Ken Holland's Draft Success

Jonathan Willis recently penned an article on the Detroit Red Wings' development model and how the Oilers could reshape their model to match Detroit's success. One passage caught my eye:

The really interesting thing is that Detroit really hasn’t found a lot of NHL’ers in the draft. Since 1997 (the year Ken Holland was named general manager) the Red Wings have turned just 14 of their draft picks into full-time NHL’ers in Detroit (this number excludes a few, like Tomas Fleischmann or Kyle Quincey, who left the organization before becoming NHL’ers). For the sake of contrast, the Oilers have grabbed 23 players during that same span who would turn into full-time NHL’ers while with the team.

14 full-time NHL players doesn't seem like many, but two traits of Ken Holland's Red Wings impact their draft:

  • They finish near the top of the league every year and have lower draft picks than the rest of the NHL. In fact, the Wings have been the best team in the league since Holland took over, meaning that they've had the lowest average draft position in the league since 1997.
  • In the pre-salary cap days, Holland used draft picks as chips to acquire real NHL talent.

With that in mind, I wanted to see how Holland stacked up to the rest of the league when it came to draft acumen.

Scott Reynolds did a study on the success rate of players drafted from 1997-2005 grouped by their draft slots. He defined success in a draft pick by whether the player drafted became a "top player":

So what constitutes a "top" forward in the NHL in terms of drafting? In my view, it's those forwards that are expensive and the most expensive players tend to be those players that produce consistent offence. Any forward with the "checker" label likely isn't going to be making much money and the type is frequently available for a song in free agency. It's obviously better to draft a Dominic Moore than a total bust but he's not the kind of player that should be particularly difficult to replace via free agency. We know that because he see him sign on the cheap almost every year. As such, I've set the criteria for a "successful pick" in these drafts as any player who has played a minimum of 200 NHL games and has scored a minimum of 0.5 points per game.

Defenders are a bit more complicated. The elite defensive defenders make a lot of scratch so it doesn't seem like points is the best measure of ability especially since the power-play specialist type (think Marc-Andre Bergeron) will rack up points but isn't all that expensive to replace. That said, I think a minimum points requirement is necessary; a player with no offence is surely somewhat detrimental. Thus, a 0.15 points per game minimum standard will be used to accompany the 200 GP threshold. In addition, I've decided to use a TOI minimum of 18:30 per game which should eliminate the guys who are just power play specialists.


What of goaltenders? Honestly, unless you get a clear starter who can perform at a high level, there's nothing there that you couldn't buy cheap. As such, the goaltender must have achieved an above average save percentage (minimum .910 over the career) and must have been the starting goaltender for at least two seasons (min. 40 games played per season). These goalies (sometimes) have value. Anything less than that, not so much.

The results from Scott's study show that NHL teams had the following hit rates from each draft slot grouping:

Draft Number Total Top Players Percentage
1 9 6 0.667
2-3 18 16 0.889
4-7 36 18 0.500
8-13 54 21 0.389
14-25 108 30 0.278
26-50 225 31 0.138
51-100 448 30 0.067
101-200 877 33 0.038
201+ 635 22 0.035

Scott's study period coincides with the beginning of Ken Holland's reign as the Red Wings General Manager in 1997. From 1997-2005, Holland traded away 5 first round, 3 second round, 2 third round and 3 fourth round picks. Those trades, combined with the Wings' overall success, placed their highest overall pick at #19. I've compared Holland's results to the league results from the same time period:

Draft Number League Pct. DET Pct. DET Picks League-exp. Top players DET Top Players
1 0.667 N/A 0 N/A 0
2-3 0.889 N/A 0 N/A 0
4-7 0.5 N/A 0 N/A 0
8-13 0.389 N/A 0 N/A 0
14-25 0.278 0.5 2 0.556 1
26-50 0.138 0.25 4 0.552 1
51-100 0.067 0.455 11 0.737 5
101-200 0.038 0.079 38 1.444 3
201+ 0.035 0.087 23 0.805 2

Approximately 1/29 of the league percentage is Holland's average, so the Wings are pushing the league average in this comparison. Even though he's competing against a portion of himself, Holland torched the league overall. He was better than the league average in each section, including 7x better in the 51-100 slots and 2x or more better than the league average in the 101-200 and 201+ slots. On the far right is the expected value of top NHL players based on league average and Detroit's total picks by slot grouping. If the Wings would've been league average through the 97-05 years, they would have drafted 4 top NHL players with their 78 draft picks. Ken Holland drafted 12. He was three times better than the league and he wasn't relying on the lottery to build the Wings system. His haul during this period included: Jiri Fischer, Niklas Kronwall, Jiri Hudler, Tomas Fleischmann, Jimmy Howard, Valtteri Filppula, Johan Franzen, Kyle Quincey, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Jonathan Ericsson.

Ken Holland may have "only" grabbed 12 top NHL players in those 8 drafts, but he was 3x better than his average peers. How? Of the 12 players, 9 of them were either of European descent or were playing in a European league when they were drafted. Holland exploited an enormous competitive advantage, either the sheer talent of European scout Håkan Andersson, or some other informational edge to blow away the competition in Europe.

Holland switched gears after the lockout. Since ratification of the new CBA, Holland has moved just four picks in the top four rounds in six seasons. The Wings now have a deep system of drafted prospects set to replace the pre-lockout picks as they retire. They include Brendan Smith, Gustav Nyquist, Calle Jarnkrok, Petr Mrazek, Riley Sheahan, Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco, Teemu Pulkkinen, Joakim Andersson, Xavier Ouellet, and Marek Tvrdon. 10 of their 12 prospects are European. I doubt Holland can be 3x better than his average colleague again, but if they maintain that informational advantage and continue to exploit the edges, the Wings will remain on top, even without the saving grace of lottery picks.

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