Pucks in Deep: The Gold-Doan 2016 NHL Re-Draft

by Sam Stockton | 4/1/19 2:15am

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Sam Stockton ’19 reimagines the 2016 National Hockey League Draft according to the Gold-Doan plan.

by Sam Stockton and Lili Stern / The Dartmouth

Pucks in Deep: The Gold-Doan 2016 NHL Re-Draft 

In late March, Shane Doan, a longtime Phoenix/Arizona Coyote and among the most universally respected players of the 21st century, reintroduced a radical overhaul to the National Hockey League’s draft lottery system that he has advocated for in the past. In an attempt to eradicate tanking, Doan — now working for the NHL’s Hockey Operations Department — proposed a system in which the draft order would be determined by the number of points each team accrues after being mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. Under this system, the League’s worst teams would still receive favorable treatment — they would have the longest window to accumulate points after elimination — but there would be no incentive for teams to keep losing in hopes of securing a higher pick in the upcoming draft.

Doan did not come up with this idea; that honor belongs to then-student Adam Gold, who advocated for this method at the 2012 Sloan Analytics Conference. However, since Doan is so universally beloved, why not throw his name into this new lottery system’s moniker? We’ll call it the Gold-Doan plan.

So, in this week’s Pucks in Deep, I would like to perform a counterfactual reimagining the 2016 NHL Draft, if the draft order had been determined by the Gold-Doan plan. Recalculating the draft order as such produces a lump of teams with eight PAE and two with 10. To break these ties, I first used the standard NHL tiebreaker of regulation and overtime (i.e. non-shootout) wins. If it were still tied, I advanced the team with more regulation wins. When that did not resolve things, I turned to goal differential after elimination.

With our new draft order set, let’s get to drafting. For my re-draft, I did my best to estimate the intentions each of our top six had on draft day. I won’t, for example, have anyone reach for Alex DeBrincat, who inexplicably fell to the second round back in 2016, but would certainly go in the top 10 now if the league’s GMs knew how productive the 5-foot-7 winger would go on to become in Chicago. Instead, I did my best to match-up each team’s needs going into the draft with their tendencies under their respective decision-makers. Without further ado:

With the first pick in our Gold-Doan 2016 NHL Re-Draft, the Buffalo Sabres select Auston Matthews. At this point, the Sabres were deep in tank mode, having selected Jack Eichel with the second pick in the 2015 Draft. Adding Matthews, who had been the consensus number-one pick through the duration of the draft evaluation process, represents a major coup for the Sabres, adding a cost-controlled franchise-altering young centerman for the second consecutive season.

With the second pick, Winnipeg selects Patrik Laine. This pick leaves little to the imagination as Laine was the clear number-two choice behind Matthews all along, and the Jets actually did select him at two overall back in 2016.

At the third pick, we arrive at our first controversy. At the time of the original draft, Finnish winger Jesse Puljujärvi was considered the consensus number three pick, but Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekäläinen turned heads by instead opting for Pierre-Luc Dubois, desiring a center with his high selection. It was rumored at the time of the draft that Montreal had wanted to trade up to the fourth slot to select Dubois, so, for the sake of argument, we’ll say that the Habs jumped at the chance to draft a Quebecois center with the third selection, taking Dubois.

With the fourth pick, we now have Calgary. In the official version of the 2016 Draft, the Calgary Flames selected pugnacious winger Matthew Tkachuk, son of U.S. hockey legend Keith, out of the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights. All accounts out of Calgary suggested that both Tkachuk and Flames GM Brad Treliving had identified each other as a good match since the scouting combine, indicating that the team would be as excited to select him at four as they were at six.

Now at the fifth selection, we have Columbus. With their original pick off the board, this marks our first big challenge of the re-draft. However, we know Kekäläinen was willing to go against the grain and that he wanted a center. With this in mind, the Jackets select, at fourth overall, Clayton Keller. The biggest knock on Keller coming out of the U.S. National Team Development Program was a lack of size — Keller weighs just 170 pounds. However, I believe his terrific production for the Program would be more than enough to convince Kekäläinen to spend the fifth pick.

That brings us to the Vancouver Canucks at six. At the time, Jim Benning, the Canucks’ GM, supposedly wanted to bring in a center or defensemen. With Matthews, Dubois and Keller off the board, there is no obvious choice at center. Looking back, Mikhail Sergachev, whom the Montreal Canadiens selected with the ninth pick in real life, appears the top defender at the head of this draft; however, the Canucks went with Olli Juolevi at five back in 2016, and, in accordance with our guidelines, we will have the Canucks go with the same pick here.

With that selection, we arrive at the final pick of our 2016 Gold-Doan NHL Re-Draft — the Toronto Maple Leafs at seven. The Leafs, who selected Auston Matthews at the top of the official 2016 draft, experienced the biggest drop of any of the teams we surveyed. Here at seven, the Leafs would select Puljujärvi, who, as he did on his actual draft day, fell farther than expected. The Leafs would have to be pleased to grab a player of Puljujärvi’s skill and skating ability all the way down at seven.

So, before we close, let’s play out this experiment a little farther and explore the two biggest developments of this re-draft. The biggest winner of this counterfactual is, of course, Buffalo. In acquiring the top pick, and by extension Matthews, the Sabres would add one of the most dangerous snipers at center in the league. Matthews’ puck skills are off the charts for someone of his size, and he boasts one of the most intimidating wrist shots in the league. Pairing Matthews with Eichel gives the Sabres two top-flight centermen, both on entry-level contracts. With those two down the middle, it’s hard to imagine the Sabres would not have found their way back to the playoffs by now — something they have been unable to do with just Eichel. It would seem almost difficult to not assemble a perennial contender with two top players this good, though the Edmonton Oilers are currently putting that theory to the test. If we imagine that the Sabres still find a way to acquire Rasmus Dahlin, (last draft’s top selection and another outstanding skater), which is admittedly unlikely given the addition of Matthews, we would be talking about one of the scariest teams in the league.

On the other side of that coin, what of Toronto, who would have to settle for Puljujärvi instead of Matthews and whose arrival immediately helped guide the Leafs back to the postseason for the first time since 2013? In Edmonton, Puljujärvi has not quite been a bust, but, at this point, he certainly does not compare to the other stars at the top of this draft. However, Puljujärvi has struggled due to the impatience that seems to have plagued the Oilers in prospect development for years. Puljujärvi has yo-yo’d up and down from American Hockey League Bakersfield Condors, struggled to stay healthy and even been a healthy scratch for some stretches. 

Conversely, the Leafs have been among the League’s best at patiently guiding their premier prospects to NHL success. Without Matthews, it seems likely the Leafs would have kept William Nylander, deployed mostly on the wing at the NHL level, at his natural center position — a shift that would make his controversial $6.9 million average anual value deal seem an incredible value. I believe that surrounded by the Leafs other skilled players, Puljujärvi would develop into a much better player than he has shown himself to be in Edmonton.

Out of this counterfactual, I think it is this dynamic that provides the biggest question. With a core of Matthews and John Tavares down the middle and Nylander and Mitch Marner on the wings, the Leafs are among the most dynamic offensive teams in the League and a legitimate Cup contender. Would the same be true with Nylander down the middle in Matthews’ spot and Puljujärvi on the wing? On that thought, I sign off from Pucks in Deep for the week.