This article is being co-posted on MLHS, as well as on my own site, Find me @OrgSixAnalytics on twitter. 

The hockey analytics community has looked at many aspects when projecting a player’s performance over their career: prior league, prior scoring rate, performance of players with similar characteristics, size, and date of birth, among others.

One example of such work was an article from earlier this year by ‘moneypuck’ at Moneypuck’s analysis derives its foundation from an excellent study by Michael Shuckers in 2011, where Shuckers was one of the first to create a standardized view of “draft pick value.” The quality of Schuckers’ analysis drove many other authors to produce work that followed suit by building on his approach. However, in his paper, Michael chose to define “draft pick value” entirely based on likelihood to play >200 games in the league. Although that is a reasonable metric – and few would argue that reaching 200 NHL games means a draft pick was not successful — there are limits to using only a single metric to define ‘success.’

How ‘successful’ a pick was, and the ensuing value of a draft pick, is highly sensitive to how we choose to define success. Is a pick successful after 40 games, 80, or 200? Are they successful after 30 career points, or 100? How about their points per game? Or their total career points? How would our definition of “success” change on each of these metrics if they are a forward or a defenseman?

As you can imagine, this isn’t a simple thing to answer. Earlier in 2015, Stephen Burtch did some interesting work down this path, where he combined expected GP with expected Pts/Gm to create a new draft pick value figure – which was a big step in the right direction. However, even Pts/Gm has its gaps, given that it only considers players still in the league. As time goes on, the least successful players will leave the league sooner, increasing the average Pts/Gm of those remaining. In a perfect world, we would want a metric that has already been adjusted for a player’s likelihood to succeed in the league, rather than one based on his success if he can stay in the league (although — to be fair — Burtch does seek to address this point through multiplying probability of reaching 200 games by expected Pts/Gm).

In order to address these points, I have taken a very detailed look at long-term player performance and development based on draft round, incorporating a wide range of metrics into my analysis. Specifically, I have reviewed the five years of players drafted from 2000-2004, as well as the ensuing 9-13 years of NHL season data.

Arguably the biggest factor in whether or not analysis is put into practice is if a team’s front office and coaching staff truly understand it, and believe the results of the analysis enough to buy-in to it – which will often come down to the method by which that analysis is communicated. As such, I have tried to simplify the statistical methodology involved in this work, and display the output visually in a way that is easily understood and hopefully very accessible to stats and non-stats folks alike.

Note: This article focuses strictly on metrics related to player performance and development. However, a natural follow on to this is then connecting that information to draft pick value, as mentioned, and after that, how successful teams have been in drafting – both of which are covered in my full report, originally posted here.

What I aim to answer 

The objective of this analysis is to investigate “typical” player performance and development trajectory after being drafted in a given round in order to answer the following three questions:

  • If a player is drafted in round X, and is ultimately able to make the NHL, by when should they be expected to be a contributing NHL player?
  • How well does the typical player perform over the course of his career (on various metrics) after being selected in a given round?
  • Within the first round, how do the top 10 overall picks perform versus those taken 11th-30th?

So, let’s get into it.

Analysis of Long Term Player Performance and Development by Draft Round

I have split out the upcoming sections of analysis by each type of metric used. I will then revisit the three questions above directly in the final section on conclusions.

Games Played Thresholds

As Michael Shuckers showed very clearly – players drafted in the first 2-3 rounds are much more likely to appear in the NHL; however, the likelihood of a playing one or more full seasons diminishes substantially after the first round.

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In terms of player development, this data suggests that:

  • If a first round pick hasn’t played a game by their fourth potential NHL season, they likely will never appear in the NHL.
  • 20-30% of successful second and third round players only begin to meaningfully play for their franchise between 5-7 years after being drafted (e.g. the pink shaded area on the ’80 games played’ chart).
  • The gap between the top 10 overall and the rest of the first round is actually relatively small when looking at the likelihood to pass the 150 game threshold (especially in comparison to metrics later in the article).
  • And, as we know, all other rounds after the first three appear to have close to equal likelihoods of producing long term NHL players.

Points Per Game Data

Forwards taken in the top 10 overall show an unbelievable ability to outperform in pts/game over their careers (which Stephen Burtch has shown is even more distributed within the top 10¸ where the top 1-3 picks overall are meaningfully better than picks 4-10).

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  • Interestingly, second and third round forwards tend to increase their per-game output over time, largely converging with players drafted 11-30 overall.
  • However, given this metric is an average of those still playing, there will be a survivorship bias that partially drives this effect.

    • e.g. Low producers will leave the league more quickly, increasing the average for those remaining, as shown by the fact that 30% of the players shown are from Rd 1 in season ‘6’.  This increases to 40% by season ‘10’.
    • This data can more reasonably be said to tell us that, in order to stay in the NHL over the long term, a forward must achieve a minimum of roughly 0.20 points per game

Defensemen naturally display a much more narrow distribution of results, accounting for the fact that a ‘strong’ defenseman will not always play a significant point-scoring role.

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  • Pts/game data for defensemen is not terribly insightful, but I have included it in order to provide the data for those interested.
  • One note: If you look closely, you can see surprisingly strong (and erratic) performance of Round 5 defensemen – starting very weak (no points registered in season ‘2’), but then ultimately being among the highest points per game in seasons ‘5’ through ‘10’.

    • This particular point is driven by a small sample size issue: 49 D were drafted in the fifth round, but only a handful played many games – three of whom happen to be John-Michael Liles, Kevin Bieksa, and James Wisniewski

Points Scored Thresholds

A player’s likelihood to surpass the 30-point threshold tends to resemble their likelihood to pass ~150 career games played…

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… However, players drafted in the third round fall behind in terms of likelihood to pass the 100-point career threshold.

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  • Where earlier charts show strong similarities between the long term potential of second and third round players, the ability of those taken in the second round to break the 100-point career threshold is a clear differentiator between the two.
  • Based on this, teams may do well to target top scorers in rounds 1 and 2, before moving to defensemen, shut down forwards and goalies in the third round and onwards.
  • Again, top 10 overall picks differentiate themselves here as well, with over 70% passing 100 career points.

Cumulative Career Points

The ideal metric to compare performance by round must be adjusted for players with limited NHL careers – which brings me to Lifetime Production, or Cumulative Career Points Scored.

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  • Here, first round picks wildly outperform all others, showing that the combined skill and typical longevity of even a mid-to-late first round player (11th-30th) will equate to an average 159 points over 10 seasons for forwards, and 105 points over the same timeframe for defensemen.
  • This compares to the significantly lower 68 average career points for second round forwards, and 44 average career points for second round defense.
  • Notably, third round forwards also reassert their value here, showing that – although they will only typically produce a total of 36 points over 10 seasons – they still will consistently outperform rounds 4-9 in career points.

Drawing Some Conclusions

Having now walked through each chart and its meaning, I want to summarize my findings from above. To do so, let’s revisit the original list of three questions:

1) If a player is drafted in round X, and is ultimately able to make the NHL, by when should they be expected to be a contributing NHL player?

  • First round players typically make their initial NHL appearance within 1-2 years, and will almost always have played their first full season (~80 games) by their fourth year after being drafted.
  • Second and third round players take much longer to develop, and many only play a full season by their 5th-7th years after being drafted.
  • Players who haven’t played by these general timelines become highly unlikely to ever make serious NHL contributions (>1 season played).

2) How well does the typical player perform over the course of his career (on various metrics) after being selected in a given round?

  • Most players drafted outside the first round never make the league at all (second round players have a 60% likelihood of playing one game, and a 35% likelihood of playing a full season; for third round players, closer to 40% play one game, and only 28% play a full season).
  • Based on their combined likelihood to play two-plus NHL seasons, score 30+ NHL points, and reach 0.4-0.5 or more pts/gm, 1st, 2nd and 3rd round players are the only players with a meaningfully higher likelihood in succeeding in the league.
  • However, based on the likelihood to score >100 NHL points, first and second round players are able to separate themselves from the third round as well.

3) Within the first round, how do the top 10 overall picks perform versus those taken 11th-30th?

  • The top 10 overall picks are significantly more capable than all others, even versus their first round peers.
  • Over 70% of top 10 overall picks pass 100 career points, typically after ~6 seasons, versus 50% of those picked 11th-30th, who often take 9-10 years or more.
  • Only forwards taken in the top 10 overall can truly be expected to score 0.6-0.7 pts/gm or more over their careers (although there are many examples of players who perform at this level of production that were taken outside the top 10, such as Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry).
  • In a hypothetical trade for active players, a ‘typical’ top-10 overall pick should be treated as likely reaching >350 career points as a F, or >170 as a D. Thus, one-for-one, a team should be expecting to get a true star player in return if they are giving up a potential top 10 overall pick.

Wrapping Up

The long term performance expected of a player based on their draft round is something that is highly relevant to teams throughout their decisions in trades, on draft day, and in supporting a player’s development over his career. Hopefully you have found this analysis to be interesting, and found that the work was also able to build upon what is already out there by expanding the range of metrics that we look at. As mentioned, the PDF I linked to above also begins to apply this to both a revised (and straightforward) metric of draft pick value, as well as to answer the question of ‘Which teams were the most successful?’ in the draft years studied. Keep an eye out for ‘Part 2’ of this article – where I apply the data above to the trades done by the Leafs on Draft Day last summer, in order to see if Hunter, Dubas and friends were winners or losers in their exciting deals.