When the National Hockey League returned from a one-year hiatus in 2005-06, not only did its comeback bring about a change in the on-ice product, but also in the way teams conduct business off the ice. One of those areas that has changed the most for general managers over the course of the past five years is the way teams approach the annual Entry Draft.
At the turn of the millennium, when the lack of competitive balance allowed several of the league’s wealthiest teams to spend double or even triple what those at the bottom of the economic scale were paying, there was often a handful of clubs that almost disregarded the draft because they could easily fill whatever holes they had in their farm system by poaching players via trade from small-market teams and by signing big-ticket free agents.
That’s all changed thanks to the salary cap forcing all 30 teams to operate within the same salary parameters. Because each team has the same maximum payroll, and in an effort to fit the best 23-man roster within those limits, the draft has taken on a greater precedence as the pressure on teams to build a solid foundation from within has grown.
Prior to the 2005 draft, which was held one week after the NHL and the Players’ Association agreed to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, teams started off with nine draft selections.
With that many picks, teams were willing to continue a trend which began in the early 1990s – taking risks throughout, especially in the later rounds – drafting Europeans and hoping to find diamonds in the rough. If those Europeans turned out to be quality players, they were lured to North America for a one-time fee paid to their amateur teams.
At the 2000 draft, 229 players were chosen in the first seven rounds (we scaled all numbers to the first seven rounds since that’s the number of rounds since the lockout). Of those 229 players, 93 – or 41 percent – came from European leagues. That figure bested both Canadians (38 percent) and Americans (22 percent). Included in those 93 Europeans were 39 picks from Russian leagues, the third-highest total behind Canadians (86) and Americans (50).
NHL Draft Picks By Country: 2000-09
| ||2000 ||2001 ||2002 ||2003 ||2004 ||2005 ||2006 ||2007 ||2008 ||2009 |
|Canada ||86 ||102 ||96 ||114 ||106 ||119 ||88 ||113 ||128 ||113 |
|United States ||50 ||37 ||53 ||42 ||49 ||61 ||62 ||62 ||44 ||56 |
|Russia ||39 ||28 ||23 ||25 ||19 ||10 ||15 ||7 ||9 ||6 |
|Sweden ||20 ||10 ||17 ||16 ||14 ||15 ||18 ||16 ||19 ||23 |
|Czech Republic ||11 ||15 ||13 ||9 ||13 ||10 ||9 ||2 ||2 ||2 |
|Finland ||11 ||22 ||20 ||7 ||10 ||8 ||13 ||4 ||6 ||8 |
|Slovakia ||10 ||4 ||2 ||7 ||9 ||5 ||2 ||2 ||0 ||1 |
Fast forward 10 years to last year’s draft and you see a dramatic shift in those numbers.
In 2009 only 20 percent (41 players) of the 210 players selected came from European leagues, a drop-off of over 50 percent. As a result, Canadians consisted over half of the draft class as 54 percent (113 players) of the talent came from the Canadian Hockey League or the Tier-II level. Americans made up 27 percent (56 players) of the class.
Why such a radical shift?
Three of the main answers to that question are the lack of a transfer agreement between the NHL and European countries, the reduction of the draft to seven rounds and the improvement of hockey at all levels in the United States.
Back before the International Ice Hockey Federation transfer agreement fell apart completely in 2008 (Russia had been absent in the deal since ’05), NHL clubs could pay a fee to European teams to get players they drafted out from existing contracts. That deal no longer exists today, making it much tougher to bring Europeans across the pond.
The second part of this equation is the Russian Kontinental Hockey League. Thanks to a bevy of oil typhoons who have funded the league, the KHL has proven capable of luring quality players such as Alexander Radulov and Jaromir Jagr back to Europe.
“There is just so much uncertainty as to whether players from countries like Russia are going to come over,” Penguins general manager Ray Shero said. “The KHL is a wild card much like the WHA was in the ‘70s.”
Another reason why we are seeing more North Americans picked is the reduction of the draft to seven rounds and the elimination of compensatory draft picks when teams lose free agents. With teams selecting less players, and needing those assets to reach the NHL level now more than ever, it’s tough for GMs to risk selecting a player who is unlikely to ever come over when there is a North American available with a similar skill set.
Luckily for the NHL, hockey in the United States has taken a dramatic step forward in the past five years behind the development of the United States National Development Team and the improvement of the United States Hockey League.
The national team, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has two teams – a U-17 squad and a U-18 team – which play in a host of international competitions as well as a full USHL schedule. To prove the program’s improvement, between 2000-04, just six members of the national team were taken in the first seven rounds of the draft, including just one first-round pick. In the five most recent drafts a whopping 52 players have come from the national team, with eight of those first-rounders, including the first-overall selection in both 2006 (Erik Johnson) and 2007 (Patrick Kane).
The USHL and the high school ranks have also seen a dramatic upturn, as the average number of USHL kids taken has jumped from 10.6 in ’00-04 to 14 the past five years. Outside of the national team, no level has seen a bigger jump in kids selected than the high school ranks. Over the last five years an average of 16.8 high school products have been picked, compared to just 7.4 between ’00-04.
However, as a result of the high number of USHL, NTDP and high school kids being drafted at 18-years-old, the college level has seen a reduction in the number of players selected. Because many of the players coming from the programs listed above enter college when they turn 19, teams can now control that player’s rights for four or five years by picking them younger, as opposed to drafting them as juniors and seniors and having to make quicker decisions on them.
“You are seeing a lot more kids being drafted from the USHL and Tier-II,” Shero said. “Not as many are coming from college, either, because they are being taken when they are still in the USHL before they go to college.”
Average Number of Players Drafted Pre- and Post-Lockout
| ||2000-04 ||2005-09 || || ||2000-04 ||2005-09 || || ||2000-04 ||2005-09 |
|OHL ||34.6 ||39.6 || ||U.S. College ||23.4 ||11.0 || ||Russia ||26.8 ||9.4 |
|QMJHL ||20.6 ||24.4 || ||H.S. ||7.4 ||16.8 || ||Sweden ||15.4 ||18.2 |
|WHL ||35.8 ||34.4 || ||USHL ||10.6 ||14.0 || ||Czech Republic ||12.2 ||5.0 |
|Tier-II (Can.) ||9.8 ||13.8 || ||U.S. NTDP ||1.2 ||10.4 || ||Finland ||14.0 ||7.8 |
|Canada Total ||100.8 ||112.2 || ||Tier-II/III (U.S.) ||3.6 ||4.6 || ||Slovakia ||6.4 ||2.0 |
| || || || ||U.S. Total ||46.2 ||57.0 || || || || |
The CHL teams from the Western Hockey, Ontario Hockey and Quebec Major Junior Hockey Leagues have also benefited from less Europeans being drafted.
While the WHL has actually seen a slight fall in players drafted from an average of 35.8 between ’00-04 to 34.4 from ’05-09, both the OHL (39.6, ’05-09; 34.6, ’00-04) and QMJHL (24.4, ’05-09; 20.6, ’00-04) have seen their numbers rise.
Because all three of those leagues have longer schedules, tougher travel and play a brand of hockey which most resembles the NHL, players from those leagues emerge more ready to contribute in the NHL than any other league. Another benefit for NHL teams is that player personnel directors can have more hands-on interaction with CHL players than they do in other leagues.
“You can have a little more contact in the junior ranks,” Shero said. “A guy like (goaltending coach) Gilles Meloche can go down, get on the ice and work with them more.”
Now that we know why North American numbers are up and European totals down, and some of the main reasons why, let’s take a look at the breakdown of just how drastic the fall has been for these countries.
Of the five major European hockey-producing countries, four – Russia, Finland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – have watched their numbers drop considerably. Only Sweden has seen an increase.
Russia went from an average of 26.8 players drafted between ’00-04 to just 9.4 picked per year from ’05-09. That’s almost a two-thirds drop-off.
Tough times have also hit the Czech Republic, as they have had just six players drafted from their leagues over the past three years, and just an average of five per year over the last five years. In the five preceding years they had an average of 12.2 players drafted, including 15 in ’02 alone.
Although Finland has had success in international competition, an average of just 7.8 Finns were picked from ’05-09 after an average of 14 were plucked between ’00-04. The number of Slovaks has fallen from a 6.4 average from ’00-04 to just 2 the last five years.
Sweden, which has become an international power, has been the lone exception, with their numbers improving from 15.4 (’00-04) to 18.2 (’05-09).
Beginning Friday night we’ll get to see if these trends will continue at the 2010 draft in Los Angeles. Here’s betting that will be the case.