I’m Here To Talk About The (2018 NHL Entry) Draft

I hope you all enjoyed the second half of the Stanley Cup Playoffs! Initially, when the Golden Knights won Game 1, I had this whole thing already written congratulating Vegas on the Cup win and giving the Capitals shit for blowing it when their best opportunity arose, but that didn’t happen as the Capitals swept the next four games and Alex Ovechkin finally broke through to become no longer the best player in the League to not win the Cup.  Congratulations also goes out to Brooks Orpik: while his days of handing out free candy have now morphed into handing out free goals (see: Vegas’ first goal in Game 5), I’ll never forget his days in Pittsburgh.  Um…it does say here next to Matt Niskanen’s name, “DO NOT CONGRATULATE,” so I will go ahead and…not congratulate him.

Since I’m writing about draft day, I had also written up this paragraph about Marc-Andre Fleury and him winning the Conn Smythe, but they don’t award that for the first three rounds of the playoffs apparently, so a bit of disappointment there.  But, then again, we should have all expected that Flower would regress at some point, right? (Nod your heads in agreement.)  Again, we can analyze Fleury’s play versus how the Golden Knights did defensively in support, but looking at Game 5 alone, it’s hard to blame Fleury for any of the goals against, except maybe the game-winner which was the patented Fleury special (puck squirts between legs, and a goal is scored as a result).  And this is a Penguins blog, so I’m not going to go into it anyway.

Regardless, the Caps winning and the Golden Knights losing blew up my lede tying Fleury to a discussion on the 2018 Entry Draft, but nevertheless, just keep in mind that I’ll be going back to Fleury later in this article.

The Entry Draft is an interesting event on the NHL calendar, as it is the culmination of a ton of work by every teams’ amateur scouts for what is often very little reward.  At the same time, a draft pick is often free or relatively inexpensive in the context of a team’s finances, and sometimes you can find a diamond in the rough.  A perfect example, one which is well known around these parts, is a guy like Patric Hornqvist: taken by the Nashville Predators as the final pick in the same 2005 Entry Draft that brought Sidney Crosby to Pittsburgh, Hornqvist was just awarded a five-year contract by the Penguins for being a consistent force in the Penguins’ lineup.  Not many guys who are picked dead last in the draft will ever see regular ice time in the NHL, but Hornqvist has decidedly made it in that regard.

The Draft is often of crucial importance to the teams that start it off, because in many cases those teams have performed poorly in the season that preceded that draft.  These teams seek difference makers, players who can (and often will) play big minutes for teams that hope to reverse their fortunes and start competing for the Stanley Cup again.  Ultimately though, many draft picks do not pan out, certainly not immediately and perhaps not even over the length of a player’s potential career.

To that point, I went back through the last thirteen Entry Drafts (all the ones since the season-ending lockout in 2004-05) and decided to see just how often players do pan out.  I decided to make the “pan out” threshold an arbitrary 50% of a team’s possible games; that is, I wanted to find out how many players have played at least 50% of the games he could have.  The results are a little surprising: out of the 2,765 draft picks made in the last thirteen drafts, just 268 players have played at least 50% of the possible games, a shade under 10% of all draft picks.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “Most players, particularly defensemen but especially goaltenders, don’t immediately jump to the NHL after being drafted, so it takes several years for players to catch up to that threshold.” That is true, but even going back to the earliest draft I researched, 2005, 27 players from that draft have met that 50% mark; compared to 2008 which had 33 players hit 50% or 2009 with 32.  Players will eventually catch up as time goes by, but by and large the players who hit 50% are NHL regulars.  They’ve “made it” by that standard.

Since 2013, the Sabres have picked in the top ten in the Entry Draft every year, including when they selected Jack Eichel with the second overall pick in the 2015 Entry Draft, and yet things still haven’t improved for the Sabres, to the point that they’re going to pick first overall for the first time since selecting Pierre Turgeon 21 years ago.  They might actually have an honest-to-goodness franchise cornerstone to build on this time, with all arrows pointing to Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin being the consensus top prospect for this draft.  Dahlin is drawing comparisons to Hall of Famers Phil Housley (the last serious elite defenseman in Sabres’ lore) and Denis Potvin. It always amuses me to see such lofty expectations, but this is no laughing matter for Buffalo.  They absolutely need a leader on the ice and in the locker room, and Dahlin’s poise and skill could finally help drive the Sabres out of the Atlantic Division basement.

The second overall pick belongs to the Carolina Hurricanes, who last picked second in 2003 when they took Eric Staal.  It was a big leap for the Canes, who leapt from 11th, and were not that far out of the playoff race in a pretty crowded Metropolitan Division.   There’s still plenty to like about the Hurricanes, who had the sixth-youngest roster in the League last season, but you wouldn’t know it if you paid attention to the front office and social media.  First, a tweet from May 18:

It almost sounds like a desperate plea to their fans! “Please, help us make the right decision for the future of our franchise!” Hm, no, that’s Ron Francis’ job.  Speaking of which, TSN’s Bob McKenzie has gone on the record as saying that everyone except Sebastian Aho is available for trade.  So…you’re going to have the second pick in the draft and you want to blow up your roster with the second-lowest cap hit in the League? This is starting to sound like Peter Chiarelli has taken charge.  Regardless of their befuddling attitude, the Hurricanes should take Russian winger Andrei Svechnikov with their pick, should they keep it.  (Who knows at this point?) Svechnikov is the most offensively-skilled forward to come out of the OHL since Connor McDavid, but what really excited scouts was his energy and frame.  If he can fill out (6’3″, 190 pounds), he will become a top-pairing forward in short order.  The Hurricanes would be silly to pass him up.

Almost an afterthought here are the Pittsburgh Penguins, whose first selection is in the second round with the 53rd pick.  I won’t bother trying to predict who the Penguins will take with that selection, but it is the first time in history they have that selection.  It’s the fifth time in six years they won’t have a first round selection, which isn’t a huge issue for a team that won two Cups in a row.

Strange and wondrous things have occurred in Penguins history on draft day.  Last year the Penguins sent Oskar Sundqvist and the 31st pick to the St. Louis Blues for Ryan Reaves and the 51st pick (used on Zachary Lauzon), a move that was bizarre enough without Reaves ending up in Vegas in a three-team trade deadline deal that left Vegas retaining some of Derick Brassard’s salary on his way from Ottawa to Pittsburgh.  Two years ago the Penguins sent “Glass” Beau Bennett to New Jersey for the 77th pick which Pittsburgh used to select Connor Hall, and we haven’t looked back.

Two of the biggest trades of the Penguins’ current era happened on draft day.  In 2012, the Carolina Hurricanes and current Penguins GM Jim Rutherford sent the 8th pick, Brandon Sutter and Brian Dumoulin to Pittsburgh for Jordan Staal.  It was an inevitable move for then-Penguins GM Ray Shero: with Sidney Crosby’s contract also expiring and no room for a potentially-expensive third center, Shero had no choice but to make the swap.  It stands to wonder if the Shero had his eyes on Derrick Pouliot when he made that deal, but that’s who Shero ended up taking with the #8 pick, and he certainly missed on that deal.  Ultimately Sutter and Pouliot ended up in Vancouver in separate deals, while Staal has stayed put in Carolina and has gotten neither better nor worse, and Dumoulin has been a consistent presence on Pittsburgh’s blueline.

Then, of course, you have the 2003 trade which saw the Penguins deal the 3rd and 55th picks along with Mikael Samuelsson to the Florida Panthers for the first and 73rd picks.  It’s a trade that still perplexes me a little bit because I’m not sure the Penguins had to move up to obtain Marc-Andre Fleury.  The Panthers had Roberto Luongo through 2006, then Tomas Vokoun until 2011, so goaltending was not point of weakness for Florida for a while.  Likewise, the Hurricanes at #2 overall had just drafted franchise goaltender Cam Ward in 2002, and Ward quickly made his mark on the NHL in winning the Conn Smythe when Carolina won the Cup in 2006, so there’s no reason to think that (hey look at that) then-Canes GM Jim Rutherford was interested in another goaltending prospect.  Nevertheless, the Penguins did trade up and by all accounts won that deal as the Panthers took Nathan Horton at #3 which worked out for them near term but Horton would end up going to Boston on draft day in 2010 and saw his career shortened by injuries.  Fleury, however…well, we all know how that worked out.

If the Penguins do end up keeping the 53rd pick, some interesting names come up in the Penguins’ history when drafting near that spot: you have Troy Loney (52nd overall in 1982) and Richard Park (50th, 1994), footnotes Scott Harrington (54th, 2011) and Filip Gustavsson (55th, 2016), current Penguins prospects Teddy Blueger (52nd, 2012) and Lauzon (51st, 2017), and stretching a little further you have Kris Letang (62nd, 2005), Alex Goligoski (61st, 2004), and likely Penguins-of-the-near-future Daniel Sprong (46th, 2015) and Tristan Jarry (44th, 2013).

The absolute best 53rd pick of all time is none other than Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom, taken by the Detroit Red Wings in 1989; he ended up a four-time Stanley Cup winner, winning the Conn Smythe in 2002, and won the Norris trophy seven times.  A lot for any defenseman to live up to!

Next week we’ll have a free agency preview.  Marc-Andre Fleury is a free agent for the first time in his career! Maybe the Penguins should try having a veteran backup goaltender again…