Backdraft: Is McPhee Really Blowing Away the Competition?

via cache.daylife.com. Seems so long ago, doesn't it?

Oh, we love the bad puns around here.

For sure, recent Capitals draftees have made an indelible mark on the franchise, most notably the "Young Guns" of Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green.  And several other draftee actors in supporting roles have shined, like Simeon Varlamov, Karl Alzner, and Jeff Schultz.  So given all of that, and coupled with the dearth of prospects and hopefuls which emerged from Capitals draft classes throughout the late 90's and into this decade, it's tempting to overrate the Capitals' recent draft success relative to the rest of the league.  Great strides in Capitals drafting have been made of late, which can be fairly documented.  But, in fact, GM George McPhee & Co. still have a ways to go before we can say that they're blowing away the competition.

McPhee didn't arrive on the Caps scene in the best of drafting circumstances.  SI summarized the state of the franchise, following the team's improbable run to the SCF in the spring of 1998, thusly:

NEEDS: The Capitals need to find the Fountain of Youth but without a first-round selection, they will be hard-pressed to get the young, punishing defenseman they sorely need. Five of their top seven rearguards are 31 or older and their age showed in the Stanley Cup Finals against Detroit. Hopefully, Washington can find a defenseman who can stay healthy, as the injury bug has bitten the Caps’ defense many times over the last few years. A playmaking center also is needed, since Adam Oates, Dale Hunter and Michal Pivonka are all over 32.

But he gradually increased the odds for himself on the draft board by dealing for, and retaining, an abundance of selections, particularly first-rounders.  This weekend's draft will be the fifth draft since 1998 in which the team has had less than 10 total selections.  And should McPhee retain the team's first-round pick on Friday, it will be the club's 15th first-rounder in the last eight years (2002-09).  No other team has had more than 12 first-round selections in that time (not even Pittsburgh -- they've only had six to date during that span).

The early returns, however, were not good.  Of all of those picks, the only pre-lockout (i.e., pre-2004 entry draft) Caps draftees on the 2008-09 season roster were Eric Fehr, Boyd Gordon, and Semin -- all three first-round selections.  However, fourteen players who wore a Capitals sweater in at least one game during the 2008-09 campaign were originally drafted by Washington, one indication of draft improvement.

As we all hope, McPhee, supported by a staff which has remained relatively intact throughout most of his tenure, may be reaching his drafting zenith.  But he still has significant ground to make up in draft success compared to his peers.  And, of course, most of his post-lockout selections have not yet run their development course.  Simply willing John Carlson, or Alzner, to be a top-pair defenseman in 2010-11 will not make him so.  

So let's try to better quantify his progress.  How much has McPhee really improved post-lockout, and where does he rank amongst the competition?  Two common objective measures of draft success are (i) number and % of players drafted who have reached the NHL and (ii) number and % of players drafted who have played in 200+ NHL contests.

Looking at Caps draftees from 2002 through 2006, the % of those draftees reaching the NHL is still below the league average, even during this recent period when McPhee might be said to be hitting his drafting stride.  Fifteen of McPhee's 49 draftees (30.6%), from the 2002 through the 2006 draft, have reached the show to date.  The league average during that same span is 33.2% (438 of 1317) reaching the NHL.  And that's where I would submit, given a small and recent window of draft history, one might find the best indicator of improvement, especially on a contending team, when cracking an active roster is especially difficult.

Focusing on just first-round picks, McPhee and staff have converted seven of 11 such selections from that 2002-2006 time period into solid NHL contributors -- Schultz, Gordon, and, perhaps, Steve Eminger -- if not elite talent -- the "Young Guns" -- with the jury out on Varlamov.  (By the way, for those still not particularly high on Schultz:  might McPhee have "missed" on Green, by selecting Schultz first and risking that Green would be selected by Dallas, instead of D Mark Fistric?)  Nine of those 11 picks (81.8%) have reached the big show to date, and five (45.5%) of those had already played in > 200 NHL games to date.  By comparison, from 2002 to 2006, first-round draftees league-wide have made it to the NHL 86.7% (130 of 150) of the time, and 52.7% (79 of 150) of them have exceeded 200 NHL GP to date.

So even looking at more recent trends, McPhee's success rate falls just below the league average.  We can speculate on whether that rate will ultimately increase on account of 2007 and 2008 draft classes, but it's still far too early to tell.

If you crave more of this type of analysis, daoust over at PPP put together an enormous spreadsheet of draft data compiling statistics through the 2007-08 season from the NHL careers of draftees, at any round, from 1996-2006.  In addition to providing data on % of draftees to reach the show and % of those who have played > 200 NHL games, the spreadsheet provides two other useful metrics for evaluating a franchise's draft successNHL GP per draftee and NHL points earned per draftee.  (We might provide an update along the lines of this post once 2008-09 season data is incorporated into the PPP spreadsheet.)

But a couple of interesting observations from the PPP data:  Ottawa is near the top in drafting in all four of those metrics from 96-06, and yet, as we pointed out recently, not a single Sens draftee has won a Stanley Cup.  Conversely, Detroit is apparently dismal overall at drafting, ranking dead last in three of these four metrics, and 27th in the fourth, during 1996-2006, yet has won multiple Cups in that time frame.   Plucking a few late-round gems notwithstanding (or just getting lucky?).

Which leads to our final point:  the name of the Stanley Cup winning game is really more the success that a franchise has with developing the players that they draft, in whichever round they draft them -- coaching, molding, motivating, honing their talents -- rather than mystical prescience at the draft table.  Thank goodness that the Caps have an exemplary American league organization straight up I-83 to help do just that.

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