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In With Both Feet
Copyright Iain Fyffe, 2003
Published January 14, 2003

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It’s amazing what you can find when you’re not even looking. Recently I happened to be glancing over the all-time NHL Entry Drafty lists (yes, that is what I actually do with my time). I just happened to pick 1982 to examine in more detail, and just happened to notice that Montreal seemed to have selected an awful lot of high school players that year. They selected nine high schoolers, the best of them turning out to be David Maley. Knowing drafting high schoolers in baseball to be an extremely risky proposition, I decided to see if the same holds true for hockey.

Before 1980, only one high schooler was ever drafted (as far as I can tell): Larry Patey, by California in 1973. He went on to have a 713-game NHL career. For one reason or another, the 1980’s brought a rash of high school draftees. Seven were drafted in 1980; Paul Higgins had the longest NHL career, at a whopping 25 games. 16 high schoolers were drafted in 1981, including four each by Montreal and Minnesota. The best of this bunch was Steve Rooney, who played 154 NHL games.

In 1982, the floodgates really opened. 36 high schoolers were drafted. Even though they had almost no history of drafted high schoolers to base their strategy on, Montreal jumped in with both feet, grabbing nine high school players. Minnesota drafted six, while Buffalo took four. Of Montreal’s nine picks, only three ever played in the NHL (Maley, Scott Sandelin with 25 games, and Scott Harlow with one game). One gem was uncovered by Buffalo, who drafted Phil Housley sixth overall. Other notable high school draftees included Bob Sweeney and Corey Millen.

In 1983, the drafting continued with 39 high schoolers being taken, including Brian Lawton first overall. Strangely, Montreal selected only two high schoolers, neither of which ever made the NHL. Minnesota was the leader with six selections. The best of the draftees were Tom Barrasso, Kevin Stevens and Brian Noonan.

38 more high schoolers were drafted in 1984, but only three by Montreal (including Scott MacTavish from my own Fredericton High School). Minnesota drafted four. The best of the group were Don Sweeney, Paul Ranheim and Stephen Leach.

36 high schoolers were drafted in 1985, the best of which were Tom Chorske, Paul Stanton and Tim Sweeney. St. Louis was now the leader with five picks, while Quebec and New Jersey had four each.

Let’s stop here for some analysis. To determine if selecting high school players is a good strategy, we must compare them to other draft picks. The following table indicates the total number if players drafted (No), the percentage that made the NHL (%NHL), and the average career NHL games played by players who made the NHL, through 1999/2000 (NHLGP).

Year Category No %NHL NHLGP
1982 High school 36 33.3 230
  Other 216 46.3 339
1983 High school 39 20.5 334
  Other 203 58.6 302
1984 High school 38 21.1 356
  Other 212 48.1 339
1985 High school 36 19.4 197
  Other 216 44.4 274
Totals High school 149 23.5 276
  Other 847 49.2 314

This demonstrates that not only are high school draftees less than half as likely to make the NHL than other draftees, those that do make the NHL are probably of lesser quality (on average), playing 12% fewer career NHL games.

Of course, these results could not have been known until several years after the drafts occurred, so in a way we cannot blame anyone for not knowing this. And learn, they did, eventually. In 1988, 37 high schoolers were drafted, consistent with the above annual results. BY 1994 this had dropped to 20, and by 1998, six. 2002 saw only six high-schoolers drafted, so a low point seems to have been reached.

So the madness has passed, but why did it begin in the first place? Why would teams plunge so whole-heartedly into a scheme that had not been tested at all? Would it not have been more prudent to hedge one’s bets by drafting a majority of safer, major junior players, while testing the high school waters carefully until the quality of said picks was determined? Montreal essentially threw away nine of their draft picks in 1982, since they had no idea how they would turn out. That was an awfully wasteful way to test the strategy of drafting high school players.

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