Every developmental hockey league has a unique value proposition to convince young players to play in their system as opposed to another. However, the most telling statistic that leagues use to measure their success is how many of their prospects are drafted. Young players joining the league have dreams of being the next Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin, and leagues work with their teams to help develop their players and set them up for success at the NHL level. Let’s break down how each league does in terms of developing prospects that are drafted in the first round.
Looking at all the first-round picks
The following chart shows the percentages of players drafted in the first round from each league over the past 16 NHL Entry Drafts. It shows all the players drafted out of Canadian, American, and European leagues.
While there is a lot going on in this chart (which I will break down momentarily), it is clear that the majority of the draft is made up of players from the three Canadian leagues: the OHL, WHL, and QMJHL. Let’s start there:
Canadian vs the rest
Far and away, the Canadian system has produced the most NHL first-round selections. They have been so successful at this that they make up at least 50% of all players every year but three. Here is how it breaks down within the Canadian leagues:
The Ontario Hockey League is the most successful at developing first round prospects. It produces just over 25% all first-round selection, and are over 5% higher than the WHL. On top of that, the OHL has consistently been good at producing draft talent, leading the way with the most first-round selections in 13 of the last 15 years.
It has also had seven of the last 15 first overall picks—but has not had the first overall selection come from their league since Connor McDavid from the Erie Otters in 2015. Not bad for a league that has been around in one form or another since 1933.
Coming in just behind them is the WHL, which comes in around the 20% mark. Comprised of 22 teams, prospects playing in Western Canada and Northwestern USA are the second-most selected prospects by NHL teams. It has averaged just over six draft picks per round over the last fifteen years, but oddly have only had one first overall pick since 2005: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins from the Red Deer Rebels in 2011.
While both the WHL and OHL have done well in producing first-round picks, the QMJHL lags behind, with just 50 selections in the last 15 years. While is has not produced as many talents this early in the draft, is has four first overall picks since 2005: Sidney Crosby (2005), Nathan MacKinnon (2013), Nico Hischier (2017), and Alexis Lafreniere (2020). Interestingly, those four picks came from just two teams: the Halifax Mooseheads and Rimouski Oceanic.
There have also been 13 players selected from the Canadian Junior Hockey Leagues (CJHL), primarily from the AJHL and BCHL. All 13 players went on to play in the NCAA before skating in the NHL.
While American leagues have not done as well as their neighbours to the north, the American system has taken a huge leap forward over the last number of years. They have produced 94 draft picks over the last 15 years, just under 20% of all picks. However, this has been led by just one team: The US Men’s National Team Development Program (USMNTDP).
The USMNTDP as a team has produced more first-round selections than any of the other American leagues. While they do play in the USHL, they were previously an independent program and have been left separate simply because of the sheer number of picks that they produce on their own. And while they have been steady in producing top talent, you can clearly see how they have grown in stature in the last five years, exploding with eight first-round picks in 2019. While they did take a step back in 2020, with just one selection, they had five players selected in the second round instead.
The USHL has been a steady producer of NHL draft talent, but what is interesting is how many players are drafted after their first year in the NCAA. These numbers are slightly skewed, as a number of prospects do not join the NCAA until after they are drafted, and are instead selected out of the CJHL USHL, USHS, USMNTDP, and other leagues. That being said, the NCAA does an excellent job producing draft talent from its limited number of players in their draft years.
Around the world
The rest of the world holds their own, producing 102 NHL first-round picks, with Sweden leading the way with exactly half.
Sweden has seen 51 prospects selected from their various leagues (SHL, Allsvenskan, J20 etc.) since 2005, but what is interesting is how inconsistent they have been from year to year. While they did have seven prospects selected in 2009 and six (including the first overall pick, their only year) in 2018, they had none selected in 2010 or 2016. No other system is as inconsistent as the Swedes.
What is very interesting is how few prospects from Russia are taken in the first round. The league has not had more than four prospects selected in the first round, and that was in last year’s draft. They have also not had a first overall selection since 2005, and the last time they did have a first overall selection was Alex Ovechkin in 2004. Before Ovechkin it was Ilya Kovalchuk in 2001, who was the first ever Russia player selected in the first round of the draft. While there are historical reasons as to why this was an issue in the past, the fact that so few are selected in the first round still to this day is a really interesting phenomenon.
Finally, one league to really keep an eye on is the German Leagues, the DEL and DEL2. From 2005 to 2018, they had zero picks selected in the first round, but they have come onto the scene with one player selected in 2019 and two in 2020. The rise of German Hockey has been well documented, and with the country slowly developing into a real hockey power, expect that this number is only going to grow over the next number of years.
What to look for in the 2021 NHL draft
According to TWC’s Consolidated Draft Rankings, the Swedish leagues lead the way with six players projected to go in the first round. The OHL is tied with its two Canadian counterparts with four each, however all four OHLers and one WHLer played their season overseas in European leagues. No OHL player who did not make the jump across the pond is expected to go in the first round.
While the actual numbers will vary quite substantially with teams taking risks on players that may be ranked outside of the top-31 on various draft boards. That being said, this ranking gives a baseline indicator of what to watch for in the upcoming draft. With lots of movement expected and no consensus number one pick, this draft will be one for the ages.