Evaluating the Darcy Regier Era Part Two: The NHL Draft

After analyzing Darcy Regier’s trade deadline moves in Part One, I decided to dig right into the main portion and look through his success in the NHL draft, which has been a mixed bag for Darcy Regier. Buffalo Sabres fans are likely torn on whether Regier and his scouts have been successful in the draft during his tenure. Before we determine that though, we need to decide what exactly can be measured as a success in a league where we can’t judge drafts until at least five years afterwards.

It’s easy to see that your team averages between six and nine draft picks per year and assume at least half of those players will end up in the NHL one way or another. Unfortunately that’s not the case. Not even close. In truth, if you examine each team’s draft over the past decade or so, you’ll see that at least 4 out of every 5 drafted prospects taken outside of the top 20 or so will never see an NHL game. In fact, if a GM can pull more than one everyday NHL starter out of a draft, he’s probably ahead of the game.

You can assess a draft’s efficacy in a number of ways, so I tried to keep mine as simple as possible. I don’t worry about what Regier did with a player after he drafted them. I simply look at the player’s career and decide whether or not Regier drafted a starter in the NHL. I leave it to you the reader to decide how the success of a player’s career in relation to his draft pick. Again though, even a first round pick outside of the top 10-20 is a success if he cracks an NHL roster and sticks.

Since it takes a good 5+ years to really judge a draft, we’ll focus primarily on the drafts between 1998 and 2007. We’re not going to linger on the busts as much as we are simply going to highlight the guys who actually made the league. I used draft history information that can be found here.

Notable draftees in 1998: Dimitri Kalinin (18th overall) Andrew Peters (34th) Ales Kotalik (164)

The Sabres had ten draft picks (including three second round picks) and the aforementioned players were the only ones to have an impact anywhere in the league. It’s easy to pan Regier for taking a one-dimensional fighter like Peters in the second round, but remember the game necessitated Peters’ role much more than it does now. While Regier may have gotten some games out of these players, none would have more than a middling impact on the roster, save for Kotalik’s brief spell as a power play ace, and those few maddening games where Dimitri Kalinin wasn’t giving up the puck behind his own net.

Instead of Kalinin, the Sabres could have drafted: Robyn Regehr, Simon Gagne, or Scott Gomez before taking Peters in the second round.

Grade: C+. Kalinin was a disappointment, Peters got phased out by the lockout, and Kotalik was a one hit wonder with his power play shot/shootout moves. Regier passes for getting starters, albeit shaky ones.

 

Notable draftees in 1999: Doug Janik (55) Mike Zigomanis (64) Ryan Miller (138)

Apr 26, 2013; Buffalo, NY, USA; Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller (30) during the game against the New York Islanders at the First Niagara Center. Sabres beat the Islanders 2-1 in a shootout. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Another brutal year for picking up skaters. Once again Regier had a first round pick and three seconds to go along with eight other picks (the draft was nine rounds long  at this point). Ever hear of Barrett Heisten? Me neither, but he was Regier’s first pick in 1999. Miller obviously panned out, but he was the saving grace in an otherwise listless draft.

Instead of taking Barrett Heisten 20th overall, the Sabres could have had: Martin Havlat

Grade: C, but an F without Miller

 

Notable in 2000: Paul Gaustad (220)

Armed with eight picks, Regier drafted six guys who would never play in the league, one guy who’d appear in one game, and Paul Gaustad in the seventh round. Oof.

Players he passed on for first pick Artem Kruyikov (15): Brooks Orpik, Anton Volchenkov, Brad Boyes, Steve Ott, Justin Williams, Niklas Kronwall

Grade: F. One third to fourth line center isn’t enough when everything else was such a flop.

 

Notable in 2001: Jiri Novotny (22) Derek Roy (32) Chris Thorburn (50) Jason Pominville (55)

Yet another year in which Regier picked three times in the second round. This time he made it count with top six forwards in Roy and Pominville. Novotny never panned out, but Thorburn still plays as a strong grinder. Based on the idea of getting 1-2 decent starters in the draft, Regier seemed to do pretty well.

Players Regier passed on for Novotny: Tim Gleason, Dave Steckel

Grade: B+. Can’t argue with three everyday guys, and one guy Regier flipped in a deadline deal.

 

Notable in 2002: Keith Ballard (11), Daniel Paille (20), Dennis Wideman (241)

The sad part here is that the Sabres let Wideman go for nothing. He was picked up a few years later by St. Louis and eventually traded to Boston for Brad Boyes. Ballard and Paille are both reliable players, and both were taken in the first round. Again, it’s tough to pan first round picks that don’t end up in the top two lines somewhere, but given the success rate even that high in the draft, it’s not the worst thing to come out with someone who can play.

Players Regier passed on for Ballard: Duncan Keith, Alexander Semin, Cam Ward

Grade: B-. This was the slow simmering draft that took a long time to pan out. Paille may have benefitted more from being a Bruin than vice versa, but either way three good players is an all right draft.

 

April 23, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Buffalo Sabres left wing Thomas Vanek (26) at the face-off circle against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the third period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Buffalo Sabres won 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Notable in 2003: Thomas Vanek (5), Clarke MacArthur (74), Jan Hejda (106), Nathan Paetsch (202)

Well, they win because they took Thomas Vanek in what was an absolutely loaded draft. We won’t even bother looking at those he passed on because A) he got a great player in Vanek and B) the next 20 picks are mostly solid players too, so it was kind of a pick your guy situation.

Grade: B. It was a deep draft and Regier only got one top player at a spot where he’d have to try to actually miss (see: Columbus taking Nikolai Zherdev one spot before Vanek).

 

Notable in 2004:  Drew Stafford (13) Andrej Sekera (71) Patrick Kaleta (176)

We all know the script with Stafford, but Sekera and Kaleta produced solid value given their position.  Once again, the Sabres were able to nab two starters and another bottom six player.

Players Regier passed on for Stafford: Travis Zajac, Mike Green, Dave Bolland

Grade: B-. Stafford has been mostly inconsistent while Sekera is a little better. Kaleta is a nice toss in for a late round pick.

 

Notable in 2005: Marc-Andre Gragnani (87) Chris Butler (96) Nathan Gerbe (142)

This was the post lockout draft in which the Sabres could have won Sidney Crosby but instead won the 13th pick and Marek Zagrapan. Ouch. Overall, this was a very weak haul for Regier.

Grade: D. Butler may have been the best of the bunch and he’s gone to Hockey Purgatory, AKA Calgary, in the Robyn Regehr deal.

 

Notable in 2006: Jhonas Enroth (46) Mike Weber (57)

Enroth is nearing his shot, as he’s proven to be a capable starter in the NHL, and Weber has improved every season in the league, though still remains in that 5-7 range on the defensive depth chart.

Whiffs in favor of first round pick Dennis Persson: Patrik Berglund, Carl Sneep (not because of anything he did, but because Carl Sneep is a sweet name).

Grade: C

 

Notable in 2007: TJ Brennan (31) Corey Tropp (89) Paul Byron (179)

This was the only year during Regier’s tenure that the Sabres did not have at least one first round pick. They had two seconds though and one of them landed them Brennan. Unfortunately Brennan eventually turned into a fifth round pick in the 2013 draft. At this point, we’re already reaching Too Early To Tell territory as all three of these guys are considered unfinished products. The early returns aren’t great in regards to landing a premier player. Then again, that’s what happens when you don’t get a first round pick.

Players taken after Brennan: PK Subban, Wayne Simmonds

Grade: C

 

Mar 23, 2013; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Buffalo Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers (57) skates with the puck during the second period against the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre. The Buffalo Sabres won 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Notable in 2008: Tyler Myers (12) Tyler Ennis (26) Luke Adam (42)

From here it looks like a pretty good first round for the Sabres. The Tylers have certainly shown great, if inconsistent, potential. Adam is a shaky bet to crack the top six in the NHL, but the kid is still young. As is Myers. I’m willing to cut him a big break because this lockout year was horrible from the top down. He’s still an A-list young player until he proves otherwise. That said, the whole draft hinges on Myers. If he doesn’t pan out, the grade bombs.

Notable draftees taken after Myers: Erik Karlsson, Jordan Eberle

Grade: B

 

Notable in 2009: Zack Kassian (13) Brayden McNabb (66) Marcus Foligno (104)

Kassian was flipped for Hodgson, who was taken three spots higher while McNabb and Foligno are being counted on as future depth for the upcoming youth movement. Really though, landing Cody Hodgson from all this feels like a win.

Notable whiffs after Kassian: Ryan O’Reilly

Grade: B+

 

Notable in 2010: Mark Pysyk (23)

Jerome Gauthier-Leduc could join Pysyk up there, but for now Pysyk is the only player to don the blue and gold. He looks like a promising blue liner with a smooth disposition that suits his spot on the ice well.

Whiffs: Too early to tell

Grade: Verdict’s still out

 

From here, it’s impossible to grade a draft given the long learning curve of the NHL in general. The Sabres have acquired Joel Armia, Mikhail Grigorenko, and Zemgus Girgensons with three first round picks in the last two years and the three have all shown great promise and talent. Though where that will actually land them is still a mystery.

 

What does it mean?

Between 1998 and 2009, Regier picked, on average, between 2 and 3 players who would eventually play regular minutes in the NHL. As we stated before, pulling 2 starters out of a draft is a nice result, and anything more than that is gravy. While that was the metric settled on for this experiment, it is worth noting that aside from Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller, Regier hasn’t really drafted a star at any level. Even then, it’s not like Vanek or Miller are going to win any Hart trophies soon. You could attribute that to the fact that he only picked in the top ten once and thus fell into uncertain territory, or you could fault his drafting savvy for that. The only way to tell for sure, is to stack his drafts up with other GMs who have had as long as Regier has to build a winner. I know that probably doesn’t seem possible, but there are actually five who fit the mold.

Lou Lamoriello: Sweet Lou has raked in three Stanley Cups for the New Jersey Devils thanks to a run of great drafts from 1989-1994, when he picked up Bill Guerin, Martin Brodeur, Scott Niedermayer, Brian Rolston, Jason Smith, Sergei Brylin, Stephane Yelle, Patrick Elias, Jay Pandolfo, and Steve Sullivan. Not every player would make it to the lockout shortened season which saw Lou’s boys hoist the Cup for the first time, but they were all impact picks scattered through those drafts. Since then? Not so good.

If we start with his 1998 draft, we see he got Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta, followed by a few dry years when the team was outside the top 20 most years. Lou had a nice pair of first round picks in 03-04 when he got Zach Parise and Travis Zajac, but since then his drafts have been a wasteland of talent. Since 2005, the Devils have not drafted a player who’s played more than 175 games. For some perspective, Darcy Regier has drafted four. Still. Cups. Advantage Lamoriello.

 

George McPhee: Another long-standing GM getting restless from the hot seat, McPhee was hired in 1997 to lead the Washington Capitals to the promised land, but has so far come short. His best draft in his first five years came in 2002 when he had three first round picks. He used them on Steve Eminger, Alex Semin, and Boyd Gordon at 12, 13, and 17 respectively. Before that, McPhee’s only four draftees to crack 200 games played (GP) were Krys Barch, Brian Sutherby, Matt Pettinger, and Johnny Oduya. Not exactly a murderer’s row of starters. He had another three first round picks in 2004, two of which became Alex Ovechkin (1) and Mike Green (29). Other notable first round picks include Eric Fehr, Nicklas Backstrom, and Karl Alzner.

Overall, McPhee seems to have a higher rate of first round pick success since the turn of the century. He hasn’t loaded up on middle round picks the way Regier and Lamoriello have, but most of his drafts do adhere to the Get One Good Guy rule. His first round picks have been better enough than Regier’s that we’ll go Slight Advantage: McPhee.

 

Jim Rutherford: As the GM of the Carolina Hurricanes since 1997, Rutherford drafted 11 players with 200 GP or more between 1998 and 2007, which comes out to just over 1 Guy Who Can Play Per Year (GWCPPY). Darcy Regier had 17 in that same span. However, when Rutherford’s team was in Cup contention, they moved picks from 2006-2009 without abandon. They only picked 22 times in that four year stretch. Given that it landed him a Cup, you have to give Rutherford the edge over Regier. He used his picks to improve his team, and another way to do that is to trade them. We’ll get into that more in a minute. Advantage Rutherford.

 

David Poile: Poile has faced circumstances that most closely mirror Regier’s for much of his time running the Nashville Predators. Strict budgets required a heavy reliance on the draft. Poile drafted the same number of 200 GP guys that Regier did (17) so that’s a wash there, but Poile’s 2003 draft is where they differ. While Regier only got Vanek at 5, Poile landed Ryan Suter at 7 and Shea Weber at 49. Poile’s career has mirrored Regier’s in that he gets credit for a lot of little moves without much substance. However, the Sabres won more with the guys they picked in that time. Advantage: Regier

 

Ken Holland: Kenny Holland and the Detroit Red Wings have been the management model in the NHL for over 20 years. With four Stanley Cups since 1997 and 22 straight playoff appearances, it’s hard to compare anyone to Holland, let alone Regier. That said, it’s not hard to see how Detroit does it, and what really stands out about their draft approach is its consistency.

While Darcy Regier has held a first round pick all but once in fifteen years, Ken Holland has only picked in the first round six times in that same span. Instead, Holland prefers to load up in the second to fifth round range and trust his scouts to look for depth guys. This is smart for two reasons. 1) It lessens the risk of blowing a valuable first round pick. Would you rather use a first round pick to maybe get a starter, or would you use it, along with a mid-level prospect to get a bona fide veteran starter at the trade deadline from a basement dweller looking to shed a big contract? The Red Wings did this several times in the late 90s and early 2000s to bolster their clubs. 2) It adds a certain quantity to the uncertain world of prospect development. Would you rather have one blue chip kid to groom in hopes he’ll become a top player or would you prefer four guys whose ceilings are respectively only a little lower? In one case, you have to be 100% right, while in the other you can be 50% right and come out on top. There’s no right answer to that question, but the Red Wings have an answer to both of those questions and they stick with it.

May 12, 2013; Anaheim, CA, USA; Detroit Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk (13) moves the puck against the Anaheim Ducks during the second period in game seven of the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

So let’s see how well the Red Wings approach works in the NHL draft. We all know about the miracles of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg in 1998 and 1999 respectively. A pair of players drafted no higher than 170th, each became superstars for the Red Wings. Let’s not get crazy heaping all the credit on Holland there though. If Kenny knew what he was drafting, he’d have traded the farm for Dastyuk and taken him first overall. Instead, he played a lotto ticket like anyone else. Holland and his staff understand that there are no sure things in the draft, so they’d never trade the farm for one kid. Instead they sit back and hope to get lucky later in the rounds with guys they’ve studied up on, as was the case with Datsyuk and Zetterberg.

Holland got those two then used a number of picks on fillers to go with them and Lidstrom as the team’s core. Between 2000 and 2006, Holland drafted 12 guys who ended up playing 250 games or more (I’m counting Darren Helm, who’s at 249). That’s a solid 2 GWCPPY. Only one of them was a first round pick (Kronwall in 2000) while their 2006 first round, Jakub Kindl, is an up and coming forward.

The Red Wings have been very efficient with their drafts. They take each pick and figure out a way to maximize its value.They trade their first round picks for proven veterans who can help them win in the present while using second and third round picks in abundance to build depth on the team. It’s an approach that not only keeps them competitive every year, but it continues to allow them to build for the future. HUGE Advantage Holland.

 

The Final Ruling:

Darcy Regier certainly hasn’t been the best GM since 1997 and most of those who have had equal time to Regier have found a way to bring a Cup home while the Sabres staff sits and plans yet another draft in Lottery Land. However, when you isolate the draft from the rest of the process, Regier’s success isn’t comparatively terrible. The more important thing we should take away from all of this is that the draft is mostly a crapshoot once you get out of the top five or so. It’s how a GM chooses to mitigate the risk associated with drafting 18 year olds that ultimately spells their success. You can stack the odds in your favor one of two ways: 1) You move up and take a player who’s nearly a lock to be a big time force. That either means stripping a team down and tanking for a top pick or making a series of trades that lands you in the top five. 2) You move back and stock up on picks in the later first or even middle rounds, knowing that less than half of your picks will hit. Instead you count on the sheer quantity of your picks to give you a shot at a few reliable players. The former worked in Pittsburgh when they were horrible for years. The latter has worked for Detroit very well. Either way, you need to develop core stars, then build with those depth picks around them, and you need to be at least comparatively accurate with it to thrive year in and year out.

Consistency is the key in each draft. You need to look at the overall landscape and decide what you want to get out of the draft. Every year is different, but the plan doesn’t have to be. Consider the upcoming 2013 draft. It’s got some great players at the top 4 or 5, but it’s also considered a deep draft. What should the Sabres do? Probably go for the top talent since we know that they’ll be lucky to even nab three starters, even though they have four picks in the top 50. However, they will likely see something we don’t. If the draft is as deep as everyone says, Regier could get some serious value just sitting back and taking his picks as they come. As long as they approach this draft with a solid plan and a few players in mind they feel strongly about, then they’ll at least be maximizing their odds of landing a few NHL starters.

There is no better window into the vision and philosophy of a professional sports team than its draft history. You can tell how they value individual players and what risks they’re willing to take to get the right guy in town. Now that ownership is calling for a rebuild via the draft, we’ll see if Darcy Regier breaks the mold and tries to move up, or even move back. Sitting at 8th means he’ll miss out on a franchise player, but still have a shot at a very good player. If not, he’ll always be at a coveted spot for someone else. Darcy’s options are wide open, and this draft will be one of the most important of his career. What Regier does and how he maneuvers in the draft in June will tell us a lot about what we can expect in this time of transition for the Buffalo Sabres.

Cory Buck is an NHL writer for Sabre Noise. You can follow him on Facebook or tweet him @TheBuckMopsHere. 

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