July 6, 2019, Vancouver- Player development is a crucial part of any sport, but there is no clear consensus on what sport has the best system for player growth. Minor leagues, affiliates, prospect leagues and colleges all have their benefits. However, some have established themselves as the preferred routes to success for the game’s elite.
Soccer has its own infrastructure that has been established worldwide through academy systems, where players are integrated within their clubs from a young age, and learn the playing styles and philosophies of their clubs from the get-go. However, this is not the case in North America, where minor leagues, older age player growth takes precedent- oftentimes through a draft process.
Vancouver is not a city flush with elite top-level sports. All due respect to MLS’s Whitecaps, and CFL’s Lions but neither team are filled with elite talent. Only the Canucks can claim to be filled with elite talent, albeit some of the lesser elites- seeing as the team has missed the playoffs the last four seasons. The wildcard in the Vancouver sports scene is minor league baseball’s Vancouver Canadians, who themselves may not be elite- but do boast the potential to have some of baseball’s finest. The C’s, competing five levels below the majors, are a crucial step in the development pyramid for Major League Baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays.
If one compares the player development models of the MLB and NHL, there are stark differences- but both have their pros and cons.
This series will compare the NHL and MLB, at every level of player development. In the first edition, I will look at the effectiveness of each leagues respective draft, and in the future, I will examine which farm system greater benefits players.
Most MLB organizations have seven or eight minor league teams, whereas NHL organizations have a maximum of two. For the MLB, there is a widespread of ages where players are drafted, some from high school, some from college and some from international locations, whereas in hockey it is all from one age and primarily junior hockey leagues.
The effectiveness of the two drafts is also something to look at. Before any player makes the big leagues in any league, they are usually drafted. Often times there will be undrafted free agents, but in most cases- the top talents are the drafted ones.
For the purposes of this examination, I look back on the 2017 drafts in both the NHL and MLB. The reasoning for picking 2017 is because, within three seasons, many players have made their league debuts- while some have already become pillars for the future of their franchises.
First of all, the size of the two drafts is incomparable. With MLB organizations fielding full teams at 7+ levels, the influx of players annually has to be much higher than that of its hockey counterpart. MLB has 40 rounds of their annual amateur draft, whereas the NHL has only seven. As both leagues have expanded in the number of franchises, they have expanded the number of players selected in the draft. The NHL will never reach the 40 rounds of the MLB, but the potential for 10 rounds is ripe with expansion on the horizon.
For both drafts, the first round is where the majority of the elite talent is found. The NHL has a higher value on its top picks, as we can see in the chart below. Although, the MLB’s top picks also draw a lot of attention.
Looking at this chart, we can see that the top three picks in the NHL draft have the most value, before a substantial drop off in the next level of prospects. The difference between the top three and the rest of the first round is not as black and white in baseball, however the difference is still there. Rather than having the drop off at pick number four, the MLB sees its drop after the first round. For both drafts, there is a drop, but by this value measurement, there is more talent to be found deeper in the MLB draft.
This also leads to the value draft picks hold in trade. For the NHL, a first-round draft pick is considered one of the most valuable assets any team can have in trade discussion. Especially if it is a potential top-three pick- up which is in that “elite” level of the draft. With the talent distribution in the MLB draft; picks hold less value unless it is moving into the first round from a later selection place. The final product of this means that NHL team’s who are in their championship-winning window will readily trade their first-round picks to get already established talent to push them over the top, compared to MLB teams who don’t necessarily have that luxury.
While it has been determined the value of draft picks; how has the 2017 draft class fit into the value model? To compare these, I examined the first round of both drafts, to look at how players have affected their major league teams, three seasons post-draft.
The NHL has couped more value from 2017 than the MLB has so far. Only five picks from MLB’s first-round have appeared in major league action, and none have established themselves as core pieces for their team moving forward. On the other hand, the NHL has had 20 of the 31 first-round picks see big league ice time, with seven, debatably eight of those players becoming key contributors to their teams moving forward. If we are to look at the top three in the NHL draft, they don’t necessarily match up exactly with the chart. Nico Hischier, Nolan Patrik, and Miro Heiskanen have cemented themselves as NHL regulars, although picks outside the top three have had a greater impact. You don’t have to go far to see the impact that the fifth overall selection, Elias Pettersson has had on the Vancouver Canucks, By every metric, it is clear that NHL players develop faster, and make an impact quicker than their MLB counterparts, and it’s not even only the top three.
The MLB also relies on undrafted free agent signing much more than the NHL does. For example, Baseball America’s number one ranked prospect for the 2019 season was Toronto’s Vladimir Guerrero Jr. He was an undrafted prospect who developed outside the organized baseball of college or high school. There are undrafted free agent signings in the NHL, although it is rare to see such highly regarded talents fly under the radar of seven rounds of NHL drafting.
If the NHL and MLB were to swap development systems, would we see draft picks be valued differently in the two leagues? And could it possibly lead to faster development of elite baseball talent? We will never know, as both systems have been steeped in tradition and ingrained in both sports. However, it is an interesting proposition to see whether there could be a player development revolution in either sport.
This is the first article of my player development series. In the next one, I will go more in-depth on the two development systems, comparing the multi-layered approach of MLB, to the more expedited approach of the NHL.
While it is clear that young players have established themselves in both leagues, and talent is often found through the draft. The NHL draft is more effective than the MLB’s version.