Tuesday, July 13, 2021

In which a simple question about NHL draft history goes wrong

So I had what I thought was a neat idea for a draft-related column. Instead, I think I discovered a new and immutable law of the NHL universe. Stay with me, it’s the offseason and this is going to get weird.

Here was the original idea: What’s the best starting six you could make if you just took the first players drafted at each position in a given draft year? In other words, you take the first center, the first left winger, the first right winger, the first two defenseman and the first goalie selected in an NHL entry draft, and that’s your six. Which year gives you the best mix of legitimate stars?

Simple enough, right? It’s even easy enough to research, since plenty of sites list every pick from every draft. We do get into a bit of a grey area when it comes to positions, since some guys move around the ice a bit and it can be tough to figure out what exactly a team thought they were drafting, but that’s not a huge hurdle. I decided to use hockey-reference.com as my guide, and that I’d just default to which ever position they listed unless I could find convincing evidence that they were wrong.

I also decided to start with the first entry draft, which was the legendary class of 1979. That skips the 17 years of amateur drafts from 1963 to 1978, but that seems fine since those 1960s drafts tended to be terrible and the 1970s weren’t all that much better. Lots of high picks in those days never played at all, and I wanted to focus on the picks that turned into stars. (Thunder rumbles and ominous foreshadowing music briefly plays.) Let’s stick with the big names, right?

It goes without saying that some years will be better than others. There are busts in every draft class, and sometimes they’re even the first pick at their position. So we just figure out which years were actually good, narrow it down to a top ten, and you’ve got yourself an easy ranking column for the week before the draft.

What could go wrong?

So I started with 1979, often considered the best draft class ever because it was a double cohort (after the league changed the eligibility age from 19 to 18). It produced the highest-scoring defenseman ever in Ray Bourque, the third-highest scoring forward in Mark Messier, a 700-goal scorer in Mike Gartner, plus Hall-of-Famers like Michel Goulet, Kevin Lowe, Guy Carbonneau and Glenn Anderson. Fertile ground for this sort of thing.

But as it turns out, our draft-based starting six is… just OK. Barely passable, if we’re being honest. We get a solid enough blueline with first overall pick Rob Ramage and sixth pick Craig Hartsburg, but miss Bourque because he went eighth. Mike Foligno bumps Gartner out of the right wing spot by one pick. The center is Perry Turnbull, the left wing is Tom McCarthy. And the goalie is Pat Riggin, an underrated 1980s name but one who was a backup by his mid-20s.

That’s kind of a disappointing way to start, but you get the concept. Let’s dive in and find some more star-studded lineups.

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