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Tumbling Dice

On Thursday, I wrote a piece about the history of the No. 23 pick in the draft. The Caps are picking 23rd in the 2013 NHL Draft, or at least, they currently own that pick. But the Caps have seven other picks in the draft on Sunday, choices 53, 84, 114, 127, 144, 174 and 204.


I spent a good deal of time researching the history of those choices, and what I found was somewhat illuminating to me. (Your mileage may vary.) It also got me thinking about different ways to look at the draft.


It’s been said that an NHL team can sustain itself quite nicely merely by routinely pulling two or three regular players out of each draft. That doesn’t sound like much. Let’s call it two or two and a half players, and say that a team gets seven picks each summer as NHL teams do in the modern era. That means you’ve got to connect at a 35.7% clip to reach two and a half players, and at 28.6% to reach two players. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a lofty goal that’s difficult to achieve even if you add a few extra picks here and there over the years.


One of the criticisms I’ve heard repeatedly of the Caps’ organization over the years is how they can’t seem to find too many NHL players in the draft beyond the first round. The reasoning of those critics, it seems, is that any idiot should be able to get a good player out of the first round every year, even if they’re routinely picking in the twenties every June.


Well, okay then. I thought about what a team might look like if it had to subsist merely on picks beyond the first round, what it might look like if it had to get by with the picks the Caps have this year beyond the first round. It’s not a pretty picture.


Let’s assume a very, very generous definition of the term “regular player.” For the purposes of this discussion, let’s call any player whose NHL career lasts at least 100 games a “regular player.” That’s barely more than one full season, but humor me for now.


I examined NHL drafts beginning in 1969 and went through 2009, a span of 41 drafts. I looked at the picks the Caps have in the 2013 draft in rounds 2-7, a total of seven picks. From 1969-79, the length of the draft varied. In most of those years the draft didn’t extend far enough to use some of the later choices. For example, there were 126 players chosen in the 1979 draft. If a team had the choices the Caps had beyond the first round in that draft, it would only yield three picks (53, 84 and 114).


I threw out the drafts from 2010-12, because it’s unreasonable to expect players from those drafts to have established themselves as regulars, even by the loose 100-game definition.


There were a total of 267 choices made with those picks over those 41 drafts. And there were a total of 41 “regulars” (making some allowances for players recently drafted) chosen for an average of exactly one per year and a success rate of 15.4%. So as you can see, even if you did have a first-rounder in each of those years, you would need that first-rounder to hit each and every year in order to pull two regulars from each draft.


To me, that magnifies the importance of hitting on those first-round picks. When possible, try to accumulate additional first-rounders. When the first round looks a little fallow, trade out. When it’s bountiful, trade up.


The Capitals have been able to adhere to those tenets over the last decade or so. In the drafts from 2000-09, the Caps drafted 20 players who went on to become NHL regulars, including 2009 draftees Dmitry Orlov and Cody Eakin who haven’t clicked past the 100-game marker yet but certainly will.


Washington had 16 first-round choices in those 10 drafts, and it connected on 13 of those 16 for a solid success rate of 81.2%. The Capitals had a total of 81 choices in those 10 drafts, meaning that they hit on seven of 65 (10.8%) beyond the first round. Overall, Washington drafted 20 regular players with those 81 choices (24.7%), which is only about a player shy of the preferred rate of return, if you will. If a 2009 draftee such as Patrick Wey or Garrett Mitchell were to develop into a regular NHLer, the Caps would be at 26% for that 10-year draft stretch.


The reality is, you need those two or three players every year regardless of which rounds they’re pulled from. If you’re failing in the first round, you’d better be making up for it later. If you’re struggling in the later rounds, you need first-round success to sustain a steady flow of talent into the system.


Here are a few additional points I gleaned:

* One of the best players in NHL history was chosen with the 53rd pick. Detroit snared defenseman Niklas Lidstrom with that choice in the 1989 NHL Entry Draft. He played 20 seasons in the league, won four Stanley Cups, seven Norris Trophies and a Conn Smythe Trophy. If you were counting the number of defensemen better than Lidstrom in the history of the league, you’d only need one hand, and arguably none.


* The drafts from 1969-71 totaled only eight picks, but they yielded nothing. Not a single one of those players (none drafted later than 114 overall) ever played in as many as 100 games in the league.


* The best of the seven choices – the No. 53 – delivered the most players, 11 regulars in the 41 drafts. That accounts for more than a quarter of all the successes. That 53rd pick delivered nothing, by the way, from 1985-88, from 1991-94, and from 1996-2003.


* The No. 84 slot produced nothing from 1983-96, inclusive. As many regulars (six) were culled from the No. 84 spot as from the 204 spot, and the quality of the players taken at 204 was much better. Think about that for a minute. Over a 41-year span, that says a lot about the inexact science of the NHL draft.


* Thirteen of the 41 successes came from the last three picks, picks 144, 174 and 204. You’d expect 204 to be the most fallow of the seven choices, but it was actually 174. The 174th overall pick has produced just two regular NHL players since 1969: Trevor Letowski in 1996 and Jarno Kultanen in 2000.


* None of the players chosen at 127 hit paydirt until 1991 (Oleg Petrov). None of those chosen at 174 did so until 1996 (Letowski).


* The last two picks in 1996 both produced players whose careers lasted more than 600 games (Letowski at 174 and Tomas Kaberle at 204).


* Of the 13 successes in the final three spots (144, 174, 204), 10 have been achieved since 1990.


* Nearly half (20 of 41) of the “regulars” had NHL careers of fewer than 300 games. Some of those players are still active and may end up surpassing the modest 300-game plateau.


* Nine of the 41 players had careers of 600 or more games. One-third (three) of those players were drafted at 204: Nikolai Khabibulin (1992), Kaberle (1996) and Tom Kostopoulos (1999).


(A housekeeping note: Two recent draftees – Matt Calvert (127th in 2008) and Roman Horak (127th in 2009) – have yet to cross the 100-game threshold but I counted them as regulars because they’re both close and can reasonably be expected to do so given their current career arcs.)


Notable players taken at 53: Randy Velischek (1980), Lidstrom (1989), Mike Dunham (1990), David Booth (2004), Travis Hamonic (2008).


Notable players taken at 84: Adam Mair (1997), Alexei Emelin (2004).


Notable players taken at 114: Darren Turcotte (1986), Garth Snow (1987).


Notable players taken at 127: Ryan Callahan (2004).


Notable players taken at 144: Garry Howatt (1972), Matt Cooke (1997).


Notable players taken at 174: Letowski (1996).


Notable players taken at 204: Espen Knutsen (1990), Khabibulin (1992), Kaberle (1996), Kostopoulos (1999), Colin Greening (2005).