San Jose Sharks optimal draft strategy

The NHL continues the charade that we may still see the end of the 2019-20 season in some capacity. As part of the act the league has also postponed indefinitely the 2020 entry draft. We can play make believe, too, and pretend the draft will still happen largely as originally planned. Using the current draft order on CapFriendly we can try to come up with an optimal strategy for the Sharks.

In this bizarro world draft the Sharks pick 28 overall (from Tampa Bay), 34 (their own pick), and 60 (from Colorado). The Sharks also own two fifth-round picks and two seventh-round picks, but in terms of draft value, those are fairly immaterial. I’ll try to remember to touch on them at the end, but our main focus will be these three high-leverage picks.

We’re ruling out trades for players for simplicity’s sake, which leaves us with three options for these picks:

  • Trade up for a higher pick
  • Trade back for a lower spot and acquire an additional pick(s)
  • Pick at the spot in question

To determine what a fair trade may look like from the perspective of two GMs, we’ll consult Eric Tulsky’s article about historical draft-pick trades. It was written in 2013, but two trades involving late first-round picks in 2018 fell within the guidelines observed by Tulsky’s study, which suggests the values GMs assign to draft picks via trade haven’t changed a whole lot during the last seven drafts.

To determine the sort of actual value we can assign to these picks, we’ll turn to Chase McCallum’s article. Most draft-pick value research uses a measurement like NHL games played to determine how a player performed as a pro. McCallum instead uses his wins above replacement (WAR) model to assign value to a player’s NHL career. By this method he’s able to re-jigger the traditional draft-pick value chart. Instead of aiming for 200-game NHLers, we can instead aim for star players.

Option 1: Trade up

With both of these draft-value curves, we can estimate which pick the Sharks might be able to acquire and compare it to how valuable that pair of picks actually is if they’re looking for a star player.

The middle column represents about what pick we could expect the Sharks to acquire using a given combination of their own picks. The “Actual Pick Value” column shows what the value of the two picks actually is, per McCallum’s model for drafting star NHLers.

Think of it this way: By trading picks 28 and 34 the Sharks may acquire pick 17, but they should aim to draft a player they feel is a top-five pick or close to it. That’s because the likelihood the Sharks end up with one NHL star by making both of those picks is similar to the likelihood that the number-five overall pick becomes a star.

The moral of this story is generally that trading up, especially for first-round picks, isn’t a good idea. Historical pick-success rates suggest you’d be better off making both of your late-first and early-second round picks. But, this draft seems to offer a special class of prospects.

One piece of statistical evidence for that comes from Brad McPherson. His model for draft-pick value combines aggregated prospect rankings and adjusted point-per-game scoring rates. He notes that for the 2020 draft, “the value of the players ranked 6-9 are 40% higher than in an average draft year, demonstrating that is a very strong draft class at the top end.”

You could argue that the players drafted six through nine this year might be closer to a top-five pick in an average draft. Given that, we can say it’s reasonable for the Sharks to trade up into the teens if one of the players ranked in the top nine starts to slip.

Colin Cudmore has aggregated rankings of more than 30 different people and editorial staffs. Here is a look at the current top-13 prospects. I cut it off there because there seems to be a sizable difference between the lowest ranks for the 13th and 14th prospect on the list. You could argue that these 13 should almost definitely be chosen with the first 20 picks of this year’s draft.

Thanks to Colin Cudmore for keeping tabs on all these players

Draft rankings exhibit a similar pattern. Lafrenière and Byfield will go one-two. Stützle, Raymond, and Drysdale will follow in some order. That leaves Rossi, Holtz, Lundell, and Perfetti in the slots McPherson cited as offering above-average value. If one of Stützle, Raymond, Drysdale, Rossi, Holtz, Lundell, or Perfetti starts to fall past pick 10 or so, the Sharks should trade up.

There is another group of players for whom the Sharks should consider trading up. It’s tougher to make a case for any of these players being top-five talents. But if rumors of this class being uber-talented are true, they may still be top six-to-ten talents, depending on whom you ask. Many amateur scouts smartly provide their prospect rankings in a tiered format.

Using a rough estimate of these tiers, players like Dylan Holloway, Noel Gunler, and Jan Mysak may still be worth the jump up into the middle of the first round. Gunler (27) and Mysak (53), for example, are ranked far lower by the 10 professional scouts Bob McKenzie interviewed in January than they are in these aggregate rankings. Those two are good candidates to fall into the middle of the first round while still offering closer to top-five talent than a prospect picked at 16 or 17 overall usually would.

It’s harder to make an argument for trading into the final third of the first round. Based on how these prospects are ranked and the value they offer relative to an average draft, it seems less likely that a top-eightish talent will fall to picks 22 through 27.

Dawson Mercer, Rodion Amirov, and Connor Zary highlight the names hovering between this first tier and the next tier of players, but individual rankings start to diverge more at this part of the list. Part of why it’s a bit more dangerous to trade up into the end of the first round most years is because there’s not really a clear-cut list of players you could argue might likely fall and also offer top-10-or-so upside.

Verdict: If the Sharks are going to trade up this year, they should be bold. Aim for a pick as high in the teens as they can get in return for picks 28 and 34 and hope that, ideally, one of Stützle, Raymond, Drysdale, Rossi, Holtz, Lundell, Perfetti, or potentially Gunler and Mysak falls to them. If the team isn’t going to jump to the middle of the round, it should explore other options with these three picks.

Option 2: Trade back

This is my shit right here. In my ideal bizarro-world draft, the Sharks trade back until they’ve acquired all 31 picks in the seventh round. I am exaggerating, but if the exercise above showed us anything it’s that when it comes to evaluating the probability a given pick will result in a star player, GMs overvalue mid-first round picks and undervalue later picks.

Other evidence exists for this pick-misvaluing behavior. Michael Schuckers’ research using older draft data found that GMs tended to outperform Central Scouting prospect rankings in the second, third, and fourth rounds.

This isn’t an exact science

We should note that here, just like above, this isn’t an exact equation. These pick-value conversions instead tell us a few things. First, that having more opportunities in a draft (at least outside the top five-or-so picks) is generally the best way to maximize your return on those investments. Second, that if you’re trying to find a star in the draft, the chances you’ll do so aren’t much higher with the 10th-overall pick than they are with the 18th-overall pick; so, if you don’t have a clear shot at a top talent, it’s worth exploring your options. Finally, that lower first-round picks seem to be the most overvalued picks in the draft.

From a pure probability standpoint, this is typically the move. During the 2019 draft the Carolina Hurricanes traded back twice during the second round on their way to amassing and making 12 total selections. Seven of those picks were within the pick range where teams typically outperform Central Scouting. Today, the organization’s prospect pool is considered one of the league’s best, thanks in big part to those 12 players.

Verdict: Generally, we’d recommend that the Sharks trade back and, ideally, acquire two, second-round picks for #28 overall. Since this isn’t an average draft, and the Sharks may have the resources to trade up and nab a sliding talent, making that trade is more worth the gamble that it would usually be. But, if all of the eight players listed in Option 1 look likely to go before pick 15 or so, then the Sharks should go with this option and acquire an additional pick or two with some of these selections.

Option 3: Make the picks as they stand

This is probably the option the Sharks should explore only if the other two are unavailable to them. A few players will likely fall further into the first round than they should, making them attractive selections even at 28. But, given how unlikely it is that the player becomes a star NHLer and how much GMs seem to overvalue late first-round picks, the return the Sharks will see on this investment in either of the first two scenarios should outweigh standing pat and picking at 28.

The second-round picks (34 and 60) don’t matter quite as much. Though, if the Sharks are to trade up they’ll need to package one of these with pick 28. That leaves just one more selection until the fifth round. If Doug Wilson (Jr.) decides to move into the middle of the first round with two of these first three selections, he should trade back with the remaining pick to ensure the Sharks have more opportunities in the middle rounds.

Final verdict

We excluded this option at the beginning of the post, but the best way for the Sharks to return to the playoffs next season would be to trade one or more of these first three picks for an existing NHLer. Even if San Jose trades up and lands a promising prospect at pick 17 that player will more likely than not be a few years from contributing to the team.

Since we didn’t get into that option, then we can make our final recommendation assuming the Sharks only have available to them the three options we laid out. Because the top of this draft class seems particularly deep, and because there’s a decent chance a top talent slides, the Sharks should trade into the middle of the first round in anticipation of stopping that slide. With the remaining second-round pick and fifth-round picks, the Sharks should attempt to acquire as many selections in the second, third, and fourth rounds as possible. Existing draft research and crowd scouting tell us this order of operations will yield the most optimal results for the Sharks during the 2020 NHL draft.

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