Diamonds in the Rough: Finding Elite Talent Late

The later round picks (round three on) in the NHL draft have provided very few true NHLers. From 1980 to 2015, 6,127 selections were taken after the second round. Of those, 815 of the 6,127 have gone on to play in the NHL in a meaningful way (150 games or more) thus far. That’s a success rate of roughly 13%. 

As a result, late round picks are not treated as a high commodity by teams. Late round picks are mostly used as filler in larger trades or used to acquire energy players or “room guys.” Or GMs take complete gambles on extreme low-probability players with those picks.  

The belief seems to be that finding an NHLer or even an elite NHLer late is a stroke of luck. You pick a player with little upside and a few years down the road, he’s turned a switch and turned into something. How can you predict that? 

However, if you look closely at the elite talent, namely forwards, selected late… there’s a few things that stand out which suggest it’s possible to improve on the extremely low probability (1.6%) of finding great talent later in the NHL draft. 

THE NUMBERS

I’ve gathered all the forwards drafted between 1980 and 2015 who have played at least 150 games in the NHL to date and registered a points/gp rate of 0.60 or more over the course of their career. I’ve also looked at a number of factors, including: age drafted, height, weight, country of origin and junior/euro scoring/NHLE thresholds. In total, 100 players fit these parameters.

Interestingly, 75% of the players fit into three groups: small – 5’10 or smaller; drafted as an overager – drafted after their true 18-year-old season; and/or European – were born in Europe and played their pre-NHL hockey in Europe (Russia, Sweden, Finland, Czech Slovakia, etc.). Meanwhile, 25% were low probability picks that worked out (i.e., the lucky hit). Below is the full breakdown of the 100 players as they relate to each one of these groups, but in total 31% of the elite late surprises were small, 40% were overagers and 46% were European.

  • Overager/European – 17 players (17%)
  • European – 17 players (17%)
  • Small – 13 players (13%)
  • Overager – 11 players (11%)
  • Small/Overager – 7 players (7%)
  • Small/European – 5 players (5%)
  • Small/Overager/European – 5 players (5%)
  • Other – 25 players (25%)

As travel becomes easier and more data is readily available, the European affect is starting to wane. We’re now seeing players like Ovechkin, Malkin and Tarasenko taken very high, and rightfully so. As well talents like Panarin, although still undrafted, are being recognized earlier and earlier and are making their way to the NHL. These days, if you’re lighting up a men’s league in Europe at a very young age, NHL teams should know about you. But in the 80’s and 90’s, players like Alex Mogilny, Hakan Loob and Pavel Datsyuk slipped through most teams’ fingers because most teams had very little intel on them.

But teams are still incredibly hesitant with overage players and small players. Players like Doug Gilmour, Mark Recchi, Theo Fleury, Marc Savard and Johnny Gaudreau had the elite vision, talent and point production in their draft year to suggest they should be first round picks  yet they were skipped over hundreds of time until somebody “rolled the dice” on them. Despite the enormous success elite small players have had, for years and years, they are taken later than they should be (see Alex DeBrincat, Vitali Abramov and Matthew Phillips in the 2016 draft). 

The same story emerges with overagers. A player that registers 100 points in an OHL season in their true draft year will go in the first round, unless extremely tiny. However, a player who does so in their D+1Y will most likely go in rounds five through seven, if selected at all (one exception appears to be NCAA players – NCAA players that excel in their D+1 year sometimes go early – see Zach Parise, Mike Cammalleri and Paul Stastny). 

It is important to factor in age as at a certain point, especially in the CHL, it’s just too old to matter. The problem is there’s a middle area where the player is not too old yet (e.g., a Canadian playing in the CHL who’s a summer baby who is not even 19 by the time the D+1 draft has come and gone or a 21-year-old Russian putting up enormous numbers in the KHL, the second best league in the world).  

It’s easy to evaluate when the player is too old by looking at the history of overage selections. One example, regardless of league, if a player turns it on before age 19 (30+ NHLE) but not in their true draft year, their success rates and likely point production are nearly identical to players that do so in their draft year. Yet even players that are barely overagers are lower on the totem pole at the draft floor their second time around, teams preferring to take first-year eligible hulking wingers that registered few points.

But these players must look different from superstars drafted earlier in terms of point production, right?

Yes they do look different, for the most part, but not by much. Here I speak of how NHLE thresholds can be used to get a relatively accurate view of what type of scoring players will produce over the course of their NHL career. The big points that come out: nearly all elite impact players will hit a 30+ NHLE before turning 19; many, if they go back, will hit a 40+ NHLE by 20; and the absolute best of the best tend to have astronomically high NHLEs (50+) before entering the NHL.

If we look at these 100 elite late surprises here’s what they look like in terms of these factors:

  • Hit a NHLE of 30+ before turning 19 – 53 players (53%)
  • Hit a NHLE of 40+ before 20 – 45 players (45%)
  • Hit a NHLE of 50+ before turning 21 – 35 players (35%)
  • Hit all three of the thresholds above – 35 players (35%)
  • Hit a 40+ NHLE at some point before entering the NHL – 75 players (75%)
And comparing the 56 elite forwards drafted in the first two rounds between 2004 and 2014:

  • Hit a NHLE of 30+ before 19 – 37 players (66%)
  • Hit a NHLE of 40+ before 20 – 27 players (48%)
  • Hit a NHLE of 50+ before turning 21 – 9 players (16%)
  • Hit all three of the thresholds above – 8 players (14%)
  • Hit a 40+ NHLE at some point before entering the NHL – 31 players (55%)
There’s little difference. Late round surprises, if they’re not small, tend to hit the 30+ threshold a little later than elite talent that go in the first round, and they also tend to spend more time in their feeder league than the elite talent. Early drafted elite talent often make the NHL right after being drafted or a year after being drafted. You’ll be hard pressed to find a late round pick that does this, no matter how good they are (the late great Pavol Demitra is the only one of this group of 100).

CONCLUSION

Finding elite offensive talent is the most difficult thing to do at the draft and via trade, hence why extreme overpayment occurs on July 1 for the best offensive talent available. In the first round, teams appear to make a concerted effort to find offensive talent by taking the best scorers in every league that are first year draft eligible. However, in the later rounds teams seem to throw caution to the wind and start to make pick after pick on intangibles. 

How to improve one’s odds of finding elite talent late? It’s easy. Following three simple rules will probably increase a team’s chances of finding late elite talent by several hundred percent. 

  1. Extreme low scorer vs. smaller player with first round or second round worthy numbers… take the small player. 
  2. Extreme low scorer vs. 19-year-old CHL overager or early 20’s European that put up numbers comparable to the forwards picked in the top 10… pick the overager. 
  3. Extreme low scorer vs. 18-year-old Russian already playing in the KHL and scoring at a modest rate… pick the Russian! Even if the concern is that the player will never come over. Unless you’re positive he won’t come over (as in he has told you to his face he never will), especially if it’s late… take the gamble as they almost always come over when playing in the NHL is a real possibility. 
  • beloch

    Question: Does your data set include injuries? It would be interesting to see if players who are injured before their first draft tend to be picked later than their post-draft performance warrants, due to the injury suppressing their stats. If so, spending a late round pick on a prospect who had his season derailed by an injury might be a worthwhile gamble.

  • Cool Story, Brodie!!!

    This is an excellent article. Did anyone notice Burke at development camp? You guys got me all stoked on him and I haven’t heard anything about him since.

  • Bean-counting cowboy

    I am hoping the Flames sign Burke. I watched a few Hurricanes games this past year and was always impressed with this kid. Seemed to be the straw the stirred the drink on that team – and they were a high scoring team.

  • Parallex

    Would the same criteria listed at the end apply to d-men? Looking at the Flames most recent draft…

    Adam Fox (smaller player with first round or second round worthy numbers)
    Linus Lindstrom
    Mitchell Mattson
    Eetu Tuulola
    Matthew Phillips (smaller player with first round or second round worthy numbers)
    Stepan Falkovsky (19 year old CHL overager with numbers. Bonus Draft year was in the MHL)

  • Koolmoedee

    It was a decent gamble on the part of the Flames not to draft Brendan Burke. Calgary is the closest geographical team to him, and they probably have the best shot at signing him without spending a pick.

    That said, it would be smart to give him a good opportunity at rookie camp to earn a contract.

  • wot96

    I was at the game. I did not really see anything spectacular from Burke. But did not really see any issues either. Tuulola was fantastic, he actually gets his own assist on one of his goals. He passed the puck off the net to himself then worked his way out in front of the net and sniped the goal in. Phillips is tiny. Gets pushed off the puck easily but no denying he has moves. Mattson was the best d man. Was skating and moving the puck really well. Mathew looked solid but did not see anything special. I think he is still nursing some injuries and took it easy. If Tuulola can build on what I saw, we will love him. Big, skillfully and allegedly has a mean streak.

    • McRib

      Burke set up 4-5 prime scoring chances for his linemates who squandered them and then he scored an absolute gem on his shootout attempt going bar down…. Hope he isn’t playing with QMJHL fighters in the Pentiction tournament to highlight his potential, like he was most of the scrimmage. Burke had a couple shifts late with Phillips and they had a minute solid of offensive zone pressure, he hit a post in the waning second of camp as well. I mean if he bagged 4-5 assists, people would have gone away raving about his performance.

  • ChinookArchYYC

    Good work here! Very interesting.

    It’s pretty clear that scouts and organizations allowed for too much bias into their decision making process. What strikes me is that this list of 100 are considered elite players. How many more would just be considered realy good players? You mentioned that travel has become easier, and so Europeans are now getting a better look, but I expect smaller and older players will continue to slip through.

  • McRib

    “But in the 80’s and 90’s, players like Alex Mogilny, Hakan Loob and Pavel Datsyuk slipped through most teams’ fingers because most teams had very little intel on them.”

    This seriously misstates the situation regarding Mogilny.

    Even casual fans knew about Mogilny by the time he was drafted. He’d already been named best forward at the ’88 World Jr Championships (his 2nd time representing the Soviet Union at the WJC as he also was a regular at the age of 17 in 1987,) won an Olympic Gold Medal playing for the Soviet Union as a teenager and been a regular for two seasons on the famed Red Army team.

    He was drafted 89th overall because the iron curtain was still over the Soviet Union and players couldn’t leave to join the NHL. Mogilny was the first Soviet to defect from his country to join the NHL, leaving the team in Stockholm after the 1989 World Championships.

  • Burnward

    Re: NCAA players in D+1 going early

    There were some silly rules in place back in the day that led to some college players being taken later than what (based on the current rules) their first draft eligible season would be. Using Parise as an example, 2003 was, in fact, his first draft eligible year because he’d opted out of the 2002 draft.

    See: https://www.thestar.com/sports/breakaway_blog/2015/06/will-this-be-the-best-nhl-draft-since-2003-.html