Some NHL franchises – hello, Chicago – turn their elite Future Watch grades into playoff glory down the road. Others top the rankings with little to show for it. Why do some succeed and others – cough cough, OILERS! – fail so miserably?
The weeks before we finished Future Watch 2015 were extremely exciting for the Winnipeg Jets and their fans. They had an elite crop of 21-and-younger talent, including Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba, Nikolaj Ehlers and Nic Petan, and GM Kevin Cheveldayoff made it even better via the Evander Kane trade (see pg. 18). As we reviewed this year’s cover art in the THN office, I asked: “How excited will Cheveldayoff be when he sees this?” Senior writer Ken Campbell’s retort: “Excited? Or nervous? Now he has to win.” It was a provocative thought. Possessing the best young talent in the sport doesn’t mean you’ve won anything yet. A strong Future Watch ranking, as encouraging as it may be to a team and its fans, is just a means to an end. How often does it lead to success in the NHL? And when on average does the result occur? We researched the correlation between past Future Watch finishes and success in the standings and playoffs, starting with FW 2008. Why 2008? Because fans and media so commonly champion Pittsburgh, Chicago and Los Angeles as the ideal development models and 2008 marked one year before Pittsburgh’s first and only Stanley Cup in the Sidney Crosby era. The Pens finished first in FW 2008 and the year prior. Their crop of 21-and-under NHLers at the time? Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Kris Letang and Tyler Kennedy. Their top in-the-system prospects included Alex Goligoski. They won the Stanley Cup the following season with all six of those players on the roster (though Goligoski played just two playoff games). The Chicago Blackhawks finished second, seventh and fourth in Future Watch from 2008 to 2010, founded on Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Dave Bolland. Cups arrived in 2010 and 2013, with all three of those players in crucial roles. The Kings in Future Watch from 2009 to 2011? First, first and second. The youth crop and scouting report pretty much mapped out their 2012-2014 mini-dynasty in advance. The scouting panel doesn’t just project champions, either. Anaheim and St. Louis, perennial standings powerhouses, each spent several seasons in the FW top 10 while they built up the groups of players who help them dominate today. That said, to rhyme off the success stories is to cherry-pick. What about the teams that regularly top the team rankings and have nothing to show for it in the standings? The Edmonton Oilers obviously come to mind, having spent three years as FW’s top team from 2011 to 2013. Hoarding first-overall draft picks Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov has yielded no glory in the standings whatsoever, and the franchise remains in the NHL basement, poised for yet another first overall pick. The Arizona Coyotes get a top-three draft slot after another poor year despite finishing no worse than sixth in our rankings from 2008 to 2011. What, then, separates the successful teams from the failing ones? It’s not enough to stockpile high picks as the Oilers have. Blending low and high picks to create a highly rated farm system, as we’ve seen Arizona and Columbus do via high FW finishes a few years back, doesn’t guarantee success, either. What does, then? Let’s look at the crop of prospects that made Edmonton a Future Watch power. The group included Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Yakupov, Justin Schultz, Oscar Klefbom, Magnus Paajarvi and, most recently, Darnell Nurse. The core that made Columbus a tantalizing fourth overall in 2009? Jakub Voracek, Derick Brassard, Steve Mason, Nikita Filatov, Kris Russell and Maksim Mayorov. Combined, that’s 14 players. Centers among them? Two. The top-ranked Penguins in 2008 had Crosby, Malkin, Staal and Kennedy. The Blackhawks had Toews and Bolland. The Kings had Anze Kopitar and Brayden Schenn, with the latter helping them net Mike Richards in a trade. The Blues? Patrik Berglund, T.J. Oshie (a center at the time) and Lars Eller (used to acquire Jaroslav Halak). Look at all those pivots. The science isn’t perfect, of course. Anaheim’s rise comes largely from the net out, as young blueliners Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm insulate John Gibson. And the Coyotes sure looked loaded at center a few years ago with Peter Mueller, Kyle Turris and Martin Hanzal as pillars. We can at least say that the most common correlation between Future Watch success and real-world domination is building around do-it-all centers. At least the Oilers drafted Leon Draisaitl last June and will add Connor McDavid this year. No we’re talkin’.
WALKING THE WALK What are good years of strong Future Watch finishes if the highly rated prospect crops don’t eventually produce successful team results? The charts below track every franchise’s FW rankings over the past eight editions versus their placement in the NHL standings each of those years. It puts into perspective how miserable things have been for the Edmonton Oilers. They lead all teams with an average FW rank of 7.00 in the past eight years yet rank dead last in the standings. Teams like Chicago, Washington and Anaheim, meanwhile, have parlayed strong rankings into standings success. The results also suggest when to anticipate the “sweet spot” of prospects yielding results. The L.A. Kings had four top-five FW finishes starting in 2008 before winning two Cups in three years starting in 2012.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin
This feature appears in the 2015 Draft Preview edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.