Just How Valuable is a 1st Round Pick Anyway?


With any basement dwelling team, trade deadline talk already surrounds the usual suspects, aged veterans and draft picks.  Not just any draft picks either, but the ever coveted 1st round pick. Naturally, trade discussion around the Oilers has focused on if and when the Oilers should trade Ales Hemsky and just what price he’ll fetch once the deed is done. Oil On Whyte contributor Grant has a bet going with Jason Gregor, Grant figures the Oilers don’t fetch a 1st round pick, while Gregor believes that a team will pay a 1st to acquire Hemsky.

The question that this raises is if Ales Hemsky is worth a 1st round pick, though I prefer to frame the question differently; is a 1st round pick worth Hemsky? To start, one has to realize that not all first round picks are created equal. We see this effect in pre-draft rankings, the 1st round often is broken down into the following brackets, top 3, top 10, and then the rest. For the purposes of this post, I’ve compiled a chart that shows how many NHL games played have been played by all members of draft class, broken down into four brackets; 1-3, 4-10, 11-20, and 21-30. I’ve done this for a ten year block, starting at the 2000 NHL entry draft up until the 2009 draft. I’ve also made a note of how many players never made a significant impact (played less than 100 games) for each draft year, by bracket. Of course, the numbers are slightly higher for the later draft classes, this variable more indicative of players yet to develop than “busts”. Furthermore, due do their untimely passings, Luc Bourdon and Alexei Cherapanov were never given the chance to make an impact at the NHL level.

(Before continuing on, I’d just like to state that this chart is subject to human error, and I’m in no way a professional statistician, so my odds calculations could be off. If there seems to be any grievous errors, please point them out and I will update this post.)

What conclusions can we draw from the above data? The most blatantly obvious is that a top 3 pick is virtually a lock to make an impact in the NHL, no top 3 player from 2000-2009 has simply faded away before getting 100 GP in. Does this mean the a top 3 pick is bust proof? Absolutely not; Cam Barker was a 3rd overall pick after-all. Alexander Svitov, another 3rd overall pick, barely made an impact with 179GP and a dismal 37 points.  After the top 3 however, there are no guarantees of getting NHL roster players. Even the 4-10 bracket of picks produces one to two players on average who will never make a meaningful career in the NHL. The other obvious point here is that the draft classes are extremely varied. 2003 produced a lot of NHL regulars evidenced by the large number of games played, while 2004’s later rounds pale in comparison.

So What are the Odds?

For somewhat simplicities sake, let’s imply that if the Oilers do get a 1st round pick for Hemsky, they’re going to want someone that can replace him and be a top 6 forward with similar production. It can be broken down into three outcomes, the odds of drafting a completely insignificant player, the odds of drafting an inferior player that is still an NHL’er, and the odds of drafting someone almost equal to or better than Hemsky in terms of production. We can also stipulate that it’s unlikely we get a top 10 1st rounder if we trade Hemsky, he’ll likely go to a contender, and we’ll say the pick can be anywhere from 11-30 (closer to 15-30 in all probability). Looking at 2000-2007 (I’ve excluded the final 3 years of the graph for the purposes of odds and averages, as they would unfairly skew the results), the bottom 20 picks produce on average seven insignificant players, they’ve also produced 9 players total for those seven years (just over 1 player average) that has a PPG rate almost as good, equal to, or better than Hemsky.

If you’re picking in the bottom 20, you have around a 5% chance of picking a replacement or upgrade for Hemsky. You have a 35% chance of getting an absolute dud, and the biggest odds (60%) are you get a roster player that plays in the bottom six or is a frequent call up.

Now, I don’t begrudge Oiler fans who might have overvalued 1st round picks, after all, 1st round picks of recent note have been Sam Gagner, Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi, Taylor Hall, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, but all but Eberle were top 10 picks. Lets not forget that Alexei Mikhnov, Jesse Ninnimaki and Rob Schremp were also 1st round picks. And this is why I’m leery of trading an established top six player for just draft picks, even if it is a 1st rounder. If Hemsky does go for a 1st, he better be fetching a roster player or a prospect with that pick.

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