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From Picks To Rings: High Draft Picks On Stanley Cup Winners

Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Following up on a recent FTB discussion, I decided to have a look at Stanley Cup winners, the players who led them, and when those players were drafted. The goal is to find out how important high draft picks are to building a winner, by looking at prominent players--draft pick value obviously covers most of it, but I wanted to look specifically at the combination of ingredients on Cup teams. By extension, this gives us a glimpse into the utility of tanking--the easier it is to form the recipe with cheaper ingredients, the less sense tanking makes.

If you're not interested in going on a ride through history with me, scroll all the way down to the bottom, and you can find my conclusions about what I found in this little exercise.

Whaddaya Mean By Prominent, Smart Guy?

For the sake of easy comparison across eras, I'm going to use the following criteria:

For forwards: a) The top five forwards on the team in regular-season points;

b) The top three forwards on the team in regular-season goals;

c) The top three forwards on the team in regular-season assists;

For defencemen: a) The top two defencemen on the team in regular-season points;

b) The top two defencemen on the team in regular-season ice time per game (where possible)

For goalies: a) The starter in the playoffs, unless there's an obvious reason to note another goalie

Obviously the same players may meet multiple criteria, but the idea is to cover anyone who might reasonably be called prominent. If someone really jumps out to me as significant, but they don't make any list for whatever reason, I'll note them as well. I've preferred regular-season measurements because they make for a more robust sample and help avoid us arguing about the prominence of whoever's that year's Sean Bergenheim. Finally, I'll note the age on June 30th of the Cup year of each player, just for interest.

I'm looking for teams with top-six overall picks--for the modern NHL, that means picking in the first 20% of the first round--as well as the importance of top-15 picks--in the modern NHL, that's the first 50% of the first round.

I originally intended to go back, in full and glorious detail, on the last forty years of NHL history, but I realized that that would end up making a post the length of a novella. I decided to go back in detail to the year 1999; take my word for it that only one team since 1974 has won the Cup without a top-six draft pick playing a prominent role, and I cover them here.

The Last Sixteen Cup Winners And The Players Who Led Them

The 2015 Chicago Blackhawks

Forwards: Jonathan Toews (drafted 3rd overall, 27 years old); Patrick Kane (1st OA, 26 years old); Marian Hossa (12th OA, 36 years old); Brandon Saad (43rd OA, 22 years old); Patrick Sharp (95th OA, 33 years old)

Defence: Duncan Keith (54th OA, 31 years old); Brent Seabrook (14th OA, 30 years old.)

Goaltender: Corey Crawford (52nd OA, 30 years old)

Top-six picks: 2

Top-fifteen picks: 4

After the first round: 4

Here's that famous Blackhawks core everyone talks about. Aren't you sick of them? Ugh. We get it, you're the Cap-Era Dynasty. Go away and let the Capitals win or something.

The 2014 Los Angeles Kings

Forwards: Anze Kopitar (11th OA, 26 y.o.); Jeff Carter (11th OA, 29 y.o.); Justin Williams (28th OA, 32 y.o.); Mike Richards (24th OA, 29 y.o.); Dwight King (109th OA, 24 y.o.)

Defence: Drew Doughty (2nd OA, 24 y.o.), that piece of shit Slava Voynov (32nd OA, 24 y.o.)

Goaltender: Jonathan Quick (72nd OA, 28 y.o.)

Top-six picks: 1

Top-fifteen picks: 3

After the first round: 3

Yes, in 2014 Dwight King had more points than Tyler Toffoli (47th OA, 22 y.o.), Jarret Stoll (36th OA, 32 y.o.) and Dustin Brown (13th OA, 29 y.o.) Also, the Kings were younger than I remembered them being; even on their second run all of their best players were under 30 except Justin Williams. [Glances uneasily at aging curve, ignores it, dreams of Stamkos]

The 2013 Chicago Blackhawks

Forwards: Patrick Kane (1st OA, 24 y.o); Jonathan Toews (3rd OA, 25 y.o); Marian Hossa (12th OA, 34 y.o); Brandon Saad (43rd OA, 20 y.o.); Brian Bickell (41st OA, 27 y.o.); Viktor Stalberg (161st OA, 27 y.o.)

Defence: Duncan Keith (54th OA, 29 y.o.); Brent Seabrook (14th OA, 28 y.o)

Goaltender: Corey Crawford (52nd OA, 28 y.o)

Top-six picks: 2

Top-fifteen picks: 4

After the first round: 4

Patrick Sharp's 2013 injury, opening the way for Brian "The Pickle" Bickell and Viktor "Why Can't I Seem To Stick As A Top-Six NHL Forward?" Stalberg, is the only thing that prevents this list from being a copy-paste of the 2015 one with the ages changed.

The 2012 Los Angeles Kings

Forwards: Anze Kopitar (11th OA, 24 y.o.); Justin Williams (28th OA, 30 y.o.); Dustin Brown (13th OA, 29 y.o.); Mike Richards (24th OA, 27 y.o.); Jarret Stoll (36th OA, 30 y.o.), Jeff Carter (11th OA, 27 y.o.)

Defence: Drew Doughty (2nd OA, 24 y.o.), Willie Mitchell (199th OA, 35 y.o.)

Goaltender: Jonathan Quick (72nd OA, 26 y.o.)

Top-six picks: 1

Top-fifteen picks: 4

After the first round: 3

Jeff Carter doesn't qualify by our strict standards because he was acquired from Columbus at the deadline, but I'm including him because he was probably important or some shit idk. I'm excluding Jack Johnson, who departed in the same trade, by the same logic, and also because I hate his music. Other thing: remember how good Jon Quick was this year? I know he's overrated in the MSM, but that postseason he was a barricade around a fortress on top of a bunker.

The 2011 Boston Bruins

Forwards: David Krejci (63rd OA, 25 y.o.), Milan Lucic (50th OA, 23 y.o.), Patrice Bergeron (45th OA, 25 y.o.), Nathan Horton (3rd OA, 26 y.o.), Mark Recchi (67th OA, 43 y.o.)

Defence: Zdeno Chara (56th OA, 34 y.o.), Dennis Seidenberg (172nd OA, 29 y.o.)

Goaltender: Tim Thomas (219th OA, 37 y.o.)

Top-six picks: 1

Top-fifteen picks: 1

After the first round: 7

There's one team that's managed to win the Cup in the last forty years without a top-six pick (see below), but after them, the Bruins come closest to succeeding without highly-drafted stars. Aside from future LTIR hero Nathan Horton, the Bruins are a heartwarming (?) experiment in what can happen when a bunch of second and third-rounders pan out and you get the best goaltending performance of all time from a crazy person. Funnily enough, the Bruins did actually have two other top-six picks on their roster who would go onto to greater personal success--Blake Wheeler, who is the best winger nobody ever talks about, and Fratboy Sadness Generator Tyler Seguin--but neither of them had yet bloomed enough to meet the Fulemin Standard of Prominence™.

The 2010 Chicago Blackhawks

Forwards: Patrick Kane (1st OA, 21 y.o); Jonathan Toews (3rd OA, 22 y.o); Marian Hossa (12th OA, 31 y.o); Patrick Sharp (95th OA, 28 y.o.), Kris Versteeg (134th OA, 24 y.o.), Dustin Byfuglien (245th OA, 25 y.o)

Defence: Duncan Keith (54th OA, 26 y.o.); Brent Seabrook (14th OA, 25 y.o), Brian Campbell (156th OA, 31 y.o.)

Goaltender: Antti Niemi (undrafted, 26.y.o)

Top-six picks: 2

Top-fifteen picks: 4

After the first round: 6

It's hard to express how stacked the original Hawks team was. I included Dustin Byfuglien because it seemed silly not to, as well as three defenders, but even then, I'm leaving out perfectly good players like Troy Brouwer (214th OA, 24 y.o.) and Andrew Ladd (4th OA, 24 y.o.) The Hawks have famously shown a knack for unloading inessential guys like Versteeg, Ladd, Bolland, Brouwer etc., but man, a lot of those guys (except Bolland) were actually really good!

Parting note on the dyna-Hawks: their three most important offensive players were drafted in the top 12, and two most in the top 3. This theme shows up again and again in this list: it's really hard to have elite offence without drafting at least some of it early.

The 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins

Forwards: Evgeni Malkin (2nd OA, 22 y.o.); Sidney Crosby (1st OA, 21 y.o.); Jordan Staal (2nd OA, 20 y.o.); Petr Sykora (18th OA, 32 y.o.); Ruslan Fedotenko (undrafted, 30 y.o.)

Defence: Sergei Gonchar (14th OA, 35 y.o.); Kris Letang (62nd OA, 22 y.o.); Rob Scuderi (134th OA, 30 y.o.)

Goaltender: Marc-Andre Fleury (1st OA, 24 y.o.)

Top-six picks: 4

Top-fifteen picks: 5

After the first round: 3

You want high picks? Here are some high picks. The leaderboard for assists on the Penguins this year went 78, 70, 27 for Malkin, Crosby and Staal. The Pens actually had another prominent top-six pick (Ryan Whitney, 5th OA, 26 y.o.) but they traded him for lifelong Crosby appendage Chris Kunitz (undrafted, 29 y.o.) I included Scuderi on the d-man list because some people insist he was key to the victory. I aim to please.

The 2008 Detroit Red Wings

Forwards: Pavel Datsyuk (171st OA, 29 y.o); Henrik Zetterberg (210th OA, 27 y.o.); Jiri Hudler (58th OA, 24 y.o.); Daniel Cleary (13th OA, 29 y.o.); Tomas Holmstrom (257th OA, 35 y.o.); Johan Franzen (97th OA, 28 y.o.)

Defence: Nicklas Lidstrom (53rd OA, 38 y.o.) Brian Rafalski (undrafted, 34 y.o.)

Goaltender: Chris Osgood (54th OA, 35 y.o.)

Top-six picks: 0

Top-fifteen picks: 1

After the first round: 8

Here you are, the pinnacle of late-drafting success. This whole post is a testament to how rare it is to succeed without a drafting high, but we ought to briefly pay tribute to what a great team the Wings assembled swimming upstream. (But obviously if they'd known what they had in Datsyuk and Zetterberg they wouldn't have waited five or six rounds.) Anyway, this leaves out other pretty good players like Mikael Samuelsson (145th OA, 31 y.o.), Valtteri Filppula (95th OA, 24 y.o.), and Nik Kronwall (29th OA, 27 y.o.), plus undead revenant Chris Chelios (40th OA, 392 y.o.) You don't need to draft high as long as you can pick three Hall of Famers in the later rounds. That's the big takeaway.

The 2007 Anaheim Mighty Ducks

Forwards: Teemu Selanne (10th OA, 36 y.o.); Andy McDonald (undrafted, 29 y.o.); Chris Kunitz (undrafted, 27 y.o.); Ryan Getzlaf (19th OA, 22 y.o.); Dustin Penner (undrafted, 24 y.o.); Corey Perry (28th OA, 22 y.o.)

Defence: Scott Niedermayer (3rd OA, 33 y.o.); Chris Pronger (2nd OA, 32 y.o.)

Goaltender: Jean-Sebastien Giguere (13th OA, 30 y.o.)

Top-six picks: 2

Top-fifteen picks: 4

After the first round: 3

The Ducks this year were unusual in quite a few ways: their leading scorer was 36, three of their top five scorers were undrafted, they had two of the best three defencemen of the past twenty years, and they won despite being coached by noted toast enthusiast Randolph R. Carlyle. You can note excellent third defenceman Francois Beauchemin as well if you want (75th OA, 27 y.o.) but the Ducks could probably have staffed their bottom-four out of balloon animals and won all the same. Also, remember Andy MacDonald? He had 157 points in two seasons! And now nobody says anything about him at all. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.

The 2006 Carolina Hurricanes

Forwards: Eric Staal (2nd OA, 21 y.o.); Corey Stillman (6th OA, 32 y.o.); Justin Williams (28th OA, 24 y.o.); Rod Brind'amour (9th OA, 35 y.o.); Erik Cole (71st OA, 27 y.o.); Ray Whitney (23rd OA, 34 y.o.); Mark Recchi (67th OA, 38 y.o)

Defence: Bret Hedican (198th OA, 35 y.o.); Frantisek Kaberle (76th OA, 32 y.o.)

Goaltender: Cam Ward (25th OA, 22 y.o.)

Top-six picks: 2

Top-fifteen picks: 3

After the first round: 5*

*At the time Ray Whitney was drafted, the 23rd Overall pick was the first pick of the second round. This recurs as we go farther back in time due to fewer teams being in the league, so I'll stop mentioning it.

The Hurricanes are usually considered one of the less talented teams to win a Cup, but they had an extremely impressive crop of forwards, especially after adding skilled old men Whitney and Recchi, and they had a fairly typical number of high picks on the roster. On the other hand, their defence was not exactly the thing of which tales are told. Note again, though, the high picks powering the offence.

The 2005 Nikolai Kulemins

Forward: Nikolai Kulemin (1OA, ? y.o.)

Defence/Goaltending: Irrelevant

I'LL ALWAYS LOVE YOU KULIE

The 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning

Forwards: Martin St. Louis (undrafted, 29 y.o.); Corey Stillman (6th OA, 30 y.o.); Brad Richards (64th OA, 24 y.o.); Vincent Lecavalier (1st OA, 24 y.o.); Freddy Modin (64th OA, 29 y.o.)

Defence: Dan Boyle (undrafted, 27 y.o.); Pavel Kubina (179th OA, 27 y.o.)

Goaltender: Nikolai Khabibulin (204th OA, 31 y.o.)

Top-six picks: 2

Top-fifteen picks: 2

After the first round: 6

The Lightning were led by possibly the greatest undrafted player of all time, but they nonetheless had two top-six picks among their best scorers. You can get away with low-drafted defenders (though high picks don't hurt), and goaltending is the voodoo we all know it is, but you gotsta draft scoring.

The 2003 New Jersey Devils

Forwards: Patrik Elias (51st OA, 27 y.o.); Scott Gomez (27th OA, 23 y.o); Jamie Langenbrunner (35th OA, 27 y.o); Jeff Friesen (11th OA, 26 y.o.); Joe Nieuwendyk (27th OA, 36 y.o.)

Defence: Scott Niedermayer (3rd OA, 29 y.o.); Brian Rafalski (undrafted, 29 y.o.); Scott Stevens (5th OA, 39 y.o.)

Goaltender: Martin Brodeur (20th OA, 31 y.o.)

Top-six picks: 2

Top-fifteen picks: 3

After the first round: 4

God, the dead puck era was awful. Patrik Elias, who is excellent, led the Devils in scoring with FIFTY-SEVEN FUCKING POINTS. Hockey in those days was like being knocked out with anesthetic for surgery and then staying out because you got concussed. Speaking of Stevens, the technical reason I included him is because he was within four seconds of Rafalski in TOI-per-game and the two of them and Niedermayer dominated the team, but the real reason is because when I was a child I was warned Scott Stevens would blindside me if I didn't keep my head up crossing the street.

The 2002 Detroit Red Wings

Forwards: Brendan Shanahan (2nd OA, 33 y.o.); Sergei Fedorov (74th OA, 32 y.o.); Brett Hull (117th OA, 37 y.o); Luc Robitaille (171st OA, 38 y.o); Steve Yzerman (4th OA, 37 y.o.)

Defence: Nicklas Lidstrom (53rd OA, 32 y.o.), Chris Chelios (40th OA, 40 y.o.)

Goaltender: Dominik Hasek (199th OA, 37 y.o.)

Top-six picks: 2

Top-fifteen picks: 2

After the first round: 6

While it doesn't go against the trends--two elite scorers drafted in the top six, which is about par for the course--this team was operating in a different world than those today. One, this was an All-Star team in all but name--this list doesn't even include Igor Larionov and Pavel Datsyuk, who were both on the roster--and two, it was the kind of team that can no longer exist. The Red Wings paid $66M for their roster this year, which doesn't sound that crazy until you start accounting for inflation. That was the highest payroll even in the Wild West of the pre-cap era, and it was two standard deviations above the league average of $38M. Only the Rangers even came close that year; our Leafs team that (fuck) Arturs Irbe prevented from facing these Wings was making $51M on the aggregate. (Wikipedia is the source for all of the foregoing, but it appears reliable on this one.)

Why does this matter? Because this was the best team money could buy--note that every major player is 32 or older, a feat not even close to matched by any other recent winner--and it included two top-six draft picks. (Yzerman, incidentally, missed 30 games this season, and would likely have finished close to Shanahan at the top had he played the full year.) This touches, in a different way, on the main thrust of all this info: NHL scouts are, and have been for decades, generally good at finding elite scoring talent, hit and miss at finding elite defenders, and crap at finding elite goalies. It's hard to find elite scoring talent if you don't draft it, and post-cap, it's gotten a lot harder to buy it.

The 2001 Colorado Avalanche

Forwards: Joe Sakic (15th OA, 31 y.o.); Peter Forsberg (6th OA, 27 y.o); Milan Hejduk (87th OA, 25 y.o.); Alex Tanguay (12th OA, 21 y.o.); Chris Drury (72nd OA, 24 y.o.)

Defence: Ray Bourque (8th OA, 40 y.o.); Rob Blake (70th OA, 31 y.o.); Adam Foote (22nd OA, 29 y.o.)

Goaltender: Patrick Roy (51st OA, 35 y.o.)

Top-six picks: 1

Top-fifteen picks: 4

After the first round: 5

Lest you wonder if Ray Bourque wasn't actually that prominent as a 40-year-old, he led the team in ice-time and put up 59 points that year. Anyway, this is a fairly typical breakdown: a top-six pick, some additional upper-first-round talent, and a few mid-rounders who made good. Incidentally, the Avs had a player this year with one of my favourite hockey names: Shjon Podein. Where is he from, you may ask? Minnesota.

The 2000 New Jersey Devils

Forwards: Patrik Elias (51st OA, 24 y.o.); Scott Gomez (27th OA, 20 y.o.); Petr Sykora (18th OA, 23 y.o.); Jason Arnott (7th OA, 25 y.o.); Bobby Holik (10th OA, 29 y.o.)

Defence: Scott Niedermayer (3rd OA, 26 y.o.); Brian Rafalski (undrafted, 26 y.o.); Scott Stevens (5th OA, 36 y.o.)

Goaltender: Martin Brodeur (20th OA, 28 y.o.)

Top-six picks: 2

Top-fifteen picks: 4

After the first round: 2

It's basically the 2003 team. At least Elias had the decency to score at a point-a-game pace this season. They picked up Alex Mogilny (89th OA, 31 y.o.) at the deadline, but he didn't do all that much for them this year (6p in 12gp to close out the regular season, and then 7p in 23gp in the playoffs.) The Devils defencemen of doom dontinued to dominate.

The 1999 Buffalo Sabres Dallas Stars

Forwards: Mike Modano (1st OA, 29 y.o); Brett Hull (117th OA, 35 y.o.); Joe Nieuwendyk (27th OA, 32 y.o.); Jere Lehtinen (88th OA, 26 y.o.); Jamie Langenbrunner (35th OA, 23 y.o.)

Defence: Sergei Zubov (85th OA, 28 y.o.); Derian Hatcher (8th OA, 27 y.o.); Darryl Sydor (7th OA, 27 y.o.)

Goaltender: Ed Belfour (undrafted, 34 y.o.)

Top-six picks: 1

Top-fifteen picks: 3

After the first round: 6

And here we are. Mike Modano was a really good hockey player, you guys. Derian Hatcher was an asshole.

This seems like a good place to end my sample, since the previous four winners (the Wings twice, the Avs, the Devils) repeated in our sample size and I just cleared 3000 words. Let's do some fancy analyzin'.

Some Conclusions

Let's start off by declaring the obvious: goalies really are voodoo. Sometimes they are good, sometimes they are bad, you may draft a great one in the first round or you may draft Dominik Hasek 199th. Whatever. I'm not looking at goalies.

For the purposes of this exercise, I'm counting undrafted players as equivalent to 210th (the last spot in the modern NHL draft.)

Some basics, first: there are 67 names listed as "prominent forwards" on this list. 14 of them, or about 21%, were drafted in the top six. 51 of them, or about 76%, were drafted in the top 90. Five were undrafted; two were drafted in a round later than the seventh and thus would presumably not be picked in a 2016-era draft. The median player was Corey Perry, drafted 28th. The average draftee went 63rd overall. This doesn't count anyone multiple times (the way Kane and Toews would be, for example).

However, this treats all prominent players as equal, which they clearly are not, considering Dwight King is probably not as good as Sidney Crosby. If we start tightening up the standards--say we drop the fifth guy off the forward lists unless he's in two Cup cores--the median pick jumps up to 13th overall. A lot of the lower picks fall right off the map, whereas the top picks are almost untouched (Holik and Yzerman, two guys who would be dropped, both won other Cups with their teams outside the sample.) The only lower (below 90th OA) draft picks, or non-draftees, left are Brett Hull, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Martin St.Louis, Chris Kunitz, and Andy MacDonald. To get elite offence you can build around outside the first round requires considerable luck, and to get it with a low pick is (as we all know) winning the lottery.

While doing a comparative analysis of the quality of each player on the list would take even longer, the guys at the top whomp most of the guys at the bottom in scoring potential. Interestingly, the sub-90th OA guys are generally much more offensively skilled than the guys between them and the first-rounders, which suggests that your best chance for elite scoring you can build around, after the first round, is probably someone who's been completely overlooked.

On defence, things are a bit looser. The median defenceman went 53rd overall, and his name was Nick Lidstrom, so he was okay I guess. Only four of the twenty-eight defenders listed went in the top six, although those four (Doughty, Pronger, Niedermayer, Stevens) were all Hall-of-Fame calibre defencemen with multiple Cup rings. It's more possible to hit the jackpot on a defenceman in the second or third round--but of course, you need to be luckier.

Bottom Line

This supports what you likely suspected: it is very hard to get the elite scoring needed to win Cups without drafting it early in the first round, and most successful teams do just that. Obviously enough, those that get by with less reliance on exceptional, high-drafted scoring tend to rely more on exceptional defencemen--Chara in the case of the Bruins, Lidstrom for the Red Wings, and Niedermayer + Pronger for the Ducks. You're more likely to luck into that...but drafting Lidstrom/Chara (or getting Chara in a trade because the Senators' GM has silly putty in his brain) involves a lot of just that: luck.

So, uh...don't tell elseldo...but tanking is probably a good idea.

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