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Behind the numbers: Blackhawks’ No. 3 pick might not be a surefire star, history shows

Even a selection this high has a surprisingly high level of risk, especially if the Hawks choose a defenseman.

Alexander Svitov, the third overall pick in the 2001 NHL Draft, is one of many selected in the slot who didn’t pan out as expected.
AP

Standing contrary to the cyclone of anticipation for the Blackhawks’ upcoming third overall draft selection, here’s a statistic that doesn’t fit the narrative.

Only about 40 percent of third overall picks end up being top-10 players in their draft class.

Only about 15 percent end up being top-three players in the class.

Sure, Alex Turcotte, Bowen Byram, Trevor Zegras and the rest are all billed as near-guaranteed stars — cornerstones the Hawks franchise can build around for the decades to come. But the same things were said about Cam Barker and Zach Bogosian, Alexander Svitov and Neil Brady. And even third picks who do decently well for themselves — see the likes of Kyle Turris and Jack Johnson — aren’t exactly cornerstone-caliber All-Stars.

The ubiquitous Jonathan Toews comparisons floating around Chicago lately shouldn’t create a perception that such is the norm, even if it’s certainly possible.

That cynical view is perhaps the most surprising takeaway from a statistical review of how each NHL draft class from 1978 to 2008 panned out. Here are a few more:

There’s a big difference between No. 2 and No. 3.

The success rate of third overall picks falls much more in line with that of the fourth and fifth picks than of the first and second picks.

In the 31-year sample, 74 and 77 percent of first and second overall picks, respectively, turned into top-10 players in their class. But clearly that rate tumbles sharply at No. 3, then remains steady for the next few choices — 35 percent at No. 4, 39 percent at No. 5.

It’s not hard to identify years where the tiers sorted out in such fashion. 2000s classes were laden with elite one-two punches: Marc-Andre Fleury and Eric Staal in 2003, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin in 2004, Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin in 2010. Then consider the next player chosen in each year: Nathan Horton, Barker, Erik Gudbranson.

It looks like 2019, with Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko at the top of the board, might classify itself the same way.

So while the Hawks were extremely fortunate to jump up nine spots in the draft lottery, it would’ve been significantly better to jump up 10.

Picking a defenseman comes with greater bust risk.

When the data is split not by selection number but by player position, an equally stark division emerges.

Sixty-two percent of forwards picked in the top five evolved into top-10 players in their class.

Just 28 percent of defensemen picked in the top five did so (measuring performance by career PointShares contributed, an all-encompassing game impact statistic created by Hockey Reference).

In the aforementioned historical review, 12 defensemen were chosen with the third pick, and only three turned into top-10 players: Glen Wesley, Scott Niedermayer and Jay Bouwmeester.

All 12 career paths are plotted below, with the black line representing the group average.

The average blueliner — keep in mind, these are third-overall-pick blueliners, too — produces 0.05 to 0.07 pointshares per game, equating to an above-average second-pair defenseman in today’s NHL.

Good, but not great.

Now, how about highlighting a few case studies from the sample?

For every Niedermayer (whose career path is represented by the blue line) picked third, there historically have been two choices who have followed paths more similar to Barker (red line) and Aki Berg (green line).

That’s worth keeping in mind as the Byram hype continues to escalate, regardless of his undeniably lofty potential.

The Hawks still have a great opportunity to pick a future star.

The flip side of the positional breakdown outlined above is that choosing a forward leads to a substantially higher success rate than the 40 percent statistic touted in the lede of this article.

If the individual career arcs (the noisy gray lines) seem a little more cohesive in the chart below, which plots the 19 forwards in the survey based on standard points per game, it’s because they indeed are — especially once players enter the primes of their careers.

Yes, of course, there remains a very wide range of outcomes — from legendary Denis Savard (the blue line in the revised chart below) to career grinder Scott Thornton (green line) to late-bloomer Henrik Sedin (red line).

Yet even the average attacker selected here scores about 0.6 points per game as a rookie, and improves to roughly 0.85 points per game by his prime. That’s solidly within first-line forward territory.

Even more encouraging is the impressively low floor for forwards taken this high. 15 of the 19 in the study turned into top-15 players in their class. In other words, even a somewhat underwhelming third overall selection should still compare to the likes of Keith Primeau and J.P. Dumont.

Besides, given the strength and depth of the upper-tier forwards in the 2019 class — Turcotte, Zegras, Dylan Cozens and more — there’s good reason to believe the Hawks will land an offensive weapon who will likely exceed the historical third-pick average.

It’s no guarantee — that’s clear. But a Toews-caliber career is nonetheless certainly viable for the youngster coming to Chicago later this month.