By Bob Trask – I have always valued draft picks, the more the better, but not all draft picks are created equal and we may have developed a false impression of the probability of success of some picks. Let’s take a quick look.
The Montreal Canadiens are in the midst of remaking their team with several new faces already in the lineup, with more waiting in the wings for their opportunity. In order to create that opportunity for them, Kent Hughes would have to move out some existing players, either through trades or to demotions. The trade deadline often presents teams with a chance to maximize trade values as Stanley Cup contenders seek to strengthen their lineups in the hopes of a long and successful playoff run. The return of choice for fans is often draft picks but what is a realistic expectation for picks acquired in trades.
A good exercise is to examine how previous draft picks have developed. I will take a very limited look by focusing on a specific range of picks and draw some conclusions from there.
A Look Back
Playoff teams will pick between number 17 and number 32 in the first round, so those would be the first round picks available in trade deadline deals. I went back to the 2000 draft and began gathering data based on picks 17-32 in each draft year. The last draft included in this analysis was the 2018 draft. The logic behind this was that players picked in that year could play the 2018-19 and 2019-20 season in junior/college hockey and the 2020-21 season in the American league. It would give them an opportunity to play at least one season in the NHL with 3 years of seasoning under their belts after being drafted.
For the purposes of this exercise, I only looked at forwards because, by and large, forwards picked in the first round are more or less expected to become top 6 players. Since top 6 players are expected to put up points, the players were evaluated on that basis. It might be overly simplistic but it is a starting point.
Measuring the performance of defenseman based on point production is a poor approach because they are drafted for different reasons than their ability to simply score. For that reason, they weren’t included in the analysis but we can probably draw similar conclusions about their overall chance of becoming effective players in the NHL when compared to forwards taken in the same rounds.
This kind of analysis could also be included for each round or portion thereof, but using the data from the last half of the first round begins to give us an idea about what our expectations should be for draft picks acquired in trades. Second, third and fourth round picks, for example, would not be expected to achieve results that measure up to late first round picks. So, how have those late first round picks turned out?
In the 19 years between 2000 and 2018 there were 177 forwards drafted between number 17 and number 32 so the sample size is fairly broad. The average point production was 11 goals and 15 assists for 26 points per 82 games played; the median point productions was 10 goals and 13 assists for 23 points per 82 games played.
Approximately 16% of the 177 forwards chosen have averaged 20 goals or more per 82 games played in their careers. Approximately 15% have averaged 5 points or fewer per 82 games played in their careers. To be fair, some of these low point producers have yet to have had a legitimate opportunity in the NHL but on the other hand, the results are projected out to a full 82 games. Five forwards out of 177 drafted in a 19 year period (about 3%) have averaged 30 goals or more.
Keep in mind that these results are for forwards chosen in the last half of the 1st round.
We need to temper our optimism when the Canadiens land a draft pick in return for a veteran, even a fading one. The value of draft picks needs to be examined with a critical eye and with realistic expectations.
Many, many first round picks, particularly those chosen in the last half of the 1st round turn out to be less than average NHL hockey players. Yes there are some huge success stories but there seems to be an equal number of abysmal failures. A similar exercise undertaken for 2nd and 3rd round picks would undoubtedly reveal significantly lower performance.
It is also important to keep in mind that a player chosen in the last half of the first round of the 2023 draft is unlikely to make an NHL roster before the 2026 season and if he makes it, unlikely to become a significant contributor before the 2028 season. Your time horizon has to be very long before you can expect these players to contribute.
Prospects and/or Picks
Kent Hughes stated early in his tenure as the Canadiens’ GM that it is easier to project the potential of a prospect a year of two after he is drafted than it is in his draft year. He showed his affinity for these kinds of asset in his trades involving Ben Chiarot, Tyler Toffoli and Artturi Lehkonen. If he is going to trade a quality player at the trade deadline, he will likely want more than a draft pick in return. A prospect with a year or two of post-draft experience will undoubtedly be on his shopping list.
The Montreal Canadiens are likely to be involved in more than one trade deadline deal but the value of assets received in return needs to be assessed objectively. No draft pick acquired in a trade this year is likely to help the team in the near future. Even prospects acquired in trades at the deadline are unlikely to help the team next year. These assets have to be considered long term building blocks; yes they are necessary but they are not immediate solutions.
Trading a veteran may have almost as much to do with giving a prospect with the organization an opportunity as it is with expecting the newly acquired asset to immediately replace the veteran traded.
The good news is that some of the draft picks and prospects acquired in previous trades are close to being able to contribute. In the meantime, I expect Hughes to continue with the approach of acquiring picks and prospects as he continues in his efforts to make the Canadiens a model organization. Patience will remain a key word for the foreseeable future.