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College Prospects provide underrated value for Wild system

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With the college hockey season around the corner, it's a good time to reflect on the role of collegiate players in the Wild system.

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Draft weekend is always controversial in the NHL, and it's probably always going to be. Who to pick, who definitely not to pick, whether or not the Oilers should just throw their picks away, there's always something to debate. So when the Minnesota Wild (well-deserving of their draft position) took Luke Kunin with the 15th overall draft pick this June at the NHL Entry Draft, they created their own bit of controversy. Taking Kunin, the Wild acquired a speedy forward with a good amount of skill and the exact type of grit that the franchise seems to adore, but they also earned the fair criticism that they might have left better prospects on the table.

One of the biggest questions in the minds of Wild fans following Kunin's selection wasn't his ceiling or his role on the team, it was simply why him? With the likes of Kieffer Bellows (who went 19th to the New York Islanders) and Riley Tufte (who fell to 25th and the Dallas Stars), the most obvious and frequently-asked question was whether or not Kunin deserved his spot in the top half of the first round.

For the most part, it's going to be impossible to say whether or not the Wild made the right move; even as Kunin and Bellows and Tufte develop, their play and stat sheets won't just reflect their individual skills and potential -- they'll reflect the quality of the organization that has drafted and will develop them. That means that, two or five or ten years from now, the Kieffer Bellows some wish the Wild had taken won't be the same as the one they would have gotten. Unfortunately for fans, these comparisons will be frustratingly impossible -- though I'm sure we'll still make them anyway.

In the end, though, Kunin's selection reflects a broader trend in the franchise -- a shift away from focusing on prized European prospects and a more gradual shift toward NCAA prospects. Below, I break the Wild's draft cohorts into two-year groups (mostly to increase the sample size and better represent trend rather than outlier).

While the trends in the Wild's drafting habits aren't as linear as you might expect, they are clear nonetheless. In years where the Wild drafted more NCAA prospects, those picks came at the cost of European prospects. In these years, players in the various Canadian junior and American junior leagues have composed a roughly-equal portion of all Wild draft picks. While this trend is in part a product of the quality of the prospect pool, it is also due in part to the growing respect the organization has for the NCAA's track record in developing players.

The growing respect the Wild has for NCAA products is despite a rocky history with their players. On average, the Wild's NCAA picks play fewer NHL games (including those who never make the league), score fewer goals, and provide fewer assists than their counterparts drafted from or developed in other leagues.

 

While Nick Leddy is certainly a stand-out player and notable in his own right, he's less prolific than Marian Gaborik and Brent Burns , who bolster their respective draft leagues. The difference in these players highlights a fundamental difference in the NCAA and other development leagues in terms of the quality and type of their products: where the NCAA has consistency, other leagues have flash. (Also notable is the fact that Carson McMillan is apparently the best WHL draft pick the Wild have ever had? Yikes).

The aggregate trends noted in the above table don't tell the whole story, however. When we limit our sample to only players who play more than 25 NHL games, the various draft leagues converge relatively around scoring rates (excepting WHL draftees) and games played. Notably here, the average draft position differentiates NCAA players from their European and junior counterparts.

 

In that sense, maybe the Wild's newfound adoration for NCAA prospects is easy to understand. While European prospects are drafted at lower positions on average, NCAA players can be found later and for similar value. This explains the dearth of USHL and QMJHL prospects currently in the Wild system as well as the draft-day interest in players like Kunin.

Comparing the careers of the various draft leagues, the value-pick trend is reinforced.

Among players with more than 50 NHL games under their belt, the blue NCAA picks are drafted later than than most and nevertheless have comparable P/GP rates to others who are considered more valuable by league standards. Also notable is how bad all the Wild's drafted goaltenders are at scoring goals. Come on, Anton Khubodin! Pull your scoring weight!

In any case, players like Erik Haula, drafted late in their respective years, score at respectable rates when they actually do make it to the NHL. This is obviously not a guarantee, but this is true across the board. In practice, the trend toward NHL draft picks is one that reflects an evolution in the franchise thinking of the Wild. Given that NCAA prospects prove to be effective scorers who can be found late in the draft where true NHL players are exceptionally rare, it makes sense for the Wild to place a few cheap bets on them panning out.

In that sense, the Wild's choice to take Kunin, a player in a league that develops value -- if not superstardom -- is more intriguing. Perhaps Kunin's play in a league that breeds consistency will elevate his already innate skills to a level beyond the average college prospect. But perhaps they won't, and we'll spend the rest of our lives Bellowing for something different.