What Have Recent NHL Drafts Taught Us About The Top Of The Draft?

By Dan Dukart on May 6, 2024 at 1:45 pm
Connor Bedard puts on a Chicago Blackhawks jersey after being taken with the first pick in the 2023 NHL Draft
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Blue Jackets will discover their draft lottery fate tomorrow evening.

What we know: the Blue Jackets will pick somewhere between first and sixth, and they have nearly a 2/3 chance of picking fifth or sixth and only a 9.5% chance of picking first.

What we don't know: the quality of the player that will be selected.

With that in mind, here are three lessons from recent NHL drafts:

Generational Players Swing The Draft

The 2021 and 2022 NHL Drafts were headlined by Owen Power and Juraj Slafkovsky. Both are nice prospects who have shown that they could be top-of-the-lineup players, but neither scream generational talent. On the other hand, last year's draft was inundated with Connor Bedard hysteria, and for good reason. It's not often a player of his caliber becomes available. 

In some ways, the hype surrounding the top of the draft is used to color the remainder of the draft. But scouts will tell you that, after the top few players (or even after pick one), most drafts are fairly homogenous. Macklin Celebrini, the projected first overall pick next month, is likely somewhere to fall between Power/Slafkovsky and Bedard in terms of overall impact. But the point remains that, in most drafts, most players in the 5-6 range (where the Blue Jackets are most likely to pick) are similar, and the biggest differences come at the tippy top. 

The Cautionary Tale Of 'Winning' The Draft Lottery

But the lesson from non-generational player drafts is that picking first and thus winning the lottery doesn't necessarily mean the best player will become part of your franchise. It's early, yet, but 2021 draft picks Wyatt Johnston (picked 23rd) and Dylan Guenther (picked 9th) appear to be in the same ballpark, if not further along than Power.

It's easy to remember the 2016-17 Colorado Avalanche, one of the worst teams in the salary cap era, "losing" the draft lottery and sliding all the way from first to fourth. They didn't have the chance to draft Nico Hischier, who went first overall to the "winners", the New Jersey Devils, and had to settle for a Junior A defenseman from the AJHL named Cale Makar.

Patience Is Key

The Blue Jackets must do a better job focusing on coming up with a plan for this next prospect. Aside from Celebrini, it's unlikely (though not impossible) that any other player will be playing in a league outside of the NHL next season. Give that player a long-term road map and allow him to grow. It's not lost on me that Denton Mateychuk, whose Moose Jaw Warriors are in the semifinals of the WHL, is generating a ton of buzz as a player who could make the opening-night lineup next year. He's played exclusively in the WHL since being drafted.

Compare and contrast that with Kent Johnson (fifth overall) and David Jircek (sixth overall), who were picked in the ballpark of where the Blue Jackets are likely to pick this June. They've both shown flashes at the NHL level, but have had their development stunted along the way. I'm optimistic long-term on both of those players, but the sentiment remains: give this player time and space to grow into their games and allow compound interest to work in your favor. The constant tinkering should be a cautionary tale that the team learns from this year.

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