With the 2009 NHL Draft now just days away, most fans are practically salivating with the anticipation of adding premium talent to their respective teams. Like most fans, I will be scouring the list of players that my team drafts looking for the next stars and assuming that each of our draft picks will ultimately help the NHL club achieve on-ice success. Before we go making our 2014 Stanley Cup Finals plans though based on the haul from our team’s draft this year, I think it is important to remember that the draft itself does not guarantee anything. Scouts from every team can recognize skill and talent. What helps to separate the perennially successful teams from the also-rans is player development.
I’ve researched recent draft history and have discovered some sobering facts about the “success rate” of the players drafted. The criteria I used to arbitrarily determine a player’s “success” was the number of games played at the NHL level. I figured that if a player stuck around the league long enough to appear in 500 games then his career could be regarded as a “success”. (Note: I didn’t differentiate between skaters and goaltenders in this calculation.) The draft years that I used are 1994 – 1999. That means that players drafted in 1999 would be around 28 years-old and have had a reasonable amount of time to meet my criteria if they’ve progressed normally.
Here’s what I found: of the 1,537 players drafted between 1994 and 1999, only 9% (138) have played in a minimum of 500 NHL games. Of the 159 players selected in the 1st round during that same span only 34% (54) have even played in at least 100 NHL games. Basically, there is a 2-in-3 chance that your team’s 1st round draft pick will not live up to expectations. Obviously the draft itself does not guarantee that a team will ultimately add quality NHL’ers to its organization. So what’s the secret?
As I stated above, every team employs professional scouts that know how to identify talented players. It can then be assumed that every team adds talented players to their organization every year through the draft. So why the high failure rate among prospects and why do some teams seem to have more success year in and year out at the draft? How about player development?
I’m going to use the Detroit Red Wings as the model organization for drafting and developing quality NHL players. Between 1998 and 2004 the Wings have drafted Pavel Datsyuk (#171 overall in 1998), Henrik Zetterberg (#210, 1999), Niklas Kronwall (#29, 2000), Tomas Kopecky (#38, 2000), Jiri Hudler (#58, 2002), Tomas Fleischmann (#63, 2002), Valtteri Filppula (#95, 2002), Jonathan Ericsson (#291, 2002), and Johan Franzen (#97, 2004) to their ranks. With the exception of Fleischmann, all of these players have contributed on the ice for the Wings and several have played key roles in back-to-back Cup Finals appearances. Fleischmann was dealt to Washington for Robert Lang and Fleischmann plays a critical role on a very good Capitals team.
One trend became quite noticeable when researching the Red Wings drafts during this time; the Wings’ drafts are heavy on European-trained players. Of the 62 players drafted by the Red Wings between 1998 and 2004, 34 (or 54.8%) were European. What does this seem to point to? One, the Wings do an incredible job of scouting in Europe and two, the Red Wings are an attractive destination for foreign-born players. One of the draw-backs to drafting foreign players is the difficulty in getting them to come over to North America. Most organizations like for their prospects to develop in North America to learn the nuances of the North American game. A lot of foreign players are hesitant to give up the money and security of playing at home to come over to North America.
The Red Wings have a good thing going. They draft talented players that fit into their system. They then move them into their organization as quickly as possible where the players learn from the highly qualified, former Atlanta Thrashers and current AHL Grand Rapids Griffins’ head coach, Curt Fraser, on what it takes to be a successful pro. The players are seldom “rushed” into the NHL before they are deemed ready. Too often, top draft choices are hurried into the regular lineup at the NHL level when they are neither physically nor mentally mature enough. This can stunt a prospects long-term development. The Wings are confident that when they promote a prospect to Detroit it is because the player is ready to contribute at this level and not because the fans are clamoring to see the player promoted.
Like most sports leagues, the NHL is a copy cat league. Seeing the success of the Red Wings, many teams are working to implement that same organizational strategy. Glen Sather has done a good job in recent years with the help of former Assistant GM Don Maloney and current Assistant GM/Assistant Coach Jim Schoenfeld. The Rangers have seen several recent non-first round picks work their way up through the system to contribute for the Rangers. Players like Petr Prucha, Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan and Dan Girardi were added to the organization with little fanfare initially but have achieved on-ice success after being developed by the Rangers.
Clearly there is no single secret to building a successful organization. It takes a multitude of departments working closely together to generate the highest quality product on-ice. At this time of the year it’s easy to focus on the draft and the acquisition of talent and to forget how critical player development is to an organization.