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Draft Day Dreams

Looking realistically at how — and how soon — the Kraken’s draft capital will impact the team

2021 NHL Draft - Round One Photo by Christopher Mast/2021 NHLI

When my kids were far enough into young adulthood that they were thinking more seriously about what they might want to do with their lives, my nickname became “The Dream Crusher.” I had grown up being handed the stock, “You can be anything you want to be!” line from my parents, and — knowing that it was a load of malarkey — I wasn’t going to lead my kids down the primrose path.

So when they asked me about their future, I told them the unvarnished truth.

“You failed chemistry, you’re never going to be a scientist.”
“Free-style BMX is an activity, not a career.”
“You’re more likely to become an astronaut if you’re an Air Force pilot, not a musician.”
“There is only one center for the Chicago Bulls, and you’re 5’7” tall.”

Mean? Unnecessary? We can debate that another day. Honest? Pragmatic? Without question. I hope that shepherding them towards a more realistic assessment of what their future might hold was a good thing.

Now I’m going to offer you the same type of honesty.

Start With The Good News

The Seattle Kraken made several trades over the past week, and have now amassed a stockpile of draft picks — 34 over the next three years. There is even better news within this good news: 11 of those picks are in the first two rounds. This coming July we will see Ron Francis and his scouting staff select five players in the first 64 draft picks — close to 8% of the total number of players chosen.

That’s exceptional news for the team. The first two rounds are where you find the bulk of your future NHL players, and with this being viewed as a deep draft we can be pretty confident that most, if not all, of those draft picks will someday take the ice at Climate Pledge Arena.

How do we know this? Looking at Ron Francis’ history as GM with the Carolina Hurricanes provides a fresh peek into his draft results.

We’ll start by saying that there are some rules of thumb about drafting that can be illustrated here. First, fewer than half of the players drafted will ever make the NHL. Second, goalies take the longest to develop, followed by defensemen, and then forwards. And third, even goaltenders who are drafted high are still long shots to make the NHL at all, and take significant time to mature into NHL-caliber netminders. The single example of a Ron Francis-drafted goaltender who made it to the NHL is Alex Nedeljkovic who took a full 6 years before he stuck with the team for any length of time.

And we also see here the importance of selections made in the first two rounds. Of the 10 players Carolina drafted in rounds one and two under Francis’ management, nine of them made the NHL. So as we just noted, players drafted in the first two rounds are the ones that have the best chance of making an impact with the team that drafts them.

Down To Earth

When we start to look at the area shaded in green is when I will call upon my Dream Crusher abilities to deliver the following bad news. On average:

  • the later you’re drafted, the longer it will be before you land a roster spot
  • forwards drafted in the first two rounds will take a minimum of one year to develop; defensemen at least two
  • forwards drafted in rounds three and four have just a 33% chance of making the jump to the NHL, and those that do won’t get there for at least two years
  • forwards drafted in rounds five through seven are lottery tickets — you pick them up hoping that you end up with something; but realistically you don’t expect them to ever turn into a roster player
  • defensemen and goalies drafted in the third round or later are wasted picks

Now bear in mind that these are real numbers from a single data set — Ron Francis’ picks during his tenure as GM in Carolina. So on the one hand this represents a direct and relevant connection between the data and the guy pulling the trigger on draft day. But on the other hand, Francis has had the ability to build his scouting organization with the Kraken from the ground up, and one would think his time with the ‘Canes taught him valuable lessons that will allow him to perform better going forward.

When we compare Ron Francis’ numbers in Carolina against the league average over the period from 2004 to 2014, we see that Francis has had better than average success with his first and second round picks, but under-performed in rounds three through seven. This is also relevant information as we assess the viability of the Kraken’s selections.

Data & graphic: hockeyanswered.com

With thanks to Hockey Answered for the information.

So Ron Francis and his staff have already have one NHL Entry Draft under their belts. Did they take this information above into account? Mostly, yes — but not always. They drafted defenseman Ville Ottavainen in the fourth round, and goaltender Semyon Vyazovoy in the sixth. So, if recent events can accurately predict future outcomes, we’ll never see either of those guys in a Kraken uniform. But the remaining five selections in the 2021 amateur draft fit the mold.

Recent History

In the days leading up to the NHL Entry Draft you will hear the talking heads refer to whether or not this year is a “deep draft”. That distinction is a relative one: in a given year, how many players eligible for the draft would be a first-round pick in a “normal” year? If that number is significantly below 30, it’s a “shallow draft”; significantly above 30, and it’s a “deep draft”.

2022 is being billed as a deep draft, which is more good news for Seattle — it means that some if not all of the players chosen with those four second-round picks would be first-round picks in a “normal” year, and as such they have a higher likelihood of making it to the NHL.

One thing I see a lot of among folks who are either new to the sport or don’t follow the draft-related minutiae is the expectation that players will go straight from a first-round selection to the top line in the NHL the following year. We’ve already shown that to be false, but last year provides a very stark illustration of exactly how rare that is.

Columbus Blue Jackets v Carolina Hurricanes Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images

The 2021 draft class was billed as average — not deep, not shallow. 31 players were drafted in the first round last year (Arizona was forced to forfeit their pick). Of those 31 players, only one has played more than 10 games with his NHL club this season — forward Cole Sillinger of the Columbus Blue Jackets, son of 17-year NHL veteran Mike Sillinger. Sillinger is having a decent year, but he’s not going to light up the record books; 11 goals and 10 assists in 60 games.

With Carolina Ron Francis had two of his first round picks go straight from the draft to the NHL — Noah Hanifin, and Martin Necas, both middle-six forwards, and neither of whom fit the description you would attribute to a player like Patrick Kane or Sidney Crosby (who made a similar jump straight to the big leagues). So even among the best of the best, the guys who have delivered in amateur hockey and can earn a roster spot at a young age, the number of players who make an immediate, game-changing impact with their NHL clubs right away is startlingly low.

Temper Your Exuberance

So with all of this in mind let’s take a quick — and realistic — look at how the Seattle Kraken draft classes of 2021 and 2022 are likely to shake out.

COLLEGE HOCKEY: FEB 25 Michigan at Notre Dame Photo by Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Matty Beniers, C, 1st round, 2021: It would be foolish to bet against Beniers making the roster straight out of camp this fall — one year after being drafted. The only other path I potentially see is the club having him take 2-3 months at the start of the year down in Coachella Valley, to get used to the pro game and the rigors of the travel schedule. But either way I expect by this time next season Beniers has earned a place as the #2 center on the Kraken.

Regina Pats v Seattle Thunderbirds Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

Ryker Evans, D, 2nd round, 2021: Evans was passed over his first year of draft eligibility, and so comes to the end of his Junior career as a 20-year-old this June. Defensemen take longer to develop than forwards, so I expect Evans to spend at a minimum one year, and more likely two years, in the AHL before competing for a roster spot with Seattle.

For those of you about to all-caps scream at me in the comments that “HE’S A LOCK TO MAKE THE TEAM RIGHT OUT OF CAMP!!!” consider this: Duncan Keith was drafted in the second round in 2002. He didn’t make his Blachkawks debut until 2005. Duncan. Keith. Please, temper your exuberance.

OHL Outdoor Showcase - Oshawa Generals v Hamilton Bulldogs Photo by Chris Tanouye/Getty Images

Ryan Winterton, F, 3rd round, 2021: Winterton missed all of the 2020-21 season due to the OHL’s COVID-19 shut-down, and has been limited to just 26 games this year due to injury. He is currently 18 years old and has a late-ish birthday, so I expect the organ-eye-zation will want him to get a full year in with Hamilton as a 19-year-old before considering him for a spot with the Firebirds. It is unlikely we see him in Seattle for at least another 2 years.

Everyone else, rounds 4 through 7, 2021: If we ever see them in a Kraken uniform, it won’t be anytime soon.

Shane Wright/Logan Cooley/Matthew Savoie/Conor Geekie, round 1, 2022: Barring some biblical turn-around in the next 5 weeks, the Kraken are likely to pick in the top 5 at this year’s NHL Entry Draft. The chances of them selecting one of the four centers listed above are high. IF that happens, and IF these players continue their development over the summer and come to camp prepared, and IF they perform at the very upper limit of their capabilities at camp in September, there is a chance that one of them will step right into a role with the Kraken on opening night. Otherwise whoever we draft will likely spend the 2022-23 season with their respective Junior or NCAA teams. Depending on how they mature over the course of that year, we may or may not see them compete for a roster spot the following year.

And yes, it’s that Geekie — Morgan’s little brother has 59 points in 54 games in only his second season with the WHL’s Winnipeg Ice. He’s just 17, but he’s already 6’4” and 205 lbs. If the Kraken are not picking #1 overall, I’m going to go out on a limb and say they’ll push the button on Conor wherever they end up in the draft order.

All four 2nd round picks, 2022: Wait a year, maybe more.

Forwards, rounds 3 and 4, 2022: Two to three years, or never.

Everyone else, rounds 3 through 7, 2022: Don’t get your hopes up.

The Curious Case Of Drew LeBlanc

Chicago Blackhawks v Edmonton Oilers Photo by Perry Nelson/Getty Images

The fragility of a given prospect’s journey to, and continued success in, the NHL can be encapsulated in the story of Drew LeBlanc, who won the Hobey Baker Award as captain of the St. Cloud State University men’s hockey team in 2013. He tallied 50 points in 42 games during his senior season, and made his NHL debut just days after signing with the Chicago Blackhawks.

On his very first shift as a pro he blew his coverage, leading to the first goal against in a Chicago loss. That play shattered his confidence, and he was only used sparingly the rest of the night. He played in one more game with the Blackhawks.

Ever.

The Hobey Baker Award winner turned four years of NCAA hockey success into a sum total of two NHL games. This should serve as a telling illustration that, even if everything looks fantastic on paper, even if everything goes swimmingly in Juniors, the NCAA, or AHL — once you reach the big leagues, all bets are off.

Did Chicago mismanage his development? They absolutely did. Do teams make mistakes like this every single year? They absolutely do. Assuming that Seattle will be immune to such errors is magical thinking.

There are a million and one paths to you not earning a roster spot with an NHL club, and only one path in which you do. It would behoove all of us to factor this into our expectations for the club and its draft picks going forward.