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The odds of NHL drafting success

By Kareem El-Alaily

This week, Caps 2007 first round draft pick Anton Gustafsson quietly left the Hershey Bears and headed back home to Sweden. AnGus, as the fanbase calls him, struggled with injuries since being drafted, first with his back and then with concussions. I wish Anton the best of luck and hope he picks up his career in the Swedish Elite League.

There is some angst in the fanbase over what this means. We all know that center is currently a position of great need for the Caps and it certainly affects the team to have a first-round center not pan out. Despite this high-profile bust, I’m going to defend George McPhee on his recent draft history by throwing out a few stats on the probability of draft success. Before I get to that let me quickly explain what I did: I collected first and second-round NHL draft data from 1990-2003 (courtesy of  and subjectively assumed that a “successful” draft pick was someone who skated at least 200 career games or, if he goaltends, was in net for at least 50 career games. Obviously there are many grades of success (think Alex Ovechkin vs Matt Pettinger); however, for simplicity’s sake I assumed that the previously mentioned thresholds constituted a successful pick.

The results showed that...

  • 68% of first round picks were “successful” choices
  • Second round picks have a 30% success rate. Although AnGus cost the Caps an extra second-rounder to move up to draft him, that pick was not a lock to make it to the NHL.
  • Players identified as centers and defensemen (pre-draft) work out roughly 74% of the time; goalies and wingers, on the other hand, work out at a 61% rate.
  • 64% of Swedish first round picks were successful; however when you look at Swedes drafted in the bottom half of round 1, the outlook changes considerably. Of the 10 Swedes selected in positions 16-30 from 1990-2003, only four became NHL regulars (40%). Based on those odds, we should be grateful if the other Swede recently drafted in this position – Marcus Johansson – can stick with the Caps. If 11 is an insufficient sample size and you want to consider all non-North American players drafted 16-30 from 1990-2003, the success percentage climbs to 48%. The takeaway still holds: there are no locks in the bottom half of the first round.
  • Only 50% of Russian first round picks were successful – part of the reason NHL teams are hesitant to draft Russians. For every Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin there are several Sergei Soins, Igor Knyazevs and Alexandre Volchkovs (how can we forget?) who never pan out. (If someone wants to speculate why Russians are less successful making the jump to the NHL, have at it.)
  • The safest first-round draft choice is a North American center or defenseman, who pan out 78% of the time.
  • Taking rounds 1 and 2 together, NHL draft picks averaged out to a 48% success rate from 1990-2003.

Now on to Caps-specific takeaways:

  • The Caps drafting prowess from 2002-2008 has been well documented. Of the 14 players they drafted in the first round, all but three (Gustafsson, Sasha Pokulok and Joe Finley) are regulars in the line-up. Three of those successful 11 are franchise cornerstones (Ovi, Backstrom, Green). That’s a 79% hit rate for a gamble that usually gives you 68% odds of success.
  • There were 36 first-round picks from 1990-2005 who never played an NHL game. A disproportionate number are Cap draftees: Pokuluk, Finley and Alexei Kharlomov. Gustafsson will likely join that infamous group when the book on his 2008 draft class is closed in a few years. As one blogger points out about the Caps drafting history, “when they were good, they were very good indeed.  But when they were bad they were horrid.”
  • Don't ask about where the Caps ranked against other teams in terms of draft success from 1990-2003. Only the Rangers and Blackhawks had less success over that 13 year span.
  • Using the 48% success benchmark for drafting out of the first two rounds, McPhee is at a 60% success rate from 2002-2008 assuming Varly, Neuvirth, Fehr, Carlson and Alzner become full-time regulars and eclipse the minimum “success” threshold, a fairly safe bet. Overall, this indicates that McPhee has been an above-average drafter since 2002, even with the AnGus bust.

Some final thoughts: The draft is still a crapshoot and every team has their hits and misses. I always struggle with people saying “why didn’t we take Tyler Ennis instead of Gustafsson?” or “why didn’t we draft Ryan Getzlaf instead of Eric Fehr in 2003?” You can play this game but it’s a zero-sum effort. For example, 28 teams wished they drafted Mike Green in 2004 before the Caps snagged him. So despite missing out on Anton Gustafsson I really can’t complain about McPhee’s holistic draft results since 2002. There have been some ugly misses, but he deserves credit for beating the draft odds and the numbers bear this out.

By Box Seats blogger  | October 21, 2010; 2:32 PM ET
Categories:  Capitals, Kareem El-Alaily  | Tags:  Capitals, Kareem El-Alaily  
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Next: Caps community relations updates


Usually I come here to be snide about blog posts, but in this case, thank you for not turning this into a "We coulda had Eberle!" whine-fest.

Posted by: GFisher1 | October 21, 2010 2:37 PM | Report abuse

Really cool post, Kareem!

Posted by: nicko | October 21, 2010 3:29 PM | Report abuse

Well said... Your conclusions are sound. Cap management is another area of success, not to mention creating a pipeline thru Hershey.

The player development, the continuity of systems etc. have made for seamless interchange.

Those that call for replacement of the General Manager don't realize what they have and undoubtedly would wish they had him back if they were successful in their calls to let him go!

Posted by: muddapucker | October 21, 2010 4:10 PM | Report abuse

I can complain holistically about the lack of draft success because it primarily (and to this point exclusively) happens in the first round/very high second. Guys like Byfuglien and Talbot have been drafted in the late rounds; more regular contributors like Letang and Hjarlmarsson went in the middle rounds. At some point the guys McPhee drafts in later rounds have to contribute regularly for his drafts to be considered head and shoulders above everyone else.

Posted by: Section117 | October 22, 2010 7:49 AM | Report abuse


Be more specific...when were Talbot and Byfuglien drafted?

And Perrault was drafted late and shows potential, so does Eakin. Nuevy was taken in the 2nd round, we could have taken Kopitar of Backie which would have been a big mistake, Andrew Gordon, Jeff schultz, Carlson should have been taken WAY earlier in the first round.

Posted by: capscoach | October 22, 2010 8:01 AM | Report abuse

We took Mike Green as the 29th pick! That makes a lot of teams guilty of picking the wrong guy.

Posted by: capscoach | October 22, 2010 8:04 AM | Report abuse


I agree that McPhee's performance in the lower rounds (3-7) has been poor and keeps his draft record from being "excellent" as opposed to "above average". But poor late round drafting shouldn't be overstated. From eyeballing the data it looks like there are, on average, ~15 players a year drafted in rounds 3-7 that pan out. That means that a team needs to develop one lower round pick every other year. Therefore, McPhee would need to produce three NHLers between 2002-08 to keep pace. There is currently one NHLer he drafted in that time span that will probably play 200 career games: Sami Lepisto. There are a few others that have a shot: Cody Eakin, Braden Holtby (goalie) and Mattheiu Perreault. Let's assume one of those guys pans out. That means that McPhee is one player short of getting median output from the late rounds, not that far off median performance. It's much more important getting the first two rounds right than the lower rounds.


Posted by: topshelf_22304 | October 22, 2010 2:00 PM | Report abuse

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