The value of a fifth overall pick

By Simon Richard

The recent NHL draft lottery was an emotion-filled exercise, with all teams having a shot at the first overall selection. The happiest GM is surely the Pittsburgh Penguins Craig Patrick, who will now have the privilege of speaking first on July 30th in Ottawa and claiming Sidney Crosby in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.

Among the teams who improved their draft position was the Montreal Canadiens, who will choose in the fifth place instead of the 18th they would have had if the order were based on the 2003-04 standings.

Data analysis of the past entry draft selections at the fifth overall slot justifies the right of Montreal GM Bob Gainey to be satisfied with the results of the lottery.

Impact players

Analysis of the 4,377 players selected during the period of 1979-1996 shows that, from a statistical point of view, the possibility of a team getting an impact player among the first five prospects available is significant. By “impact player”, we mean a franchise player, a superstar or a star.

During that period, 52 of the 90 prospects selected among the first five spots eventually became impact players, a rate of 58 percent. In comparison, players selected between the 11th and 15th slots shows that only 23 percent, or 21 of the 90 draftees, later transformed on NHL impact players. In other words, the chances of getting an impact player increases roughly of 150 percent as you move up ten slots.

The busts

A higher pick in the first round also reduces the possibility of selecting a young talent who will never make a career in the NHL.

From 1970 to 1996, only five prospects – Daniel Doré, Jason Bonsignore, Alex Volchkov, Dave Chyzovsky and Neil Brady — failed to play more than 200 games in the NHL. This is a bust rate of six percent, far below the 33 percent bust rate of those selected between the 11th and 15th ranks.

The fifth rank as good as second or third

The Habs and their fans would of course have liked to win the first overall pick. Statistically, past data do demonstrate that the first overall pick procures more impact players, and more franchise players and superstars, than any of the other ranks.

But would Montreal have gained, on a strictly statistical basis, more chance of getting an impact player with the second, third or fourth selections?

Study of the 100 prospects selected during the 1979-1998 period shows that the gap between a second pick and a fifth is not significant. During those 20 years, a total of 11 impact players were selected in the fifth position compared to 13, 10 and 10 in the second, third and fourth ranks, respectively.

From 1979 to 1998, only one player selected in the fifth position failed to play more than 200 games, while there was one in each of the second and third rounds but three in the fourth.

From Ray Martinyuk to Scott Stevens

Either Benoit Pouliot, Jack Johnson, Gibert Brule, Bobby Ryan or Anze Kopitar will likely be selected by Montreal at the fifth spot if the team doesn’t make a trade. As usual, the hype is particularly very high on these highly touted prospects at this time of the year.

However, it has to be recalled that if past data clearly shows that selecting at the fifth rank is a good thing for a NHL GM, still the chances to get a “franchise” player remains very slight.

Indeed, from 1979 to 1998, only two of the 20 players drafted in the fifth place, or 10 percent, became franchise players – Scott Stevens and Jaromir Jagr.

Data also shows that 45 percent (9 of 20) of the players selected at this position during the period didn’t manage to become better than average players like Daren Veitch, Aaron Ward or Shawn Anderson for example.

Many Habs fans will recall that their team selected Petr Svoboda, an excellent player, in the fifth position in 1984. But how many will keep in mind that the team also selected at the same position Cam Connor in 1974 (89 games played) and Ray Martinyuk in 1970, the sole prospect among the 170 ones selected in the first five places since 1970 who never played a game in the NHL?

Simon Richard is the author of La Serie du siecle, Septembre 1972, a book about the Summit Series published in 2002. Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.