Many fans view a top-10 pick in the annual NHL Entry Draft as a sure thing.  The players selected in the first 1- picks are the best prospects in the world, the players seen the most by NHL teams and coveted for years in advance.  They are the players that teams plan to build their franchise around for years to come.

The reality, however, is a little different.  I went back and looked at all of the top-10 selections between 1993 and 2003, and discovered something a little surprising – less than two-thirds of the players selected (64.3%) have played or are projected to play 500 games at the NHL level (and some of those players, like Boyd Devereaux, will have long careers but only in a bit role).  Busts aren’t terribly shocking, they’re a fact of life, even with a top-10 selection.

It’s hard for me not to look at that number and wonder if NHL scouting and drafting could use some improvement.

In any case, I also ran a few other numbers and came up with success rates by position and by league.  Here are the success rates for players taken in the top-10 picks by position, with “success” defined as 500GP (actual or projected) at the NHL level):

Position # of Picks <100 GP 100GP 500+ GP Success Rate
Forward 61 8 12 41 67.2%
Defence 29 2 6 21 72.4%
Goalie 9 3 3 3 33.3%

That goaltending number shouldn’t be unexpected – NHL teams just aren’t very good at drafting goaltenders.  That’s obvious simply by looking around the league: players like Ryan Miller, Mikka Kiprusoff, Tomas Vokoun, and countless others were late picks.  Brian Finley, pictured above, played all of four games in the NHL, and the three goalies selected in the first round (Finley, Maxime Ouellet, and Ari Ahonen) have less than 20 NHL games between them.  Meanwhile, players like Miller, Craig Anderson and Alex Auld had to wait until after the first round for their names to be called.

Goalies are riskier picks too.  They’re more prone to injury, as we can see from players in the sample above; Dan Blackburn was pushed out of hockey altogether, injuries stunted Brent Krahn’s development, and even guys with obvious NHL talent like Rick DiPietro and Kari Lehtonen have failed to turn into franchise goalies because their teams can never be sure they’ll be healthy enough to play.  On top of that, goalies take longer to develop, and while there are 13-14 roster spots for a forward and seven or eight for a defenceman, a goalie generally needs to squeak in to one of two positions.  Given the abundance of not just good starters but star goaltenders late in the draft and via free agency, I don’t understand why teams continually wager high picks on goaltenders.

I also thought it might be interesting to see how successful scouts have been with Major Junior picks.  With that in mind, here’s a comparison between all the players taken in Canadian Major Junior versus all the players taken from everywhere else:

League # of Picks <100 GP 100GP 500+GP Success Rate
Major Jr. 66 11 16 39 59.1%
Everywhere Else 34 2 7 25 73.5%

The oddest thing about this chart is that it’s precisely the opposite of what any rational observer would expect, based on how NHL teams deploy their scouts.  Canadian Major Junior is the most heavily scouted league in the world and the primary source of players for the NHL.  Despite the fact that NHL teams allocate more scouts there than anywhere else, and despite the fact that the CHL is widely regarded as the best route to the NHL, the success rate for those players is less than it is for players from other leagues.

If we were to disregard the QMJHL (which sent only six of the 66 players selected) the numbers get even uglier, with the percentage rate for the OHL and WHL combined dropping to 56.7%.  Given that more players were taken from those two leagues than all the others combined, that’s a shocking number.

The question now is ‘why?’, but I’ll admit I don’t have an answer; just a belief that the system needs to be improved.