The likely top selection in the 2020 NHL Draft, Alexis Lafreniere.

Making or Breaking the Case for tonight’s Phase II Draft Lottery
By Mitch McBeaudry

Fans of the National Hockey League were in an uproar this past Friday night when both the Pittsburgh Penguins and Edmonton Oilers were eliminated from the Stanley Cup Qualifier round. The teams had held their respective conferences’ fifth place position at the end of the regular season and lost to their twelfth-place competitors in the Montreal Canadiens and Chicago Blackhawks. What seemed to irritate fans most though was not that the seemingly better teams were out of the playoff picture, but rather that they now had a chance at this year’s first overall pick in the NHL entry draft.

The fervor surrounding this possibility, which is only 12.5% for each team, stems from a feeling of unfairness and inequality that comes with the idea of an already good, arguably elite level team getting a player of a first overall’s calibre. This years expected first overall pick is winger Alexis Lafreniere, a highly talented prospect sporting exceptional hockey sense and an NHL ready game. And while there is certainly no doubt in anyone’s mind that Lafreniere would make for a stellar addition to any NHL roster, there’s little evidence that doing so will result in championship success. And make no mistake, the Stanley Cup is the ultimate goal of all NHL teams.

Of the 19 Stanley Cups awarded in the past 20 years (2005 was not awarded due to a season-long lockout), only eight championship teams had a first overall draft choice on their roster. Out of those eight championships there are only four unique teams: Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Washington. It should also be noted that both the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues had drafted a first overall pick, Joe Thornton for Boston and Erik Johnson for St. Louis, but both of those players were traded away before their draft teams won their championships.

When looking at the first overall picks themselves, the results get less optimistic. In the past twenty years, only four first place picks have Stanley Cup rings: Marc-Andre Fleury, Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane. And two of those players won their championships on the same team. (Fun fact: Marc-Andre Fleury has gone deeper into the playoffs with Vegas than Crosby has with the Penguins ever since Fleury was picked up in the expansion draft).

The big question is, of those four players, how important were they to their team winning a championship? The easiest way to determine this is to look at how many Conn Smythe Trophies they’ve won. The Conn Smythe Trophy is awarded each year to the playoffs’ most outstanding player, and of the seven championships won between Fleury and Crosby, Ovechkin and Kane, four of those championships also featured one of them as a Conn Smythe winner. That means that 21% of the time, a first overall drafted player has won the Conn Smythe in the last 20 years. That sounds impressive, until you consider that six Conn Smythe Trophy winners of the past 20 years were also drafted in the third round or later.

Now the first round in general has the most Conn Smythe winners by far (11 out of 19 or 57.8%), but the majority of them were chosen after the first overall pick.

The point of this article isn’t to downplay the impact and importance a first overall pick can have on a team, but rather to highlight that it’s not the guaranteed success many people think it is, just ask the Edmonton Oilers who enjoyed selecting four out of six top picks from 2010 to 2015. Championship teams are not built on first picks alone, but rather how their team drafts beyond that first pick and how those picks are developed. The first overall pick is a nice luxury to have, but it’s the harder picks to make; the second, third rounders and beyond, that are more likely to make or break a roster and help a team achieve their goal of raising Lord Stanley’s chalice.

So, take solace fans of the thirty teams who will not win the Alexis Lafreniere sweepstakes, there is more than one pick needed to build a championship.

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