In the NHL draft on Friday, the Bruins used the 18th overall pick on Urho Vaakanainen, a Finnish defenseman who was not a consensus first-round prospect. What idiots.
Oh, not the Bruins. Well, maybe. Who knows? But the for-sure idiots are people who are inclined to lament the pick.
This isn’t because I’m necessarily a big fan of Vaakanainen. Like you, I’ve not watched full games of him. It’s because if you blindly criticize an NHL draft pick past the middle of the first round, you are an absolute maniac.
The NHL draft might be the most difficult draft in professional sports. There are sleepers in every draft, but no draft lends itself to going off the board more than hockey. Maybe baseball. Maaaaybe.
Why? Because players are so hard to project that the best talent evaluators in the world are often incorrect in the long-run. There’s so much projection involved that the 18th-best player at the time of the draft could very well be a nobody at the next level. We cling to the pre-draft rankings for dear life, but Craig Button’s final list is far different from Todd McShay’s big board. This isn’t because McShay is any smarter than Button; it’s because projecting teenagers who haven’t grown into their bodies for a job when they’re 22 is a heck of a lot harder than projecting a 22-year-old for a job when they’re 22.
Scouts and a lot of media know to a tee what these players are now. There's no questioning their knowledge. Yet what makes the draft so fascinating is that, unlike a draft like the NFL and, to an extent, the NBA, it's more of a question of what they may be.
Case in point: As part of a piece I wrote for WEEI.com back in 2015, I attempted to quantify what a “hit” and a “miss” was in the first round of the NHL draft. The explanation is in the story, but for our purposes “hit” means NHL regular or close to it. I looked at a seven-year sample and these were the findings:
Picks 1-10: 62 hits, eight misses
Picks 11-20: 29 hits, 41 misses
Picks 21-30: 20 hits, 50 misses
This isn’t to suggest that teams should throw darts at a board. That would sell short the importance of having good players on entry level contracts, which is critical in today’s NHL. It would also foolishly suggest the work done by scouts isn’t equally critical.
Yet where the Bruins picked on Friday, they were in the range where they’ve got less than a 50-50 chance of the guy panning out. Taking a risk on a guy they like rather than a bigger name (like there is a “bigger” name than Vaakanainen; just a little name humor) with whom they're not enamored is a totally respectable approach.
Under Don Sweeney, the Bruins go off the board regularly. Jake DeBrusk was considered a minor reach at 14th overall in 2015; Zach Senyshyn was considered a major reach with the very next pick. Those picks were easier to question considering a presumed top-10 pick was still on the board in Kyle Connor. If they end up being wrong on that, they'll deserve criticism just like anyone who took someone who proved to be a lesser player before the 17th pick.
A year later, the B’s took Trent Frederic in the first round when there hadn’t been a peep about that kid being a first-round pick. The jury is still out on all of these guys, but they’ve developed well since their selections.
But going by the book isn't a clear-cut recipe for success, and the B's know it. The 2012 draft wasn’t great. Go look at the late first round of that draft; Tanner Pearson is the exception, not the rule, given that he became an NHL regular. Picking in that range, the B’s took a player ranked in that neighborhood: Malcolm Subban, who has yet to become a starting NHL goalie and may never do so.
The Bruins would have received a whole lot of what-the-hell-are-they-doings had they taken a lower-ranked goalie in that spot. Yet Matt Murray was in that draft and he ended up becoming a starting goalie as a third-round pick. They’d also have been panned if they took Shayne Gostisbehere, who went in the third.
Like any draft, guys drafted in later rounds can become great players. Yet the NHL draft usually isn’t going to give you a star in the first round the way the NFL draft does, so you might as well take the guy you like where you want. That’s what the Bruins do, and it’s really not as silly as it sounds.