Playoffs Teams 1st Round Picks: The Trends

By JD Lagrange – Ah the infatuation with first round picks. For many fans, a first round pick is worth gold, even more than an established NHL player. It’s like they hear first round pick and their eyes light up as if they hear first overall pick. Yet, back in October, my colleague Bob Trask did such a great job when he highlighted the value of picks 17-32 from years 2000 onwards. It was so good that I decided to push his research a bit further.

You see, when you talk about trade deadline, a buyer will be a team either already in the playoffs or on the verge of it. Those teams are trying to do what we call “load up” for a playoffs’ run and, more often than not, will finish amongst the 16 teams making the playoffs. Since there are only so many good players available, and even fewer addressing one team’s specific needs, it creates a bidding war and that’s when desperate GMs feel the heat to “do something”. For good – not even necessarily excellent – players, the price usually starts with a first round pick.

Preface

So for this exercise, I decided to go all the way back, starting in 1979 when the NHL expanded to 21 teams. Why then? It also turns out that in time for the 1979-80 season, the league expanded its playoff structure to include 16 teams. This means that this research will be covering 44 years of draft in order to establish a trend. You won’t get much more comprehensive than that!

As Bob explained in his article, judging defensemen or goaltenders based on points is not a fair way to assess the quality of a player selected. In my humble opinion, what is more telling is the longevity of the said player. Say players turn pro at around 20 years old (after junior). They become UFAs at 27-28. I want to know how many first rounders, picked from playoffs’ teams (16 teams) will play 7 seasons for their team (or a team)?

So the criteria will be:

  • 560 GP (around 7 seasons in the NHL)
  • Avg 20G (or 0.25 goals per game)

Yes, I have added some goals per game as offensive production still remains a bit of a factor, although in this case, not the only one. Plus, it shows the offensive ability of players selected in the “bottom-16” of each draft, year to year.

As a measure of comparison, I have also added a column at the end showing the average of games played by all of the players selected in the bottom-16 of each draft year. So total number of games played by all of them, divided by 16.

Note: from 2012 to date, since many players are still active, I didn’t count the number of players with 560 GP or more as some may not be there yet, but they will achieve that plateau at a later date. But I did count how many of them average 0.25 goals per game, which corresponds to about the 20 goals plateau, or pace.

Results

So without further ado, here is the bulk of the research. I will let you draw your own conclusions, although I will obviously draw some of my own below.

DRAFT
YEAR
# TEAMSPICKS560 GP0.25 G/GPAVG GP
1979216 to 21133864
198065438
198182511
198291660
1983116633
198491598
198552367
198662480
198761535
198843417
198940364
199082606
1991227 to 22115669
1992249 to 2451366
19932611 to 2662477
199440353
199542426
199652377
199742311
19982712 to 2752452
19992813 to 2831216
20003015 to 3073475
200130310
200250322
2003113687
200440385
200551344
200661317
200762310
200861365
200942320
201074403
201142291
20121376
20131256
20142275
20153243
20163116 to 311148
20171122
2018059
2019134
2020021
20213217 to 32114
202200
TOTALS704204 (missing 11 yrs)7516,197
PERCENTAGE29%10.7%368 AVG

NOTES:

➙ From 1979 to 2011 (33 years), only four (4) times has there been more than 10 players per year having played at least 7 NHL seasons. It has happened only once since 1992 when 11 from the 2003 Draft managed a career of 560 games or more. Off those from 2003, only three (3) averages 20 or more goals per season.

➙ In that same 33 years period, 38.6% of all players drafted in the bottom-16 of the first round have had a career of 560 games or more. If you bring it to 2022, that percentage drops to 29%.

➙ From 1979 to 2011, all players drafted in the bottom-16 of the first round have combined to an average career of 443.9 games played. That’s the equivalent of less than 5 ½ seasons in the NHL. Those are all first round picks, folks!

➙ In 44 long years, only 75 players selected in the bottom-16 have reached the plateau of 0.25 goals per game (about 20 goals) in their career. Not 30 or 40 goals, 20! That’s less than two players out of 16 each and every draft year, or under 11% so far.

➙ You feel that last stat is skewed because some players are still playing? Fair enough. How about we stop at 2011, not counting from 2012 to 2022? Fair? That’s 75 players, but in 34 years instead. It changes the percentage to under 15% instead of 11%. Those are still very, very low odds. Or, in other words, you have more than 85% chances of not getting a 20-goals’ scorer.

➙ If you think that the trends are getting better, think again. From 2000 to 2011, players selected in the bottom-16 of the first round average just over 4 ½ years (instead of 5 ½) in their NHL career. That is down to 35.4% from 38.6%. Less than 10% have averaged 0.25 goals per game, down from over 14%. This means that the pre-2000 years bring those numbers up from what they are today.

Conclusion

When selecting in the bottom-16 of the first round of the NHL Draft:

  1. You have less than 15% odds of getting a player who will average 20 goals per season, so more than 85% won’t. Since 2000, those odds have dropped to below the 10% threshold.
  2. You have over 61% odds of drafting a kid who won’t play 5 ½ seasons in the NHL in his entire career. Since 2000, those odds when up to almost 65%.

So if you’re one of those who believes that a mid to late first round pick is worth as much as – or more than – an established player, you may want to think again. Yes, you can have excellent players at that point. But if you play the 44 years odds, you will realize that you have more chances of missing than you are of hitting the jackpot. A wise man once said: “A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush.”

Stay tuned as I’m planning on doing a similar exercise with the Canadiens’ drafts as well… at a later date.

More reading…