How Important Are Top 5 Picks in an NHL Draft? Are They Necessary To Win A Championship?
We've all heard the business saying "You have to spend money to make money" . Well, if I had to translate that for NHL General Managers, it would be more like "You have to really suck to become elite".
At least, that's my perception. It was always my sense that the only way for NHL teams to win the Stanley Cup is to go through the pain of being terrible for a few seasons and get some elite players very high up in the draft. Names like Crosby and Malkin in Pittsburgh or Stamkos and Hedman in Tampa pop into my mind as instant evidence to support that conclusion, but is it really true?
The only way to find out would be to take a look at the Cup winners for the last 17 NHL seasons to see if the historical evidence supports my hunch. I determined that teams would meet my criteria of a terrible NHL team if they managed to get 3 draft picks in the top 5 selections over a 5 year span.
As far as a data set goes, I opted to look at NHL Drafts from 2002 to 2021 (total of a 100 players drafted in top 5) and Stanley Cups from 2006 to 2022 (17 Cups). In the salary cap era of the NHL (since 2005-06), there have been 11 different teams to win the Stanley Cup.
In order to refresh your memory about which NHL teams had playoff success in the past 17 seasons, here is a list of the number of times each franchise reached the final four in the playoffs: Cup Winners highlighted
Tampa Bay Lightning (7), Chicago Blackhawks (5), Pittsburgh Penguins (5), Anaheim Ducks (4), New York Rangers (4), San Jose Sharks (4), Boston Bruins (3), Carolina Hurricanes (3), Detroit Red Wings (3), Los Angeles Kings (3), Montreal Canadiens (3), Vegas Golden Knights (3), Buffalo Sabres (2), Dallas Stars (2), Edmonton Oilers (2), New York Islanders (2), Ottawa Senators (2), and Philadelphia Flyers (2), and St. Louis Blues (2).
Arizona/Phoenix Coyotes, Colorado Avalanche, Nashville Predators, New Jersey Devils, Vancouver Canucks, Washington Capitals, and Winnipeg Jets/Atlanta Thrashers.
Calgary Flames, Columbus Blue Jackets, Florida Panthers, Minnesota Wild, Seattle Kraken, and Toronto Maple Leafs.
One of the things that I found interesting from the list is that the Capitals and Avalanche are the only teams to win Lord Stanley's trophy in their only top 4 playoff appearance of the 17 year period.
I acknowledge that it definitely takes more than just getting some good draft spots to lift the Stanley. Teams that do get that opportunity still need a GM up to the challenge of building a competitive squad around those 3 players once they have selected them. To give you an idea of how many top 5 overall selections each team has had in those 20 years of NHL Drafts, here is a list: Cup Winners highlighted
Eight (8): Colorado
Six (6): Carolina, Edmonton, & Florida
Five (5): Buffalo, Los Angeles, NY Islanders, & Pittsburgh
Four (4): Arizona/Phoenix, Chicago, New Jersey, Toronto, & Winnipeg/Atlanta
Three (3): Columbus, Montreal, Ottawa, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, & Washington
Two (2): Anaheim, Boston, NY Rangers, St. Louis, & Vancouver
One (1): Calgary, Dallas, Detroit, Minnesota, Nashville, Seattle
Zero (0): San Jose & Vegas
As you can see, many teams have had multiple top 5 picks but it hasn't ended up in success for them. In fact, only 27 of the 100 top 5 selections since the 2002 NHL Entry Draft currently have Championship rings on their fingers (once the Avalanche get theirs). To be fair, those 73 players without Cups include a handful who have yet to start their professional careers and many that are just beginning promising ones. Add to that the fact that most of the 100 players are still on NHL rosters chasing that particular dream and it makes sense that the successful group will likely increase over time.
With respect to my specific parameters, I noticed that there were 14 examples to look at involving 13 different franchises from 2002 to 2022, with the Hurricanes doing it on two occasions.
In the end, the teams have won the Cup in 7 of those 14 situations, so 50% successful at this point. However, those 7 teams have accounted for 13 of the 17 championships in the salary cap era (2006 to date).
Carolina: 3rd/4th/2nd picks in 2005/2004/2003 to win Cup in 2006.
J. Johnson, A. Ladd, & E. Staal
Back in 2005-06, the Carolina Hurricanes won the Cup in the first salary cap season. They had ten 1st round draft picks on their roster, including five top 5 picks. They only drafted two of those (E. Staal - 2nd/A. Ladd - 4th) and acquired the other 3 (A. Ward - 5th/G. Wesley - 3rd/O. Tverdovsky - 2nd). J. Johnson was the high draft pick (3rd) not on the team, as he was traded to LA for T. Gleason & E. Belanger before he even suited up for the Hurricanes. Belanger was then flipped to Nashville for J. Vasicek. The Canes also acquired two players drafted in the top 10 (C. Stillman - 6th/R. Brind'Amour - 9th) to help their run.
Courtesy of jbwhite99 - CanesCountry fansite
**Note that Andrew Ladd's selection was traded for - the Canes had the 8th pick, but moved up to 4th to select Ladd. I remember seeing Bettman make his "and I think you Caniacs will want to hear this trade announcement speech". We gave up the 59th pick (Toronto's 2nd round) to Columbus to move from 8 to 4. That draft was in front of 18,680 Caniacs at the RBC Center.**
**Jack Johnson missed out on a Cup with the Canes, was in LA just before they won two Cups, and then came to Pittsburgh right after they won there. He finally was at the right place at the right time this year with Colorado and got his chance to lift the coveted trophy. `
Chicago: 1st/3rd/3rd picks in 2007/2006/2004 to win Cup in 2010, 2013, & 2015.
P. Kane, J. Toews, & C. Barker
The Chicago Blackhawks lifted Lord Stanley's Cup on three occasions, benefiting from three top 5 overall draft picks. The Hawks started by selecting C. Barker with the 3rd overall pick in the 2004 NHL Draft. Barker was no longer with Chicago when they had their success, but he was traded to Minnesota for N. Leddy, who did play a role. The Blackhawks other two top picks worked out much better for them: J. Toews (3rd in 2006) and P. Kane (1st in 2007).
Colorado: 1st/2nd/3rd picks in 2013/2011/2009 to win Cup in 2022.
N. MacKinnon, G. Landeskog, & M. Duchene
The Colorado Avalanche recently joined the Stanley Cup Champions group and they have also benefited from the top of NHL drafts. In fact, they match the Penguins with a total of five top 5 draft picks. Going back to the 2009 NHL Draft, the Avalanche ended up with M. Duchene (3rd overall). Duchene's time in Colorado ended before this year, but the Avalanche picked up valuable pieces from Nashville (S. Girard, 1st/2nd/3rd round picks, and others). In the 2011 and 2013 drafts, the Avs really struck gold with N. MacKinnon (1st) and G. Landeskog (2nd). The final 2 seasons with high draft picks were the 2017 and 2019 NHL Drafts and once again Colorado found some impact players (C. Makar - 4th overall & B. Byram - 4th overall).
When the Avs won the Cup this year, they had a total of six players drafted in the top 5 on their roster.
Los Angeles: 5th/2nd/4th picks in 2009/2008/2007 to win Cup in 2012 & 2014.
B. Schenn, D. Doughty, & T. Hickey
The Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley in the 2011-12 and 2013-14 seasons, but in the years leading up to that, the Kings had three picks in the top 5. It started at the 2007 NHL Draft when they selected T. Hickey with the 4th overall selection, who didn't really pan out and was selected off waivers by the NY Islanders a few seasons later. LA's luck improved at the following draft, when the opted for D. Doughty with the 2nd overall pick. At the 2009 NHL Draft, the Kings again had a top pick and used the 5th selection to get B. Schenn. While Schenn was not around when the Kings won their Cups, he was a big part of the trade that brought M. Richards to LA from the Flyers.
Pittsburgh: 2nd/1st/2nd/1st/5th picks in 2006/2005/2004/2003/2002 to win Cup in 2009, 2016, & 2017.
J. Staal, S. Crosby, E. Malkin, M. Fleury, Ryan Whitney
The Pittsburgh Penguins started their path to the Stanley Cup at the 2002 NHL Draft when they got R. Whitney with the 5th overall pick. Whitney was later moved to the Anaheim Ducks and Pittsburgh gained a key cog (C. Kunitz) in return. The next 3 seasons saw the Penguins select M. Fleury (1st), E. Malkin (2nd), and S. Crosby (1st), all key components in their post-season successes. Pittsburgh wasn't done though, as they also got J. Staal with the 2nd overall pick in 2006 too. Staal was moved to the Hurricanes after the first Cup win, netting the Pens B. Dumoulin & B. Sutter. Sutter was later traded to Vancouver for N. Bonino & A. Clendening and the acquired players had a role in Pittsburgh's final two Stanley Cups.
Tampa Bay: 3rd/2nd/1st picks in 2013/2009/2008 to win Cup in 2020 & 2021.
J. Drouin, V. Hedman, & S. Stamkos
The Tampa Bay Lightning juggernaut has benefited from three top 5 overall draft picks (and a 6th) to become back-to-back Stanley Cup Champions. The Lightning got started at the 2008 NHL Draft when they selected S. Stamkos with the 1st overall pick. The following draft saw TB add yet another key cog when they picked up V. Hedman with the 2nd overall selection. The final top draft pick was J. Drouin with the 3rd overall spot in 2013. Drouin was later used to pick up M. Sergachev and a 2nd round draft pick from Montreal. The previously mentioned 6th overall selection was at the 2010 draft when they chose B. Connolly.
Washington: 5th/4th/1st picks in 2007/2006/2004 to win Cup in 2018.
K. Alzner, N. Backstrom, & A. Ovechkin
The Washington Capitals also had to wait a long time before their three top 5 overall selections paid off. They drafted A. Ovechkin (1st in 2004), N. Backstrom (4th in 2006), and K. Alzner (5th in 2007). While Alzner did play with the Caps for quite a few years, he left to the Canadiens in free agency before Washington's magical season.
The seven examples with Stanley Cup wins show a wide range in the time needed before the top 5 overall selections paid off with a championship. From the Hurricanes lifting the Cup the year following their last high pick to another squad having to wait eleven seasons to have that feeling. The most common waiting period was three seasons, with the Blackhawks, Kings, and Penguins pulling that off. Of course, both the Hawks & Pens would go on to win other Cups as well, as late as 8 years & 11 years after making their last top 5 pick. The Lightning, Avalanche, and Capitals took longer routes to success, with 7, 9, and 11 season waits following their final top 5 draft pick.
STILL WORKING ON IT
**there is still varying levels of hope for these teams**
Carolina: 2nd/5th/5th picks in 2018/2015/2013
E. Svechnikov, N. Hanafin, & E. Lindholm
Lindholm & Hanafin were traded to the Calgary Flames after failing to bring a Cup in their early years with the Hurricanes. The Canes did acquire some good players in return, D. Hamilton, M. Ferland, & A. Fox. But Ferland only stayed a season before leaving to Vancouver in free agency and Fox had to be traded to the NY Rangers for 2nd & 3rd round picks that may or may not pan out.
With Hamilton now gone to New Jersey, any hope that they could improve the 50% success rate rests on Svechnikov and players drafted outside of the top 5 (i.e. S. Aho & S. Jarvis).
With a lot of roster decisions to make, it's not exactly clear what the Hurricanes roster will look like next year. But it's not out of the question that they will make the playoffs and make a serious run for the Cup.
Edmonton Oilers: 4th/1st/3rd/1st/1st/1st picks in 2016/2015/2014/2013/2012/2011/2010
J. Puljujarvi, C. McDavid, L. Draisaitl, N. Yakupov, R. Nugent-Hopkins, & T. Hall
The Oilers still have 4 of their 6 top draft picks on the team. Yakupov was a bust and when he was finally traded, he netted a prospect who failed to reach the NHL level. The original bounty for former 1st rounder Hall wasn't terrible in A. Larsson, a 4th overall draft pick himself. However, the Seattle Kraken picked Larsson off Edmonton in the expansion draft, so the Oilers will have to try to win a Cup with two of their top 5 picks providing no further benefits to the team.
Edmonton finally made it to the final four teams of the playoffs this year, but can they pull off a Stanley Cup win before the top players move on? With the money McDavid, Draisaitl, and Nurse make, the team struggles to fill out the remainder of the roster with appropriate talent. You would think with their high-powered offense, if the GM could stumble on a goalie who could get really hot in the playoffs, the Oilers could have a chance.
Toronto Maple Leafs: 1st/4th/5th picks in 2016/2015/2012
A. Matthews, M. Marner, & M. Rielly
The Toronto core 4 consisting of the above noted top 5 picks and W. Nylander have done very well in the regular season, but so far haven't found any success in the playoffs.
What exactly is the reason for that? The curse? They are one of six teams that haven't managed to make a top 4 playoff appearance in the past 17 seasons. And that is including the Kraken, who only have had one year to try to achieve it. Or is it bad management? Because the team didn't have immediate success following their top 5 draft picks, the Leafs now have to deal with those players taking up a large chunk of their salary cap space.
Similar to Edmonton, if the GM can find a way to plug team weaknesses with limited funds, Toronto could win a Cup in the next 2 years. Their window is definitely closing, but they still have a good chance to sneak a Cup in before it shuts.
JUST GETTING GOING
**not enough time has passed since their 3 picks**
New Jersey: 4th/1st/1st picks in 2021/2019/2017
L. Hughes, J. Hughes, & N. Hischier
The Devils are due to make another top 5 selection in the upcoming draft (2nd), so they are certainly piling them up in the hopes of becoming a future Tampa Bay or Pittsburgh. NJ management has much work to make that happen, but we have seen that it sometimes takes as long as 11 seasons after the final top 5 pick for them to pay off with a Cup. And the Devils are pretty much just resetting their window back to year 1 with another top 5 pick in early July.
Ottawa: 3rd/5th/4th picks in 2020/2020/2018
T. Stutzle, J. Sanderson, & B. Tkachuk
The Senators tank plan has been hurt by some poor lottery luck, but they have accumulated a large prospect pool regardless. They will add to it with a 7th overall selection at the 2022 NHL Entry Draft in July.
The future Cup hopes of Ottawa will rest on the future moves of the GM, such as knowing which prospects to keep, which to give up and recoup assets before it's too late, and which to pay handsomely when the time comes. If you're a Sens fan, you would be hoping to see some improvement next year as they enter year 2 of the 11 year window.
**these franchises managed to screw up whatever advantage top 5 picks gave them**
NY Islanders: 1st/5th/5th/4th/5th picks in 2014/2012/2011/2010/2009
J. Tavares, N. Niederreiter, R. Strome, G. Reinhart, & M. Dal Colle
Only Dal Colle is still with the Isles organization and he hasn't been able to become a NHL starter so far. They let Tavares walk for nothing, but at least obtained a 1st round pick from EDM that paid off (M. Barzal) when trading the other 3 away.
Buffalo: 2nd/2nd/1st from 2014/2015/2018
S. Reinhart, J. Eichel, & R. Dahlin
Of their top 5 draft picks, only Dahlin is left on the Buffalo roster. The Sabres did acquire two 1st round picks in this year's Entry Draft along with P. Krebs & A. Tuch when they traded the other 2, so they are probably hoping to find the road to NHL success in the upcoming seasons. But with so many past years of mismanagement, the Sabres will have to start showing signs of success before I consider putting them in the Still Working On It category.
OTHER CUP WINNERS
4 of the Stanley Cup winners since 2006 didn't meet the standards of my theory, so let's take a look at what their rosters looked like.
The St. Louis Blues did have two top 5 overall selections (E. Johnson - 1st in 2006 & A. Pietrangelo - 4th in 2008), but only Pietrangelo was still around for the Blues' Cup celebrations. Johnson was moved onto the Avalanche for a 2nd round pick.
**Thought I would point out that B. Schenn (5th overall) didn't win a Cup with his draft team (LA), but he did get one with St. Louis. E. Johnson, 1st overall pick by St. Louis, didn't win a ring with his draft team, but did get one with the Avs' this year.
The Anaheim Ducks win in 2006-07 doesn't exactly fit my suggested plan, but it sort of works. They did have four players drafted in the top 5 on their roster (C. Pronger - 2nd/S. Niedermayer - 3rd/R. Niedermayer - 5th/R. Jackman - 5th), but none of those players were selected by Anaheim. The Ducks had a total of nine 1st round draft picks on the team, including key players like T. Selanne (10th), J. Giguere (13th), R. Getzlaf (19th), & C. Perry (28th).
The Detroit Red Wings lifted the Stanley in 2007-08 with only 3 players drafted in the 1st round on the team. N. Kronwall (29th), B. Stuart (3rd), and D. Cleary (13th). And only Kronwall was drafted by the Wings! However, this "method" required some unbelievable scouting/luck to pull off. If you can find players like N. Lidstrom (3rd round/53rd overall), J. Franzen (3rd/97th), P. Datsyuk (6th/171st), H. Zetterberg (7th/210th), and D. Hasek (10th/199th), then you might be able to pull off what they did.
The Boston Bruins are the final Cup winner (2010-11) and they also only had three 1st round draft picks on their roster. N. Horton (3rd), T. Seguin (3rd), and D. Paille (20th). And once again, they only drafted one of those players - Seguin. However, they did trade another player drafted 5th overall (B. Wheeler) at the trade deadline as well. Like the Red Wings, Boston had some pretty good drafting to pull it off, but probably not as impressive. They found some gems in the 2nd round with P. Bergeron, M. Lucic, and D. Krejci. The 3rd round also provided assistance with Z. Chara (56th overall) and B. Marchand (71st). Boston added a late round steal when they selected T. Thomas in the 9th round (217th overall).
So, in the salary cap era of the NHL, no team has won the Cup without at least a 3rd overall selection on their roster. Almost all the winning squads have had multiple top 5 overall draft picks on the ice when they found success. Most teams ended up drafting that top 5 talent, but a few acquired some, or all in the case of Anaheim, via free agency or trades.
Boston and Detroit are examples of teams that were really successful in drafting high-end talent outside of the 1st round and rode that success to a championship.
While there are other roads that lead to a Stanley Cup, none of them have been traveled as often as the one I just described. Although, this doesn't give NHL GMs a direct path to a championship, since there is plenty of work to be done to make it happen and there are many opportunities to lose the way.
At worst, the method has worked out 7 times out of 14 (50%). Without the teams just starting out on the path (New Jersey & Ottawa), that would make it 7 out of 12 (58.3%). If one of Carolina, Edmonton, or Toronto can manage to win the Cup in the next few seasons, that could improve the success rate to 8 out of 12 (66.7%). It might be painful to cheer for a team that is terrible for 5 years, but it just might be the start of great things for the franchise. Remember, 13 out of the last 17 Stanley Cups have been lifted by teams that followed this method.