Looking At The Difference Between Drafting 3rd & 7th

Much like the $640 Mega Millions drawing that happened this past week, it seems that everyone in the State of Hockey is fixated on the results of the final half-dozen games for another lottery.

From the Carolina game (thanks to Felix Levasque)
Minnesota has already made history (and not in a good way) by becoming the first team to miss the postseason after being in first place on December 1st. Right now the Wild sit in 24th place with 3 games remaining and can finish anywhere between 20th and 29th. While that's still embarrassing, the recent three-game winning streak - including tonight's 5-4 shootout win over Chicago - has fans more up in arms than actually following the Ricky Bobby philosophy.

But what's the difference between drafting 3rd and 7th?

On the surface, supporting a "tank movement" at its simplest form means hoping the team you cheer for continues to lose in order for a better chance at a high draft pick and good player. The best NHL teams are led by elite players - your Crosbys, Ovechkins, Stamkos, Malkins, Kane, Toews and Sedins (all top-3 picks) - and few top-2 picks have failed to exceed their expectations over the last ten years. There are always exceptions to this rule (perennial contender Detroit being the biggest) but the best route to superstardom is almost always to be a top-two or three pick.

That's tanking at its simplest form. However, nothing is that simple.

The issue with trying to get a superstar every year out of the #1 or #2 spot is that all draft classes are not created equal. Although there's going to be years where two picks are superstars like in 2004 (with Ovechkin and Malkin going 1-2 followed by Cam Barker) or the Crosby Lottery of 2005, having the #1 pick in other years like 2003 or 2006 were not as rewarding. There's still talent at the top but also a difference between getting Marc-Andre Fleury or Erik Staal compared to the two picks the next year.

No offense to Nail Yakupov but this year doesn't have a Crosby at the top.

Yakupov, however, is still the best player on the board and it would be great to get him if possible. The NHL has a simple lottery draft where one team moves up at best four spots but are more than likely to stay at their own spot. Finishing fourth (which would allow a team to get a #1 pick) only gives Minnesota at 10.7% chance while their chances at seventh (which they would rise to #3) are cut in half. Even if they lose out and finish second (because no one's catching Columbus), their chances of getting the first pick rise to a staggering 18.8% - those still aren't great odds.

Minnesota, a team that has picked 12th, 4th, 9th, 16th (traded up from 19th), 23rd (traded up from 24th), 16th (traded down from 12th), 9th and 10th since 2004, hasn't had a chance to pick in the top-three since their inaugural draft in 2000. The Wild picked Marian Gaborik, who has been the most dynamic player in Wild history, and since then one of the pro-tank arguments is that teams picking in the 8-15 range aren't content to build through the draft with the limited skillset of players in that range. But the same goes with picking at the top.

Much like the draft having its own ebbs and flows, a top selection can depend on the depth and range of the players available. The difference between #6 in 2000 (when Scott Hartnell was taken) or 2004 (which had no depth) compared to 2003 (when #5-7 were Thomas Vanek, Milan Michalek and Ryan Suter) is almost night and day. 2012 is between the two but regardless, question marks remain.

Having a top pick only means something if it is used correctly and as Wild fans should know, misfiring on them sets teams back at least a year, if not more. Their highest selection, #4 in 2005, saw Minnesota pass on Anze Kopitar (#11), Devin Setoguchi (#8) and Marc Staal (#12) for Benoit Pouliot.

Was it the best selection at the time? Yes - Pouliot was ranked #2 behind Crosby in some rankings. But it didn't pan out and that's the point. Every year there are players in the range of 3-12 that bust and others that overachieve.

Some recent examples:
2005: 3rd overall Jack Johnson (along with Pouliot at 4) compared to. #11 Anze Kopitar
2006: 2nd overall Jordan Staal vs. the 3-4-5 triumvirate of Toews/Backstrom/Kessel
2007: 3rd overall Kyle Turris vs. #7 Jakub Voracek or #9 Logan Couture
2008: 5th overall Luke Schenn vs. #12 Tyler Myers
And this is where Minnesota finds themselves once again.

Tank or no tank, they will have a top-10 pick (meaning Tampa gets a top-40 pick) and while it's easy for some to cheer for the Wild to play bad to increase the odds of getting an elite player at #1 or #2 - that or getting through what has been some abysmal regressing through the regression hockey - what matters most is the assessment of the players. The 2012 NHL Draft is full of top-ten  prospects who have been injured throughout the season (something First Round Bust will go more in-depth over the next few months). Whether it's Alex Galchenyuk's knee injury, Morgan Rielly tearing his ACL or even the aforementioned Yakupov, there is more on Chuck Fletcher and Brent Flahr to do their job and assess the best player than in most years.

It also means finding that diamond in the rough like a Mikael Granlund at 9 or a Nick Leddy at 16, only higher. There is no set rankings other than one's own board - picking higher just means picking the player you have rated higher.

The other upside to having late-season wins or prospects like Jason Zucker making their imprint (well besides STH getting their money's worth) is the build to next year. Having core players for the next couple years like Mikko Koivu, Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi and even Tom Gilbert show chemistry and what next year has in store. It also gives free agents a chance to see how the team works together and having a positive end on that - especially for a fanbase that would love the elite Zach Parise (who it's hard to see choosing a team picking #1; it's one pipe dream or the other) to wear Iron Range Red in July - pays off as well.

In the end, as great as tanking and having a higher draft pick increases the chance for a better, more elite player at top, what teams do with the pick matter more than the position. Remember that next time you're upset at a Wild win - as much as the Minnesota tank mantra goes on clamoring for an elite top pick, sometimes #7 is better than #3.

Especially in a draft with so much uncertainty like 2012.

2 comments:

  1. They need to stop winning... Goddammit! No more of this draft around the tenth overall spot. They need a top 5. That would be nice.

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  2. Yes, player assessment skill certainly helps, and one has to be impressed with Flahr so far.

    Still, look at the macro charts of players drafted by draft position and their subsequent NHL careers --they just don't lie. The higher you draft, the significantly better your chances you get a real bonafide long-term NHL player. Arguing the exceptions borders on sophistry.

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