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Crafting the Winnipeg Jets’ 2013 Draft Strategy

Arctic Ice Hockey takes a look at what the Winnipeg Jets' strategy should be heading into the 2013 NHL Entry Draft

Mike Stobe

As the 2012-2013 season passes in our rear view mirror, it's approaching the time when we begin to cast an eye on future seasons. A large part of planning for the future is, of course, the NHL Entry Draft. Both the 2011 and 2012 drafts have had their share of controversy for Jets fans (the Couturier-Scheifele debate of 2011 continues to rage on), as well as some more positive moments.

The Winnipeg Jets currently have 10 draft choices in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. It's a top-heavy distribution too, with three picks in the second round and two picks in the third round, thanks to last year's trade that sent Johnny Oduya to the Chicago Blackhawks, as well as a compensatory pick for not signing 2008 1st-rounder Daultan Leveile. With that in mind, here's what the Winnipeg Jets can do to improve their fortunes at the NHL Entry Draft.

1. Draft skill

This should be a given, but apparently it needs to be said.

Marcel Comeau, the Winnipeg Jets' (and Atlanta Thrashers') Director of Amateur Scouting and Head Scout since 2003, has one of the worst draft records in the business. While drafting skill should be obvious, a common theme in Comeau's picks is drafting size and strength rather than demonstrable skill sets. Comeau's draft choices over the past five years average six-foot-two and 197 lbs. In fact, Comeau's teams have drafted just one player shorter than six feet tall in that span, Nicklas Lasu, who at 5'11 can hardly be considered short. Meanwhile, Comeau's prominent busts include Boris Valabik, Alex Bourret, and the aforementioned Daultan Leveille, while Comeau's success are few and far between.

How bad is Marcel Comeau's draft record? Outside of the top 15 picks, Comeau's nine years at the helm have yielded just two players that have gone on to become NHL regulars. That's two out of 65 picks for a "success" rate of 3% to date. Since I'm in a giving mood, it looks like Zach Redmond, Paul Postma, and perhaps Jeremy Morin will become NHL regulars, which still makes a success rate of just 7.7%. To his credit, Comeau's been pretty successful in the top 10-15 picks of the draft, but who wouldn't be?

2. Draft players with high ceilings

This is another simple concept that NHL teams seem to perpetually misunderstand. Effective, proven bottom six players (or bottom pairing defenseman) can generally be acquired on the free agent market for $2 million or less, or via trade for a mid-late round pick. Given the acquisition cost of an established bottom six forward or bottom pairing defenseman, spending precious resources - draft choices, time, money, coaching, and other resources - to develop such a player is a fool's errand.

Consider an example involving the Jets' 2012 2nd round pick, Lukas Sutter, a player whose ceiling is likely that of a good bottom 6 forward. Consider the possible outcomes:

High ceiling Low ceiling
Player Reaches Full Potential Top 6 forward/top 4 defenseman Bottom 6 player/bottom 3 defenseman
Player Falls Slightly Short of Full Potential Bottom 6 forward/bottom 3 defenseman AHL player
Player is Bust
AHL player AHL player

If that 2nd round draft choice turns into a bust, you're left with an AHLer either way. If he falls short of his potential, a guy with a higher ceiling may end up playing in the bottom six, whereas the player with a lower ceiling still ends up in the AHL. And if that draft choice hits his potential, you can get a top six player instead of a third liner. In all cases, drafting a player with a higher ceiling leaves the team in an equal or preferable position to drafting a player with a lower ceiling. The counter-argument to this is that "bottom" players may be "safer" picks, but when the acquisition cost for bottom-tier players is as low as it is, it doesn't make sense to spend resources developing such a player internally.

3. Remember What Your Assets are Worth

I don't mean to pick on him, but let's use Lukas Sutter as an example once again. While the Jets spent their 2nd round pick (39th overall) on Sutter, a player whose ceiling is the third line, Alexei Ponikarovsky is a quality third line player that cost the New Jersey Devils just a 4th round pick + 7th round pick to acquire, cheaper than a second round pick.

It's irrelevant whether Sutter turns into a solid third liner for the Jets. What's relevant is the opportunity cost of using that second round pick on a player with third line potential; in this case, the opportunity cost is missing out on drafting a player with top six/top four potential, or trading the pick. For reference, in the last 3 years, second round draft picks have been traded (straight up) for 13 players:

  • Eric Belanger
  • Ben Bishop
  • Brad Boyes
  • Andrew Cogliano
  • Denis Grebeshkov
  • Chris Kelly
  • Jordan Leopold
  • John-Michael Liles
  • Andrej Meszaros
  • Dominic Moore
  • Andy Sutton
  • Lubomir Visnovsky
  • Ian White

That's a pretty solid list, full of average or above-average NHLers. The point here isn't whether or not Sutter will reach his potential, the point is that even if Sutter does reach his full potential he will be a player of less value than what could have been acquired through trade. The cost of acquiring a good bottom 6/bottom 3 player in today's NHL is a 2nd round draft choice (or less, some of the above guys are clearly better than that) but the Jets spent a 2nd round draft pick to acquire a potential bottom 6 forward. That's ugly.

4. Plug the holes

I'm a firm believer in taking the best player available, especially in the early stages of the draft. However, looking at the Jets' prospect pool, one of the things that stands out most is that with the exception of Mark Scheifele, all of the Jets' best prospects - Jacob Trouba, Zach Redmond, and Paul Postma - play the same position. Meanwhile, there are easily identifiable holes; namely, that there's nary a promising left defenseman or wing prospect to be found. Not surprisingly, left defense is a weakness at the professional level too.

Building a solid prospect pool is all about building a pipeline, and the Jets' pipeline has a few leaks in it. All things equal, the Jets should try to plug those holes in some of the later rounds, where the talent gaps between players are smaller.

5. Draft a goalie, but not early

At this point, you may be asking why, despite the fact that the Jets have drafted three goaltenders in the past two seasons, the Jets should draft another one. The answer is, because developing goaltenders is a bit of a crapshoot. Developing goaltenders, it seems, is kind of like a funnel. Some goalies will pass through the funnel, others will drop off. We don't really know which ones are which, so it's wise to have a solid pipeline of prospects, and preferably one with staggered developmental timelines. Thus, I'd like to see the Jets draft a goaltender with just a few criteria: smart, athletic, big, and available outside of the top three rounds.

Why not in the top three rounds? For one thing, drafting goaltenders is risky. With a draft this deep, I'd prefer to see the Jets use their high picks on skaters with elite skill. For another thing, starters rarely come from where we think. Of the 30 goaltenders that started the most in the NHL this season, 14 were not selected in the first three rounds of the draft.

6. (Bonus Tip!) Don't be afraid to Draft Europeans

Okay, so this one isn't really related to strategy. Nonetheless, it may be worth mentioning, as the Winnipeg Jets have failed to acquire a single European player in two consecutive drafts. As I said earlier, I'm a big supporter of taking the best player available, all else equal. With 12 draft picks in the last two years, are we expected to believe that among those 12 picks a North American-born player was the best player all 12 times? One European-free draft can be shrugged off as coincidence. Two European-free drafts (totaling 12 picks) is suspicious. If Cheveldayoff and Co. pull off a three-peat this June, well, I think it's safe to call this an organizational philosophy of flat-out discrimination.

But get this - Europe has talented hockey players too. Last year, Arctic Ice Hockey staffers were clamoring for the Jets to take a late-round flyer on a talented player like Nikolai Prokhorkin or Anton Slepyshev (who, by the way, will likely be taken in the top half of the draft this year ), but alas, it wasn't to be and the Jets walked away from the draft without a single European again. With plenty of talented Europeans in this draft class - including many players with high ceilings in the later rounds - the Jets shouldn't shy away simply because a player's roots are across the pond. If you can play, you can play.

As always, we welcome your thoughts in the comments section!