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2019 NHL Entry Draft: How the NHL Draft Works and How It Has Evolved

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A quasi-odyssey (and intro) into the history, mechanics, science, and business of the NHL draft.

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NHL: NHL Draft David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The NHL draft is where teams succeed, struggle, or fail to build for their future. As streamlined as the draft tables look — with their landlines, fancy suits, and fresh faces — it wasn’t always this way. The draft used to be privately held at the Queen Elizabeth hotel in Montreal.

In 1972, the NHL shared the draft tables with a different league, like some Mountain Dew-sponsored, pro-wrestling crossover. Eight years later, the NHL draft would finally be open to the public. During this time, the draft could go on for 25 rounds if scouting departments were so masochistically inclined. The best part? A literal wheel was once used to determine the first overall pick between two teams (with 13 numbers no less).

And that’s not even the half of it. The draft is a bit more coherent these days. But just a bit more. So how does it all work?

The Last Boy Scouts

2017 NHL Draft - Rounds 2-7 Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Before any GM walks up to the podium, hundreds of hours are spent figuring out what name belonging to an 18-year-old (on or before September 15) should be called. For any fan watching in despair as a player their team passed on goes on to do great things, you might be wondering, “why do some teams get it so right while other teams get it so wrong?”

The first thing to note about what scouts do, and how organizations interact with them is that draft boards are less about strict rankings, and more about the players teams want. Within those rankings are different groupings, based on age, position, or whatever secret hot sauce that teams use to rank their draft picks.

For example: in 2010, the top ten players picked were (in order) as follows: Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin, Erik Gudbranson, Ryan Johansen, Nino Niederreiter, Brett Connolly, Jeff Skinner, Alexander Burmistrov, Mikael Granlund, and Dylan McIlrath.

That year, the Vancouver Canucks’ draft board was leaked(!). Their list was: Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin, Alexander Burmistrov, Brandon Gormley, Jack Campbell, Vladimir Tarasenko, Erik Gudbranson, Jeff Skinner, Cam Fowler, and Derek Forbort.

That’s not a massive diversion from the actual top ten — they were ahead of the curve on Tarasenko, less so on Gormley (though he had solid hype in 2010 from his QMJHL campaign) — but it’s still really weird to us outsiders. Perhaps the weirdness is explained by the fact that we’re not looking at a strict ranking, but a strict wanting. What’s the difference? When you know what other teams are looking for, and you know who you’re less likely to get, it’s best to invest in players you’re more likely to have.

Who wins these debates? It varies by organization. According to Corey Pronman, one GM doesn’t even allow his scouts to read anything online, or talk to fellow scouts other. Then there’s the other (and more typical) side of the spectrum.

In this scenario, debates are the thunderdome. Scouts concentrated in different regions focused on different leagues wage war against a masterlist to make sure everyone’s accountable should the GM look (or not look) like a genius on draft day.

Nothing about this process looks clean. In the above clip, it’s easy to see why discerning fans worry. It’s like listening to the caricatured scouts from Moneyball, except your favorite jersey is at stake. At the same time, scouts work predictable routines in a very unpredictable business. Unlike the NFL or NBA, where every prospect comes from one spot (college), NHL prospects come from literally all over the world. This makes it extra tough. Not only are scouts evaluating a player’s production in relation to their talent, they’re evaluating both in relation to the league they play in. As a heuristic, a teenager playing with other teenagers in the CHL (which is divided into the WHL, OHL, and the QMJHL) or USHL will produce more, so numbers help clarify skill level. A teenager in a league with men — such as the SHL, Liiga, Allsvenken, NLA, KHL, or DEL — won’t produce as much because their roles are usually limited, so tape, and a keen eye helps forecast production. Because it’s not that simple, the process becomes insanely complicated. And some teams are clear in what their philosophy is come draft time.

Once all the scouts have their data, all these different groups that are otherwise isolated have to come together to a sudden agreement. Sometimes the meetings are relatively genial, like this session with Ottawa. Sometimes the meetings tell you about what traits the organization focuses on over others, like this session with Vancouver. Montreal and Arizona have frank discussions about what the combine means for a prospect’s development, and their future, respectively. Sometimes it’s just fun to see that at one time, there was real debate about Alex Pietrangelo or Luke Schenn.

Scouts have footage and numbers at their arsenal. They know the player at this point. The combine is where they get to know the athlete.

Scientific Insights and Scientific Fright Night from the Combine

NHL Combine Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images

On the floor of every ice rink where the draft is held is an assortment of physical tests. Theoretically, there’s a lot to learn from these tests. In the scouting video linked above, Arizona GM, John Chayka, referred to the combine as a key piece on why they drafted Barrett Hayton at No. 5 overall in 2018. Outside of hockey, the combine-like environment is what allowed a talent identification program in Britain, in the country’s run-up to hosting the 2012 Olympics, to find Helen Glover: a woman with no rowing experience who dominated the first five of the eight years she’d compete in. With the optimal height (5 ‘11”), and mechanics (a low brachial index, perfect for pulling instead of pushing) for rowing, a star was drafted. NHL teams are trying to replicate a similar process: who is flat out, engineered to sport?

The physical tests can give teams insight into specific traits. For example, the shuttle run might tell you about a player’s raw speed. Force and timing — not upward leg strength — is what creates the bounce effect that leads to optimal speed. Usain Bolt famously hits the ground with a force of four to five times his body weight. It’s about stride and angle. Not quickness and strength.

The Y-Balance test station provides its own insight for what’s not there instead of what is. Sports labs often focus their tests, and experiments not on building the perfect athlete, but on maintaining them. Many young athletes sit more, and so they come into these tests with foundational problems such as poor posture, rounded shoulders, and winged scapulas. This can also provide critical insight into a player’s development path.

Some of these tests are or were outdated. The bench press used to be a gym rat style tally. Now the combine measures a player’s rep quickness in proportion to their bodyweight. Some that aren’t include the anaerobic Wingate test — where players pedal while some dude shouts vague gametimeisms at them — can tell teams a lot about player fatigue (this test used to be set for an arbitrary amount of time, but now it reflects actual on-ice shift length). Some evidence indicates that not only can fatigue negatively impact decision-making (which seems obvious enough), but movement selection and motor control. This potentially explains players perceived as having “low IQ.” Maybe they’re tired players. Not dumb players.

Then there’s the vaunted VO2MAX exercise. This exercise, with its colorful history, complete with complimentary barf “bags”, is an attempt to predict endurance. There’s actually a strong precedent for its predictive value (at least elsewhere); a Swedish physiologist found a strong correlation for Olympic medals in cross-country skiing and VO2max in the 70’s.

Teams know the numbers. They know the athletes. The next step is getting to know the hearts and minds. You may have heard about the unnamed first round pick in the 2018 draft who jeopardized his career because his heart was too into Fortnite (teams subsequently ramped up their Fortnite questions in response).

A lot is learned about draft picks during their interviews. Detroit has military personnel talk to draftees. Washington loves a good brain teaser. New Jersey wants to hear a good story. St. Louis likes to go the Rorschach Test route. The New York Islanders have an hour-long personality assessment form. Arizona likes to have players perform psychological tests. An anonymous team wants to know if Brent Burns’ beard is better than Jaromir Jagr’s hair. It’s probably not Dallas, but if Mark Janko’s interview about what they like to do during the interview process is any indication, they’re a good candidate (probably a good candidate for the “beer or liquor” question too).

Like the war room debates, this process isn’t always clean. In fact, it has drawn heat with one team’s crass idea for an interview question. Without getting into a debate about whether it was right or wrong, stories like these help reflect hockey’s cultural problems. This is a sport with a long history of challenges, obstacles, and struggles: alcoholism, head trauma, discrimination, discrimination at the executive level no less, and the kind of embarrassing analysis you wouldn’t even find from a troll under the digital bridges of Yahoo.

This kind of cheap, strict-father mentality might seem abstract to fans. But it’s not. Even beyond ethics, combine tests and interviews have actively influenced how teams feel about players. It helps explain why some teams are simply less likely to draft Russian players. It helps explain why some teams feel slighted when players don’t attend the combine even though many of them (especially the best of them) are only weeks removed from national and international competition. It’s enough that former Assistant GM of the Capitals, Frank Provenzano, has called the combine a “great chance to screw stuff up on the part of teams.” Former Nashville assistant GM, Mike Santos, is equally critical, proclaiming the interview process “useless,” as it mixes recency bias into a process that should be the small punctuation mark of an operation that has been months (sometimes years) in the making, involving scouts watching, interviewing, and analyzing a prospect’s play and the context through which they’ve been playing.

What’s not useless? The size of the contract.

Dotted Lines and Great Expectations

NHL: Ryan Johansen Nashville Press Conference Andrew Nelles-USA TODAY Sports

Once teams make their pick, that player’s rights belong to the team. If the team doesn’t sign said player by the age of 20, that player can become an unrestricted free agent. College players are the exception. Their rights expire 30 days after leaving college. This has created some drama for some teams; the Jimmy Vesey situation being the most infamous. As long as they don’t turn 20 by December 31, they can re-enter the draft. Such was the case with Florida’s Adam Mascherin. Technically, the Panthers could have traded his rights to another team, but didn’t. As a result, Mascherin is what’s called an “overager” in draftese (overagers are an interesting sidebar to the general discussion of drafting).

Typically, anyone younger than 25 (as of September 25) will sign an entry level contract. All entry level contracts are two-way, meaning their salaries depend on the league they play in. If the player is 18-21 years of age, their contract lasts three years; two years if they are 22-23 years of age; and one year if they are 24. Any player on an entry level contract can also receive bonuses. Per CapFriendly:

Performance bonuses count against the salary cap; however, a team can exceed the salary cap due to performance bonuses by the maximum performance bonus cushion amount of 7.5 percent of the upper limit.

Performance bonuses are divided into two categories, schedule A and schedule B. Schedule A bonuses are an extra $200,000 for the following: time on ice (top six, and a minimum of 42 games played), time on ice per game, goals (at least 20), assists (at least 35, points, points per game, plus/minus (yes, I’m rolling my eyes too), and more. Schedule B bonuses depend on awards and trophies, are paid by the league which the player and club agree upon, and can reach $2 million per season.

Once draft picks sign their ELC, teams typically let the contract slide. Miro Heiskanen signed his ELC in 2017, but because he didn’t play a minimum of 10 NHL games, he won’t become an RFA until the 2021-2022 season.

That’s when prospects and teams begin worrying about becoming waiver eligible. The idea behind waivers is that a team can’t just stockpile weapons of mass production. And so after a certain amount of games played (or years passed), prospects must worry about being caught on the waiver wire. Our Lightning friends put together a handy list for knowing when and where.

Lastly, what should we expect from the draft picks themselves? Instead of droning on and on, I’ll just direct you to some really good resources. Ready?

  • Stephen Burtch has you covered when it comes to looking at how many games we can expect to see these players play per round (and more).
  • Will Scouch has some of the best prospect analysis in the business, for my money. It’s an excellent blend of information (modern analytics) with more information (video footage) to create an informative whole.
  • Can’t get enough well-written, information-driven draft profiles? The guys at NextGen Hockey do great work.
  • Interested in how draft analytics is changing? Ryan Beich has you covered.
  • Is that not enough and you want an abstract that measures draft ‘perfection’? Namita Nandakumar will keep take you down a rabbit hole (TL;DR for Stars fans: Dallas is really good at finding value past the first round, less so within the first).
  • Justin Bourne has a good personal take on what the draft means for players psychologically.
  • Sunaya Sapurji has a great report on what scouts are actively saying about the players in this draft. Can’t get enough mock draft reading?

Want to know who some scouts have Dallas picking based on word around the campfire? I’ll just leave you in suspense. If that’s not enough, it’s not like we’ve been failing you for comprehensive draft coverage. In the meantime, hold onto your butts...