The Low Probability Draft Pick

Every year, every team essentially throws away at least a pick or two on a low probability draft choice. Despite the amazingly poor results, teams continue to do make the low probability bets but the trend is starting to change, a little.

To start… how poor are the results? Let’s take a look.

Using the Hockey Prospecting model, I grabbed all low probability forwards and defensemen drafted in rounds 2 through 7 in the past 20 years. The definition used for ‘low probability’ was any player with a 30% or less chance of becoming an NHLer at the time they were drafted. We end up with 846 players that we can say with a good amount of certainty has made the NHL or hasn’t at this point. The total includes any player with a 30% or less probability that’s made it in the past 20 years and the whole sample who haven’t made it drafted between 2000 and 2013.

I excluded the first round as there may be more intangible benefit of the low probability first rounder. As well, even if these players are genuine low probability options, they’re going to get all the opportunity in the world to show they’re not an NHLer. After all, teams don’t like to be wrong about first rounders.

Out of those 846 players, 86 made it to 200 games, which represents a success rate 0f 10%. So draft 100 of these low probability players, 90 of them will not make the NHL. Amazingly low success rate. At most any time of the draft, less perhaps the final two rounds, there is always a number of players available with much greater chances of making the NHL.

What about team success? Have any specific teams established a system to better develop these low probability players into NHLers? Kind of but not really. Since 2000, no team has been able to generate an overall low probability success mark of over 20%. Pittsburgh, Columbus St. Louis, Montreal, Ottawa and Los Angeles have seen some of the highest success but even then it’s only in the high teens.

Why would teams make choices like this?

First, they probably don’t realize that the success percentage is that low. Second, they may not realize there’s a difference between the low probability pick they’re taking and high probability players. Late draft picks are seen, universally, as low bets. But there is a big, big difference. A player drafted outside of the first round with a greater than 50% probability of making the NHL at the time of the draft make the NHL three times more than the low probability bets we discuss here.

Another thing that I’ve wondered is “ok you made a low probability bet on a guy at the draft and he actually works out and turns into a useful full-time NHLer… how often does the low probability miracle actually play a significant time with the team that drafted him?”

I took those 86 successes and looked at each player. If the player played at least their first 100 games of their 200+ game career with the team that drafted them I consider that a success (i.e., the player played a significant period with the team that drafted them). If they played less than that I considered it playing for a different team than the one that drafted him. The results of this initiative were essentially exactly what I would have expected but are still surprising nonetheless.

Of the 86 low probability players that did actually make the NHL, 27 (31%) of them never played for the team that drafted them or played very little with the team that drafted, turning into a full-time NHLer with another organization.

So while the success rate is an unspectacular 10% when drafting a low probability bet, if the goal to draft a player that will play for your team, the success rate is probably a bit lower. Being able to use the low probability player as a trade chip to acquire another player for another need has it’s own benefit. However, a number of the players that ended up playing for other teams aren’t signed and simply signed with another team, making the NHL 5 to 7 years after they were drafted. Regardless, these low probability picks are hail maries with little success. Teams should avoid them as much as they can. And the good news is teams appear to be recognizing how long the odds are with these low probability bets and are starting to move away from them.

Below is a look at the low probability draft proportions, broken out in three year segments, from 2012 to 2020, by each team. The low probability selections have dropped from 30% between 2012 and 2014 to 15% between 2018 and 2020.

Nearly every team has reduced their low probability picks over the past eight years. A number of teams have reduced their low probability picks to nearly zero including Arizona, Calgary, Dallas, Los Angeles, Minnesota, New Jersey, St. Louis, Toronto (41% to 5% – when did Kyle Dubas take over again?!) and Winnipeg. On the other hand, one team has been drafting more of these players than they were before and of course it’s the Buffalo Sabres. 42% of their round 2 to 7 selections between 2018 and 2020 were low probability bets. If there is anything that Buffalo doesn’t need its to be taking more low probability draft picks than any other team in the league while most other teams are drastically reducing the number of these players they draft every year. But, yet, here we are.

As more and more data becomes available on draft eligible players, it’s starting to point towards these low probability players and how teams should avoid them to increase their draft success. Teams that can avoid the low bets over the long-run will win at the draft floor over the long-run and we’re already starting to see it in action. Toronto, LA, Minnesota, New Jersey and Calgary, all teams noted above for having reduced their low probability picks recently, have above average prospect pools. LA, New Jersey and Minnesota, in particular, have the 1st, 2nd and 3rd ranked skater prospect pools (by Hockey Prospecting).

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