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The Sens Shouldn’t Trade 3rd and 5th for 1st Overall.....or Should They?

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On its face it seems like an obvious choice, but maybe things aren’t quite as they seemed

2019 NHL Lottery Draft Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images

Ever since the Ottawa Senators “lost” the draft lottery and were awarded the 3rd and 5th overall selections, there has been speculation that the team might look to trade up to get their hands on the number one pick. For the first few weeks, most of the noise was garden-variety message board stuff but at some point last week the volume got loud enough that it made its way into a couple of tweets from team reporters and other mainstream media types. Eventually, the Sens felt compelled to assure the masses that no, they were not trading the picks to move up to the top spot. Melnyk himself relayed word through the team’s unofficial mouthpiece Bruce Garrioch:

“The idea of trading our 3rd and 5th picks for the No. 1 pick is nonsensical,” Melnyk said in an email to Postmedia on Monday. “We’re very excited to welcome our many new Ottawa Senators that will come to us via the upcoming draft.”

Seems pretty definitive. And I have to admit that my initial reaction was relief: this draft is loaded and getting two kicks at the can must be better than one. Certainly prior research into pick values had suggested that trading down, getting two lower picks in exchange for one higher pick, was the savvy thing to do. It never seemed like a real rumour to begin with, and the Sens had made it clear that they weren’t going to be making this trade anyways. Case closed, right?

Well, not so fast.

One thing kept sticking in my mind when I worked through a team’s potential strategy in this situation: just how often are true superstars drafted anywhere other than 1st overall? You can go through virtually every draft position and find a star if you’re willing to reach back far enough, but just how much of an advantage does drafting first convey?

To help contextualize the Sens’ situation, I pulled together a table summarizing each 1st, 3rd and 5th overall pick for every draft since 2004. 2004 may seem a bit arbitrary, but that’s when the lock-out happened that cost the league a full season and ushered in new rules and a new style of play that fundamentally changed the way that NHL hockey is played. It’s my standard benchmark for what I consider to be modern hockey. Regardless, here’s what those drafts look like:

Drafts

Year 1st Overall 3rd Overall 5th Overall
Year 1st Overall 3rd Overall 5th Overall
2004 Alexander Ovechkin Cam Barker Blake Wheeler
2005 Sidney Crosby Jack Johnson Carey Price
2006 Erik Johnson Jonathan Toews Phil Kessel
2007 Patrick Kane Kyle Turris Karl Alzner
2008 Steven Stamkos Zach Bogosian Luke Schenn
2009 John Tavares Matt Duchene Brayden Schenn
2010 Taylor Hall Erik Gudbranson Nino Niederreiter
2011 Ryan Nugent-Hopkins Jonathan Huberdeau Ryan Strome
2012 Nail Yakupov Alex Galchenyuk Morgan Rielly
2013 Nathan MacKinnon Jonathan Drouin Elias Lindholm
2014 Aaron Ekblad Leon Draisaitl Michael Dal Colle
2015 Connor McDavid Dylan Strome Noah Hanifin
2016 Auston Matthews Pierre-Luc Dubois Olli Juolevi
2017 Nico Hischier Miro Heiskanen Elias Pettersson
2018 Rasmus Dahlin Jesperi Kotkaniemi Barrett Hayton
2019 Jack Hughes Kirby Dach Alex Turcotte

Two things that jumped out at me as I compiled the list:

  1. Almost all of the superstars are taken 1st overall. If you stretch the definition, maybe you’d call Carey Price and Jonathan Toews superstars and perhaps in a few years someone will make a case for Leon Draisaitl but that’s about it to my eye. Meanwhile 1st overall is littered with franchise-altering players: Ovechkin, Crosby, McDavid, Stamkos, Matthews, the list goes on. It’s a bit of a truism I suppose, but the very top of the draft really is where you go to get the cream of the crop.
  2. A shockingly large number of the total misfires are defensemen. Erik Johnson at 1st overall is obviously the most regrettable, but Cam Barker, Zach Bogosian, Luke Schenn, Erik Gudbranson, Karl Alzner combine to make me really uneasy about the Sens potentially taking a shot on a rearguard with one of their top picks. That isn’t to say there aren’t some promising young defensemen in there, Heiskanen and Ekblad for instance, but the hit rate is not good.

With all of the names in front of me, I was now even less sure that drafting third and fifth was historically better than drafting first overall. My quick and dirty analysis:

Years in which it was better to have 1st overall: 9 (04, 05, 07, 08, 09, 10, 13, 15, 16)

Years in which it was better to have 3rd + 5th overall: 5 (06, 11, 12, 17)

TBD: 2018, 2019

As it turns out, friend of the blog Dom Luszczyszyn recently did some work to update the research into pick value over at the Athletic. The piece is behind a paywall but the gist of it is that playing for pure quantity of picks might not be as big of an edge as it was once thought to be. And using Dom’s WAR-like metric GSVA (Game Score Value Added) to compare the various picks we learn that there may be an even bigger gap than we had previously believed between the 1st overall selection and every pick that comes after it. Dom’s piece looked at every draft for the last twenty years, and found that the 1st overall pick generates, on average 17.5 wins over their first seven seasons in the league. The 3rd overall pick has been good for 10.2 and the 5th overall pick has contributed 8.2. To make a real quick and dirty comparison, you could say the team selecting first overall expects 17.5 GSVA from their pick in the first seven seasons, and a hypothetical team drafting third and fifth overall expects 18.4 wins combined from their two picks.

Given the very similar total outputs, one would have to imagine a team would be better off with the one super player if only for salary cap purposes: it’s cheaper to pay one excellent player than it is to pay two good-to-very good players. Dom’s model also reinforces what I’d already suspected from the ol’ eye test: the elite talent is heavily concentrated at the very top of the draft. First overall is special, and the average player selected in that slot is much more likely to be special than everyone else that comes after them.

So have we come all the way back around on this, then? Should the Sens actually be pursuing a trade for the 1st overall pick? Well, not so fast on that either. If the draft experts are to be believed, and I am definitely not one of them, the 2020 Draft is shaping up to be one of the best, and deepest, in recent memory. It’s worth noting that as Sens fans we are particularly susceptible to hearing what we want to hear when it comes to just how DEEP this draft might be, but it is also true that a lot of reliable third parties have positive things to say about this draft class. Is a prospect the calibre of Quinton Byfield or Tim Stutzle usually available at third overall? How about someone like Lucas Raymond at fifth? If you’re a big believer in holding onto the picks, that’s certainly the angle you’d be taking.

In the end, this is a long-winded way of saying that the choice isn’t all that obvious based on past drafts. If you think this is a particularly deep draft, you could make a very compelling case that holding onto third and fifth is the way to go. If instead you think that maybe this will turn out to be just like most years, except with a bit more hype, maybe the Sens really should like into what it might take to pry that top pick from the Rangers. Either way, it’s not a nonsensical idea — no matter what Eugene Melnyk might think.