Breaking down the importance of high draft picks for Stanley Cup success in the NHL

With another ninth place finish and an upcoming 16th overall pick in the 2023 NHL Draft, the Flames once again sit on the throne as the NHL’s most mediocre team. It’s been the story of the franchise since the 1990s, never good enough to contend but never bad enough to get draft high picks. At the end of the day, is it really worth it stay on the playoff bubble or would it be more beneficial in the long run to tank and stack up the organization with high picks?

Let it be clear, tanking is no guarantee for success—just look at how the last decade for the Buffalo Sabres has gone. However more often than not, it ends up leading to success if given enough time. Let’s break down the most recent Stanley Cup winners and how many homegrown top picks they had on their roster. For this exercise, we won’t consider players who were acquired via trade.

Previous Stanley Cup Winners

2022 – Colorado Avalanche

Top 10 picks: Bowen Byram (4th), Cale Makar (4th), Nathan Mackinnon (1st), Mikko Rantanen (10th), Gabriel Landeskog (2nd)

The Colorado Avalanche are a perfect example of building your team with high draft picks. There was a period between 2010 and 2017 where the Avalanche were one of the NHL’s worst teams and they completely bottomed out. They were rewarded with four top-10 picks in a seven-year span, and nailed every single one. They also received the Byram pick in a deal for Matt Duchene, who they drafted third overall in 2009.

Those five picks are now the core of their roster. They took Landeskog second overall in 2011, MacKinnon first overall in 2013, Rantanen 10th overall in 2015, Makar fourth overall in 2017, and Byram fourth overall in 2019. All five were huge contributors to their 2022 Stanley Cup win and the main reason Colorado is now a juggernaut in the NHL.

Was it a painful six years for the Avalanche and their fans that included the worst season in the salary cap era? Yes. Would they take that for a Stanley Cup? Also yes.

2020 and 2021 – Tampa Bay Lightning

Top-10 picks: Viktor Hedman (2nd), Steven Stamkos (1st)

The Tampa Bay Lightning are an interesting case study on the pros and cons of tanking for top picks. Overall the Lightning have made five top-10 picks since 2008—however only two turned out. The two that did turn out were massive successes though.

Between 2007 and 2013 the Lightning missed the playoffs in five of six seasons and were near the bottom of the league. Across that span they picked Stamkos first overall in 2008 and Hedman second overall in 2009. Both played key roles in the Lightning’s four trips to the final between 2015 and 2022.

The Lightning also picked Brett Connolly sixth in 2010, Slater Koekkoek 10th in 2012, and Jonathan Drouin third in 2013—all of whom showcase the risks of tanking. None of those picks turned out and all three were gone by the time they won the Cup. That said, Drouin was dealt for Mikhail Sergachev who was a key contributor in both 2020 and 2021.

2019 – St. Louis Blues

Top-10 picks: Alex Pietrangelo (4th)

The St. Louis Blues are certainly an example against needing to tank for success. When they won the Cup in 2019, they had just one homegrown top-10 pick on their roster in Alex Pietrangelo—who they drafted fourth overall in 2008.

The only other top-10 pick the Blues made in the 2000s was Erik Johnson (first overall in 2006) who was dealt in 2011 for a group of players who had little to no impact on their 2019 Cup win. Leading up to their Cup win, the Blues hit on mid-round picks like Jaden Schwartz at 14th overall and Vladimir Tarasenko at 16th overall both in 2010 as well as Robert Thomas at 20th in 2017.

2018 – Washington Capitals

Top-10 picks: Alex Ovechkin (1st), Nicklas Backstrom (4th)

In the early 2000s, the Washington Capitals completely bottomed out and were rewarded with a generational talent in Ovechkin in 2004 as well as an all-star in Nicklas Backstrom in 2006. Both players were huge contributors to their 2018 Cup win, although it took a while for them to finally reach the summit after making the picks.

That said, the Capitals were a juggernaut and one of the NHL’s best teams of the late 2000s and 2010s and Ovechkin and Backstrom were a very large part of that. Their decade-long dominance led to them finally capturing a Cup due to bottoming out in the early 2000s.

2007, 2016 and 2017 – Pittsburgh Penguins

Top-10 picks: Jordan Staal (2nd), Sidney Crosby (1st), Evgeni Malkin (2nd), Marc-Andre Fleury (1st)

The Pittsburgh Penguins are another example of tanking leading to long-term success. Between 2001 and 2006, they did not won more than 30 games in a season. That tire fire led to them becoming one of the best teams of the 2000s with four trips to the Final and three Cups.

The Penguins picked in the top two four straight years between 2003 and 2006. They got Fleury in 2003, Malkin in 2004, Crosby in 2005, and Staal in 2006. Winning a lottery for a generational talent helps of course, but Malkin and Fleury also played huge roles in all three Cup wins. Staal meanwhile, was dealt in 2012 but helped them win the cup in 2007 and Brian Dumoulin who was acquired in the trade played a key role in the 2016 and 2017 wins.

Like with other teams on this list, I’m sure Penguins fans would take being the NHL’s laughing stock for a few years for a decade’s worth of success and three Stanley Cups.

2010, 2013, and 2015 – Chicago Blackhawks

Top-10 picks: Patrick Kane (1st), Jonathan Toews (3rd)

Between 1998 and 2008, the Chicago Blackhawks missed the playoffs in nine of 10 seasons and completely bottomed out. Unlike the Penguins though, they whiffed on multiple picks before finally reaping the rewards of tanking.

They took Mark Bell eighth in 1998, Mikhail Yakubov 10th in 2000, Cam Barker third in 2004, and Jack Skille seventh in 2005. None of them contributed to any success in Chicago. It’s a cautionary tale for tanking as the Blackhawks were one of the NHL’s worst teams for a very long time because of bad drafting. Lucky for them they nailed the next two and won three Cups because of it.

The Blackhawks took Jonathan Toews third overall in 2006 and Patrick Kane first overall in 2007. Ten years after taking Toews, the Blackhawks had three Stanley Cups with Toews and Kane leading the way as two of the NHL’s best players. Without bottoming out and earning those two picks, there’s no chance they win three Cups.

2012 and 2014 – Los Angeles Kings

Top-10 picks: Drew Doughty (2nd)

The Los Angeles Kings only had one top-10 homegrown pick on their roster for both their 2012 and 2014 cup wins. L.A. missed the playoffs for six straight seasons between 2003 and 2009. Only Doughty—who they picked second in 2008—directly helped them win.

Leading up to 2012, the Kings also selected Thomas Hickey fourth in 2007 and Brayden Schenn fifth in 2009. Hickey was lost on waivers before playing for the Kings, but Schenn indirectly helped them claim two Cups. He was dealt in a 2011 blockbuster for Mike Richards who would of course play a key part in the Kings’ Cup wins in 2012 and 2014.

It’s also worth noting the Kings made two selections just outside the top 10 in Dustin Brown at 13th in 2003 and Anze Kopitar at 11th in 2005, both of whom played big roles in their Cup wins.

Comparing top-10 picks and playoff wins

As we’ve seen above, the last 11 Stanley Cup winners have all had at least one top-five pick on their roster, with nine of the teams having multiple top-10 picks. Looking past just the eventual Stanley Cup Winners, where does the rest of the NHL rank when it comes to top-10 picks and playoff wins? Let’s take a look at every NHL team’s top-10 picks and playoff wins in the modern era dating back to 1992.

Teams with the most pain

First of all, the Flames and the Wild are the definition of pain across the last three decades in the NHL. Both rank in the bottom half of the league for top-10 picks and playoff wins. Calgary has just one pick in the top five since 1992 while the Wild have just two, yet combined they have one trip past the second round since 1992.

Nashville is in the same boat as they have even fewer top-10 picks, however they’ve at least made it to the Cup Final in the past decade. Same goes for L.A., who don’t have a lot of top-10 picks or playoff wins, but have two Cup wins that trump everything else.

It’s quite telling that a team in Vegas—who’s been in the league for only six years—has already passed Minnesota in playoff wins since 1992, and is rapidly closing in on Calgary and Nashville. With their win earlier this week, Vegas is now just seven playoff wins behind the Flames since 1992.

Bad drafting with lots of picks and limited success

This tier is best described as a cautionary tale for tanking. Teams like the Blue Jackets, Panthers, Islanders, Coyotes and Jets/Thrashers spent most of the last 30 years finishing near the top of the draft. Despite this, they have incredibly limited success in the playoffs an all rank in the bottom 10 for playoff wins. Edmonton was in the same boat until landing a generational talent in Connor McDavid in 2015. That has righted the ship after years of mismanaging high draft picks every season.

The Islanders lead the entire NHL in top-10 picks since 1992 with 18, with 12 of them coming in the top five. They either whiffed on those picks or traded them away. They set themselves up for success, but just continually screwed up their drafting. After years of pain they had some success with back to back runs to the conference finals in 2020 and 2021. Funny enough, of all the picks they’ve made over the years, Josh Bailey was the only homegrown top-10 pick on their roster for those runs.

The Canucks are in a similar boat, with the second most top-10 selections since 1992 but limited playoff success. Drafting names like Brad Ference, Bryan Allen, Luc Bourdon, Cody Hodgson, Jake Virtanen and Olli Juolevi in the top 10 will do that to you.

The Sabres racked up playoff wins in the 1990s and early 2000s, but have since completely bottomed out and racked up top-10 picks to limited success. Similarly the Senators have seen some success in the playoffs, but have also added a ton of top-10 picks without success. That said, it looks like things may finally be turning around for both teams.

Lastly, the Hurricanes had some success in the early 2000s—including a Cup win—but have a pitiful history drafting in the top 10 since then which led to them missing the playoffs for nine straight years. That said, they’ve been a contender in recent years due to good drafting in the later rounds and should continue to add playoff wins over the next few years.

Best of both worlds

The Lightning’s track record with top picks is rough, but the ones that did pan out are the reason they have had a ton of success. They hit the jackpot with Vincent Lecavalier in 1998, Stamkos in 2008, and Hedman in 2009 which led to them making five trips to the Stanley Cup Final over the past 20 years. The Lightning have been either contenders or at the bottom of the league—very rarely are they on the playoff bubble.

New Jersey and Anaheim are two teams who had very long stretches of being contenders but bottomed out and racked up top-10 picks to start their rebuilds. The Devils are now once again a contender on the backs of top picks Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier, while the Ducks are well on their way with the likes of Trevor Zegras, Mason McTavish and the best odds for Connor Bedard this season.

In the Blackhawks’ case, nailing it with Toews and Kane and finding some late-round gems is the reason they found so much success despite rough drafting in the top 10. The Rangers meanwhile have screwed up plenty of top picks, but have hit on players outside of the top 10 and also sign free agents like no other team can which has led to playoff success. The Sharks have a decent history of drafting inside the top 10 and also plenty of late-round gems.

Good drafting with limited picks and lots of success

This tier highlights a couple different types of organizations. You’ve got drafting experts like Detroit, St. Louis, and Dallas, who turn limited high picks into success with strong drafting outside of the top 10. All three rank bottom five for top-10 picks (not including expansion teams). Despite this, they all rank top 11 for playoff wins.

Then you’ve got teams like the Penguins, Capitals and Avalanche who turned limited high picks into huge success by either drafting generational talents, or nailing it every time they get a high pick. In the Penguins case, they’ve made just six picks inside the top 10 since 1992 but rank second for playoff wins. Coming away with Crosby, Malkin, and Fleury in consecutive drafts will do that.

It’s only fitting Montreal and Toronto are nearly identical in both categories and just outside the pain tier. Both have experienced just enough success in the playoffs at various points over the last 30 years to stay out of the pain tier, but both have entered rebuilds in the 2000s and added top-10 picks. Bottoming out has worked for Toronto. Time will tell if it works in Montreal too.

Lastly Boston and Philadelphia have added a ton of playoff wins despite not having many top-10 picks due to strong drafting outside of the top 10. Fun fact, the Bruins actually have the same amount of top-10 picks as the Flames since 1992, but 69 more playoff wins.

To tank or not to tank

The Calgary Flames are sitting as a crossroads right now, and once again are starting down a potential rebuild in the near future. The question is when the time comes, will ownership finally commit to hitting rock bottom to build from the ground up?

Despite some teams flopping after long rebuilds, more often than not, the teams who have the most success in the NHL are built through high draft picks. It all comes down to how you use those picks. Tanking is one thing, drafting well is another.

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