a·cu·men [ak-yuh-muhn] noun: keen insight; shrewdness

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Tuesday, 10 January 2012

01/10/12 Will This Drafting Thing Really Work?

Suppose for a moment that the Oilers get another pick in the top five this year. Not a big stretch, I know. How do teams fare when they pick first overall and then in the top five routinely? Let's find out.

First we have to set some parameters, but it's not as boring as it sounds. The story hasn't finished yet for teams that picked in the top five in 2009 or later, so I've looked at 30 years of drafts before that (1979-2008). In order to be included, a team must have had three picks in the top five within 5 years, and at least one of those picks must have been first overall.

There are ten teams that fit those criteria, starting with the Pittsburgh Penguins from 1984-1988. The results range from Stanley Cup Championships to absolutely abhorrent. Of those teams, four won Cups as a direct result of their high picks, four were terrible or mostly terrible and two became elite teams that have yet to win anything. The teams and their picks are as follows:

Pittsburgh: 1984-88; Mario Lemieux, Craig Simpson, Zarley Zalapski, Chris Joseph
Quebec: 1988-92; Curtis Leschyshyn, Daniel Dore, Mats Sundin, Owen Nolan, Eric Lindros, Todd Warriner
Ottawa: 1994-96; Radek Bonk, Bryan Berard, Chris Phillips
Tampa Bay: 1992, 93, 95; Roman Hamrlik, Chris Gratton, Daymond Langkow
Atlanta: 1999-02; Patrik Stefan, Dany Heatley, Ilya Kovalchuk, Kari Lehtonen
New York Islanders: 1996, 97, 99, 2000; J.P. Dumont, Roberto Luongo, Eric Brewer, Tim Connolly, Rick DiPietro, Raffi Torres
Columbus: 2000, 02, 03; Rusty Klesla, Rick Nash, Nikolai Zherdev
Pittsburgh (again): 2002-06; Ryan Whitney, M.A. Fleury, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal
Washington: 2004, 06, 07; Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Karl Alzner
Chicacgo: 2004, 06, 07; Cam Barker, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane

The Islanders also selected Wade Redden second overall in 1995, giving them seven picks in the top five in just five years. Unfortunately for them, Mad Mike Milbury was in charge. Just look at the players that team would have had if they hadn't all been traded away. Well, except DiPietro of course, the worst selection of the bunch. It's safe to say that this would have at least been a decent team otherwise, so we'll just write them off.

Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Columbus were all utter failures based on these picks. There are some good players in there but those three teams only made the playoffs once each with these players as their core. Astute management is still a must, but it doesn't help that one of Atlanta's first overall picks was a bust. So too was fourth overall pick Nikolai Zherdev for Columbus, who was one of just three in the top five for that team. He had 27 and 26 goal seasons for the Jackets, but only played four seasons there and has been out of the NHL two of the last three years.

Aside from those, all of the teams listed ended up at least being competitive, but not always solely because of their top five selections. However, most of these players either ended up forming the core of their teams, or were traded for players that did.

Still, there are no guarantees when it comes to the NHL draft. If the Oilers manage to get out of lottery position next year that will give them only three picks in the top five during the rebuild. Jordan Eberle helps, and so may some of the other later picks, but Edmonton cannot afford to whiff on this coming draft. The fortunes of Atlanta, Columbus and Tampa Bay underscore that notion.

The Atlanta Thrashers picked first overall twice in three years and never went anywhere, so the Oilers and their fans must beware. The good news is that Taylor Hall will be fine and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins already has more points than Patrik Stefan had in any one season, save for 2003-04. When the Nuge returns he should surpass Stefan's single-season career high of just 40 points.

Drafting an impact player this June could be the difference between a long-competitive Oilers team and an ever-floundering one. Keep in mind also that every single one of the teams listed above that also won a Stanley Cup traded at least one of the players they selected in the top five. Other than Washington, all of the teams traded at least one of their players from the top five, so good management can also be the difference between success and endless failure.

The scouting side looks like it's well in hand, but there won't be a verdict on the management team for a few more years.

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