One of the more interesting aspects of following the NHL is where it all begins, the building block of most of the success a team will have in the entry draft.
The only problem is, well, the draft itself. NHL teams can choose players at age 17-18 years old, but the big issue is that it’s very difficult to determine where players so young will ultimately grow or develop into by age 24-25 at most of their peaks. Some players can grow out of nowhere and turn into very valuable pieces. Others might peak against easier competition and not develop as much as they move up the ranks.
Scouting these players is no doubt as much art and luck as it is just science. Clearly, at the top of the draft the elite prospects are obvious. Doesn’t take much to know that players like Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and Evgeni Malkin will be very special players. But outside of those top few picks, it can become a real crapshoot and teams have to hope and trust the players that catch their eye will blossom into future contributors. The trick is that almost all of these players will be spending two-three (or more) years outside of the pro ranks, and have various levels of training, game experience, diet, growth to get.
For the Penguins, a clear example is Jake Guentzel. Guentzel was a very small, skinny player — perhaps as slight 150 pounds on his draft day. Pittsburgh’s Minnesota area scout at the time, Scott Bell, really loved Guentzel’s skill level and more importantly his vision and mental acuity, but in 2013 Guentzel was a world away from a future 40-goal scorer in the NHL.
A perfect example of how fickle and scattershot the draft can be can be found in that 2013 draft, with Taylor Cammarata drafted at 76th overall by the Islanders, one slot ahead of Guentzel who was selected 77th overall. Both Cammarata and Guentzel shared immense similarities. Both were small, skilled forwards from Minnesota and they both played in the USHL in their draft seasons. Cammarata actually had a much better season (38G+55A for 93 points) than Guentzel (29G+44A for 73 points) in the draft year, so at the moment of the draft it was a totally defendable position to believe that Cammarata was displaying more high-end skills at that time.
The Pens website had a great story about Bell and Guentzel with the draft unfolding:
As the third round progressed, everything was going fine until it was time for the 76th selection, which was held by the New York Islanders. Bell knew that Trent Klatt, an Islanders amateur scout from Minnesota, knew Guentzel, so Bell was worried that the Islanders might take him.
Bell waited with bated breath as the Islanders were on the clock. From their draft table, they took the microphone and began to announce their pick.
“From the USHL…”
Bell’s heart dropped.
”I assumed oh, they’re taking Jake Guentzel,” Bell said. “I felt like I was going to throw up because we lost him. I really did. I felt sick to my stomach.”
The anticipation built as the Islanders named their selection.
”From Waterloo, Taylor Cammarata.”
And with that, the anxiety Bell was feeling transformed into pure joy.
”I jumped up, like oh my god, we’re going to get (Guentzel)! This is so wonderful,” Bell laughed. “It was a feeling of sickness to ecstasy in about a two-minute span.”
After Guentzel went through everything a draft pick does, like stopping at Pittsburgh’s draft table, doing media and taking photos for his draft potraits and rookie cards, he went to the Penguins’ suite to meet the rest of the scouts.
”All of the other scouts hadn’t seen Jake,” Bell recalled. “They’re like, ‘that’s your guy?’ I’m like, ‘that’s him.’ They’re like, ‘the kid that looks like a fourth-grader? We took him?’ I’m like yeah, ‘that’s him. He’s awesome.’”
Guentzel of course proved Bell right, continuing to successfully translate his game at every level to be a top player (NCAA, AHL, NHL). Cammarata went on to play four seasons at the University of Minnesota where he was a good player, but didn’t excel just as much. Certainly by the time each finished their junior season at draft+3 years, Guentzel was emerging as an elite player/prospect (19G+27A in 35 games at Nebraska-Omaha) where Cammarata recorded a lesser stat-line (7G+12A in 37 games).
If you could re-draft that 2013 draft in 2016, Guentzel is a much higher pick. Cammarata probably slips to the late rounds.
But the die had to be cast very early in the process. Thus, NYI took the lesser forward from Minnesota. They were so close in the realm that their scout zeroed in on a small, skilled forward, yet ended up so far away.
That’s the beauty and just how difficult it is.
Of course, sometimes the Pens end up on the wrong side of the gamble too. Take the 2012 draft where Pittsburgh selected a forward from the OHL with the first pick of the fourth round in Matia Marcantuoni. He didn’t pan out and played in the AHL in a supporting role. Also drafted from the OHL in the top-half of the fourth round? Columbus grabbed Josh Andersen, Detroit nabbed Andreas Athanasiou. From Quebec, Tampa nabbed Cedric Paquette this round too. Athanasiou and Marcantuoni basically projected to be the same type of speedy center prospect. One ended up hitting big, another is a name you probably only know if you’re a big Pens’ fan or prospect watcher, and one you haven’t heard in years.
The moral of these anecdotes? NHL drafting is an inexact science, and it’s almost impossible to correctly identify most drafted players on the day they’re picked. Scouts can feel great about the players they’ve found, but clearly if anyone had a crystal ball to see Guentzel’s future he would have been taken in the top 10.
As a result, the best strategy is probably to have as many choices as possible. If you’re throwing darts at a moving dartboard, you have more chances of a hit if you have more darts to throw.
That’s a simplification, but one that’s true. Here’s some data from Charting Hockey’s Sean Tierney today on twitter:
Here's every player drafted since 2000. Draft position on the horizontal axis, goals above replacement per minute (via https://t.co/B27gbx44tS) on the vertical.— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) April 2, 2020
The top handful of picks are premium but it's still pretty clear that the best draft strategy is "have lots of picks." pic.twitter.com/QxtADnd3nK
The incredible point of this data is just how straight that black line goes from about pick #20 all the way to about pick #200. Clearly it’s still advantageous to own more high picks, as the percent chance they will hit is higher. Which makes sense, scouting is difficult but those people do know what they are doing.
Still, it’s interesting food for thought when there’s not much going on in the NHL these days. The lesson to learn for NHL teams is that there can be a lot of value in those mid-round picks. It’s tough to tell the difference between an Athanasiou and a Marcantuoni on draft day, but if a team has enough picks, the odds of selecting a future NHLer goes up more and more.
This is probably an area for the Penguins to lean into. From 2013 to 2016 (four drafts), Pittsburgh only had 21 total selections as a result of their strategy of being a contender and often dealing high draft picks away for immediate help. Pittsburgh is also only scheduled to have four draft picks in the 2020 draft (a third, fourth, fifth and sixth, all their own).
Some of that is necessary and a cost of doing business for a team that’s trying to raise banners, but it’s important to keep an eye for the future and attempt to retain as many picks as possible. Or bring in more later picks via trade. Getting some of those could prove very fruitful down the line.