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Analysis: 1999 NHL Draft in Review

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Around the trading deadline there was a fair amount of discussion on various Atlanta Thrasher discussion boards about the Thrashers (and GM Don Waddell's) record in the NHL draft. Some people claimed that the team had a terrible record, while others (including myself) argued that the team was just average. That debate started me thinking about how to do a quantitative analysis of recent drafts in order to get a handle on how well (or poorly) the Thrashers have done.

This is the first post in a four part series that will look at the Thrashers record in the NHL Drafts from 1999-2002. Why the years 1999-2002? Because it takes roughly 4-5 years for drafted players (who are only 18 years old) to mature and reach the big leagues. Not enough time has passed to completely evaluate more recent drafts.

(Warning: Stat Blogging Dead Ahead! If you don't care how I did this skip down to the two tables where I rank all NHL teams #1-28.)

How should we evaluate a team's performance at the NHL draft? Teams have a different number of picks and those picks are in different locations. Also some draft years are better than others (1999 was a bad year in case you didn't know). If we are to evaluate each team we must find some way of accounting for differences in the number of picks and their location in the draft order within a draft year. Once we can properly value these picks we can then arrive at a judgement about the relative success or failure of each NHL team.

First, we have define success on draft day. Who should we count as a NHL player? There is no perfect answer. Every definition carries with it some draw backs. Looking over the 1999 draft it struck me that most of good players have played at least a full season's worth of games. This allows us to separate out the guys who made it into the league from those that had cups of coffee. So I'll use 82 games for skaters and 45 NHL games played for goalies (since goalies never play a full season).

I think that using a full season worth of games is a reasonable criteria for success. The bottom line of the NHL draft is finding players who can make your roster. A scouting director needs to produce scorers, goalies, checkers and defensemen. Thus, I think games played is a reasonable criteria for success. Again, it isn't perfect but it is reasonable. (note: I plan to do a more advanced study this summer that combines both games played with the value of the player for a more nuanced approach--but your blogger only has so much time at the moment.)

Next we have to figure out a way to estimate how many players each NHL team should reasonably be expected to find in the draft. First we have to take into account significant variation in the number of draft picks. In the 1999 draft Nashville Predators had a high of 15 draft picks while the Detroit Red Wings and Philadelphia Flyers had only 6 each. We should expect that Nashville will draft more NHL player than the Wings and Flyers given the difference in the number of picks.

Now we must also adjust for the location of those each team's picks within the draft. 1st round picks are more valuable than 2nd rounders and 3rd rounders. Early 1st rounders are more valuable than late 1st rounders.

In order to assign a specific value to each draft pick we need to know roughly what percentage of players taken in that area of the draft turned out to be NHL players in 1999 (see the table below). For example 78% of players drafted in the top 1/3 of the 1st round made it into the league, this fell to 67% for picks in the middle of 1st round and then dropped further to 30% for late 1st round picks in that year. In 1999 21% of all 2nd rounders made the league, while 37% of all third rounders eventually arrived (this is a bit of an oddity that the third round was more productive than the 2nd round).

In my research into the drafts between 1999-2002 I found that after the end of the 3rd round there is essentially no difference between a 4th round pick and a 8th round pick. Some years the 8th round produced more players while other years the 4th round. It seems that after you get past the top 90-100 draft picks it is something like a lottery where each lottery ticket has an equal value. The one exception to this was that 9th round picks were consistently worthless in terms of producing NHL talent. So for this study I will assign picks in rounds 4-8 the same probability of turning into a NHL player.

Draft Pick 1999 Player Probability
Top 1/3 of the 1st Round
Middle 1/3 of the 1st Round .67
Bottom 1/3 of the 1st round
2nd round .21
3rd round .37
4th-8th rounds .12
9th round .03

OK, now that we have a way of valuing draft picks round by round. The next step is sum up the probabilities for each team. I'll use Atlanta as an example since this is a Thrashers blog (see the table below). In 1999 the Thrashers had 11 draft picks. The Thrashers 1st rounder was 1st overall so the probability is quite high (.78) that the pick will produce a player, but as we move down the ladder the picks become less likely to turn into a guy wearing the team's logo. If we sum up the joint probability of all 11 Atlanta picks we discover that given all those picks in 1999, we should expect that the team would find 2.1 NHL players given the number of picks, their placement in the order and the weakness of that particular draft year.

1999 Atlanta Picks by Round Probability Value of those Picks
1st (Top 1/3) .78
2nd .21
3rd .37
4th .12
4th .12
5th .12
6th .12
7th .12
8th .12
9th .03
9th .03
Total Value of 1999 Picks 2.10

I repeated this process for all 28 NHL teams drafting in 1999 and the results are contained in the table below. I calculated the Expected NHL Players for each team and then looked at the number of Actual NHL players (82 NHL games played) that resulted from that team's picks. The Difference column show whether teams produced more or fewer players than expected.
I have ranked all 28 teams based upon their net Difference.

NHL Rank NHL Team # of Picks Expected NHL Players Actual NHL Players Difference NHL Players
1 NYI 14 4.0 6 +2.0 Connolly, Pyatt, Martinek, Mezei, Kolnik,Weinhandl
2 ANA 7 1.1 3 +1.9 Leopold, Havelid, Tenkrat
3 PIT 11 2.2 4 +1.8 Koltsov, R. Malone, Kostopoulos, Caron
4 OTT 10 1.7 3 +1.3 Havlat, C. Kelly, Prusek
5 COL 11 1.8 3 +1.2 Radivojevic, Vrbata, R. Hahl
6 LAK 10 1.9 3 +1.1 F. Kaberle, McGratton, G. Parros
7 CHI 8 1.3 2 +.7 McCarthy, M. Leighton
8 BOS 10 1.5 2 +.5 Boynton, Eloranta
9 SJS 7 1.5 2 +.5 Jillson, Dimitrakos
10 DET 6 .6 1 +.4 Zetterberg
11 STL 10 1.8 2 +.2 B. Jackman, Khavanov
12 TBL 10 1.9 2 +.1 Keefe, Olvestad
13 CAL 10 2.0 2.0 0 Saprykin, C. Anderson
14 BUF 12 2.0 2.0 0 Zigomanis, R. Miller

NHL Rank NHL Team # of Picks Expected NHL Players Actual NHL Players Difference NHL Players
15 NAS 15 3.0 3 0 A. Hall, Erat, Hutchinson
16 ATL 11 2.1 2 -.1 Stefan, Exelby
17 FLA 9 2.2 2 -.2 A. Auld, Hagman
18 EDM 9 2.2 2 -.2 Semenov, Comrie
19 VAN 8 2.4 2 -.4 D. Sedin, H. Sedin
20 DAL 11 1.5 1 -.5 M. Tjarvqvist
21 NJD 8 1.5 1 -.6 Commodore
22 CAR 9 1.8 1 -.9 Tanabe
23 PHI 6 .9 0 -.9
24 WAS 10 2.1 1 -1.1 Beech
25 TOR 9 1.2 0 -1.2
26 MON 11 1.4 0 -1.4
27 NYR 11 3.0 1 -2.0 Lundmark
28 PHO 9 2.0 0 -2.0

1999 Winners
The New York Islanders ran away from the pack that year by drafting 6 NHL player in a draft where we should have expected them to only find 4 players given their picks. Their six NHL players included two scoring forwards (Connolly and Pyatt) an overage defensemen (Martinek) and some NHL depth players (Mezei, Kolnik, Weinhandl). The Ducks also had a strong draft considering that they had few picks. They still managed to find two top 4 defensemen (Leopold and Havelid) and a depth guy (Tenkrat). Pittsburgh managed to find quantity if not quality. Of the four NHL players Pittsburgh drafted, Koltsov has been an erratic scoring forward, Caron a backup goalie, Kostopoulos a depth player. R. Malone is probably the best guy out of the four that they found in 1999. The other big winner was Ottawa who got one of the four star offensive players in available in 1999 in Martin Havlat (the others being the two Sedins and Zetterberg). They also snagged a solid center in C. Kelly and a backup goalie in Prusek.

1999 Losers
Philadephia, Toronto, Montreal and Phoenix all came away with nothing from this particular draft. I would also suggest that Tampa is overrated by my method since their two "hits" Olvestad and Keefe were not impact players and neither are still in the NHL. Washington's one hit was Beech who is a fringe NHL player. The Rangers had two 1st round picks and all they have to show for it is Jamie Lundmark who has bounced around between four teams and has a career high is just 29 points.

1999 Atlanta Thrashers
How did the Thrashers fare in 1999? They were expected to find roughly 2 NHL players and they did in Stefan and Exelby. Their actual number of NHL players minus their Expected NHL Players places them right in the middle of the pack, ranked 16th out of 28 teams. In short it was an average performance. Not brilliant, but not terrible either. Obviously they didn't get any of the four star forwards available in the draft--then again neither did 25 other teams either.

The Thrashers also had a couple of guys from that draft who might still make it to 82 games. Tommi Santala has been on the Canuks roster this year and has 46 games played so far in his career. Getting anything, even a depth player out of a 9th round pick (which Santala was) is a bit of an accomplishment so a tip of the hat on that one. MacKenzie continues to get a few games here and there. He isn't that far from having a J.P. Vigier type of career. If the team had experienced a number of injuries on the checking line it is possible he might have ended up getting a fair number of NHL games played this year. Blatny got some looks both with the Thrashers and Boston but is out of the NHL now.

Did Atlanta get the best player in 1999? No. But they also avoided a complete disaster by not taking a guy like Brendl or Kris Beech. The team found two guys capable of playing a regular shift in a very weak draft year. Could they have done better? Certainly. Was it a disaster? No, go see the Rangers for that.

Next up: The 2000 Draft.