The Everlasting Draft Debate

By Bob Trask – Around this time of year the age old debate of how an NHL team should approach the draft is always rekindled. Should a team draft the best player available or draft for needs? Or is it a little bit of both?

Best Player Available

Of course teams always want to pick the best player available but the further you go down the draft, the more murky that picture becomes.

Take a look at the draft rankings from several sources and you will find they often disagree on the best player available at any given spot in the draft. So which one of these sources can accurately identify the best player available? When you go beyond the first few obvious choices, the differences between players can be razor thin.

And when you look at the history of the draft it is easy to see where teams got in wrong if they were trying to draft the best player available. Two examples that lie on opposite ends of this spectrum are Nail Yakupov and Patrice Bergeron. Clearly, in the case of Yakupov, the Edmonton Oilers would like a do-over if they were trying for the best player available. And every team in the NHL would jump at the chance of drafting Bergeron if they knew how good he would become.

Drafting for (immediate) Needs

Nick Suzuki

This approach is also fraught with problems. Other than top 10 picks, very few players become solid contributors to their NHL teams until 5 years after their draft year. A need today may be very different than a need 5 years into the future.

Nick Suzuki might be considered an exceptional case. He played two more years of junior after he was drafted before cracking the NHL lineup and now has 200 games under his belt. But 5 years after that draft year only 14 players chosen in the first round have played more than 100 games in the NHL. Of the players chosen in rounds 2 – 7 in the 2017 draft, only 13 have played 100 games or more at the NHL level.

Given time more players will likely establish themselves as regulars somewhere in the league but the point is, trying to identify a need 5 years down the road is a difficult task.

A Hybrid Approach

The truth is that many factors probably go into every pick. From time to time there will be obvious choices that teams could make even without the benefit of a scouting department. Names like Sidney Crosby and Conor McDavid come to mind. But beyond that, management has to weigh input from their scouting departments and maybe their analytics departments along with their own vision for the makeup of the team.

What seems like a fit for one team may not be a fit for another. A team with a free-wheeling style may be looking for a different type of player than a defense first team like the Islanders have been this year.

That means considering the level individual skills and how those skills fit with the style of game management is striving for. It also means identifying flaws or shortcomings in a player’s game and determining whether those can be corrected. And it means making a judgment on their personalities, their willingness to learn, to adapt and to put in the work required.

As John Sedgwick said, the more information a team can have when it comes to player evaluation, the better. It goes beyond data and into personalities. Both are important and need to be taken into consideration at the draft table.

On July 7th and 8th we will see how Kent Hughes approaches the draft and from that we will get more cues on his vision for the team. Given the transparency with which he has operated to date, I am sure he will share more of that vision with us. With fourteen picks available to the Canadiens there will be a lot to share.

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