How to Build a Contender – Part 4: The Difficulty of Acquiring Elite Talent

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Photo Credit: Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

In the opening instalments of this series objectively looking at how teams can best build a contending team, we introduced the concept of Goals Above Replacement (GAR) before moving on to explore the impact of aging on player performance, and what sort of salary cap structure is maintained by successful teams

What we’ve found should come as no surprise. 

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The teams with the highest goals against replacement won the most games, and were most frequently among those competing for the Stanley Cup into mid-May and June. When looking at the make up of these teams, it wasn’t just that they had a high overall team GAR, but they had two or more players with elite level GAR, typically at least one with a GAR over 15 and one with a GAR over 20. Again, this should come as no surprise. Its the stars and superstars that move the dial in the NHL. Depth matters in the playoffs, but this is how it’s always been.

How do teams go about procuring these types of rare talents? Let’s investigate in Part 4 of our ‘how to build a contender’ series.

The players in the over 20 GAR bucket are pretty much who you’d expect to be in the top 2.4% (207 out of 8480 player seasons looking at the 10 year period from 2005-06 to 2014-15). Looking closer at those 207 elite over 20 GAR seasons, we start to see a lot of the same names coming up. In fact 128 (62%) of those  41 players who had more than one over elite 20 GAR season. 

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Understanding the importance of acquiring elite talent in the hopes of building a Stanley Cup contender, I thought I’d look a bit closer at those biggest elite difference makers. Who are they, and how did their teams acquire them? To break this down, I look at how elite talent was acquired by the team they played their elite season for, whether it be trade, draft, or free agency. Note, some of the players show up in more than once. 


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Player # of > 20 GAR seasons Team During >20 GAR Season Acquired Draft Position
Joe Thornton 8 SJ Trade 1
Chris Pronger 2 ANA Trade 2
Tyler Seguin 2 DAL Trade 2
Kari Lehtonen 2 Dal Trade 2
Jaromir Jagr 2 NYR Trade 5
Teemu Selanne 2 ANA Trade 10
Roberto Luongo 4 Florida/Van Trade 4
Tuukka Rask 2 BOS Trade 21
Cory Schneider 2 NJ Trade 26
Jason Pominville 2 Min Trade 55
Lubomir Visnovsky 3 ANA Trade 118
Tomas Vokoun 4 FLA Trade 226
Dan Boyle 3 SJ Trade undrafted

The trades involving players on this list span almost two decades, from the Teemu Selanne trade in 1996 to the Tyler Seguin trade in 2013. On average, NHL teams make roughly 100 trades a year, so I’d expect there were roughly 1,700 trades from Selanne to Seguin. Of course, the War-on-ice team only has GAR data going back to 2005-06, so there’s undoubtedly some pre-GAR era elite players missing. That said, seeing 13 elite players acquired via trade over this period, there’s probably only a 1-2% shot you’re going to land an elite talent this way. It’s great when it happen, but hardly a strategy you can bank on. 

Draft Steals

Player # of > 20 GAR seasons Team During >20 GAR Season Acquired Draft Position
Paul Stastny 2 COL Draft 44
Patrice Bergeron 2 BOS Draft 45
Jason Pominville 2 BUF Draft 55
Lubomir Visnovsky 3 LA Draft/ 118
Jamie Benn 2 Dal Draft 129
Pavel Datsyuk 8 Det Draft 171
Joe Pavelski 4 SJ Draft 205
Henrik Lundqvist 5 NYR Draft 205
Henrik Zetterberg 3 DET Draft 210
Tomas Vokoun 4 NAS Draft 226

I’ve grouped all draftees who were picked outside the first round together, as theoretically all teams passed on these players at least once in their draft year. As with the trades, these picks span a long period of time as well, from Tomas Vokoun in 1994 to Jamie Benn in 2007, so these 10 elite players were among roughly 2,300 non-first round draft picks over this period of time. 

ESPN’s Corey Pronman ($$) wrote a piece a couple months ago, arguing that the draft is 75% luck and 25% skill. Obviously, readers of the blog know that we think there are ways teams can tilt the odds in their favour at the draft table, but Pronman’s point is well taken. 

The odds of finding an elite talent outside of the 1st round is exceedingly slim. Case in point is the Detroit Red Wings, who were fortunate enough to have lightning strike twice with their selections of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg  in the 6th round of 1998 and 7th round of 1999, respectively. Since then, they’ve only selected one player from the 6th round or later who has played over 200 NHL games – Jonathan Ericsson. 

Free Agency 

Player # of > 20 GAR seasons Team During >20 GAR Season Acquired Draft Position
Martin St. Louis 4 TBL Free Agency undrafted
Dan Boyle 3 TB/SJ Free Agency / Trade undrafted
Tim Thomas 3 BOS Free Agency undrafted

From July to August 2015 there have been a grand total of 227 free agents signed by NHL teams, but there was a surprisingly low amount of elite >20 GAR players. Assuming that this summer’s contract signings are indicative of the 10 year period of GAR data we’re looking at, roughly 1/10th of 1% of free agents signings turned out to be elite. It’s found money if you find a Martin St. Louis or Dan Boyle, but its also highly improbable. 

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First Rounders (excluding top 5 picks)

Player # of > 20 GAR seasons Team During >20 GAR Season Acquired Draft Position
Logan Couture 2 SJS Draft 9
Anze Kopitar 5 LAK Draft 11
Alexander Semin 2 WSH Draft 13
Zach Parise 2 NJ Draft 17
Ryan Getzlaf 3 ANA Draft 19
Tuukka Rask 2 BOS Trade 21
Claude Giroux 3 PHI Draft 22
Cory Schneider 2 Van Draft/ 26
Corey Perry 2 ANA Draft 28
Mike Green 2 WSH Draft 29

These are the players that drive fans crazy, and make general managers look bad (how did we pick Michael Grabner over Claude Giroux?!?). 

We should probably chill on judging executives harshly for failing to strike oil late in the first-round though. As we can see over the course of the six drafts we’re looking at (fro 2002 to 2007), only 10 players out of 150 selections from 6-30 (6.7%) turned into elite talents. 

Stockpiling first round picks doesn’t guarantee you landing a Corey Perry or Ryan Getzlaf, far from it, but the odds are at least clearly higher that you might land a player of this calibre than the methods we’ve described previously. 

Lottery Picks (1 to 5)

Player # of > 20 GAR seasons Team During >20 GAR Season Acquired Draft Position
Joe Thornton 8 Bos/SJ Draft/Trade 1
Alex Ovechkin 6 WSH Draft 1
Sidney Crosby 5 PIT Draft 1
Steven Stamkos 4 TBL Draft 1
John Tavares 2 NYI Draft 1
Evgeni Malkin 3 PIT Draft 2
Patrick Marleau 3 SJS Draft 2
Daniel Sedin 2 Van Draft 2
Jason Spezza 2 OTT Draft 2
Kari Lehtonen 2 Atl/Dal Draft/Trade 2
Jonathan Toews 4 CHI Draft 3
Roberto Luongo 4 Van/Florida Trade 4
Carey Price 2 MTL Draft 5

When fans talk about wanting their team to tank, it is with the hopes of landing a player of the calibre of those listed above. The draft period these players were selected from spans from 1997 to 2009, so seeing 13 names out of those 65 players selected (20%) really speaks to how much higher your odds are in acquiring game changing talent when picking with a top 5 pick. 

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As we saw in the earlier parts of this series, in order to have a legitimate shot at winning the Stanley Cup, you really need to have a team capable of accumulating a higher (i.e. over 100) goals against replacement, and that the teams that successfully surpass this threshold do so because of they have a one or more elite players on their roster. 

As we can see, many teams beat extremely long odds to find these diamonds-in-the-rough through either late round picks, or via trades and free agency, however these are really lottery ticket scenarios that you really can’t build a strategy around. 

On the other hand, we see from the players selected in the top 5, and less so later in the first round, that the odds increase significantly if you’re able to acquire high-end first-round draft picks. 

While, lottery picks by no means guarantee you’ll find yourself with an elite NHLer, we can see why this strategy was attractive to a team like Buffalo when there were two potentially generational players available in the 2015 draft. On the other end of the equation, looking at the success rates of first rounders in general, we can see why it was so important to the Canucks to acquire multiple first round selections as they did in 2013 and 2014, and it will be very interesting to see if they can do it again in 2016 given they have a number of players on existing contracts that could reasonably command somewhat significant returns at the trade deadline. 

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Others in this Series




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  • Steampuck

    On Pronman’s luck. I’m inclined to agree. I think there are more cup rings amongst the draft steals than among the elite picks (quick count, not careful). At the same time, it seems wrong to call the Red Wings’ success around the turn of the century luck.

    • andyg

      This shows that the canucks concept of building on the fly is the right one. That is if you draft and develop well!

      Horvat, Boeser and Virtanen all have the potential to be elite players.

      • Double Dees

        Strong yes, elite I don’t know. I’m still not sold on the GAR metric, especially if it lumps together a Lehtonen, Schneider and Visnovsky with a Selanne, Luongo, Pronger, Thornton, and Sedin.

        Kesler was a good player here, even a great player. But I would argue he wasn’t elite in the way that the Sedins have been for a decade. We’re aways away at this point but it’s hard to see a Boeser, Virtanen or Horvat actually carrying a team. The Sedins dragged corpses like Carter and Pyatt to 20+ goals and made us competitive season after season. But that kind of talent is rarely available in later rounds except for luck. It’s true that the drafts are 75% luck but those numbers should be way smaller in the first round, especially at the top end.

        Do you have a metric for acquiring elite young talent that measures how stupid some teams might be in their adherence to some dumb code of behavior? Enough that they’re willing to trade away Hamilton, Seguin, Evander Kane?

        • andyg

          Hovat; I watched a young player start the year with a restricted role. As he progressed he was given more responsibility. We seen him get stronger and faster as the year went along. In the playoffs,the toughest hockey of the year he puts up 4 points in 6 games and is a plus.

          With his work ethic the sky is the limit. He has all the tools.

          • Mantastic

            Maybe the tiers should be more clearly delineated. There are generational players who are impactful from their very first season — Gretzky, Lemieux, Crosby, There are elite players who are good but not great until a few seasons in — the Sedins didn’t become elite until their sixth season in the league but then have dominated for a decade. Then there are really excellent players — I would include a guy like Kesler who also didn’t really take top billing until his sixth year and would not carry a team on his own as a #1 (and has never been in that role; even his breakout season with the Moose he was the #2).

            I absolutely love Horvat and I think he has the potential to be like Kesler, a top-end #2, with a high skill set and fantastic work ethic. But elite or generational means something else.

          • andyg


            The chances of us getting a generational player is slim to none. You do not require that to win a cup and even if you do land a generational player it does not guaranty you a cup.

            We will need to build with players who turn themselves into elite talent and really excellent players. Development is the key to this approach and Mr Gillis did one thing right. (Utica) Liden and Benning are trying to take it to the next level. Prospects are raw materials that need to be shaped into something special.

      • Mantastic

        No they don’t. Horvat’s ceiling is a second line center with plus defensive abilities. And that’s awesome. That’s a great kind of player to have. But he won’t be elite. Boeser likely has second line scoring winger upside, but the chances of him being elite are extremely low. And Virtanen, well, I hope you liked Raffi Torres.

        The only guys in the system that really even have a whiff of elite in the traditional sense (i.e, not a late round steal) are Shinkaruk and Baertschi, and every passing day makes it less and less likely for both of them.

  • Double Dees

    All this makes no relative sense in re: to actually playing hockey.

    You’re either good or you’re not or you’re in the middle. It’s very straight forward.
    You don’t need “GAR” to figure things out.

    It’s called “eyes”. What you see with your eye balls matter the most.

    Too bad Canuck fans need fancy symbols (=+[\|}€£¥~}) to confuse themselves.

      • Double Dees

        you’re right master. I don’t know much about hockey at all…

        But I do know this, the Canucks are in denial about the whole aura and culture of the team from top to bottom…wait…there is no culture. Absolutely none.

        When anyone thinks of the Canucks “culture” all they think about is a bunch of money grabbers with no stick up and bad contracts.

  • andyg

    The free agency section seems like a lazy analysis:

    “Assuming that this summer’s contract signings are indicative of the 10 year period of GAR data we’re looking at…”

    I don’t see any reason to think this year’s free agent class can be assumed to be the expected class over the past 10 years. If anything I would say that this year has seemed different in that the cap did not increase as much as in past years and there seemed to be a lack of any high end names. Maybe this is always the case, or indicative of a general trend, or maybe this year is an outlier, but without looking at past years we can’t really say.

    I’m not suggesting that free agency is the way to build a team, but it just makes it hard to put into context relative to the other methods.

  • Double Dees

    Great joke about Joe Thornton being useful!

    This is an interesting analysis. Well done, Moneypuck. Has an NHL team hired you yet?

    The point is: procuring talent, outside of drafts, is difficult, and punative/impossible due to the salary cap.

    In essence, the salary cap incentives marginal teams to tank. This is an unintended outcome, but explains a lot.

    I would prefer a “luxury tax” like MLB – if you spend over a point, distribute that over-spend to teams that under-spent.

    But what do I know.

    • andyg

      Well Thornton was pretty useful when he shot the puck at Luongo’s feet and had a few choice words for him during the SCF. Captain Luongo and his merry men scurried off like mice and the end result was no SC and another riot.

      I guess that’s what happens when citizens have to live among other citizens who freely support all the monopolies in the province , ICBC, SkyPit, wheat board, milk board, tax tax tax on top of tax. The Canucks are no different than politicians, all BS, no action.

  • andyg

    So tell me what you consider as elite!

    Purely based on offense? Do they have to be first line players? Would you consider Dustin Brown elite? (in his peak years)

    I think that a team needs key pieces to make it complete. Each with his own skills.For instance you can have an elite penalty killer or defensive defense man. Bo Horvat has the potential to be an elite 2nd line center if you would like. He is still a key piece to building a winner.

    We need to stop looking at just points.

  • andyg

    To get elite talent you either have to buy it or draft it. Given that no one who’s any good or serious about winning the SC wants to come here to play, that would only leave the draft.

    And seeing as how the Canucks hate having to tank for a top draft pick, the chances of a real star or future coming to Vancouver is ZILCH. You guys can talk all your want but you’re not getting anything better when you’re 70th in line at the draft buffet.

  • andyg

    Oh. I forgot about the third option to get elite players.

    3- Draft mediocre players and hype them as the future elite of the franchise, then market and pray the ding dongs go and buy season tickets.

  • andyg

    It’s funny that for all the criticism that moneypuck gets from clueless commenters, the site will largely go to sh*t once he gets scooped up by an NHL team. By sh*t I mean there will still be reasonably good analysis and it may remain the best canucks coverage out there, but the good, thought-provoking, groundbreaking pieces will be gone. Enjoy it while it lasts.

    • Mantastic

      no good team would pick up moneypuck based off of what he does right now.

      his analysis is still incredibly shallow for a guy who works on this stuff as much as he does. most of his articles is just his analysis on other people’s ideas/concepts, not at all groundbreaking! i hope he does better but based off his past and current work, there is still a lot to improve.

      Rhys, on the other hand, does less analytically work but still has a better concept on how to apply advanced stats well.

  • andyg

    Thanks, this answered my question from part 3 regarding the source of +15 GAR players. Makes the idea of transition certainly a tougher road.

    The 2 most recent “Cinderella teams” Edmonton – 2006, New Jersey – 2012 did they follow the same model for Elite talent? I’m not advocating planning for a Cinderella run, but it may give hope to the “get into the playoffs and anything can happen” theory.