NHL Payroll vs. Draft: Which Is More Important?
By John Gilbert (@jgilbertmedia)
The very first NHL draft was held on June 5, 1963 at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, Quebec. Since then, the draft has increased in both popularity and importance.
Specifically, in 2005, the entire league changed. New rules were put into play and the biggest change of all, a salary cap. The salary cap didn’t just put parity into the league from a spending point of view, it made the draft that much more important. Or did it?
Rich teams, prior to the salary cap, could take risks at the draft and not worry too much if players didn’t pan out. They could always build through trades and free agency because smaller market teams couldn’t afford the high priced players. Now, drafting is important because you want those players to develop and become stars within your own organization. A salary cap makes it hard for larger market teams to go out and sign two or three huge names in free agency. Naturally, some teams can still do it. But how are they doing it?
In 2003- 2004, the top five team salaries were:
Detroit Red Wings 77.8M
New York Rangers 77.0M
Dallas Stars 67.6M
Philadelphia Flyers 65.1M
Toronto Maple Leafs 61.8M
In 2003- 2004, the bottom five team salaries were:
Nashville Predators 23.2M
Florida Panthers 26.4M
Pittsburgh Penguins 26.6M
Minnesota Wild 26.8M
Atlanta Thrashers 27.2M
Why is it important to know the information listed above? For the teams with the top salaries, most of the time, money did the talking for these teams. The teams with the least amount of money had to focus on scouting and drafting. Some obviously drafted better than others. However, if a team had money AND drafted well, they could maintain a level of success for a long period of time.
Let’s take a look at how all of these teams fared in the drafts around the lockout. These drafts were in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007. I have excluded the top 10 picks from each draft because of the caliber of players in that range. Players like Crosby, for example, were no brainers. Granted, not all prospects selected in the top 10 turn out to be what they are thought to be, but that’s always the gamble of the draft and the quality of your scouting staff.
We’ll begin with the teams that had the top five salaries. I have noted the prospects that have played in the league and made at least some impact with their organization.
Detroit Red Wings:
2004 – Round 3 – 97th Overall – Johan Franzen
2005 – Round 1 – 19th Overall – Jakub Kindl
2005 – Round 2 – 42nd Overall – Justin Abdelkader
2005 – Round 5 – 132nd Overall – Darren Helm
2007 – Round 1 – 27th Overall – Brendan Smith
The Detroit Red Wings have always been a team that knows how to draft talented players. A lot of the players you see above are now coming into their own as a new wave of youth is sweeping into Hockeytown.
New York Rangers:
2004 – Round 1 – 19th Overall – Lauri Korpikoski
2004 – Round 2 – 60th Overall – Brandon Dubinsky
2004 – Round 4 – 127th Overall – Ryan Callahan
2005 – Round 1 – 12th Overall – Marc Staal
2005 – Round 2 – 40th Overall – Michael Sauer
2006 – Round 2 – 54th Overall – Artem Anisimov
2007 – Round 6 – 168th Overall – Carl Hagelin
The players on the New York Rangers list shocked me. Many of those players made a huge impact on the team this season. The Rangers are one of the few teams that always had the cash to buy players, the power to draw players to New York, and the ability to succeed at the draft.
2004 – Round 1 – 28th Overall – Mark Fistric
2004 – Round 2 – 56th Overall – Nicklas Grossmann
2005 – Round 1 – 28th Overall – Matt Niskanen
2005 – Round 2 – 33rd Overall – James Neal
2006 – Round 4 – 120th Overall – Richard Bachman
2007 – Round 5 – 129th Overall – Jamie Benn
Dallas is another team that drafted very well over those years. They have traded away a few of those assets, but that’s simply another way to make your team better. Having those assets to be able to make deals for exactly what your team needs.
2005 – Round 1 – 29th Overall – Steve Downie
2006 – Round 1 – 22nd Overall – Claude Giroux
The Flyers didn’t exactly blow the doors off with their ability to draft as a whole within this time frame. However, the 2006 pick in the first round turned out to be a home run.
Toronto Maple Leafs:
2005 – Round 1 – 21st Overall – Tuukka Rask
2006 – Round 2 – 44th Overall – Nikolai Kulemin
2006 – Round 4 – 99th Overall – James Reimer
2006 – Round 6 – 161st Overall – Viktor Stalberg
2007 – Round 7 – 194th Overall – Carl Gunnarsson
The Leafs, for God knows how long, have not drafted very well. They made a fantastic move by drafting Tuukka Rask, but then decided Andrew Raycroft was a better fit. Not quite.
Now, a look into the five teams with the lowest salaries.
2004 – Round 1 – 15th Overall – Alexander Radulov
2004 – Round 8 – 258th Overall – Pekka Rinne
2005 – Round 3 – 79th Overall – Cody Franson
2005 – Round 7 – 230th Overall – Patric Hornqvist
2006 – Round 2 – 56th Overall – Blake Geoffrion
2007 – Round 1 – 23rd Overall – Jonathan Blum
2007 – Round 2 – 58th Overall – Nick Spaling
Nashville has a history of being one of the best drafting teams. David Poile and his support staff have set up a foundation on this team that rivals the best. Getting players like Rinne and Hornqvist so late in the draft shows that this team is for real on the draft floor.
2004 – Round 2 – 53rd Overall – David Booth
2007 – Round 3 – 71st Overall – Evgeny Dadonov
When I looked over all of the drafts and the players Florida selected, one thing came to mind. BRUTAL! David Booth is truly the lone bright spot over these years and I was generous in putting Dadonov in there. Mainly because he eventually became good in NHL ’12.
2004 – Round 2 – 61st Overall – Alex Goligoski
2004 – Round 4 – 99th Overall – Tyler Kennedy
2005 – Round 3 – 62nd Overall – Kris Letang
2005 – Round 7 – 195th Overall – Joe Vitale
2006 – Round 2 – 32nd Overall – Carl Sneep
2007 – Round 6 – 171st Overall – Dustin Jeffrey
Either the Pittsburgh Penguins are good at what they do, or they have a collection of lucky horseshoes and constantly walk funny. This team drafts so well it isn’t even funny to any other team in the league. Keep in mind, the players listed above don’t include Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby or Jordan Staal. All three were drafted in these years, but were top 10 picks.
2004 – Round 3 – 79th Overall – Clayton Stoner
2004 – Round 4 – 111th Overall – Ryan Jones
2004 – Round 7 – 206th Overall – Anton Khubodin
2005 – Round 2 – 57th Overall – Matt Kassian
2006 – Round 3 – 72nd Overall – Cal Clutterbuck
2007 – Round 4 – 110th Overall – Justin Falk
The names on the Minnesota Wild list are certainly far from overwhelming. Keep in mind though, this team has had success with trades so it has eased the pain of the draft. If the Wild can put together a couple of great drafts, look out!
2005 – Round 2 – 41st Overall – Ondrej Pavelec
2006 – Round 1 – 12th Overall – Bryan Little
Oh, Atlanta. Clearly the two names listed here are very important pieces to the Winnipeg Jets right now. The rest of the names that were drafted could be a brand of European vodka or a noodle dish so hot that my earlobes would sweat for all I know. Basically, to sum it up, the drafts weren’t good.
During my research, I thought for sure that I would find the top salary teams with terrible draft selections across the board. A majority of them drafted well and you are seeing their reward in the game today. Teams with little money to spend in the past and a bad drafting record have given themselves a permanent seat in the basement until recently.
In the words of rap artist Jelleestone,
“Money can’t buy me happiness.”
Turns out, drafting well can!