Drafting is not an exact science. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite. In the NHL, the first round or so is probably the most precise. They are guys who will probably make an immediate impact on their NHL team whenever they ultimately join their team. They’re franchise players, or they’re supposed to be, and some of them may be generational talents. But even with advanced prognostication and statistics there is no fail safe way to know what a player will be in the NHL until he gets there, no matter how highly touted he is.
Then, there are the later round picks, the less exact ones. Second and third round selections will, most likely, make the NHL but on the average need two to three more years of development before that day comes. Bringing them in too soon can even damage their development arc.
Finally, there are the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh round NHL draft picks. These guys are usually referred to as “projects” and that’s not an insult, but just a fact. They’re less polished. They have more hurdles. But they’re still good enough that an NHL team wants them in the fold.
The likelihood of a later round pick making the NHL compared to those in the first round is unreal. In a TSN report done in 2014, 73% of forwards taken in the first 30 picks had skated in or were likely to skate in 100 NHL games. That number fell to 71% for defensemen and sat at 50% for goaltenders. That proves that even top-tier picks are not a certainty. Then, you move to the later rounds. Picks numbered between 196 and 210, which is the final round in the current format, have just an 8% chance of making the NHL. Patric Hornqvist, who was selected with the very last pick (No. 230 Round 7) of the 2005 entry draft had just a 12% chance of playing 100 or more NHL games. He will likely skate in his 500th NHL game when the Penguins face the New Jersey Devils at home on March 24, 2016. Sidney Crosby, taken with the first pick in the same draft, had six times better of a chance to skate in 100 NHL games.
So how do you go from a seventh round pick, like Scott Wilson was for the Pittsburgh Penguins (No. 209 overall) in 2011, to playing in the NHL? That’s where development comes in and the Penguins lately have become experts in that area.
Now let’s preface this by saying that in order for a player of any caliber to develop into an NHL regular the key lies within the player himself. Sidney Crosby was born with prodigious skill that many players envy. However, it is the way he prepares for every game and his appetite for constant improvement that made him into the Sidney Crosby we know today.
The key to the Penguins turning their late round picks like Wilson and Josh Archibald (6th round No. 174 overall) into serviceable NHL talent lies in their careful approach to development. From the moment a player is selected at the NHL draft or traded into the ranks of the Penguins system, they’re watched. Watched on tape, watched in person, watched in practice carefully by their coaches and development staff that includes former Penguins Mark Recchi (who oversees all player development) and Sergei Gonchar (who oversees the development specifically of defensemen). These sessions also regularly include associate general manager Jason Botterill and assistant general manager Bill Guerin (who served as the Penguins player development coach until 2014). Even the Penguins’ head coach, Mike Sullivan, has done work developing players. Sullivan was part of the 2015 Stanley Cup winning Chicago Blackhawks team as a development coach before becoming the head coach of the Penguins American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and ultimately the big club’s head coach.
But it’s not just talking to players and assessing their strengths and weaknesses, it’s using all the available teams and developmental leagues the team has at its disposal effectively. It’s no accident that neither of the Penguins affiliates are farther than a four hour cross-state drive. The American Hockey League Penguins, where the Penguins young players spend most of their time developing, are in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, the Wheeling Nailers, their ECHL affiliate that feeds into Wilkes-Barre, are just a quick one hour trip down I-70 from the front door of the big club’s offices. What does that mean though?
That means that Recchi can easily meet with the Penguins affiliated players in both cities regularly and attend their home games whenever he pleases. Bill Guerin, when he held the job Recchi holds now, was even seen at local college games for then-prospect Scott Wilson while he was playing college hockey at UMass-Lowell.
It’s about giving the guys regular homework assignments and checking in to make sure they’re being finished both on and off the ice. It’s about building them up when they succeed instead of tearing them down when they fail. Developing a successful NHL player comes from sending them to the ECHL with the understanding he’s there to get more playing time. Garrett Sparks is in Orlando of the ECHL for the Toronto Maple Leafs because otherwise he’d be sitting on the Toronto Marlies bench never playing. The Penguins ECHL affiliate has seen five alumni make their NHL debuts this season and they’ve produced 57 players who have skated in an NHL game, more than any other ECHL affiliate. When a guy in the American Hockey League struggles to finish off his chances you don’t let him struggle and potentially set his development back. No, you send him to the ECHL to get his timing right and when he’s ready he goes back up. These leagues aren’t punishments, they’re developmental homes.
And the Penguins don’t just develop their players there either. Five current or recent NHL coaches have come out from behind the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton bench while the current Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coach came from Wheeling. Because while drafting is a gamble, developing is an art, an art the Penguins are turning into their bread and butter.