One of the things that I find vaguely irritating about draft coverage (and, I suspect, the strategies employed by NHL teams in building teams) is the idea that good third and fourth line forwards are a separate species from good first and second line forwards, as opposed to simply being inferior hockey players. If you watched the draft, or followed it on Twitter, you will have noticed that, once the second round started, we started seeing players being projected to be good bottom six forwards down the road.
As sometimes occurs, this led me to ask a question. Where do bottom six forwards come from? I gathered last year’s data on a team-by-team basis, including all players who played at least twenty games for a team. (Note: this led to some guys getting counted twice, like Blair Jones, who played 22 games for Tampa Bay and 21 games for Calgary, although there weren’t many guys who fell into this group.)
I then proceeded to sort the players by TOI/G and then rank them. So, for Edmonton, the top six forwards were Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Ryan Smyth, Ales Hemsky, Shawn Horcoff and Jordan Eberle. This gave me a groups of 180 top six forwards and 274 bottom six forwards.
As you’d expect, top six and bottom six forwards tend to come from different places in the draft.
More than half of the supply of top six forwards comes from the top thirty picks in the draft. It’s interesting (to me anyway) that the biggest source of bottom six forwards is…the top thirty picks in the draft. These are, presumably, guys who weren’t projected as being bottom six players when they were drafted but had career paths that led them there. I didn’t find this particularly surprising to be honest – there’s a baseball truism about the best way to draft a relief pitcher being to draft a failed starter and I assume something similar applies in hockey.
Take Ethan Moreau as an example. He basically spent his career as a bottom six winger after being drafted 14th overall in 1994. The qualities that made him a great junior player and a great prospect didn’t translate to the being a top six forward at the NHL level. So he fails out of that job pool and starts competing for a bottom six position. Even though his qualities and skill set weren’t good enough to make him a top six forward, he still brought some tremendous attributes to the table in terms of smarts for the game (penalties notwithstanding), strength and skating – the things that made him an elite player in junior. If you’re some guy who had a nice little second/third line run in your draft year and had people talking about you as a future NHL bottom six player at the draft – well, there’s the competition. The guy you couldn’t play in front of in junior.
(Note for Oilers fans: bottom sixers on the 2005-06 Finals team and their draft position: Moreau (14), Sergei Samsonov (8), Radek Dvorak (10), Rem Murray (135), Raffi Torres (5), Brad Winchester (35), Todd Harvey (9), Toby Petersen (244) and Georges Laraque (31). More than half were former first round draft picks and that was a hockey team with some serious depth. )
It’s also worth mentioning how quickly the supply of top six forwards dries up relative to the supply of bottom six forwards. The supply of bottom six forwards is surprisingly consistent though – teams still turn them up with some frequency late in the draft. I found the percentage of them who are undrafted to be pretty interesting too – there were more bottom six forwards who were undrafted last year than there were bottom six forwards picked between 31 and 60. When you factor in that picks 211+ basically represent rounds of the draft that no longer exist…well, bottom six forwards in last year’s NHL were almost twice as likely to be undrafted or come from draft rounds that no longer exist than they were to come from picks 31-60. Something to remember when hyping your team’s reach in the second round for a guy who they project as a solid bottom sixer.
If you look at the bottom sixers on the 2005-06 Oilers, you should notice something: seven of them weren’t drafted by the Oilers. Moreau came as part of a trade with Daniel Cleary, Chad Kilger and Christian Laflamme for Jonas Elofsson, Dean McAmmond, and Boris Mironov when the Oilers concluded that they couldn’t pay Mironov what he wanted. Samsonov was a deadline pickup for Marty Reasoner and a draft pick. Dvorak was acquired as part of a trade for Anson Carter. Torres came as part of the exchange for Janne Niinimaa. Murray, Harvey and Petersen were all free agents. (With thanks to MJ at OilFans for the excellent resource.) Was this unusual? I think that the data supports the argument that it isn’t particularly, which kind of further undermines the idea of drafting to produce your own bottom sixers.
I’ve put together two charts here. The first sorts the 2011-12 bottom sixers by age and then by whether they were draftees or not. With the second, I’ve tried to group the data more sensibly, as the results produce a pretty clear way of doing it.
This is pretty obvious, I think. Players aged 19-22 filling bottom six roles are far more likely to be your own draftees than anything else. Players aged 23-25 are about a 50/50 split. From age 26 forward though, a bottom sixer is massively more likely to have come from somewhere other than your own draft.
We can drill into this a bit further. It’s no secret that NHL teams use the third and fourth lines as a way station for players on the way to bigger and better things. I’ve put together a table showing where in the draft (or not) players playing on the third and fourth lines were acquired, based on the three groups identified above.
For the really young bottom six players, they disproportionately came from first round draft picks. I’d suggest that what we’re likely seeing is the effect of the bottom six spots in the lineup being used as a way to ease young guys into the league – the list this year includes James van Riemsdyk, Matt Duchene, Ryan Johansen, Nino Niederreiter, Brayden Schenn, Sean Couturier, Sam Gagner, Mikael Backlund, Magnus Pajaarvi and Nazem Kadri, who are probably all guys their respective teams see (and hope to see) playing in the top six as they mature. You can see that, by the time players turned 23, about the same share of them were playing bottom six roles as with the older group of players. These are bottom six players now, in the sense that they’re filling bottom six roles, but these aren’t what teams are thinking about when they’re talking about developing bottom six players.
Players picked between 31-60 also make up a disproportionate share 19-25 year old players, before falling substantially as a share of the older group. It’s the older group that’s most interesting to me. At that stage of a player’s career, they’re beyond getting bottom six minutes as a stepping stone to bigger things. It seems that when you get into players between the ages of 26 and 40, there doesn’t seem to be that much of an ability to pick them out of the 121-150 range versus the 31-60 range. Now admittedly, when you’re talking about what 18 year olds will do when they’re 26, you’re really stretching and it’s undoubtedly difficult but it doesn’t really seem like, as a group, NHL scouts are particularly good at this. By far the biggest group of players playing bottom six forward roles in the NHL between ages of 26 and 40 are players who were undrafted or drafted at spots that no longer exist in the NHL draft.
One final point: there doesn’t really seem to be a huge difference in quality amongst bottom sixers in the 26-40 range based on where you were drafted. The groups I identified by draft position all played between 11.33 and 12.93 minutes a night.
What does this all mean? Well, it seems to me that going into a draft with the mindset that you’re going to stock your bottom six forwards is silly. The bottom six appears to serve both as a place for younger players to cut their teeth and a place where older players play on merit. Amongst older players, the NHL as a whole seems to have a limited ability to identify guys who will be bottom six players by the time they’re 26 or so. Those guys are rarely playing with the team that drafted them at that point if, in fact, they were drafted, which a healthy proportion of them weren’t. In the draft, you’re most likely to find a long term bottom six forward in the first round. After that, you’re about as likely to find one in the fifth round as you are in the second.
What got me thinking about this was the Oilers’ pick of Mitch Moroz. I’m not a follower of prospects by any means but I noticed that those who are seemed to have their feathers ruffled by the pick a little bit. To pick one example, Jonathan Willis wrote:
This is a Milan Lucic-style flyer. Moroz is not a Cam Abney-style pick, where fourth-line upside is the only possibility – he scored 16 goals and 25 points in 66 games for the Oil Kings and has a 6’2″, 208lb frame.
Bob Stauffer’s reaction to the pick was “there are going to be a lot of scouts here that think this is a reach,” and I think that’s a fair assessment, but clearly this is a player the Oilers coveted that they did not expect would still be around when their third-round pick came along.
There was significant talent still on the board – after Columbus drafted Oscar Dansk, the Oilers could have had their choice of players like Matt Finn, Dalton Thrower, Sebastian Collberg or Pontus Aberg. Instead, they chose to address team need.
I don’t necessarily think that this is an ideal pick, but if the Oilers are looking for a big power forward realistically this is the sort of selection they need to make. Big guys with some skill often go higher than expected, and Moroz is one that the Oilers would have seen repeatedly given that he played for the Oil Kings this year. The likelihood is that Moroz tops out as a bottom-six forward at the professional level, but there’s at least a chance he explodes.
Now if they’re swinging for the Lucic fences, maybe it’s sensible, I don’t know. If they see him as having a legitimate shot at being a top six forward, if they’re trying to draft a top six forward, that’s defensible. If they’re trying to develop size and meanness for the bottom six, well, it seems like a waste of time. Sign Raffi Torres or some other’s team failed first round draft pick and move on.
While I’m not really a close observer of the draft, the more I look at it, the more I think you’ve got to approach it with a tremendous sense of humility. Don’t believe that your own judgment trumps the historical odds unless you can come up with an awfully compelling reason to do so. While I’m happy, as an Oilers fan, that they did this with the first overall selection (and if you’re going to do it just once, that’s the pick to do it with), if they were trying to pick bottom six forwards afterwards, I kind of think they were playing a fool’s game.