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November 16, 2010
From Daigle To Datsyuk
Best Player Available

by Corey Pronman

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In what will be a continuous look at draft rankings and philosophy, I turn my attention this week to how teams should approach the Entry Draft in terms of their organizational priorities. Every year we hear this same old question come up in discussions around the time of the NHL Entry Draft about how a team should approach the draft:

"Do you draft the best player available or do you draft for need?"

This question is thrown towards NHL executives repeatedly around draft day and the responses are usually one-sided towards always drafting BPA (best player available). There are various interviews out there that support this and it's become a general philosophy in the hockey world, but just for a summarization of what I'm talking about I will quote Brian Burke at the 2009 Draft:

Q: Do you approach it by best player available?

A: Always, if you draft by position I think you make mistakes, the GM's job is to draft the best athlete available and you address your depth chart and positional issues through trade. You don't do it on draft day.

This is a statement that I have heard from several NHL people, either through the media or via discussion and while I respect their opinions, and I can agree partially with what he's saying, I disagree with the assessment as a whole. I will elaborate on this further down.

Many teams strictly stick to the BPA theory in interviews, but back in 2009 former Tampa Bay GM Brian Lawton gave a more unique answer:

Q: Is there a sense of which direction you're going for or do you just go best player available?

A: Well you know everyone says best player (available), I think that's so generic. There's more analysis that goes into it than that. Ultimately at the end of the day of course you want to select the best player, but there's a lot of variables, you need to really do your due diligence on the individuals of course but you also need to internally reflect on your team, where you're at, where you're going to be, project when the players are going to be available and have a strategy for the overall draft it's not just for our case with the #2 pick it's what we're trying to accomplish as of June 26.

This statement summarizes a lot of what I think. Whether or not NHL teams abide to this philosophy or not and just hide their cards with cliche statements is a question that cannot be answered but this is a more thorough response and differs from the traditional answer on the matter.

Kent Wilson also had his say on the topic which differed away from stricling drafting BPA:

"Outside, say, the first five choices in every entry draft, is picking the "best player available" actually possible? From my own investigations into the matter, chances of picking an actual NHL player drop from 95% in the top 5 to about a coin flip by the end of the first round. Chances fall precipitously after that, to about 25% in round 2, 19% in round 3 and so on. In fact, as the draft progresses, the talent tends to be scattered more liberally throughout each round, rather than clustered close to the top as it is in first.

What I'm getting at is this- things turn into a crap shoot pretty quickly in the draft. That means there isn't a lot to choose from once you get beyond the few sure-fire NHLers that exist at the very pinnacle of the prospect pyramid.

It would be foolhardy to ignore an organizations areas of weakness when drafting. By that I certainly don't mean the woeful Florida Panthers should show up on the 26th this year and look to pick as many scoring forwards as possible because the big club had issues putting pucks in the net last year. That would be silly. However, simply due to the unpredictable nature of developing prospects, every organization is going to have certain areas that are weaker than others heading into the draft every year."

Now for my take:

There is a partial aspect of Brian Burke's statement up top that makes sense, which is addressing the depth chart issues of a team by trade or free agency. However, this issue stems deeper than that and it goes into the depth of the farm system. A team that ignores its depth chart at the NHL level is liable to have an uneven balance of shortages and surpluses at various positions and that theory does apply to the farm as well. The two of them are entities by themselves but they rely on each other to a degree.

The farm system and prospects have to be projected. Some NHL people I've had discussions with shy away from the fact of making hard projections on players still in the developmental stage and I can certainly understand why. Player development is not linear and there are many factors that can prevent or aid a player on their path to the NHL. However, you do need to have some idea of where the players are, where they're going and when they may get there because young players and cheap production is a major source of cap efficiency for teams and that has to be a factor in a team's intermediate and long-term plans.

NHL teams are comprised of varying roles; divided from top to bottom. The top are usually harder to fill, and thereby cost more. These players are also only available for certain periods of time before they can put their services on the open market. While none of this is exact in terms of knowing whether players are going to fit into certain roles, what their output in those roles will be, how long they can maintain that output and if they will stay with the club or not, the management of said team has to have some sort of plan and projection to go off of. Why? Because where your team is going to be in three years significantly impacts how you will be utilizing and how dependant you will be on your team's prospects. If you foresee in 3-4 years that your team may have a center depth issue, then it would be ideal to have a center being ready around that time. I touched on this issue of projection briefly back around draft time at the Edmonton Journal's Cult of Hockey on the Taylor versus Tyler scenario and Edmonton's winger surplus.

This is not even getting into the fact that players have different values by position in relation to the market, and their development time can vary. So when we say draft the "best" player available, that may not necessarily be the most valuable player. Players who are more likely to fast track have more value, players with a higher assurance of reaching the NHL as well as hitting their potential have a higher value than the alternative; players who have a better positional value relative to their production when compared to the market also have a higher value. Some players take longer to develop, and some may end up being good but provide relatively no value when their market section has plenty of good players "cough cough goalies cough cough."

As I said before being able to project when a player will be ready and what role he will be able to fill is not exactly easy, however being able to long-term plan and project is absolutely critical for an NHL team. While it would be ideal to be able to easily fill positional voids by trade and free agents, it doesn't always work out that way, especially for teams working on budgets under the cap. For free agents, market scarcity comes into the equation and there aren't always enough players of a certain role to fit for what teams need. This usually ends up with prices and/or contract terms getting driven up and some teams getting left by the wayside. For trades, there isn't always going to be a partner for you to get exactly what you want, and if there is you have to factor into the equation that they may not be willing to trade or give you fair value. These obstacles is why the ability for you to be able to fill a shortage internally with no additional cost aside from the draft pick and development time is an extremely key asset for a team to sustain success.

To see examples of what happens when positions in the draft are overlooked, I will look at some teams draft history by first round picks and picks that hit from 2001-2005, and how the team is faring now:

Anaheim:

2005 1st Bobby Ryan
2004 1st Ladislav Smid 
2003 1st Ryan Gtezlaf, Corey Perry, Other: Shane O’ Brien
2002 1st Joffrey Lupul
2001 1st Stanislav Chistov, Other: Martin Gerber

Chistov was a bust at 5th overall, while Lupul and Smid were dealt for Chris Pronger but Ryan, Getzlaf and Perry do not make up the top players for the Ducks. With Smid dealt for Pronger and Pronger traded to Philly the team was left barren of defensemen. One just needs to look at the team now to understand with Pronger gone, Niedermayer retired, Beauchemin a Leaf by free agency, and James Wisniewski on Long Island that the Ducks ran out of top defenders and depth fast. Ideally the next wave would come around to help them. What's funny is the Ducks actually do have a very, very good group of young defensemen; however they're not ready yet as a core. Luca Sbisa and Mark Mitera are in the AHL, Jake Gardiner is in college and Cam Fowler is still a rookie. They were all drafted after 2005.

Edmonton Oilers:

2005 1st Andrew Cogliano
2004 1st Devan Dubnyk, Robbie Schremp
2003 1st Marc-Antoine Pouliot Other: JF Jacques, Zach Stortini, Kyle Brodziak
2002 1st Jesse Niinimaki Other: Jarret Stoll, Matt Greene 
2001 1st Ales Hemsky 

Edmonton has drafted a plethora of forwards the last decade at the top of the draft. In fact since 1997, the Oilers have only drafted one defender in the first round. The results are a team with plenty of young, talented forwards, but if it weren't for acquiring Smid via trade, their young defense outlook would be disastrous, where as right now it is simply just bad with Jeff Petry being their only notable up and comer while Alex Plante, Theo Peckham and Taylor Chorney are decent depth prospects.

Nashville:

2005 1st Ryan Parent Other: Cody Franson, Patric Hornqvist 2004 1st Alexander Radulov Other: Pekka Rinne 2003 1st Ryan Suter Other: Kevin Klein, Shea Weber 2002 1st Scottie Upshall 2001 1st Dan Hamhuis Other: Jordin Tootoo

Upshall was dealt in the Peter Forsberg trade and with Radulov bolting to Russia; it left the Predators pretty low in forward prospects. The team pre-and post Dan Hamhuis were comfortable at defense, but the lack of scoring talent is what's hurting the Preds right now. They have Franson, Blum and Ellis too amongst up and coming defenders, but Colin Wilson is their main scoring youngster who while in the NHL is not exactly a high-end scorer yet. 2010 first rounder Austin Watson is a ways away from being an NHL top six forward too.

New York Islanders:

2005: 1st Ryan O’Marra
2004: 1st Petteri Nokelainen Other: Blake Comeau, Chris Campoli
2003: 1st Robert Nilsson Other: Bruno Gervias
2002: 1st Sean Bergenheim Other: Frans Nielsen
2001: No first

The Islanders have only selected one defenseman in the first round in the past decade, 2009 Oshawa product Calvin De Haan. Okposo, Bailey, Tavares, Niederreiter and Kabanov make up the Islanders youngsters at forward, and while Travis Hamonic and De Haan both look like great prospects one can't help but notice the travesty on defense the Islanders are. They finished 28th in Goals Against last season, 28th the year before, and 23rd in 07-08. While the Islanders in that time frame have been equally bad at scoring goals (which is likely no coincidence if you see their first round picks listed above) the point being they had only a few defensive pieces coming to help them out in that regard. The point is not even looking to defense years ago has hurt them as they never even gave themselves a chance to produce defensemen internally.

These were just a few examples I picked out with a small draft timeframe, and while this isn't a general rule, I found that after seeing a team with a major deficiency, all I had to do was review their draft history and observe either failed draft picks in a particular area or more importantly seeing that area was never even addressed in the first place and could provide a sizeable explanation for their deficiency. While you can still fill spots through personnel moves, when trying to build a team as a whole in a cap system, you need cheap players, but most importantly you need them to fit the right spots and roles. There's no point having four good scoring forward prospects when you have two top six spots open and with them being relatively unproven, the likeliness of you getting fair value on the dollar in a trade for what they could be worth isn't that good.

Wrap Up:

The term drafting for "need" often gets used in an improper context. I would certainly never advocate drafting purely based on positional need with blinders on to other variables; however, the importance of looking at an organization's strengths and weaknesses is significantly understated.

The first and most important factor, which I echo repeatedly when this debate comes up is this:

You do not draft to supplement the NHL club; you draft to supplement the farm system, which over time is the entity that supplements the NHL club.

Very few players ever make the jump right after the Draft to the show, so I think when we say "draft for need", we sometimes look at the wrong entity that this need is for. While the NHL club is the most important club, most prospects take several years to reach that level and then there's development time on top of that once they do. The drafting of prospects at the top of the draft order can usually play into a team's short and intermediate term plans, but usually it's in the long term. The farm system is what NHL teams rely on for short and intermediate term replenishment and efficient production for their cap hit so when an aspect of the system is subtracted to add to the NHL club, a shortage appears in the farm system. It is at that time that the NHL Draft can act as replenishment for a team’s farm system.

While ideally you would take the opportunity to freely add a player to your organization by taking the most valuable player or the best player, if that ends up creating holes in your team or organization, the open market does not always allow for exchanges of $1 for $1 of your surplus to fill your shortage. Relying on free agency or the trade market to fill holes is a dangerous road as the target options are not always available and if they are, the common need ends up being top role players, which due to the competition for said players, usually result in the need to overpay.

In conclusion, I am not advocating drafting purely for need, as there is more that goes to it. As Lawton said, "Ultimately at the end of the day of course you want to select the best player, but there's a lot of variables."

The variables consist of the NHL club as it is now in terms of what positions and what roles are filled and how much they contribute relative to that. What stage the team is in (compete, develop, or rebuild), and where the team's roster projects to be in a few years and what the team's direction will be then also factor into the equation as important variables. What the organization's farm system looks like, where are the strengths and weaknesses, what are the time projections on certain prospects, the output projections, and how the time and output projections combine at certain points are the final variables that must be taken into consideration.

There are plenty of other variables that come into play, but the main point through this all is that drafting isn't as straightforward as making a list of the "best" players and simply going down the list. The factors that influence how and who you draft are endless because the overall goal is not to be the best drafter, it is to win. So you draft not for need, or the BPA, you draft based on whatever gives you the best chance to win, and win consistently.

Follow Corey on Twitter at @coreypronman.

Corey Pronman is an author of Puck Prospectus, runs the statistical hockey site The Hock Project and is a writer for Premium Scouting. You can contact him at CPronman@gmail.com.

Corey Pronman is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Corey by clicking here or click here to see Corey's other articles.

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Driving To The Net (11/16)
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Premium Article From Daigle To Datsyuk (11/01)
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From Daigle To Datsyuk (11/27)
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Premium Article Howe and Why (11/18)

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