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Devils Rulebook for Draft-Day Moves

2018 NHL Draft - Rounds 2-7 Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

There is a pretty substantive history now of the Devils trading picks and trading for picks on or around draft day. In this week’s article, we will take a look at what lessons we can learn from those moves, as well as if they are substantiated by analytics. The Devils have 10 total picks on draft day, 7(!) of which are in the top 100. With that many assets, there is ample room for creativity. Corey Masisak at The Athletic gave his input on a few options for what he Devils could do, specifically at the 2nd round.

I’m going to take a slightly different approach here, seeing as the Devils have a lot of picks up and down this draft, and assume that there is any number of moves — many of which I’m not imaginative enough to conjure — that Ray Shero may make. All I wanted to do here is establish some general guidelines — some “do”s and “don’t”s so to speak. The 3 rules for draft day on which I’m going to elaborate in this piece are:

  1. Outside the 1st round, it’s normally smart to trade down
  2. Use mid-rounders to acquire young, established NHLers
  3. If no trade, draft the best player

Rule #1: Trade Down Outside 1st

The basic principle here is that the difference between picks shrinks as the draft progresses. NHL drafting is pretty bad. To clarify, I’m not saying it’s significantly worse than other sports (although, I suspect it is). I’m just saying that, in a vacuum, the very best NHL GM will still probably only get about 50% of the possible value out of the draft. A big reason for this is going to be poor data — we doing have shift data for any prospects and for many of them we don’t have much outside of Goals, Assists, PIMs, and Plus-Minus. This is information from which it is nearly impossible to build a reliably predictive model.

If you’re a terrible dart thrower, and I give you $10 worth of darts with which to purchase darts that maximize your chance at a bulls-eye, are you going to choose one premier dart, or take 10 shots on $1 darts? The NHL is full of crappy dart throwers. And we want to maximize the amount of shots we can take.

Shero got going on this philosophy almost immediately. In his first draft, after trading two picks for Palmieri (more on that later), he traded down the #36 pick to the Senators in exchange for the #42 and #73 picks. On Dawson Sprigings’s draft model, from which I made this sheet, in my piece about tanking, we can see that Mr. Shero gave up a 303-GP, 17-PS pick in exchange for a 274-GP, 15.4-PS and a 180-GP, 10.2-PS pick. In total, that’s an increase of about 150 NHL games, and 8.6 point shares (standings points). But this is all theoretical — what actually happened with those picks? Well, the #36 pick was used by the Senators on winger, Gabriel Gagne, who was demoted to the ECHL this season after registering only 16 points in 55 AHL games. The #42 pick was used on Mackenzie Blackwood who, at 22, just finished 14th out of 67 qualified goalies in relative goals allowed (~80th percentile). The #73 pick was used on Joey Anderson who registered 7 points and a positive relative Corsi in 34 games with the Devils.

Now, this was a particularly advantageous trade due to the fact that we also used out picks better than Ottawa. And while you shouldn’t expect this big of a win, it’s also not surprising. And that’s exactly the point: The #36 pick is only marginally better than the #73 pick and virtually identical to the #42 one. Even if we didn’t draft well at those spots (which, frankly, it’s not yet a “lock” we did), the Devils would still expect to come out on top of that deal 9 times out of 10.

Rule #2: After 1st, acquire NHL-talent

This is something that Ray is a huge fan of historically. He has acquired Kyle Palmieri, Mirco Mueller, and Marcus Johansson through trade involving nothing but picks. Analytically speaking, these were all smart moves — only half of 2nd rounders and less than a quarter of all picks outside the first round play 50 NHL games. When you have the opportunity to get a younger player that you’re reasonably confident will continue to be an NHLer — Mueller (22-years-old), Palmieri (24), Mojo (27) — the odds of the picks eclipsing that value is quite low.

Once again, this should work in theory, but what did we actually end up giving up in exchange for those players? The draft picks we gave up in those deals became: Ryan Gropp, Rem Pitlick, Martin Fehervary, Linus Karlsson, Mario Ferraro, and Brandon Crawley. So, yeah, I’d say that we came out okay there. Our players have played 456 games in red and black whereas the names in that list have played one (1).

This year, specifically, the idea should be to target cap-strapped teams looking to open up space for some big signings. One example is Winnipeg, where Laine and Connor will get paid and Jacob Troube is availAAAAANNNNDD the Rangers just got him as I’m writing this sentence so I guess I’ll just stop writing it. But a separate example is the Sharks who just signed Karlsson to $11.5M AAV and now have nowhere near enough money to retain their big vets (Pavelski, Thorton) and their young RFAs (Meier, Lablanc) and so the Devils could go after one of their extra defAAAAAND the Flyers just traded mid-rounders for Justin Braun. But you get the idea right?

Anyway, getting players under team control for a couple years so that cap-strapped teams can free up space is something Shero has done and is likely to try to do again. For instance, Tampa Bay has to give Brayden Point something close to 8 figures, with Vasilevskiy Cirelli, Cernak, Sergachev, and Joseph also getting off ELCs next season. They’d love to unload a contract, any contract, if they can get something close to fair value for it. Ondrej Palat, J.T. Miller, Tyler Johnson, and Alex Killorn are all positive-GAR players under 30 years old making $4.4M-$5.3M that Tampa would like to give to younger, better players. Using Sean Tierney’s trade machine, we can see that we’d likely make out in any such trade, but the sticking point is that all of those guys would have to waive their NTCs (unless we’re not on J.T. Miller’s modified-NTC exclusion list) to make it happen. If none would waive, I’d see what J.T. Miller’s list is. I’ll leave you guys to armchair GM in the comments, but the Maple Leafs and Golden Knights are also likely to welcome a trade of this description.

Rule #3: Draft the Best Player

At this stage of the analytics revolution, this is something that I feel really shouldn’t need to be said, frankly. The average debut age for a skater in the NHL this year was 22.4 years old, or 3-4 years after they were likely drafted. To presume to know what your team’s needs will be 3-4 years down the road is inane.

Furthermore, you need to be really good at something before it starts cost-ineffective to become better at it. With the defenders the Sharks had, there were maybe 2 teams in the NHL that would improve less than them from signing Erik Karlsson, and yet they just gave him the richest defender contract ever. Vegas was rolling a top 6 of Smith-Karlsson-Marchessault and Tuch-Stastny-Pacioretty and they went out and traded for the most expensive winger on the market, Mark Stone, and gave him a $9.5M contract. With Brayden McNabb playing on a top pairing for them, the should have been in the market for a top pair LD, but they saw value and they went and got it.

Let’s lock in Hughes as the #1 pick — it’s unanimous, after all — if the next two best players at #34 and #55 are Ryan Suzuki and Jamieson Rees then you go get them. I don’t care that we already have Nico and Hughes. Maybe someone switches position, maybe someone gets injured, maybe someone starts to suck, who the hell knows. The point is that between the severe unlikeliness of being so good at one thing so as to disincentivize acquiring that thing, and the genuine uncertainty of performance and scouting, there is no justification to drafting worse players that happen to fit a need.

Now, if you think that defenders are scarce in the league, and so a defender that is slightly worse of a player is still likely to be worth more, that’s perfectly fine. That is baked into the “value” of a player. What is not baked into the value, is what your highly-volatile roster is going to need 4 years down the road.

One small addendum to this is that there is no one thing an NHL player “looks” like. In particular, there are two types of draftees that seems systemically undervalued: small guys and old guys. If you don’t want guys that fit that description, re-calibrate your notions of the average NHLer. Of the top 15 scorers last year, 6 were 6’0’’ or under. And the list of names of players drafted at 19 or older includes Viktor Arvidsson, Brandon Montour, Frederik Andersen, Colton Parayko, Shayne Gostisbehere, Ondrej Palat, Blake Coleman, Ryan Dzingel, Mattias Ekholm, Mike Hoffman, and many more. For anyone who’s watched Moneyball, there’s the scene where Jonah Hill’s advocates for picking up Chad Bradford because he’s much cheaper than he should be —other teams don’t want him because he throws funny. Older, smaller players are the “funny throwers” of the NHL draft.

Concluding Thoughts

Thus far, Shero has done a pretty good job of making strong value moves around this time of year. That’s not to say that there’s never a reason to go against these rules. If a player falls and we think we can extract value disproportionate to the selection number, and want to trade up accordingly, then we should do it. If no one is offering a top-6 forward or top-4 defender, then it’s perfectly fine to actually use all of the picks — we do still have a pretty depleted prospect pool.

This list was simply guidelines and it should be viewed exactly as such. What do you guys think? Do you disagree? Is your plan to trade up at some point? Do you want to use the picks rather than trade them? Let us know your plans in the comments section below and, as always, thanks for reading.