The Glorious Rewards of Tanking in the NHL

The main question when it comes to tanking in the NHL that inhabits the mind of General Managers is whether it is indeed worth spending 3-5 years at the bottom of the league, leaving your fans with little to root for on a nightly basis. I am writing this to prove that not only is it indeed worth it but it is a highly advisable strategy. Any team without a hope of future contention (The New Jersey Devils are a perfect example due to a mediocre old roster and a pathetic farm system) would be wise to drop down to the lower reaches of the NHL in order to give themselves massively increased odds at the best talent available. Let us then look at exactly why it is an ideal strategy in that scenario through our bestest buddy in the whole wide world: Statistics!

I chose the time frame of 2001 to 2010, a ten year period recent enough to be familiar and long ago enough that even the youngest players involved in this study are entering their NHL primes. We will then look at all the data available from those drafts in order of determining exactly how crucial it is to have a pick within the top 5. To start, here are all the players selected within the top 5 of the NHL draft from 1-5 from 2001 to 2010:

Ilya Kovalchuk, Jason Spezza, Alexandr Svitov, Stephen Weiss, Stanislav Chistov, Rick Nash, Kari Lehtonen, Jay Bouwmeester, Joni Pitkanen, Ryan Whitney, Marc-Andre Fleury, Eric Staal, Nathan Horton, Nikolai Zherdev, Thomas Vanek, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Cam Barker, Andrew Ladd, Blake Wheeler, Sidney Crosby, Bobby Ryan, Jack Johnson, Benoit Pouliot, Carey Price, Erik Johnson, Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom, Phil Kessel, Patrick Kane, James Van Riemsdyk, Kyle Turris, Thomas Hickey, Karl Alzner, Steven Stamkos, Drew Doughty, Zack Bogosian, Alex Pietrangelo, Luke Schenn, John Tavares, Victor Hedman, Matt Duchene, Evander Kane, Brayden Schenn, Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin, Erik Gudbranson, Ryan Johansen, Nino Neiderreiter.

The following chart shows the totals from those draft years, in terms of NHL games played by all draftees per year, sorted of course by Top 5 and 6-30.

Draft Year Top 5 CPT 6-30 CPT

2010 487 568
2009 936 912
2008 980 1466
2007 874 1944
2006 1776 2360
2005 1397 2100
2004 2117 1232
2003 1876 5837
2002 1515 3265
2001 1970 3057

10 Years 13298 23641

The Top 5ers have accumulated 13,298 points while the rest of the entirety of those first rounds has accounted for 23,641 (aided by an insane 2003 draft class) which is amazing considering there have been Five times as many players taken from picks 6-30 in that span. Per player, the average Top 5er has tallied 266 career points while the average 6-30er has scored 94 for their career. This may not knock your socks off but consider this a foundational exercise, the meat of the study is imminent.

We will now dig a little deeper, looking at exactly where all 300 players in this study ended up, career wise and what exactly the value of picking in the top 5 is. Here is data showing the type of career of each drafted player:

Type of Career Top 5 6 to 30

Negligible 2 (4%) 105 (42%)
Solid 5 (10%) 79 (32%)
Above Average 15 (30%) 38 (15%)
All Star 16 (32%) 24 (9%)
Hall of Fame 12 (24%) 4 (0.016%)

50 250

As a helpful visual aid I made two charts to give a colourful idea of exactly where these picks end up.



As we can see, the numbers are monumentally in favour of tanking in every sense. Some key points:

  • You have a 1 in 4 chance of drafting a HOF level player from pick 1-5 (24%!)
  • Adversely the odds of finding that exact level of player from 6-30 are ridiculously small (0.016%!)
  • You have an 75% chance of drafting a Marcel Goc level player or worse from 6-30
  • You have an 85% chance of drafting Andrew Ladd at very least in the Top 5
  • You have a 50% chance of drafting James Van Riemsdyk at very worst in the top 5
  • You have a 9.16% chance of finding that exact same level of player from 6-30
  • You have a 4% chance of "swinging and missing" with a top 5 pick (One in 25)
  • You have almost a 50% chance of "swinging and missing" from 6-30 (One in 2)

For reference, my list of HOF level players is as follows:

S Crosby, E Malkin, A Ovechkin, S Stamkos, I Kovalchuk, J Toews, J Tavares, P Kessel, J Spezza, T Seguin, T Hall, D Doughty

Interestingly the two Top 5 busts came from the same draft (Stan Chistov and Alexandr Svitov in 2001).

In Conclusion, we can see that Tanking in the NHL (Especially while employing a smart GM and a talented scouting staff) is as good a strategy as any in sports and should be used by any team with a bleak future and no hope of contention in the near future.

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