha and defenseman Ivan Provorov, seem to be creeping up draft boards, and they may be moving into the conversation alongside Strome, Marner, and Hanifin.5 Add in the top European-trained prospect, winger Mikko Rantanen, and at least a little bit of uncertainty over Hanifin’s ceiling (TSN and NBC draft expert Craig Button isn’t a big fan), and you’ve got a bit of a mess in the middle of the top 10.

Conventional wisdom no. 3: Goalies are the toughest of all

If defensemen are tough to project, goaltenders are close to impossible. When you look around at the league’s best goaltenders, you’re just as likely to find a guy taken in the first round as the third, or the seventh, or one who was never drafted at all. Goalies can take years of seasoning in the minor leagues before they’re ready for the NHL, and even once they make the big leagues, it can take hundreds of games before we have any idea if they’re actually good.

This makes drafting a goalie with a high pick an extremely risky move, and in recent years it’s been one teams have stayed away from. In three of the last four years, no goalie was picked in the first round. The exception was in 2012, when Andrei Vasilevskiy (19th) and Malcolm Subban (24th) were selected. That was three years ago, and neither has established themselves as an NHL starter yet, although Vasilevskiy did make a surprise cameo in this year’s Cup final and is viewed as a future star. Beyond that, you have to go all the way back to Semyon Varlamov and Jonathan Bernier in 2006 to find a first-round pick who’s had any real impact in an NHL crease.

If you’re an NHL GM, you can’t like those odds, and it’s tempting to just write off the position early and try to find a gem or two later in the draft. That could be bad news for a guy like Mackenzie Blackwood, the top North American goaltender in Central Scouting’s year-end rankings. But this year’s draft does feature one goaltending prospect who’s generating at least some faint first-round buzz: Ilya Samsonov, a big Russian who climbed up the draft board as the season went on. He’s been compared to Vasilevskiy and is considered a blue-chip talent, although as with many Russian players there are questions about when he’d be available to come over to North America.

Will someone gamble a first-round pick on Samsonov? Most projections don’t have him going until the second round at the earliest, and history suggests that spending a first-rounder on him wouldn’t be a good idea. Then again, there are always exceptions. It was 10 years ago that a team went off the board by spending the fifth overall choice on a goaltender, and in hindsight that pick ended up working out OK.

Conventional wisdom no. 4: Bigger is better, except when it isn’t

Picture a 17-year-old kid who’s physically dominating the competition in the junior ranks. He runs guys over, exerts his will in the corners, and is an immovable object in front of the net. It’s hard not to watch someone like that and dream about picking the next Milan Lucic, if not the next Cam Neely.

But then you stop to wonder: What happens when he moves to the next level and is playing against full-grown men instead of skinny teenagers? Are you watching the early days of a future power forward, or just a bully who won’t keep up when he has to pick on someone his own size?6

Last year, we went through this debate with Nick Ritchie, an OHL winger who was expected to go as high as sixth. He ended up dropping down to 10th, where the Ducks snapped him up with the pick they’d acquired from Ottawa in the Bobby Ryan trade. Ritchie spent last year back in junior, where he had a somewhat disappointing season followed by a strong playoffs, and is still considered a very good prospect.

This year’s poster child is Lawson Crouse, another OHL power winger who may be the most divisive player in the draft.7 At 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, he’s comparable in size to Ritchie and plays a similar game. What he doesn’t have are similar draft year numbers — for a potential top-10 pick, his junior stats are surprisingly pedestrian, as he put up 29 goals and 51 points in 56 games in a league in which future NHL stars typically average well more than a point per game. But many scouts seem to love him, citing his size, intangibles, and two-way game. He’s emerged as this year’s “eye test vs. analytics” battleground, and like Ritchie last year, he should go somewhere between no. 6 and no. 10. When he does, there will be plenty of arguments over whether it was the right call.

Conventional wisdom no. 5: It’s better to swing for the fences than play it safe

We might want to refile this one under “emerging wisdom,” since it’s not quite convention yet in a league where thinking tends to veer toward staying conservative. Many teams still like to play it safe, but there seems to be a movement toward high-risk, high-reward picks.

If we can mix our sports metaphors, think of the draft as stepping into a batter’s box. You have a crucial job to do, but you’re only going to get so many swings. What’s your goal? Do you try to make solid contact and hit line drive after line drive, or do you swing for the fences even if it means you’re more likely to strike out?

For years, the answer was to hit line drives. Depth was important, so taking a guy who projected to be a decent third-liner often made more sense than rolling the dice on some high-upside kid who’d probably bust and never crack your lineup. Besides, if you were an NHL GM and you missed on enough picks, it wouldn’t be long before you weren’t an NHL GM anymore.

But in the salary-cap world, depth players can be found for cheap, while young stars on an early contract represent phenomenal value. It’s awfully hard to build a Cup contender without at least a few inexpensive young players playing key roles. The easiest place to find those guys is in the first few picks of the draft, but most good teams don’t have access to those. So you have to gamble, targeting guys who have talent even if that talent is accompanied by big question marks.

All of this comes into play once we move into the second half of the first round and beyond, and it may be especially true this year. Several teams have multiple picks in the first round, including each of the top four (Edmonton, Buffalo, Arizona, and Toronto). Those teams will each get a sure thing, or close to it, with their first pick, which should free them up to get aggressive with their second. Philadelphia and Winnipeg also have a second pick in the first round.

Of course, that also leaves six teams without a first-round pick: the Rangers, Islanders, Penguins, Blackhawks, Blues, and Predators. Those teams will no doubt have their eyes on certain guys as the night wears on, and at some point the temptation to trade up into the first round will start to build. It should make for an entertaining second half.

And while it’s hard to project who’ll go where once teams start taking those big cuts, here are a few swing-for-the-fences picks to keep an eye on tonight: Daniel Sprong, a high-skill winger who doesn’t yet own a two-way game but has plenty of upside (Pronman raves about him); Nick Merkley, a playmaking winger who could drop into the bottom half of the first round because he’s not very big; and Denis Gurianov, a big and offensively skilled winger who could slide because he’s not very good defensively.

Conventional wisdom no. 6: The first round is critical, but it’s those second-day picks that make a champion

After tonight’s opening round is done, everyone will go home, get a good night’s sleep, and be back at it tomorrow for Rounds 2 through 7. Two things we can predict in advance about Saturday: The picks will come ridiculously fast, and somebody will win themselves a Stanley Cup.

We don’t know who that will be, of course, and we won’t for several years. But some day down the road, we’ll look back at Day 2 of the 2015 draft and realize that some team found one or more steals that paved the way for a championship. Although drafting in the top five is the easiest way to find a superstar, any team can pull that off. It’s the ones that manage to do it in the later rounds that end up winning.

You don’t have to look any further than this year’s Stanley Cup final, where Conn Smythe winner Duncan Keith (second round, 2002) led the Blackhawks past a Lightning team powered by the Triplets line of Nikita Kucherov (second round, 2011), Ondrej Palat (seventh round, 2011) and Tyler Johnson (undrafted).

Keith is part of a long list of Cup-winning NHL stars who were taken outside the first round, including Patrice Bergeron (second), Pavel Datsyuk (sixth), Jonathan Quick (third), and Dustin Byfuglien (eighth). As common sense would lead you to expect, later picks are much less likely to turn into superstars than early firsts; that means that when they do, the added value can be enough to boost a team into contention.

So which prospect will be this year’s Keith? If I knew, I’d be working for an NHL team. But whether it’s due to dedicated scouting or just plain luck, some team will find him, and there’s a good chance that team is playing into June someday down the road.

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