Around 8:30 PM on Friday night, the NHL Draft appeared to be shaping up perfectly for Ron Hextall and the Philadelphia Flyers. The Nashville Predators selected defenseman Dante Fabbro with the 17th overall pick, leaving coveted snipers Kieffer Bellows and Julien Gauthier on the board for the Flyers. For an organization lacking pure goal scorers both at the NHL level and in the prospect pool at large, it seemed to be a golden opportunity for Hextall.
Instead, the Flyers general manager sat stone-faced at the team's table for what seemed like hours. Finally, the announcement came -- Philadelphia would be moving down to pick no. 22 due to a trade with the Winnipeg Jets. What came next proved predictable, as both Bellows and Gauthier were unsurprisingly snapped up before the Flyers could make their selection at the new slot. Instead, they took Russian center German Rubtsov, a prospect viewed more as a two-way stalwart than a dynamic goal scorer.
Fans, who anticipated the addition of sniper at pick #18, howled on social media following the selection. A draft that seemed poised to deliver a flashy talent to the pipeline pivoted quickly to a "safe," defensively-responsible forward as the key acqusition. It seemed a far cry from 2015, when Hextall nabbed blue chip defenseman Ivan Provorov and then traded up to secure the electric Travis Konecny late in the first round.
But there is a common thread that binds the two drafts together -- a relentless quest on the part of Hextall to maximize value. In that regard, 2016's first round was yet another success.
Let's start with the trade. Sure, the Flyers passed up on a chance to pick Bellows or Gauthier. But let's not ignore the fact that Hextall fleeced the Winnipeg Jets in terms of pick value.
Garret Hohl at Jets Nation used the Draft Pick Value system developed by former BSH writer Eric Tulsky to determine who got the better of the Philadelphia-Winnipeg trade. His conclusion? Hextall essentially picked up an extra third round pick's worth of value in the swap.
On average, the 22nd and 36th overall pick combines to about 32.7 points, given that a 1st overall pick is 100 points.
The 18th and the 79th combine for about 27.6 points.
This means the Jets lost about 4.6 points worth of value in the trade relative to historical trades. While 4.6 points may not seem huge, the 79th pick is historically only worth about 3.0 points. In other words, teams trading what the Jets did tend to gain a whole another third round pick in terms of value.
Even though Hextall "won" the trade from a statistical standpoint, the move didn't come without risk. Namely, the risk that all comparable talents to Bellows and Gauthier would be gone by pick no. 22, when the Flyers would finally make their selection. Tulsky's model assumes a standard curve based on historical data, but does not account for scouting and statistical "tiers" in a specific draft.
At least in terms of pre-draft consensus, there was a sizable dropoff after the top 21 prospects available. Pick 22 would place the Flyers just outside of that range, leaving the possibility open that they would have to fall back on a player like Riley Tufte or Tage Thompson in a worst-case scenario.
But as so often happens in the NHL Draft, some teams went off the board. With the pick they acquired from the Flyers, Winnipeg selected Logan Stanley, a huge defenseman whose puck skills are still a work-in-progress. Then, at #20, the Detroit Red Wings grabbed Dennis Cholowski, another Tier 5 talent and more of an organizational need selection than a best player available pick.
The Detroit pick guaranteed that the Flyers would have their choice of at least two forwards stationed in the consensus top-21 of the draft. And according to Ron Hextall, they ended up with their top target -- German Rubtsov.
But just how good is Rubtsov? It's tough to use stats to judge him, since he played in the MHL (a relatively new league) last season. Let's instead use three of the most respected draft rankings in the public sphere -- those of Corey Pronman, Craig Button and Bob McKenzie -- to see how he matches up to Bellows and Gauthier.
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Rubtsov blows away Gauthier in these rankings, primarily due to the influence of Button and Pronman. And he surprisingly hangs right with Bellows as well, only falling a bit behind because of some skepticism on the part of McKenzie. Still, the average difference is minimal, implying that Bellows and Rubtsov have nearly equal value.
Suddenly, trading down looks even better. The Flyers barely lost any overall value in terms of the player that they selected at #22 versus the "best player available" at no. 18, and picked up an early second round pick for their troubles. If Hextall can turn that 36th overall pick into a skill player like Vitali Abramov (who they interviewed at the scouting combine), then fans will get the exciting scorer that they craved in round one in addition to the valuable Rubtsov.
The only real arguments against the Flyers' moves on Friday night are of a stylistic variety. Philadelphia needed a sniper in the system, and given the opportunity to nab one of the best out there, they passed. That's a fair opinion to have. But remember that the draft is an inexact science on the individual player level. While fans fell in love with the skillsets of players like Bellows and Gauthier in the lead-up to the draft, it's important to note that neither are sure things to reach their best-case scenario ceilings.
The draft is essentially a weighted lottery, with each slot providing slightly more value than the next pick. As a result, the best way to "win" the draft is to stockpile as much ticket value as possible. By making a shrewd trade and then selecting a player who slipped further than expected, Ron Hextall and the Flyers showed that they have a firm grasp on the way this game is played.