Bourne's notebook: What value do NHL draft picks have in 2021?

In the first edition of Trade Deadline Matchmaker, Mike Futa and Kris Versteeg each pick a player they believe would be the ‘perfect match’ for all four ‘buyers’ in the Canadian North division ahead of the trade deadline.

It’s time to clean up the notebook of all these thoughts that don’t quite warrant columns, but are worth discussing nonetheless.

First and foremost…

What value do draft picks have in 2021?

Something I’ve heard continually heading towards deadline day (and the draft) is that this season “draft picks have less value,” because essentially, teams have far less certainty with what they’ll be drafting. Junior leagues have barely played, travel and other COVID restrictions have made in-person viewings sparse, and so in general, scouts are much less confident in how they’ve sorted players. You don’t KNOW you’re getting a year-by-year comparable “first-rounder” if you acquire a first-round pick.

But! But the thing is, the sum of the players who are going to be drafted are the same whether they’re correctly sorted or incorrectly sorted. There’s no more or less value to be found in the draft just because central scouting or internal scouting is having a harder time cross-comparing those who will get selected. If some picks have less value (maybe those at the top of the first round?), then others must have more.

Rounds six and seven were always a crapshoot, and I think it’s fair to say that’ll be the case there more than ever. But to me, if you’re guessing where that missing value has moved to, it’s just outside those early rounds and back around the third and fourth, a place where teams don’t seem to mind trading their picks, but the potential to luck into a higher-end player very much exists, maybe more than in previous years.

My point here is that “picks have less value” logically can’t make sense unless you believe all these players who’ve had weird years will be fundamentally worse players in their 20s than those previous players who had totally normal junior careers … which is another discussion worth having. But the more general point is just that not being able to accurately sort those who will be drafted should only increase the interest of rebuilding teams in acquiring mid-round draft picks that would seem lower cost to acquire, while carrying bigger potential payoffs.

Which teams have most exceeded (betting) expectations this season? What about the opposite?

As someone who throws down a few coins down on the NHL most days, it’s impossible to not notice betting trends. One of those is obvious: because the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal CAnadiens have the biggest fanbases, even in games they’re 50/50 to win, they’re not going to pay fairly if you bet on them. It protects the books from being overloaded on one side of the betting ledger, as fans bet on their own teams. If the Leafs always have poor odds, they’ll pay when they win — but only a little — and when they lose, and the other side would pay a lot … but not many people will have taken that side of the bet.

Because of the way odds are set, certain teams often get more favourable odds, particularly those with smaller fanbases. In Canada, that means the Winnipeg Jets often pay well (a passionate but relatively smaller base), and in a year they’ve exceeded expectations, that’s made them a very profitable team to bet on.

If you put $100 on every team in the NHL (moneyline, which just means to win in any fashion) every game this season, here’s how that would’ve affected your pocketbook this season. These odds come courtesy my friend Kris Abbott of Coolbet, who directed me to these useful tables on

Here’s the top-10. The Jets have been the most profitable team, Toronto’s up there simply cause they’ve won a bunch. As you’ll see it kind of serves as a proxy for success relative to expectation.

Now the bottom-10. Losing a lot is obviously the driving force, but the odds had teams like St. Louis, Philly and Montreal as favourites a lot early on.

Lock it up, Dallas.

Buffalo’s expectations weren’t high, per se, but they still fell just so far short of anything close this year.

The game is in such a good place

Something that’s struck me lately is just how good of a place the NHL is in, in terms of the quality of the on-ice product. It’s never going to be perfect, but it sure feels like we spend about a tenth of the time we did debating bad hits as we did even just a half-dozen years ago. When I ran Backhand Shelf for theScore from 2011 to 2015, I did a feature called “court of public opinion” that dissected borderline hits, and I had to do one about every third day. That’s not the case anymore unless fan bias has you willfully blind. I think players are more cautious, and with that, the skill players seem to be freed up to try even more insane moves without as much fear of getting blindsided. It’s been freeing.

The physicality is still in the game. There’s still plenty of big hits and fights, it seems like the meatheads at the roster fringes are gone in favour of more talent, and it’s just a delight to watch most nights. The game misses fans badly right now. But when they come back, it should be to a great show.

Now with that said…

The limits of the human body are likely to kill the pace at some point soon

Not to be Debbie Downer here, but hockey was already a gruelling grind in a regular season. There are lulls in a normal season, as players just can’t play at 100 per cent for the length of an NHL season. And we know the first two rounds of the playoffs are the best part of the hockey season, as, by round three, there are usually injuries, and the pace generally drops. It has to. The human body can only hold up to so much abuse.

Well, we’re in the thick of the most condensed NHL season ever, made all the more jammed together by COVID-related postponements. Players can’t be loving the grind of this particular season, as many of the perks (like say, leaving their hotels) have been stripped bare. Surely some guys on teams without real Cup hopes just want it to all end. Cynical as it sounds, much of getting through this season was about just that, getting through it. And for those guys, the finish line is just a month down the road.

The reality is that the pace has already slowed a bit. There are nights where the energy just can’t be there. As we head into playoffs, I don’t expect that first round pace to slow at all, but it’s tough to imagine what the game is going to look like by the later rounds this season. If you’re a fan of a Cup hopeful, my advice is get praying to the injury gods. It’s going to be a huge factor in this year’s post-season.

And finally on the pace topic,

Players who control the pace of a game are the most valuable players in the league

Every team is full of players who can exist comfortably within the pace of an NHL game, which is absurdly fast. But nothing bends defences, and forces coaches to pursue matchups, and leads to offence-like players who control the pace of the game. These guys are so good it can be impossible to get them out of position, so those who can are pure gold.

That doesn’t mean “go fast.” I’m thinking of Mitch Marner, of Patrick Kane, and if you wanna throw back to the grand-daddies of the concept, Pavel Datsyuk and let’s just say it, Wayne Gretzky. These players slow the game to their pace, force players to make decisions (“should I run out at him there, or stay sagged back here?”), and essentially, creating offence is about forcing defences to make decisions, then capitalizing when they inevitably make some wrong ones. It takes crazy confidence, something I see in more young players each season.

There are guys who control the pace with pure speed too, guys like Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon. That’s obviously another way to do it. But it’s not the only way. Whatever way players do it, there’s nothing harder to defend.

To tie that to the above point, if the pace slows as expected, and guys aren’t exactly able to pin the pedal down for months on end, could it be these types of players who have the most value deeper in the playoffs?

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