Part 2: Quality Is Just As Important As Quantity
In Part 1 of our in-depth breakdown of the Dallas Stars draft history of the past ten years we looked at how the trading away draft picks in the first three rounds affected the future of the Dallas Stars. The Dallas Stars showed a willingness to trade valuable high draft picks to pick up a higher quantity of picks later in the draft, as well as trading draft picks for NHL players.
At the time the trades were being made the Stars were at the height of their success and attempting to maintain that level of success by constantly re-tooling the NHL roster and using draft picks as currency. While the decisions at the time may have seemed prudent in order to keep the Stars fighting for the Pacific Division title, the ramifications on the future of the franchise were more severe than anyone ever thought possible.
The past four years the Dallas Stars have felt the sting of these decisions, as financial difficulties kept the Stars from being as active in the trade and free agency markets as we had become accustomed to. The farm system, with the exception of a select few, was void of players ready and able to step up the NHL and make a significant contribution to the NHL team.
For the Dallas Stars, over the past ten years, what stands out the most about the players selected is not the amount of players that became NHL regulars -- but the overall quality of the players actually selected. This is what we look at in Part 2...
The draft, in any sport, is never a sure thing. The majority of players selected will never make it to the NHL. The best thing a team can do is to give itself the best chance at winning the lottery that the draft ultimately is. The Dallas Stars attempted to give themselves a better chance at hitting on quality players by securing a higher number of draft picks, trading down multiple times out of the first and second rounds in favor of more second and third round selections.
From 2002 to 2005, across four drafts, the Dallas Stars had 17 selections in the second and third rounds overall. The second round is where the Stars put much of their focus, with 11 picks in the second round coming during that span. Looking back, it's easy to see the strategy the Stars employed at the time and how the team chose to move out of the late first round and pick up more second and third round picks -- giving the Stars a better overall chance at finding a gem without actually possessing a top 15 pick in the draft.
The problem with this strategy is that, based on what we've seen across the history of the NHL, the majority of the best players in the NHL are routinely found in the first two rounds of the draft. The Stars, as we've seen through the glorious power of hindsight, routinely passed up the chance at a higher quality player in the first round in favor of either a) picking up more picks later in the draft or b) trading these high picks for veteran NHL players.
The most egregious of these errors came in 2002, Doug Armstrong's first draft as general manager of the Stars. His first move when he was hired was to trade Joe Nieuwendyk and Jamie Langenbrunner to the New Jersey Devils. This left the Stars with two first round draft picks, an opportunity that many teams would love to have. The chances of hitting at least one of two first round picks is tremendous, and the Stars chose to pass up both of these options in favor of acquiring more picks.
The Stars already set themselves behind the curve by consistently trading down from the first round or outright trading away top picks. What could have saved the Stars was the quality of players selected with those extra picks. The problem that hit the Stars starting in 2008 and continuing to today is the lack of "elite" talent found in the draft, with the farm system filled with players that were struggling to make a big enough impact to earn NHL consideration.
The Stars, during the past ten years, certainly found players that have contributed at the NHL level. How many of these players are at the "elite" level, however? This is a very subjective term, but it's easy to see the difference between "solid" NHL players and the type that successful franchises are built upon.
|Loui Eriksson||2004 - 2nd||Trevor Daley||2002 - 2nd|
|James Neal||2005 - 2nd||B.J. Crombeen||2003 - 2nd|
|Jamie Benn||2007 - 5th||Mark Fistric||2004 - 1st|
|Nicklas Grossmann||2004 - 2nd|
|Matt Niskanen||2005 - 1st|
|Tom Wandell||2005 - 5th|
|Philip Larsen||2008 - 5th|
This is looking at drafts from 2002 to 2008 only. Across six years of drafting, the Dallas Stars found three "elite level" players with seven "solid" players that have all contributed significantly at the NHL level. Only two players from 2006 to 2008 can be considered actual hits in the draft, a fact that has significantly affected the Dallas Stars the past three years.
It's a tough task to compare the success of the Stars in the draft to that of the rest of the NHL, so I decided to look at just two other teams that have been the most successful in the West the past 10 years or so: the Detroit Red Wings and the San Jose Sharks. What's interesting is that the Red Wings, long thought to be one of the best at cultivating their prospects and finding gems in the draft, have not had a player drafted since 2006 become an NHL regular -- yet.
What stands out is that, while the Wings certainly found some great players late in the draft, most of the players that been significant contributors for bot the Wings and Sharks all came high in the draft -- first through third rounds. You can see this with the Stars as well - with the exception of Benn, Wandell and Larsen the Stars all found their "solid" players in the first three rounds as well.
It generally takes three years or so before a draft class can even start to be evaluated. As much as we like with Joe Nieuwendyk has done the past three drafts, only one player he has drafted -- Tomas Vincour -- has played in the NHL so far. From 2006 to 2008, drafts that should have yielded players at the NHL level already, only three players have made it to the NHL level -- Richard Bachman could become the next "solid" selection from that period and Austin Smith has the potential to be as well.
This isn't just about a lack of overall quality, either. The Dallas Stars, currently, have a significant shortage of quality centers in the system and only recently have actually put an emphasis on restocking the defensive position. When you look at the "elite" players the Stars found during this time, all were drafted as wingers and only Tom Wandell represents a center that actually became a regular NHL player.
Six years of drafting, only one center has made it to the NHL. Jamie Benn, drafted as a winger, doesn't count. The Stars also were able to find solid defensemen but none of the four will ever be considered a top pairing defensemen. This means that the two hardest positions to lock down in the NHL - top pairing defensemen and top six centers -- were completely missed during a crucial period of drafting by the Dallas Stars.
The effect of this has been felt by the Stars for the past four years. Instead of relying on drafted players, the Stars were forced to trade away assets to fill gaping holes on the NHL roster in an attempt to just stay competitive. In 2008 the Stars traded two players that had been drafted by the Stars (Mike Smith and Jussi Jokinen) as well as Jeff Halpern and a fourth round pick for Brad Richards. The Stars were forced to trade James Neal and Matt Niskanen for Alex Goligoski in 2011.
Two glaring weaknesses in the system, filled by trading away several of the precious few players the Stars actually hit on in the draft -- including an "elite" player in James Neal.
It's obvious that the higher a draft pick is, the more valuable it should be to that team. The Stars continuously traded these picks away, especially the higher ones, and while they picked up more and more second round picks they didn't "hit" on more than any other team did with a normal amount of high picks anyway. Despite having an incredibly amount of second and third round picks, the Stars weren't more successful than any other during the top three rounds of the draft.
Not all of this is on Doug Armstrong, despite his propensity to treat high draft picks as currency he could use at whim during trades. Tim Bernhardt, long-time Director of Amateur Scouting, deserves much of the blame -- as well as Les Jackson. Both were instrumental in the players actually selected during this time and after the first round, the general manager usually relies solely on his scouting department to determine what players should be drafted and when.
What this all boils down to is that sometimes quality is much better than quantity and the amount of picks a team "hits" on.
The Stars have changed the focus of the draft the past three years, looking more at NCAA players and the OHL and QMJHL -- not just relying on the WHL scouts to find their late-round gems. Nieuwendyk has been forced, both during the draft and via trades, to attempt to fill a number of holes on the team to continue to plague this franchise. The Dallas Stars were long considered to possess one of the weakest farm systems in the NHL and only in the past few years has this begun to turn around.
The Stars must continue to treat the draft -- and especially high draft picks -- as extremely valuable in securing a bright future for the franchise. The Dallas Stars, for too long, were focused on maintaining the present competitive level and mortgaged the future of the team in favor of improving the current roster. This is what the Stars are attempting to avoid this summer and moving forward while the team improves and as we've seen through a dissection of the history of the Stars draft -- this portion of building a team is extremely important for the future of the franchise.