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What is the true value of taking a goaltender early in the NHL draft?

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I'll admit it: I was the first to criticize Dale Tallon for not selecting Thatcher Demko or another highly-rated goaltender at the recent draft in Philadelphia. I may have been wrong.

Arguably the best goalie of the past decade, Henrik Lundqvist was drafted in the 6th round.
Arguably the best goalie of the past decade, Henrik Lundqvist was drafted in the 6th round.
Bruce Bennett

The Florida Panthers have a glaring hole in the organizational depth chart, right under "Good Young Goaltender".  As Todd was nice enough to highlight for us, the Cats really don't have a "goaltender of the future", and it's something that could become a big issue three to five years down the road, when Roberto Luongo either retires or is no longer giving the club adequate goaltending night in and night out.

Headed into the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, this was a need that I really wanted the Panthers to address.  When they were on the clock in the second round, no goaltender had yet been selected.  The club had a seemingly perfect opportunity to nab a guy who would fill that need; one who would become the next goaltender of the future.  And general manager Dale Tallon elected to draft a forward instead.

I'll admit, I certainly wasn't the happiest fan about that development.  It seemed like a no-brainer, and Tallon had instead made a move that made no sense to me at the time.  Over the course of the summer though, I came across a beautifully written piece by Arik Parnass that really highlighted how the first NHL GM to buy into the analytics movement fully can experience a huge "last mover" benefit; that is, being the last of a group, (sports managers) but the first of a sub group (the NHL), and thus be able to learn from the mistakes of those who did analytics in other sports, while also being able to get the advantage of being the first in their league to adapt.  The piece goes on to talk about how Theo Epstein and the Chicago Cubs have stopped drafting pitchers in early rounds (even though it goes against conventional baseball wisdom) simply because drafting pitchers is a tremendous risk and hitters have a much higher chance of panning out.

They found that drafting and developing pitchers was a far riskier proposition than doing so with hitters, and delivered less value. So they just stopped doing it.

In the article, Parnass goes on to compare pitchers with defenseman, and hitters with forwards.  While that may be true, my mind immediately jumped to the drafting of goaltenders, which Tallon has called a crapshoot.  With that in mind, I set out to find out just how much of a crapshoot drafting goaltenders actually is, and I think he may have gotten this one absolutely right.

The Numbers

While running the study (if you could call it that?), I took the time to look at forwards and defenseman, as well as the goaltenders.  I had the economic principle of opportunity cost in mind as I did so, with the thought that instead of using a draft pick on a goaltender, the pick would instead be used on a defenseman or a forward.

I took the top 10 goalies (in terms of SV% with at least 50 games played), and looked at how their current team acquired them (this was a big point in the piece written by Parnass; if draft picks are not used on pitchers in baseball, pitchers must be acquired through other smart maneuvers.  If a team gets a good prospect by selling high and buying low, then they've found a way to acquire a player they needed, with the lowest opportunity cost).  I also took the top 30 forwards, and the top 20 defensemen in terms of points, and looked at how they had been acquired by their current team.

Forwards

Rank Player Team Acquired
1 Sidney Crosby PIT Drafted, 1st Round
2 Ryan Getzlaf ANA Drafted, 1st Round
3 Claude Giroux PHI Drafted, 1st Round
4 Tyler Seguin DAL Trade
5 Corey Perry ANA Drafted, 1st Round
6 Phil Kessel TOR Trade
7 Taylor Hall EDM Drafted, 1st Round
8 Alexander Ovechkin WSH Drafted, 1st Round
9 Joe Pavelski SJS Drafted, 7th Round
10 Jamie Benn DAL Drafted, 5th Round
11 Nicklas Backstrom WSH Drafted, 1st Round
12 Patrick Sharp CHI Trade
13 Joe Thornton SJS Trade
14 Evgeni Malkin PIT Drafted, 1st Round
15 Patrick Marleau SJS Drafted, 1st Round
16 Anze Kopitar LA Drafted, 1st Round
17 Matt Duchene COL Drafted, 1st Round
18 Martin St. Louis TBL,NYR Free Agency/Trade
19 Patrick Kane CHI Drafted, 1st Round
20 Blake Wheeler WPG Trade
21 Kyle Okposo NYI Drafted, 1st Round
22 David Krejci BOS Drafted, 2nd Round
23 Chris Kunitz PIT Trade
24 Jonathan Toews CHI Drafted, 1st Round
25 Thomas Vanek BUF, NYI, MTL Trade
26 Jaromir Jagr NJD Free Agent
27 John Tavares NYI Drafted, 1st Round
28 Jason Spezza OTT Drafted, 1st Round
29 Jordan Eberle EDM Drafted, 1st Round
30 Gabriel Landeskog COL Drafted, 1st Round

Drafted in rounds 1-3: 19/30, 63%

Drafted in rounds 4-7: 2/30, 7%

Traded for: 7/30, 23%

Signed as a free agent: 2/30: 7%

Notes: The vast majority of elite forwards are acquired through the early stages of the draft.  Just for the sake of comparison, I left the rounds in the draft at 1-3 and 4-7, though I could have made it 1-2 and 3-7 and the results would have been the same.  21 out of the 30 were drafted, (70%), while only 9 out of the 30 (30%) were acquired via trade or free agency.  Of the 21 drafted forwards who ended up in the top 30, 18 of them (86%) came from the first round.  It's pretty rare that a forward isn't drafted in the first round, but ends up staying with that team and becoming elite.  Also, for Martin St. Louis, I counted him as a free agent, as he signed with Tampa  Bay, whom he scored the majority of his points with during the regular season.

Defensemen

Rank Player Team Acquired
1 Erik Karlsson OTT Drafted, 1st Round
2 Duncan Keith CHI Drafted, 2nd Round
3 Shea Weber NSH Drafted, 2nd Round
4 Victor Hedman TBL Drafted, 1st Round
5 P.K. Subban MTL Drafted, 2nd Round
6 Keith Yandle PHX Drafted, 4th Round
7 Alex Pietrangelo STL Drafted, 2nd Round
8 James Wisniewski CBJ Trade
9 Niklas Kronwall DET Drafted, 1st Round
10 Mark Giordano CGY Free Agency
11 Matt Niskanen PIT Trade
12 Kevin Shattenkirk STL Trade
13 Oliver Ekman-Larsson PHX Drafted, 1st Round
14 Andrej Sekera CAR Trade
15 Mark Streit PHI Trade
16 Ryan McDonagh NYR Trade
17 Ryan Suter MIN Free Agency
18 Andrei Markov MTL Drafted, 6th Round
19 Marek Zidlicky NJD Trade
20 Alex Goligoski DAL Trade

Drafted in rounds 1-3: 8/20, 40%

Drafted in rounds 4-7: 2/20, 10%

Traded for: 8/20, 40%

Signed as a free agent: 2/20, 10%

Notes: Here we start to notice some of what Parnass was saying.  There's a larger amount of disparity among the defensemen.  Half of the defensemen were drafted, and the other half were acquired via trade or free agency (that's a 1:1 ratio, vs the 7:3 ratio we saw with the forwards).  Though the majority of those drafted were still drafted in the early rounds, the proportion of those drafted in specifically in the first round fell to 4 out of 10, or 40%, which is less than half of the 86% we saw with forwards.  Blueliners can be acquired either later in the draft, or through other means, much easier than forwards because the projection of a defenseman is a much more difficult.

Goaltenders

Rank Player Team Acquired
1 Tuukka Rask BOS Trade
2 Semyon Varlamov COL Trade
3 Carey Price MTL Drafted, 1st Round
4 Ben Bishop TBL Trade
5 Sergei Bobrovsky PHI Trade
6 Jonathan Bernier TOR Trade
7 Jaroslav Halak STL, WSH Trade
8 Henrik Lundqvist NYR Drafted, 7th Round
9 Kari Lehtonen DAL Trade
10 Roberto Luongo VAN, FLA Trade

Drafted in rounds 1-3: 1/10, 10%

Drafted in rounds 4-7: 1/10, 10%

Traded for: 8/10, 80%

Signed as a free agent: 0/10, 0%

Notes: It's a total crapshoot.  Even though the majority of the goaltenders (6 out of 10, 60%) were initially drafted in the first round, the value of young goaltenders sways and is constantly changing.  They can be acquired rather easily when they are at low value, and then developed further until they are ready to move into an NHL role.  80% of the goaltenders were acquired by trades.  That should speak volumes about both the difficulty of predicting the future performance of goaltenders, and the difficulty of drafting them.

Conclusion

The whole point of the Parnass piece is to note that the first team to fully jump on board with an analytics movement in the draft (maybe not through analysis of points, but through analysis of what position/type of player to draft) would get the "last mover" advantage, and maintain an edge over the rest of the NHL, while being able to avoid the mistakes made by MLB teams working with the same concepts.  Though it was only one year, the results do show that drafting a goaltender in the first round brings less value.  The number of goalies in the top 10 who had been first round picks was 60%, while the number of forwards in the top 30 who had been first round picks was 80% (going off of when they were drafted, not how they were acquired.) Even more surprising is the percentage of blueliners who had been first round picks; it drops to 40%, half the value of drafting a forward.  The opportunity cost of drafting a goaltender or a defenseman (drafting a forward) in the earlier rounds is simply not worth it.  Elite forwards are much harder to come by in either trades, free agency, or the later rounds.  Drafting a goaltender or a defenseman in the first three rounds of the draft may be shortchanging yourself, especially when there are elite level d-men and goaltenders to be found through other methods.