If I Was Steve Yzerman...My Approach To The 2021 Offseason (Part 2)

After Part 1, which discussed the expansion draft and buyout period, the following transactions have been made:

  • Evgeny Svechnikov was lost to Seattle in the expansion draft
  • Frans Nielsen was bought out /

Part 2 here will focus on draft philosophy and the 2021 draft.

Draft Philosophy - Positional Differences

Organizational draft philosophy is key to maximizing the opportunity to land elite talent. There are many different approaches to deciding whom to select. The strategy that has resonated with me the most is one described by Sam Hinkie, former GM for the Philadelphia 76ers as retold by Cory Jez, the Director of Sports Science & Analytics for Austin FC, on the Rejecting the Screen podcast and transcribed by Mitch Brown, Direct of North American Scouting for EP Rinkside:

“Sam Hinkie (former Philadelphia 76ers General Manager) tells a great story about [projecting prospects]. He asks a scout whether a player will pan out or not. But instead of yes or no, he puts five cups in front of the scout and give [them] 10 marbles. The five cups are: out of the league, bench player, high-rotation, starter, all-star. And instead [of the question being] yes or no that this guy is a good NBA player, because ‘good NBA player’ can mean a lot of things, you distribute your 10 marbles accordingly. What you’ve done, without using the words, is create a probability distribution for what the scout thinks the player will become.”

To relate this to the NHL, imagine when selecting a forward, you were given 10 marbles and the following five cups: Out of the NHL, AHL roster player, bottom-six forward, top-six forward, all-star. You now have to distribute your ten marbles into the five cups based on how likely you think that outcome is for a particular player. Our focus will be on identifying players that have the most marbles in top-six/all-star buckets in order to land the most players that have the highest probability of being good NHL players.

As far as relative value between positions, we have certainly seen over the years how a goaltender can be the ultimate difference maker in the playoffs. We’ve seen defensemen take over a playoff game, such as Seth Jones vs Tampa Bay in the 5OT classic from 2020. However, the ability to identify these defensemen and goalies relative to forwards at the time of the NHL draft is not so easy.

Between the 2007 and 2014 drafts, forwards were more likely to contribute more (as measured here by Standings Points Above Replacement) in the first seven seasons after their draft as compared to defensemen drafted in the top-15. The time frame of the first seven seasons is notable as that’s usually the amount of time a player is under the control of the team that drafted them. That’s not to say that a defenseman would be the wrong pick in the top-15 - it’s just historically speaking teams have not been able to extract the same value from a defenseman taken in the top-15 as compared to a forward. For this reason, I have a slight bias toward taking a forward with my lottery pick.

Goalies...are voodoo. For starters, there have not been many goaltenders taken in the top-15 over the last 20 years. Only 14 goaltenders have been selected with a top-15 pick since 2000 and the results are all over the map.

There are certainly some great goalies here such as Carey Price and Marc-André Fleury. However, there are a number of misses such as Riku Helenius, Brent Krahn, and Dan Blackburn. Perhaps the NHL has wised up to the challenge of drafting a goalie early as only two goalies have been drafted in the top-15 in the last decade - Spencer Knight and Yaroslav Askarov.

There are two key things I want to highlight when it comes to drafting goaltenders. First, the timeline for NHL organizations to advance goaltenders (right or wrong) seems to be miles behind that of NHL skaters to the point where the drafting team often derives little value from the goaltender. Take for example Jonathan Bernier. Bernier played a grand total of 62 games for the Kings in the first seven seasons after his draft before he was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs. This isn’t just a one-off example - you can see Jack Campbell in the table above as another case where the drafting team (in this case Dallas) got exactly 1 NHL game out of Campbell. When you consider the opportunity cost of a forward or a defenseman in the first round, both of which make the NHL at a >50% rate within four years, you’re taking a huge gamble in selecting a goaltender.

Whether it’s a lack of skill, the need for a longer development period, or the simple case of being stuck behind a great incumbent, goalies take far longer to reach the NHL level.

The above image notes that even when we get to 10 years out from the day of the draft (3600 days), less than 50% of goalies taken in the first round had reached 100 NHL games played. It’s a risky gamble for an NHL team to swing on a goalie in the first round for this very reason. With the long delays in making the NHL, most NHL teams are unable to capitalize on the market efficiency of having a starting goaltender on their entry level contract.

Beyond the amount of time it takes the goalies to reach the NHL level, it’s also worth noting that NHL teams by and large struggle to identify the best goalies in each draft and thus, NHL goalies can be found in every round.

Given this, it makes more sense to defer a goalie selection for later in the draft, particularly in rounds 5-7.

The second reason that makes drafting a goalie less attractive is that year after year, there are ample serviceable free agents that can be had for a relatively reasonable price. The Red Wings are certainly familiar with this as Jonathan Bernier has proven to be nothing short of a hero over the last two years. The Carolina Hurricanes are another team that has adopted this strategy, trying their hand with Scott Darling, Petr Mrázek, Curtis McElhinney, and James Reimer over the last few seasons to varying degrees of success. Additionally, the high number of undrafted goalies that have had success in the NHL suggests that teams can and should investigate high-performing goalies not currently playing in the NHL.

Ultimately in today’s NHL, it generally does not make sense to spend a large amount of draft capital and money on goaltenders when a majority of the NHL still struggles to identify which goalies will perform well in a given season, let alone at the time of the NHL draft. There are certainly some teams that have been better than others at picking goaltenders, such as Columbus (Elvis Merzlikins, Joonas Korpisalo, Anton Forsberg) and Washington (Braden Holtby, Vitek Vanecek, Phillip Grubauer) but it’s not consistent across the league. I would hire specific goalie scouts familiar with goaltender kinesiology, vision training, and specific conditioning programs who may do a better job of identifying strong goalie prospects but until the rest of the league catches up, I’ll take advantage of this in later rounds.

One caveat to all of this - the majority of what drives my decision to take a specific position is based on what’s happened historically. This is far from a perfect strategy for all scouting departments as different departments may have different strengths as well as the fact that I may be missing an evolving trend not readily available from the present data. With those limitations stated, I still believe that below is the safest general strategy for my scouting department to work off of:

  • Scouts seem to do a better job of identifying elite forwards compared to elite defensemen, particularly early in the draft. My department will have a slight bias toward forwards when deciding between two players in the same tier.
  • Elite goalies are difficult to identify at the time of the draft and history suggests that there is plenty of goaltending talent available toward the end of the draft in addition to undrafted players and unrestricted free agents. /

Draft Pick Value

Even with all of the above noted, there’s still significant uncertainty when it comes time to select a player. Will this player be a bust? Will they greatly exceed their draft slot value? What’s the likelihood of me getting a top-6/top-4/top-goalie from this draft slot? To answer these, we can start broadly with a draft pick value curve.

Using the value provided by each player drafted at that slot in the first seven years after the draft, Dom Luszczyszyn generated a relative draft pick value curve shown below:

The first thing that should jump out is that value declines...immediately. The difference in wins added from the first pick and the fourth pick is the same as the difference between the fourth pick and the 116th pick. Let that sink in. Alan, formerly @loserpoints on Twitter, created a helpful visual for people to understand what the median player, high-end player, and low-end player might look like at each draft slot in the first round.

It’s important to quickly table any confidence you had about landing a top-6 forward/top-4 defenseman/top-goalie at any pick outside of the lottery. Beyond that point, the chance of landing a quality player comes down to how good your scouting staff is and how lucky you’re feeling that day. Recognizing the value of luck here is important - it’s not about skill so much as it is about maximizing the opportunities to be lucky. There’s generally a consistent amount of talent from draft-to-draft - the question becomes, can your team be the lucky one to land it?

In contrast to Dom’s GSVA curve which is based on historical players taken at the specific draft slot, we can look at what the curve would look like if every team always took the next best player available:

This particular visualization sums up the available Goals Above Replacement in a given draft and then subtracts the best player available at each draft slot. What you can see here is that the drop-off in value is not nearly as steep, which illustrates that there is still “first-round” talent available in the draft - it’s just not getting picked in the first round.

With the understanding that each draft contains talent but it’s not always picked at the top of the draft, let’s talk about trading strategies. As of right now, no scouting staff has truly separated itself as head and shoulders better than another scouting staff, based on prior work from current Seattle Kraken Senior Quantitative Analyst Namita Nandakumar. If a scouting staff were to do so, the incentive to trade up would increase as they could target specific players they like. Even without being better than any other scouting staff, trading up can offer the opportunity to pick from a larger pool of players, marginally increasing the probability that you land one of the top talents in the draft. However, the gain is marginal at best, so if a scouting staff isn’t abundantly confident that they are landing a top talent, they are costing themselves multiple future opportunities to do so. Thus, trading down to acquire more picks has become the “smart strategy” as teams increase the number of chances they have to “get lucky”. Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen teams like Carolina and Toronto trade down in the draft to acquire more picks and thus more opportunities to land the top talents.

Based on this, our general strategy will be to look for trade down strategies, particularly in the second and third rounds. While Detroit does have the added advantage this year of having 11 picks in the first five rounds, I’m still not confident enough my prognosticating ability to use those picks to trade up for a specific player. For the purposes of this simulation, I won’t make any draft picks as it’s difficult to prognosticate what the situation would look like in the moment but recognize that that would be my optimal strategy.

Alright, we’ve dropped 2000 words talking about strategy, so let’s actually make some picks!

The Wings own two 1st round picks, three 2nd round picks, two 3rd round picks, two 4th round picks, two 5th round picks, and one 6th round pick as shown below.

This year’s draft has been touted as a slightly lower “high-end talent” draft. I’ve even heard some refer to the draft as the “2019 draft, without Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko”. Without a clear number one player, there are a handful of guys that could be considered as potential picks for the Wings in the top-10. As of 4/18/21, the Wings most likely pick is 7th overall; however the FC Mock Draft simulator tool we’ll use only allows us to draft from the 5th slot.

Shown above are ten guys who I think merit consideration with the Red Wings’ first overall pick. For specific scouting reports on these guys, I’ll direct you to the work of Elite Prospects, Corey Pronman, Scott Wheeler, and Will Scouch. The ranking shown above is a blend of my analytical assessment of the players in combination with scouting reports from individuals I trust. This list will certainly evolve as I spend more time watching and reviewing these players but as of now I think this is a good starting point. These players are listed in order of my preference for the Wings, following our strategy of forwards > defense when players are in the same tier.

This far out, it’s hard to know where the Capitals pick will land. The FC Mock Draft Simulator has the Capitals pick at 29, however this pick could be much higher. I won’t speculate on potential players to pick at this time as we don’t know enough about where the pick will be but more to come on that in the coming months!

Without further ado, let’s take a spin at a mock draft.

With this mock, I’ve taken huge swings at offensive skill. It may seem too forward heavy but it’s important to remember that the probability of all of these guys panning out is heavily stacked against us. At the specific positions I was drafting from, these are guys who have the most marbles in the “high-end” cup for me. A quick rundown on the guys selected here:

  • Guenther (2nd on McKenzie’s list) is arguably the highest skill forward in the draft. Will likely be a top-3 consensus pick by the time of the draft as he’s scoring over 2 points per game for the WHL-best Edmonton Oil Kings. Excellent shot, quick release, good enough skater, and has all the makings of a solid top-6 forward. If he’s there at the Wings’ pick, I am sprinting to the podium.
  • Olausson’s (26th on McKenzie’s list) another guy that I don’t think lasts to the Washington pick but in the event that there’s a happy accident, Olausson would be a heckuva get. He’s got speed to burn and will be an asset in the transition game. I believe he’s a solid bet to end up a middle-six winger.
  • Again taking a bet on skating and skill, Morrow’s (36th on McKenzie’s list) a very talented defenseman that has blown away the USHS competition. He’s committed to North Dakota where he will have the opportunity to refine his defensive game and learn to play with pace a bit better. He’s an excellent, high-upside guy at this point in the draft
  • Zach Dean’s (32nd on McKenzie’s list) a bit all over the place on different talent lists, ranging from as high as 18 on Pronman’s list to being outside of Wheeler’s top-64. He’s another guy that’s a good skater with a great motor. While he doesn’t have Larkin’s offensive talent or top-end speed, I think he’s a guy that could be a decent bet to give you 60-70% of Larkin’s game and slot in as a potential 3C.
  • Kirsanov (64th on McKenzie’s list) flew under the radar until the the World Juniors where he outshined Daniil Chayka, a player expected to be in the running for a lottery pick heading into the season. If you can sense a theme, he’s another solid skater who makes good decisions with the puck. Pick224 estimates that he’s playing nearly 23 minutes a night for his team in the MHL with a 58.33% EV GF%.
  • Robidas (66th on McKenzie’s list) is a bit undersized at 5’7” but he makes up for it with - wait you guessed it - great speed. Not sure that he has enough offensive talent to be a top-6 center but if I were a betting man, I think his work ethic/motor gets him to an NHL roster.
  • Ayrton Martino (42nd on McKenzie’s list) reminds me a touch of Andreas Athanasiou in the sense that he seems to be a highlight reel on offense, albeit with some defensive concerns. At this stage of the draft, this is absolutely the kind of bet you take in the hopes that you can round out his game at the next level or at the very least, get the most out of his offensive skillset. /

So there you have it. We’ve laid out our approach to the draft, why we might favor certain positions over others, our philosophy when it comes to trading, and then executed a 3-round mock draft that added a lot of speed and high-end skill. Part 3 of this series will focus on how to navigate free agency.