Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Value of Top-Five Draft Picks

“Top-five draft pick.”

A hockey fan hears those words and thinks, “we’re going to get a great player!” Some fans might start thinking about parade routes a few years down the road. Washington Capitals fans might have been thinking along those lines in June 2004 when the club drafted Alex Ovechkin with the first overall pick. And given that Caps fans have yet to stake out a spot on Pennsylvania Avenue to view the parade to celebrate a Stanley Cup, it got us to thinking whether or not getting a top-five pick…or two…or even three matters in the bigger scheme of things.

If you look at the drafts from 2004 through 2011, the first thing to note is that 21 different teams have had at least one top-five pick. Of that group, 14 have had more than one top-five pick, and five teams have had as many as three of the top-five picks:

The first thing to note, however, is that so many of those top-five picks did not last with the teams that drafted them. In the 2004-2007 period ten of the 20 top-five picks would eventually leave the teams that drafted them:

And looking at those departures, it is hard to see clear in general as to how the team trading that former top-five pick made themselves better in the process. One might think, “oh, Chicago traded Cam Barker and won a Stanley Cup in 2010.” But unless you adhere to the “addition-by-subraction” theory, remember that Kim Johnsson did not play for the Blackhawks in the playoffs (sidelined with a concussion), and Nick Leddy had yet to play an NHL game (he made his debut the following season).

As for the other nine instances, the only successful move of a top-five pick (or at least the most successful) might be Boston’s sending Phil Kessel (fifth overall pick in 2006) to Toronto for three draft picks, one of which that was turned into Tyler Seguin, who was 3-4-7 in 13 games of Boston’s run to a Stanley Cup in 2011. Of course, there is the unfinished result of Pittsburgh’s trade of 2006 draft pick Jordan Staal this past July and Philadelphia’s trade of 2007 draft pick James van Riemsdyk to Toronto this past June.

That brings us to the whole object of the exercise, winning a Stanley Cup. Having multiple top-five picks does seem to matter in that regard. Five of the past seven Stanley Cup winners had multiple top-five picks over the 2004-2011 period: Carolina in 2006, Pittsburgh in 2009, Chicago in 2010, Boston in 2011, and Los Angeles in 2012.

But it is possible to make too much of that, too. We have already noted the Chicago Blackhawks, but take the Los Angeles Kings, for example. Of the three top-five picks they made in the 2004-2011 period, only Drew Doughty (second overall in 2008) played on the Stanley Cup winner this past June. Brayden Schenn (picked fifth overall in 2009) was traded before the season began, sent to Philadelphia with forward Wayne Simmonds and a 2012 second round draft pick for center Mike Richards and forward Rob Bordson. It worked out well for the Kings.

The New York Islanders are something of a unique case in that their three top-five picks have yet to ripen into core contributors. All three of their top-five picks came in the last three years of the 2004-1010 period at which we are looking. John Tavares (first overall in 2009), has become almost a point-a-game player (60-88-148 over 161 games over the past two seasons), but Nino Niederreiter (fifth overall in 2010) has only 64 games of NHL experience, and Ryan Strome (fifth overall in 2011) has yet to play at the professional level.

Pittsburgh is the only team of the five with three top-five picks (four, if you count 2003's top overall pick Marc-Andre Fleury) to have all of them in their lineup when they won a Stanley Cup. Evgeni Malkin (second overall in 2004), Sidney Crosby (first overall in 2005), and Jordan Staal (second overall in 2006) all played in the 2009 post season in which they defeated the Detroit Red Wings in the finals to capture the Stanley Cup.

There is one team that stands out, though. Of the five teams that had three top-five draft picks in the 2004-2011 period, only one has: 1) had all three dress for NHL regular season and playoff games, 2) held on to all three draft picks, and 3) done that without having won a Stanley Cup. It serves as a caution to those who would place too much emphasis on how many first round or top-five draft picks are in the lineup.

The Washington Capitals.