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May. 27, 2013 - Bill Placzek

NHL Draft: What are Tier rankings?


By ranking groups of players in tiers based on overall ability, readiness, and/or upside, each NHL team can get a road map as to who may be on the board at various slotting points. If a team is trading an established player that might involve picks or even the trading of picks, the GM and his staff want to know exactly how large the tier of available players will be with that newly acquired draft slot.
A lot of fans look at where their favorite team is in the various rounds and then try to gauge the possible choices based on the previous years' picks. Unfortunately that really has never worked.

Each draft possesses various different potential first-line/first-pairing players. Even inside those player groupings, there are going to be guys who may be potentially equal, but also furthered developed, larger frames, and/or play more valuable positions.

Some drafts simply have less desirable or talented players that are below elite quality even in the top slots. Yet all drafts have good value prospects that already have attributes that will enable them to contribute to NHL team lineups.

Even though many hockey media experts say that second round picks are basically low yield chances at acquiring talent, it really has more to do with the relative thickness of tiers in the first round. That same logic can be applied through the subsequent rounds. So looking at the tiers, NHL teams can see areas where the draft is thick, and also areas where the crop is thin.

For an example, let's say a team surveys their present squad, their pro farm system, and their college and junior prospects, and they feel they lack a bigger, mobile, snarling defenseman. If they say they will take the best available player, it is not as simple as that. They will look at their rankings and if there is both a forward and defenseman they have graded as equal, they may take the defender over the forward. However, it will not be that said defender that is taken if he is in the lower tier. In this specific case it means they will resist selecting a guy who may be a tier or two down just to attempt to fill that need. Yet they might really like that specific defender who is a tier lower than the players available, so they'll try and find a team that wants their earlier draft slot, and they will trade down to select from the next tier to get that specific defender, while adding picks. There is very little reaching in hockey drafts.

Teams will have very similar rankings, but they will never be exact, especially as the draft progresses. Teams will always have a special guy that they feel is buried who they can select at any point when they feel ready. He'll be a player not listed in the NHL pre-draft press kit, and not a Central Scouting Combine notable with any pre-draft buzz. 

These are what I see as universal Draft Tiers that can be applied to all drafts. Although each draft will have varying numbers of players on each subsequent tier. 

Tier One
Elite Prospects - There is strong reason to believe these players, at the very minimum, will be NHL players, but most likely will be upper end NHLers, and hopefully star players, top line contributors, and eventual top pairing defensemen. 

I am of the opinion there are seven players that fit this category with an elite three that must be considered as a higher subcategory of tier one.

Prior to this 2013 draft, you would have to look hard and long to find a draft year where in weeks prior to the draft, they were viewed with more than a two or maybe three. 

Tier Two
Prospects that are a notch below elite, but will most likely be upper end NHLers, and hopefully high end players.

I am of the opinion there are ten players that fit this category. Teams drafting as high as slot 17 will be given a unique opportunity at very gifted athletes who, in time, may also be impact NHL players. It is almost as if the teams are getting a chance of selecting personnel who, in other years, would be chosen in the higher slots. 

In retrospect, there seem to be only two drafts in past history that you could argue were so well stocked by the late middle of the first; 2003 and 2008. It might be easy to review past drafts and find solid NHL players that have been elected and made solid contributions, but you would be hard pressed to find a draft where the players available at this juncture project to also be impact players, close in ability and upside as the ones, who by consensus, are marked in the earlier tier. 

Tier Three:
Players that are good value in the early-mid first round, who may have signficant upside, tools and may have long NHL careers. 

I am of the opinion there are six players that fit this category, but an argument can be made to extend this list far into the second round. A team picking in the 24th slot in another draft year would not be enjoying the cornucopia of available quality prospects. 

Although tier four (below) is where NHL teams usually see themselves at this point in the drafts, that is not the case this year.

Tier Four: 
Players that are good value through the late first round who may have signficant upside in some areas, and may have solid NHL careers.

I am of the opinion there are an unprecedented sixteen players that fit this category. That means there are easily nine players who will not be selected in that first round and that translates to a group of mid-first round possibles that extend almost to the middle of the second round! 

In 2003, we saw three late second rounders Patrice Bergeron, Shea Weber, and David Backus who easily could be considered impact players, along with Corey Crawford, Jimmy Howard, Matt Carle, and early second rounder Loui Eriksson. No other draft could compare to the second round output of 2003, but in my humble opinion 2013 may do just that. So many hockey analysts view second round picks as low rush trade currency, based on the overall success rates. These percentages are based on the overall total of "successful picks" of all recent drafts. Each NHL draft is unique to the class of prospects that fill it. 

Tier Five
Players that are good value through the the late first round and second round, and may have fallen due to lack of progress in the draft year, or are still working to win over talent evaluators with the idea that they have significant upside, with developing tools, and the chance to have NHL careers. 

I am of the opinion that not only are there nine prospects that I listed as late possible first rounders, but that NHL teams will have an abundant pool of players that fit this tier; Players that NHL teams will deem have significant upside that extend as far down as the third round. So instead of the classic second round beginning at pick 31, we see plenty of opportunities at developing prospects who also have upside to be good NHL players. 

In most other draft years, teams selecting late usually try to find at the very least a youngster that will eventually contribute on NHL roster. They set their sights on safe, high character youngster even though they may not view that player as one who be a high-end roster guy. They will just develop the ability to eventually make an NHL roster with solid contributions. 

Tier Six
Players that teams are targeting in middle rounds because they are deemed "works in progress" as they have deficits to overcome to be NHL players and may require the parts that are not yet in place.

I am of the opinion that this year's sixth tier doesn't start to become evident until middle of the 4th round and extends past the middle of the 5th round. In this area of the draft, teams will start looking at players who were undrafted in previous years and possibly have made scouting staffs rethink their decisions on passing on them the year(s) before. A European player might have not been "on the radar," based on his junior team contributions, but that player's advancement into the various Euro pro teams since previous draft(s) might have NHL teams now viewing him in a very different light. 

Players like Chicago's Andrew Shaw can found in this tier with some luck. Shaw was always undersized, but he continued to round out as a player with some attributes necessary to be an NHL'er. San Jose's Tommy Wingels, Minnesota's undersized Jared Spurgeon, Vancouver's Frankie Corrado, L.A's Jake Muzzin, and Philedelphia's Zac Rinaldo are examples. The true diamond in this grouping has to be Dallas' find of Jamie Benn in the 5th Round, 129th overall. With hard work he got more skilled, bigger, faster, and stronger with the Stars being the beneficiaries. 

Tier Seven
Players that teams are targeting because they are are deemed "works in progress" as they have deficits to overcome to be NHL players that may require long term development. Their developmental upside seems "capped" due to limitations in size and/or ability.

A NHL team's last pick, more times than not, is one where the scouting staff and GM have a specific group of lesser knowns that they feel strongly about. This is the part of the draft where paging through the Central Scouting Draft guides may find many a media person or fan coming up empty. And sometimes "likable" players that teams would have been willing to take earlier slip through the cracks when other teams pass on them to fill organizational needs or have other players ranked higher. Teams sometimes find a local talent that they are willing to take the "wait and see" approach on. It is also an excellent time to for teams to select a goalie with the idea that he might grow his game and be a solid pro. The last ten drafts average over three goaltenders selected with this idea in mind. Of the 32 goalers drafted in the final round, only three were drafted whose names you would know: Jaroslav Halak (Montreal), Brian Elliott (Ottawa) and Anders Lindback (Nashville). 

What has helped make this draft a thick one is the large list of second and third year eligibles in both North America and the European leagues. Many undrafted prospects have managed to show substantial improvement in the areas the NHL passed on them for in prior drafts. 

Tier Eight:
Players who are basically long-shots but due to favorable characteristics that they have displayed in their past performances at varied levels of hockey, may be able to overcome various deficiencies and ascend to the NHL level. 

In this specific draft, NHL teams will probably make their final selections and are not guaranteed any success in the final parts of their draft crop. The majority of drafted players have to work hard and progress to reach that elite level of play that the NHL displays. Nonetheless scouting staffs will have to have done homework through an excessively large bottom end of prospects.

I have a list of an additional 340 possibles draftees available after the top 210 prospects that are off the board. If one can see and grade those 340, any ticket could be a winner. 

The draft role of restocking NHL clubs has become even more important in the era of a Salary Cap, because drafting, developing and eventually getting major league minutes out of selections provide lower home-grown rookie salaries that are less money than trading for an established player or what it would cost cap-wise to acquire an unrestricted free agent. Hence, it is cheaper to have your own draft selections in your sweater.
I view this draft as one that may help NHL management get a true pulse of their scouting staff's heartbeat. Some teams will get the opportunity to make sound decisions from round one on, that may radically upgrade the mother club, while other team managements may be reorganizing their evaluation departments if they don't find gold in the various veins they choose to mine.