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Friday, April 1, 2011

Analysis: Do championship teams produce deep draft crops?

The performance of the QMJHL's Saint John Sea Dogs this regular season (and certainly in their dominant sweep against the hapless Cape Breton Eagles in the first round of the playoffs) sparked an interesting question recently: Do dominant teams produce a preponderance of quality NHL players via the draft?

To try and answer this question, we went back in time to five championship amateur teams that dominated their respective leagues. All won their respective league championships, three of the five won Memorial Cups or an NCAA title.

This is a marathon post, but we hope you'll stick with it and let us know what you think about the conclusions.

1978-79 Brandon (WHL): Wheat Kings and Pretty Things

First up is the 1978-79 Brandon Wheat Kings, who went 58-5-9 to capture the WHL championship that year, though they lost in the Memorial Cup final to the Peterborough Petes. This is an important team for two reasons: 1. They were as dominant as they come, and 2. 1979 is widely considered the best single draft in NHL history, having produced the likes of Mark Messier, Ray Bourque, Glen Anderson, Michel Goulet, Dale Hunter, Mike Gartner, and Kevin Lowe to name just a few.

Until this season, when Hugh Jessiman finally made his NHL debut for the first time since being picked 10th overall by the Rangers in 2003, the '79 class was the only one in history in which every single player in the first round appeared in the NHL. Of course, '79 likely still has '03 beat because the fewest amount of NHL games played by a single pick 32 years ago was Ray Allison(The fourth Wheat King of the opening round, taken 18th overall by the Hartford Whalers) with 238. For perspective, Jessiman would need to play four full NHL seasons just to reach that number.

The '79 Wheaties boasted four first-round picks that year: Laurie Boschman went one pick after Bourque to Boston at ninth overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Brian Propp and Brad McCrimmon whent 14th and 15th overall to Philadelphia and Boston respectively, and Allison 18th to the Whale.

Propp set a WHL record that season with 94 goals and 194 points in 71 games (his goal record since broken by another Wheat King, Ray Ferraro, in 1984 when he scored 108 times in 72 games, while assist and points records, 136 and 212, are held by Rob Brown). Boschman was third on the team in scoring with 66 goals and 149 points, but his rugged style is what got him taken inside the top-10 that year.

Three of the four went on to play more than 1,000 NHL games in their careers, with the slick scoring winger Propp having the most success with the Flyers, Bruins, North Stars and Whalers, scoring 425 goals and 1,003 points before retiringin 1994. He never won a Stanley Cup, but appeared in four finals- two with Philly in '85 and '87, the B's in '90 and North Stars in '91. He played 160 playoff games in his career, tallying 64 goals and 148 points.

McCrimmon, the second of two Bruins picks that year, the first of whom went on to be a franchise icon and Hall of Famer, played more than 1,200 games with the B's, Flyers, Flames, Red Wings, Whalers and Coyotes between 1979 and 1997. He was one of the most respected defensive defensemen during his long NHL tenure and he has been an assistant coach with four different NHL clubs since his retirement as a player.

Boschman also hit the 1,000 games played mark, most of which was spent with the Winnipeg Jets in the 80's, tallying a career-best 32 goals and 76 points with 180 penalty minutes in 1984-85. He also played for the Leafs, Oilers, Devils and Senators before retiring in 1995 with 1,009 NHL games under his belt, more than 200 goals and 500 points, but 2,260 minutes in the box.

Allison was the least successful of the four players taken in '79, spending much of his NHL time with the Flyers where he scored a career-high of 21 goals in 1983.

Winger Don Gillen was a fourth-round pick of the Flyers in '79 and played 35 NHL games in Philly and Hartford. Dave McDonald was a sixth-round pick of the Whalers but never reached the big league.

The '79 Wheat Kings also produced a 1st-rounder in 1980 in forward Steve Patrick (20th overall to the Sabres), but like Allison, he was an NHL journeyman who played 250 games before leaving the league in 1986. Another 1980 pick, Walt Poddubny, made by the Oilers in the fifth round, went on to play more than 400 NHL games, but had three excellent seasons as a late-bloomer scoring 40, 38 and 38 goals for the Rangers and Nordiques from 1987-89 before three mediocre years with the Devils to close out his career.

Goalie Rick Knickle, who was a childhood idol of Bruins star Tim Thomas while playing for the IHL's Flint (Michigan) Generals in the early 80's, played 14 NHL games late in his career with the Kings, making his big league debut at age 33. Knickle split the Wheaties' goaltending chores with Scott Olson. Knickle is a veteran amateur scout for the Nashville Predators these days and a tremendous guy to boot.

Verdict: The '79 Wheaties produced three solid NHL players who combined for more than 3,200 games and nearly 2,000 points in Propp, McCrimmon and Boschman. Allison, Patrick and Poddubny all had varying degrees of impact, and of the three teams analyzed, this particular squad had the greatest draft impact with four first-round picks in one year, plus a fifth the following season.

1981-82 Kitchener (OHL): Ranger Up! Kitchener went wire-to-wire with Two Hall of Famers and a Top-Two Pick

The 1981-82 Kitchener Rangers can't boast the same kind of regular season dominance of the '79 Wheaties, but they did win the Memorial Cup, and then went on to have not one, but two top-five picks in the 1982 NHL Draft.

Back then, it was all about Brian Bellows, who scored 45 goals and 97 points in 47 regular season games before firing home another 15 goals and 29 points in 23 postseason contests. All year, he was expected to be the first overall selection in the 1982 draft, and by virtue of a trade with Colorado for Dwight Foster, the Boston Bruins ended up owning that top pick. As most of you well know, the Minnesota GM Lou Nanne agreed to send B's GM Harry Sinden two Minnesota players in return for Boston not picking Bellows, and the rest is history: Gord Kluzak went first overall wonky knees and all, neither Brad Palmer nor Dave Donnelly ever did much for Boston, and Bellows went on to an All-Star career that injuries cut short, highlighted by a Stanley Cup championship with Montreal in 1993.

The real prize, however, for the Rangers that year, was a defenseman named Scott Stevens. The Capitals recognized what they had in the skilled, but vicious and nasty rearguard. They drafted him fifth overall, and he went on to establish himself as a Hall of Fame player with more than 1,600 NHL games, three Stanley Cups as captain of the New Jersey Devils and a Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP of the 2000 champion New Jersey squad. His 908 points fell just 92 short of 1,000, but Stevens was so sublime a defender, nobody will ever dare to hold that against him. He was a No. 1 cornerstone 'D' in every sense of the word, and in time, his own star very much eclipsed that of Bellows. Stevens became synonymous with the postseason, having played in 233 playoff games, winning 3 Stanley Cups and participating in a fourth final, a seven-game loss to Colorado in 2001. Even though not huge at just about 6-feet and a solid 210 pounds, Stevens was an ultimate warrior who created space for himself with the viciousness of a wolverine early in his career, and became a gold standard All-Star later on with his two-way prowess.

Stay-at-home defender David Shaw was the third Kitchener first-rounder in the 1982 NHL draft, going 13th overall to Quebec.He went on to play 769 NHL games with the Nordiques, Rangers, Oilers, North Stars, Bruins and Lightning. He spent three solid seasons in Boston from 1992-95 and posted a career-best 10 goals in 1992-93 as hard-nosed, keep it simple rearguard and fan favorite.

Role player Mike Hough was drafted in the 9th round of the 1982 draft and went on to play more than 700 NHL games with the Nordiques, Panthers and Islanders as a defensive forward. Winger Mike Moher was drafted by the Devils in the sixth round (of their inaugural draft after moving to the Meadowlands from Denver in 1982), but only played 9 NHL games with them and was out of hockey by 1984.

Al MacInnis was another Hall of Famer and Stanley Cup champion on that Rangers team, but was drafted a year earlier, 15th overall by the Calgary Flames in 1981. His slap shot was the most feared weapon in the NHL for the length of his career, and while he never hit the 30-goal plateau, he scored 20 or more goals in a season seven times including back-to-back 28 tally campaigns from 1990-91. MacInnis finished his tremendous career with the Flames and Blues having played 1416 games, 340 goals and 1,274 points. He won both a Conn Smythe and a Norris Trophy as NHL's top defender in 1999, near the end of his storied career while patrolling the St. Louis blue line with Chris Pronger.

In addition to MacInnis, NHL role players Mike Eagles, John Tucker and goaltender Wendell Young, who backed up Tom Barrasso in Pittsburgh for the Penguins' 1992 Stanley Cup team, all came from different draft years but all saw time in the big show.

The verdict: Three first-round picks in one year including two in the top-five, four Stanley Cups, and more than 3,400 NHL games, 2,000+ points and all of this before we even factor in Al MacInnis, who was a 1981 pick. The 1982 Kitchener Rangers were the cream of the OHL crop and they walked the walk from start to finish. A brilliant team that produced a lot of star quality and solid depth NHL players.

1986-87 University of North Dakota (NCAA): Ladies and Gentlemen, we present- the Hrkac Circus!

The 1986-87 North Dakota Fighting Sioux blitzed through their NCAA counterparts like a tornado through the high plains en route to the 1987 national championship.

Coached by John "Gino" Gasparini, the high-flying Fighting Sioux were led by top scorer and 1987 Hobey Baker Award winner Tony Hrkac, who together with winger Bobby Joyce (52 goals that year) struck fear into the hearts of opponents, going 40-8 and capturing the championship with a 5-3 victory over the powerhouse Michigan State Spartans in none other than Detroit at the Joe Louis Arena.

Hrkac was unstoppable as a collegiate player, scoring 46 goals and 116 points in just 48 games to blow open the NCAA scoring race. He was a second-round pick of the St. Louis Blues in the 1984 draft (32nd overall). His top triggerman, Joyce, who finished with 82 points on the year, was picked by the Bruins in the fourth round (82nd overall) that year. Forward Malcolm Parks had been a second-round pick of the North Stars in 1983 (34th overall) but never reached the NHL.

Hrkac, although a big college star, could never get much going in the NHL, playing in 758 games with nine different teams in what was a pretty mediocre career (132 goals, 371 points). He would forever be remembered more for his Hobey and for being the inspiration behind the "Hrkac Circus" (it rhymes) nickname. Joyce, who joined the Bruins right after the 1988 Olympics, was tremendous to close out that season and then in the 1988 playoffs, when the Bruins made it all the way to the finals only to get swept by the dynastic Oilers. Joyce and fellow rookie Craig Janney gave Bruins fans reason to hope, and after an encouraging 18-goal rookie season in '89, Joyce got off to a brutal start and was traded to Washington for veteran Dave Christian in December, 1989. Joyce's NHL career promptly flamed out after such a promising start, and he would go on to play just 19 more NHL games after the '89-90 season.

Murray Baron was a 1986 eighth-round draft pick of the Flyers who played 988 big league games, but was most famous for two things: being traded to the Blues for Rod Brind'Amour in 1991 and getting one-punched in a KO by Bruins tough guy Troy Mallette during the 1996-97 season. Baron was a solid, no-frills defensive defenseman who just missed out on a nice NHL pension by 12 measly games. For a late-rounder, he had quite a nice big league career.

But the crown jewel, the real player and reason they were so dominant and won it all that year was a player who was never even drafted at all, yet went on to have the greatest career of any undrafted goalie in the modern era: Ed Belfour. That's right, Eddie the Eagle backstopped UND in 33 games to a sensational 29-4 record, 2.43 GAA (which was remarkably low for that era of hockey) and a stellar (again for that era) .915 save percentage. The Blackhawks signed him as a free agent and after a couple of lackluster seasons in the minors, he got his chance in the 1990 playoffs where he opened some eyes, using that experience as a springboard to capture the 1991 Calder and Vezina Trophies, establishing himself as one of the top goalies of all time and certainly in that era.

Verdict: The Hrkac Circus was an older, more experienced team whose core players (with exception of Belfour) had already been drafted, with the two best skaters coming out of the 1984 lottery. The Sioux had no first-round picks on the roster and their greatest player, who went on to a Hall of Fame career in the NHL, was not ever drafted. They are proof that a dominant team does not necessarily have to possess a great NHL draft pedigree, though with the current CBA and draft rules in place, it is very difficult to assemble such a squad without high-end talent like that. One can only wonder how that team would have fared without the indefatigable Belfour between the pipes for them.

1987-88 Windsor Compuware (OHL): Bringing You the Original Dukes of Windsor

The 1987-88 Windsor Compuware Spitfires posted an unbelievable 50-14-2 record- a .773 winning percentage and scored a club-record 396 goals that year. Like the '79 Wheat Kings, they lost the Memorial Cup championship game, however (Windsor fell to Medicine Hat, led by captain Trevor Linden).

Interestingly enough, the 2008-09 Spitfires, spearheaded by defenseman Ryan Ellis and future 1st overall selection Taylor Hall actually posted a club-record .846 winning percentage and 57-10-0-1 record, en route to the first of two Memorial Cup championships. However, since less than two years have elapsed since that season, the kind of draft analysis required cannot be made for a few more years.

Coached by future NHL bench boss Tom Webster, Windsor in 1987-88 was an offensive machine that overwhelmed opponents with a relentless attacking style despite not producing many scoring forwards in the NHL aside from Adam Graves.

The 1986 NHL draft produced the core of the high-flying '88 Spits, with Graves leading the way as a second-round pick, the 1st of that round at 22nd overall by the last-place Red Wings (nicknamed the "Dead Wings" or "Dead Things" that year). Another second-rounder that year was Darryl Shannon, an NHL journeyman who went 36th overall to Toronto. Hard-nosed stay-at-home defenseman Glen Featherstone was a fourth-round pick of the Blues (73rd overall) in '86 and saw time with the Bruins, Rangers, Whalers and Flames over a 384-game NHL career beset with injuries and missed time.

Shannon's younger brother, Darrin, also on the team, would be the fourth overall selection of the Penguins in 1988, but never lived up to his lofty draft status, playing just 506 games, mostly with the Winnipeg Jets. He was most notable for being part of the trade that brought Tom Barrasso from Buffalo to the Steel City along with defenseman Doug Bodger the season after they made him (Shannon) such a high pick.

Goaltender Peter Ing went on to have a journeyman pro career, seeing time with the moribund Leafs in the early 90s and spending a lot of hours riding buses in the minors. Ditto David Goverde and Pat Jablonski, both of whom played on that Windsor team as well and saw NHL spot duty.

Graves is the signature NHL player from this team, who won Stanley Cups with Edmonton inn 1990 and the New York Rangers in 1994 before retiring with 1,152 NHL games, 329 goals and 616 points to his credit. Graves was a legitimate power forward who played with skill, grit and heart- he is perhaps most remembered as shouting "1940!" in exultation after he and his Rangers banished the ghosts of that last year the team had won an NHL championship in a dramatic seventh game win over Vancouver.

Now, two players on that team who never made it as NHL skaters, are in the NHL as head coaches- Carolina's Paul Maurice and Panthers bench boss Peter DeBoer.

Verdict: Of the three CHL entries in this study, the Windsor Spitfires have the weakest NHL pedigree. Their lone top NHL pick, Darrin Shannon, can be classified as a bust, and their top four scorers from that year (Graves was injured and finished fifth with 60 points in just 37 contests) have just 7 total NHL games between them. But this club also produced not one, but TWO NHL head coaches. There's a lot to be said for the kind of system they were a part of and learned from Webster under.

2005-06 Quebec (QMJHL): O'er the Remparts We Watched- Great Junior Team, but Where's the (NHL) Beef?

The last dominant team we'll look at is the 2006 Memorial Cup champion Quebec Remparts, who lost the QMJHL championship, but because host city Moncton prevailed in winning the President's Cup, the runner-up Remparts got a seat at the table and knocked out the Wildcats in the championship game by a 6-2 score.

During the regular season, they posted a 52-16-0-1-1 record and a .757 winning percentage. Their leading scorer was Nashville's top pick in 2004- the highly skilled, but enigmatic Russian Alexander Radulov. The Remparts also featured "can't miss" 2007 draft prospect Angelo Esposito, who tallied 39 goals and 98 points the year before being eligible for the draft. He slipped all the way down to 20 by the Pens after a poor draft year, and then was traded to Atlanta as part of the Marian Hossa deal less than a year later. Marc-Edouard Vlasic was San Jose's second-round pick (35th overall) in 2005 and has been a regular with the Sharks since 2008.

Westboro, Mass. native Jordan Smotherman was also on the team and was a fourth-round pick (116th overall) of the Thrashers in 2005 as well. He was injured for much of the Memorial Cup season, only playing in 37 games, but scored 7 goals and 15 points in 23 playoff contests. He is currently on an AHL deal with the Providence Bruins after seeing 4 NHL games with the Thrashers in '08 and '09.

Another Massachusetts native, defenseman Joey Ryan, was L.A.'s third pick (48th overall) in the second round of the 2006 draft as a reasonably skilled, but tough-as-nails defender. He has been total bust, failing to ever come close to earning an NHL spot with the Kings and played in the ECHL this season for Bakersfield.

Verdict: Aside from Radulov, whohad two promising years with the Predators before up and signing with Ufa Salavat of the KHL in 2008, and Vlasic, neither of whom was taken in the same draft class, there is little to show for the very successful Remparts team of five years ago. While we can't completely yet write off Esposito and Ryan, neither has shown any real indication that they have any kind of real NHL future.

Conclusion: In Brandon's and Kitchener's cases, you can draw clear lines between championship-caliber clubs and quality producers of NHL draft talent, with more than 7,000 NHL games between them and myriad Stanley Cups, awards, accomplishments and several Hall of Famers. However, in looking at three other teams- one from the NCAA, one from the OHL and one from the QMJHL, their production of NHL impact players and high-end draft pedigrees were nowhere near comparable to that of the '79 and '82 teams we looked at.

While this certainly is a small sample size, and one chosen more at random based on our familiarity with hockey history and an interest in studying these particular teams further, you can clearly see that while a winning club can have an impact on the draft, it is not a prerequisite for success. Some teams have more of a mix of veterans and players taken across different draft years, while others enjoy a concentration. One thing that must be remembered is that in 1979, teams were still drafting older players, so the further back you go in history, the bigger the impact 19-20 year-olds had in their draft years before Ken Linseman successfully challenged the NHL and the draft eligible age was lowered to 18.

This is what makes the 1982 Kitchener Rangers such a remarkable team in our view. They had a pair of 18-year-olds in Bellows and Stevens who were premier draft selections who went on to have outstanding NHL careers, they had another older veteran in MacInnis, and then a bevy of old and young role players who made that squad a killer team from top-to-bottom.

If you're still reading, then kudos for sticking with this dense post, and we hope that you have gained a little different perspective on the team dynamic as it has related to some of the more storied teams in the history of the draft. Perhaps this would make a good book someday with an expanded sample size?
AUTHOR'S NOTE: To make this study more streamlined, going to do one team from the 1990s. Thinking one of the three Kamloops Blazers Memorial Cup champions in '92, '94, or '95, but does anyone have a particular suggestion for a dominant club from 1990-99?


  1. Very interesting and informative article...I'd love to see you delve into this further, perhaps also looking at some teams that offered several NHL contributors but did not fare as well in juniors? Either way, good stuff.

  2. Wow. Thanks for the post. Interesting to see the variances between the teams and how their players were drafted/not-drafted.

    It's interesting to think what kind of players teams are going to get
    with such dominant teams in juniors and how to separate the ones who will make an impact at the NHL level. And how perhaps some players thrive in a certain team dynamic only to flop. How do you avoid the Angelo Espisito's?

    It's interesting to look at the top teams today in comparison:

    Saint John Sea Dogs: Hubredeau/Phillips/Jurco/Belieu playing with the already drafted Galiev and Depres (others?).

    Duncan Siemens playing with Stephen Elliott on a "veteran" Saskatoon squad.


    Even dynamic duos like Strome/D. Hamilton in Niagra playing with a strong goaltender in Vishetin (like Belfour?) and Dougie's brother Freddie (like the Shannon's?)

    Is their a Bellows/Stevens combo in this years draft? Has scouting improved at all to pinpoint them? I know hindsight is 20/20 but how did Fowler drop so far last year? Was he in the shadow of Ellis and Hall?

    Thanks again for laying this all out!

  3. Thanks for the feedback guys- a look at the 1995 Kamloops Blazers is coming soon. Fitting because the next "A Guy You Should Know" post will feature a current member of the Blazers.