How to Rebuild: NHL Secrets in Numbers

*updated FEB 20 2018 10:07 (new bar graph)

More draft selections means more kicks at the can. Any General Manager would prefer two 'random' picks in the first two rounds over a single, carefully scouted, pick. At least that's what a numbers man, an economist like Malcolm Gladwell, would chose if he was a GM.

The goal of this study is to uncover how teams manage draft picks in the first 2 rounds of the NHL draft; where acquiring a future NHLer is probable, thus a sure-fire way to build (or rebuild). As the saying goes 'build through the draft'.

In this study we hypothesized that when a team has a low quantity of draft picks in the top 60, then they should have a high number of playoff appearances. Since the ultimate goal of the game is to win the Stanley Cup, we used 'playoffs games played' as the measure of success.

If we take a look at the numbers below, many NHL teams follow this pattern. As you would suspect, the Penguins - in win now mode - traded many 1st and 2nd round picks, and have had much success (many playoff games played). On the other side of the spectrum, the Sabres - in build mode - have few playoff appearances but have more than their share of draft picks in the top 60. These 2 teams represent a coherent, reasonable pattern. But what about the teams that fall outside this norm? Let's take a closer look.

The Numbers Explained

We looked at 10 years of NHL drafting, 2008 to 2017. Teams should - if they kept their own picks - have 2 per year for a total of 20 during this period. For example, the Penguins had the fewest selections (12), so they are -8 (as they would normally have 20 selections). Basically 8 less kicks at the can. According to TSN's Travis Yost - Playing the percentages in the NHL Draft - , one pick in the top 60 has a approximately 62% chance of becoming an NHLer. (80% for 1st rounders and 44% for 2nd rounders). Depending on where these 8 "lost" picks were in the first 2 rounds; that's almost 5 NHL players the team lost a chance to acquire through the draft.

Cost/Benefit Ratio Playoff Record 2008-2017

When we cross-reference the 'cost' (picks traded away) with performance (playoff games played), then the Penguins are at perfect equilibrium - they traded away the most picks (8) but also boast the most playoff games played durning that same period (132). Of course, sport is just not that simple. There are so many factors that go into winning and losing - luck, timing, Crosby, Malkin. Regardless, the numbers can lead you ask some interesting questions. And for this study, its more interesting to look at teams on the fringes of the pack; the teams that don't have the logical performance of either side of the spectrum like the Penguins and Sabres.

But, what about the teams who traded away some of their top-60 picks, and do not have the corresponding success? For example the Canucks, Flyers and Canadiens had a balance of -3 picks and have had success, but not nearly as much as the Rangers, Capitals and Kings- teams with similar propensity to trade away draft picks.

There are also the Leafs and Oilers who stand-out, mostly because of their playoff futility (only 13 games played in the past 10 seasons), and not much evidence in acquiring picks (both teams - 1; only 19 picks in first 2 rounds during this same period)

On the other side of the spectrum, many teams have had better performances but also managed to acquire more picks in the top 60; the Hawks (+3), Bruins (+3) and Ducks (+6). So that's a difference of 6 or more picks compared to the Canucks, Flyers and Canadiens - teams with fewer playoff games played. For example the Ducks have 11 more playoff games played than the Canucks, but also had 9 more picks. You can decide yourself if these extra picks were impactful or not but clicking on the chart below for detailed information.

So what does this all mean? It's merely one in an multitude of ways to assess a team's performance in draft pick management; in comparison to other teams.

The numbers show that the Ducks, Bruins and Hawks are winners, balancing winning and building. On the flip side we have Canucks, Flyers and Canadiens may have a harder time justifying the lack of picks in relation to playoff appearances. Next time you are on a season ticket holder teleconference with team management, you can ask them about this paradoxical asset management. Then we have the bottom of the barrel in terms of playoff appearances - the Leafs and Oilers, and questionable status of being near the bottom of the spectrum in terms of acquiring quality draft picks; having a negative balance in that regard.

Now. If you are fans of the Canucks, Flyers, Canadiens, Leafs and Oilers don't go hating on your beloved GM. These numbers can be interpretation many ways. As a fan you may chose to be happy that your GM is trying to make an impact. Regardless, the information can help you ask the right questions of your team.

Did you find this research useful?


Data sources: