Thursday, January 11, 2018

NHL Draft: "The Russian Factor"

There is a belief in the NHL Draft that players chosen from Russia are less likely to come play professional hockey in North America and more likely to return home once they have crossed the Atlantic. This causes some Russian prospects to fall in the draft, which also allows some teams to steal elite talents with later picks. We've seen several examples of elite Russian talent falling in the draft and being stolen in later picks in the salary cap era, like Kuznetzov, Tarasenko, Kucherov, Cherepanov, etc. They all should have been top 5 picks.

There is no question that the KHL is the highest level of European pro, certainly when it comes to competing with NHL teams for talent. Russia is one of the top producers of hockey players on the planet, and their pro league is heavily subsidized by Russian oligarchs. This allows KHL teams to offer contracts to players that would not be possible using just hockey related revenues. The Swedish Elite league can't afford to offer its players NHL sized contracts. Because Russia is able to compete with the NHL for players, the prospects are less likely to play in America.

How do we measure "the Russian Factor"? It's difficult to measure exactly how much individual prospects are falling the draft due to their country of origin. You could look at Central Scouting rankings for all prospects prior to the draft and see if Russians are being selected below where the scouts rank them (that'll have to be a future post).  This post is not attempting to answer exaclty how much Russian players are falling in the draft due to country of origin. It's also possible that the "Russian Factor" is being factored into scouting rankings, that scouts may downgrade their ranking of prospects they deem less likely to cross the ocean.

The easiest way to measure "the Russian Factor" is to look at the statistics that's causing it. What % of draft picks (from 2004-2013) from Russia are playing >9 GP of North American Pro (NHL, AHL, or ECHL) at each age; versus the rest of Europe and North Americans.

There is clear evidence that Russian players do have a greater tendency to play in Europe than do players from the other major European hockey producers. There is a valid reason why Russian players slip in the draft. By age 24. only 20% of Russian draft picks are playing >9 GP of North American professional hockey, versus 62% for North American players. Most Draft picks from the CHL have a 2 year deadline to sign a contract, while NCAA picks can stay in school and delay their contract deadline. Russians hit their peak of North American professional participation at age 20, then only gets smaller as players get older.

I believe the part of the draft where the "Russian Factor" has its biggest influence is in the first round. General Managers can take incredible amounts of grief for bad picks in the first round, which is by far the most important round, especially the top half. Hockey might have the most "top heavy" entry draft talent of all the professional sports. That's why players with perceived risks and elite talent can fall in the draft order, as teams have a tendency to go with safer selections.

Looking at the North American participation rate for 1st round picks, we can see where this "Russian Factor" is most valid. Just over 60% of Russian first round picks will be playing NA pro at age 23, when most entry level contracts have expired. Over the age of 21, 1st round Russian picks are more than 20% less likely to play NA pro. It does depend on the risk tolerance of the individual GM.

Russia and Sweden produce the highest proportion of elite level talent, with 7% of draft picks earning over $4M NHL salary by age 23 (for Russians those are mostly forwards and for Sweden mostly defensemen). If we think of draft picks like lottery tickets, the Russian tickets have smaller probability of winning a small prize, but more large jackpots.

What about the Russian players who come to North America prior to the draft? Below is a graph comparing CHL Russians with those drafted from Europe. The grey line is North American CHL players drafted to the NHL.

Russians who are playing in the CHL at the time they are drafted are significantly more likely to play North American pro than their countrymen who are drafted from Europe. That is encouraging and gives teams less risk in drafting Russians who have already crossed the ocean, however they will still play NAP at a lesser rate than North American NHL draft picks from the CHL. Crossing the pond when eligible for the draft can help Russians increase their draft stock, but it does not eliminate the "Russian Factor" risk altogether.

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