The sad thing about Buzz is that despite all his professional and personal accolades, almost everyone on the planet, and likely the majority of history books, will remember him as the quintessential runner-up. As the 2nd man to ever walk on the moon (behind some guy named Neil who evidently took “small steps”), he has been forever labeled as an 'also-attended'. The correct answer to many trivia games and butt to any and all comedians' jokes revolving around a guy coming oh-so-close to finishing first.
As the NHL draft approaches, I always find myself thinking of Mr. Aldrin, or the 3rd person to climb Mount Everest, or the 2nd explorer to land in America after Columbus. The draft makes me fearful that the Leafs will end up with a player who is doomed to be forgotten in NHL history books. The team's uninspiring draft record (outside of Wendel Clark) is littered with disappointments, and in desperate need of a strong showing this year.
As fans, we're excited at the prospect of landing a top-5 player -- assuming Burke doesn’t trade down to increase his assest base (let’s collectively pray that doesn’t happen). While this draft is certainly deeper than years past, there is still a clear and distinct drop off after the presumptive number-1 pick, Nail Yakupov.
The question that has been uttered consistently around Toronto water coolers is this: Should the Leafs trade up on Draft Day, and select Yakupov 1st overall?
The other possible picks between 2-5 (Forsberg, Grigorenko, Murray, Galchenyuk, Dumba, Rielly) are all fantastic prospects, but, despite their talents, the consensus among hockey pundits is that Yakupov is the clear decision at number-1. It’s difficult year-to-year to determine the exact difference between picking 1, 2, 3 and so on as the depth of the draft class, team needs, assest bases...etc all inevitably complicate the matter.
In an attempt to simplify the question of “Should we trade up?” I took an in-depth look at the statistical difference between drafting 1st and 5th over the past 10 NHL drafts. Based on these findings I was able to come to a very clear conclusion.
Below is the methodology used and some key omissions:
- Only the first 5 forwards chosen in drafts between 2000-2009 were used. 2010 and 2011 drafts were not included due the number of draftees yet to crack an NHL team.
- Tabulated the players NHL career stats, omitting any international play, or numbers accumulated during the lockout.
- Defenseman were omitted due to the large variance in their offensive numbers.
- All the totals were aggregated for each group of #1s, #2s...etc ultimately creating a group of 5 “mock” players that you are most likely to draft if you choose in that position.
- While there will, of course, be variances each draft year, a 10 draft sample size is not insignificant, and the results are, in the very least, instructive.
Games Goals Assists Points PIMS Shots
1st Forward Taken 5,231 2,365 2,719 5,084 3,641 17,894
2nd Forward Taken 3,851 1,429 1,764 3,193 2,673 10,628
3rd Forward Taken 3,396 813 1,059 1,872 2,185 7,243
4th Forward Taken 4,262 1,092 1,468 2,560 2,802 9,327
5th Forward Taken 2,313 442 639 1,081 1,022 4,369
Shown above are the raw NHL career totals for each of the player groupings. You’ll notice the significant difference in production between the 1st forward taken and the 5th. 2,365 total goals from the 1st selection compared to a meager 442 from the 5th. A sizeable difference in games played also suggests that there's a much higher risk of 'bust', unsurprisingly.
The results trend downward steeply from the 1st to 3rd, yet seem to bump up at the 4th forward taken. This anomaly is due to a number of solid NHLers being taken in that slot, including Scott Hartnell, Stephen Weiss, and Phil Kessel.
Looking only at these totals it’s clear (as logic would dictate) that choosing a player first or second gives your team a significantly better chance of landing a star NHLer. I realize this is not groundbreaking news (insert reader eye roll) as choosing earlier in the draft gives your team the best chance of selecting a star player. However, where the statistical difference becomes glaringly evident is when you look at the player stats extrapolated over an 82-game season, as shown below.
G/82 A/82 Pts/82 SOG/82
1st Forward Taken 37 43 80 281
2nd Forward Taken 30 38 68 226
3rd Forward Taken 20 26 45 175
4th Forward Taken 21 28 49 179
5th Forward Taken 16 23 38 155
What the chart above shows is that if your team chooses 1st, you can reasonably expect a player that will produce 80 points per season. With an outstanding 37 goals, 43 assists, and 281 shots on goal. During the 2011-12 season, only 9 skaters amassed more than 80 points. To put it bluntly; recently, if you draft 1st you’re virtually assured a franchise player that will be among the top 10-15 scorers in the league in any given season. This group includes players such as John Tavares, Steven Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Dany Heatley.
The 2nd forward taken averages out at 30 goals, 38 assists, for 68 points to go along with 226 shots. A respectable stat line, and a player you’d be happy to have on your 1st line. This group includes players like Matt Duchene, Jonathan Toews, Bobby Ryan, Nathan Horton, Jason Spezza, and Marian Gaborik. These guys will have seasons where their production spikes but are also prone to the odd down year.
Where the numbers really start to dip is we get to the 3rd and 4th forwards taken. The average production for a player taken 3rd and 4th over the 10 year sample we examined is 45 and 49 points. Those are surprisingly low outputs, when you consider the excitement and anticipation around a player drafted so high. These are players that may find a role in your top 6, but in some cases are relegated to your 3rd and 4th line. This group of players includes names like: Gilbert Brule, Benoit Pouliot, Thomas Vanek, Raffe Torres, and Stephen Weiss. Unsurprisingly, we see a pretty significant variance in the calibre of player that these picks will yield.
Finally we arrive at the most alarming part of the data (this is when I frantically bbm’d Curt S with a hysterical “OMG, we're totally screwed”). The average annual production of the 5th forward drafted between 2000 and 2009 is 16 goals, 23 assists, for a total of 38 points, with 155 shots. As an aside, Matt Cooke had 38 points last season.
What surprised me the most about the findings is the distinct drop-off in production from the 1st and 2nd forward sections to the 3rd, 4th, and 5th. My opinion heading into the Leafs offseason was to firmly stay the course, draft a quality player at 5 and retain the improving asset base both in the NHL and the minor leagues, however, after looking at the numbers collected above it’s almost impossible to make an argument against trading up.
The reported asking price from the Oilers is a defenseman, a prospect, and a draft pick to make the jump to number 1. This is a rare situation whereby the Oilers may actually prefer to trade their pick. With a roster already heavy on young, offensive players on entry level deals, Edmonton is in need of a more balanced roster. The price will certainly be high for Yakupov, but it has been a long time since the 1st overall pick has ever been this available if a team comes forward with the right pieces.
There will undoubtedly be risk no matter where we pick and I suppose Yakapov could very well be the next Alexander Daigle or Patrick Stefan but the numbers don’t lie, and we may never be better positioned to take a run at the 1st overall selection than we are today.
Buzz Aldrin has had to live through 40 years of sound bites and grainy moon footage of Neil Amrstrong sneaking out of the cockpit onto the moon mere moments ahead of him and galvanizing the world with 10 simple words. I don’t want to spend the next 15 years watching Nail Yakupov win scoring titles, and Hart trophies wearing Edmonton blue with the knowledge that we were oh-so-close to having him.