If there was a lesson to be learned from the Stanley Cup playoffs, it’s that the draft — which goes this Friday and Saturday in Sunrise, Fla. — is the most important tool in building a winner.
“When you look (at) any team that has any kind of long-term sustained success, it’s really true home-grown talent,” says Lightning GM Steve Yzerman. “It’s just impossible, even more so with the salary cap, to try to build a team to be successful over a period of time just through free agency and through trades.
“You need the assets to build the team.”
Yzerman’s Lightning featured 14 players this season who were drafted by Tampa. The Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks had 15 home-grown players play for them.
The most important date — for a lot of teams — used to be July 1, when free agents became available. But game-changing free agents are rarely available on Canada Day now. The big stars sign long term. In a salary cap world, teams need young players who can contribute a lot while their salaries remain relatively low. Those players come from the draft.
“The days of anybody going on the free agent market on July 1, buying this guy, buying that guy, those days aren’t available any more,” said Ken Holland, GM of the Detroit Red Wings. “You’ve got to draft. You’ve got to develop.”
The Wings are generally believed to be the best draft-and-develop team in the NHL. They’ve been in the playoffs 24 straight years, sustaining success despite rarely drafting in the top 10. Their highest pick of the past 20 years was 15th overall, last year.
Twenty-two of the players they drafted played for the Wings at some point this season, tops in the NHL. And they’re patient: None of the players they drafted in the last three seasons played this season.
The Maple Leafs under president Brendan Shanahan are espousing that philosophy.
“As much as you draft them, you have to develop,” says Leafs co-interim GM Mark Hunter. “Be patient. And not make a trade for a short-term gain. We have to be making sure these kids understand what it takes to be a pro.
“Don’t put them in situations you shouldn’t. We think we’re going to be more patient. Give the kids more time to develop their game without losing their confidence when they come up.”
The Toronto Star examined the roots of the 974 skaters and goaltenders who played at least one game in the NHL the 2014-15 season to see where they came from. A significant portion — 141 — were signed as free agents. Late bloomers, like Tampa’s Tyler Johnson and Toronto’s Tyler Bozak.
The rest were all drafted. Here’s how they spread out:
Drafted players playing
In this regard, the Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators came out on top. Each drafted 37 players who skated at least once in the NHL this season.
The Maple Leafs — long criticized, perhaps unfairly, as a poor-drafting team — came in eighth in this regard, tied with Carolina, having drafted 30 of this year’s NHLers.
The worst team? The Vancouver Canucks, who’d drafted 19 of this year’s NHLers.
Drafted players on own roster
After they’re drafted, players move around quite a bit. But some teams are better at holding on to their own draft picks than others. The Detroit Red Wings — the model draft-and-develop team to many — used 22 home grown players at some point during the 2014-15 season. The Senators were second at 20.
The Maple Leafs drop to the bottom-third here, having used just 11 of their own draft picks this season, tied for 21st with Buffalo, the Rangers, Florida and Colorado.
The worst? Philadelphia: Twenty-two of their draft picks are in the NHL, but only seven remain Flyers.
Drafted players on other rosters
The Buffalo Sabres outstripped all teams in letting go — at some point — of players they drafted. Twenty-six they picked played elsewhere this year. Think Thomas Vanek, Clark MacArthur, to name a couple. These things happen, especially to teams in a rebuild.
The Maple Leafs were tied for second in this regard (with Anaheim and Pittsburgh) with 19 of their active picks playing elsewhere. Players like Nikolay Kulemin with the Islanders, and Luke Schenn with Philadelphia.
Total games played by draft picks
It’s one thing to draft a player who gets called up here and there for a cup of coffee. It’s quite another to draft impact players. In that regard, we looked at total games played this season by a team’s draft picks (regardless what team they played for).
Again, the Ottawa Senators and Buffalo Sabres come out on top. Senators picks played 1,971 games this season; Buffalo’s 1,935.
The Leafs came in at a middling 19th: Their 30 picks played 1,312 games.
The lowest: Arizona. Their 21 picks played 898 games in the NHL.
Average number of games played
The Montreal Canadiens and Washington Capitals come out on top of our list when we look at the average number of games played this season by a team’s draft picks (regardless what they played for). Montreal’s scouting staff were responsible for 27 players who made the NHL this year, and they played an average of 61.48 games. Washington’s 24 total players drafted averaged 58.6 games played.
In this regard, the Leafs scored very poorly, placing 26th. Leaf picks averaged 43.7 games played this year.
The lowest: Calgary, whose 28 picks averaged 35.2 games in the NHL.