How NHL Teams are Constructed: Is There a Best Way?

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 25: Carolina Hurricanes President and General Manager Jim Rutherford speaks on the phone during the 2010 NHL Entry Draft at Staples Center on June 25, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

A couple of weeks ago, I did a small post describing how a couple of Playoff teams acquired their players. I thought it was interesting and decided to expand on it to all NHL team. So when I started doing the research for this article, I was confident that I would be able to find some correlation between successful teams and how they were constructed. I was sure that one method of acquiring players would prove to be more successful than others, more often than not. While I did find some relationships regarding Conferences as a whole, I was unable to find any pattern regarding player acquisition that worked all the time. So take the information I collected and see if you can find any correlation to the way teams are built and their success.

I’m going to start off by explaining the categories I used and how I came up with the numbers. When I talk about how teams are constructed, I am referring to how the individual players were acquired. I divided all players up into 4 "acquisition categories": drafted, free agent, traded, and waivers. A drafted player refers to a player that was drafted by the current team he is playing for. A free agent refers to a player that moved to his current team by signing a free agent contract. A traded player refers to a player that was acquired by his current team through a trade. And a waivers player refers to a player that was picked up off the waiver wire. To qualify, players had to be in the organization’s "system" on the last day of the regular season. A player like Sean Avery that was released and not picked up would not be counted unless he played at least 20 NHL games this past season. All designations like "Top 9 Forwards" or "Top 6 Defensemen" are based on the highest average ES TOI. All players were counted in the Team numbers, but Top players had to play at least 20 games to qualify. I planned to show the numbers in a chart form, but I was unable to get the charts to transfer to Canes Country. So I replaced the charts with tables, but I have included a link to the charts at the beginning of each section. I would suggest looking at the charts, because I feel they give a better representation of the data. I also rounded all percentages to the nearest tenth.

Overall Team Makeup - Overall Team Makeup Charts

Eastern Conference Overall Team Makeup
Drafted 26.5% 51.5% 35.5% 21.6% 33.3% 34.4% 53.1% 31.0% 54.5% 19.4% 38.2% 18.8% 19.4% 41.9% 33.3%
Free Agent 26.5% 27.3% 25.8% 45.9% 33.3% 43.8% 31.3% 31.0% 21.2% 35.5% 41.2% 40.6% 35.5% 35.5% 30.6%
Traded 47.1% 18.2% 35.5% 32.4% 30.0% 18.8% 9.4% 34.5% 24.2% 45.2% 14.7% 34.4% 45.2% 22.6% 27.8%
Waivers 0.0% 3.0% 3.2% 0.0% 3.3% 3.1% 6.3% 3.4% 0.0% 0.0% 5.9% 6.3% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

The only pattern I found while looking at the EC Overall Makeup was that 6 of the top 7 teams in regards to free agent percentage made the Playoffs. The only team that had over 35% of their players acquired through free agency that didn’t make the Playoffs was Toronto. But that was countered by the Ottawa Senators, who had the lowest percentage of free agents and still made the Playoffs. I also noticed that the "leader" of each category (minus Waivers) made the Playoffs this season. An interesting side note is that Pittsburgh, a team generally thought of as building through the draft, was 6th in the East in drafted players and had more free agent signings on their roster than players they drafted. They built their core around drafted players, but really completed their roster by trading for or signing others.

Western Conference Overall Team Makeup

Drafted 31.3% 18.9% 43.8% 34.5% 43.2% 41.9% 61.3% 51.4% 46.4% 36.6% 60.6% 22.6% 46.4% 36.7% 25.8%
Free Agent 25.0% 35.1% 25.0% 27.6% 32.4% 45.2% 29.0% 25.7% 25.0% 31.7% 15.2% 41.9% 28.6% 26.7% 32.3%
Traded 40.6% 40.5% 31.3% 37.9% 18.9% 12.9% 6.5% 20.0% 28.6% 29.3% 18.2% 29.0% 25.0% 33.3% 41.9%
Waivers 3.1% 5.4% 0.0% 0.0% 5.4% 0.0% 3.2% 2.9% 0.0% 2.4% 6.1% 6.5% 0.0% 3.3% 0.0%

The WC Overall Makeup was just as random as the East. The only pattern I found was that 4 of the top 5 teams in regards to drafted percentage made the Playoffs. But at the same time, 2 of the 3 lowest drafted percentages (Phoenix & Vancouver) also made the Playoffs. The team with the highest traded percentage (Vancouver) made the Playoffs, but the 3 teams following them in that category did not qualify for the postseason. The biggest contrast to me was 2 of the budget teams, Nashville & Phoenix. They built their teams in very different ways, but both have made the Playoffs the past couple of seasons and are battling in the 2nd round.

My Summary of These Overall Numbers

While I was not able to find any relationship throughout the league between success and player acquisition, I did notice a difference between the two conferences. The Western Conference seems to focus more on drafted players. They have 8 teams that have over 40% of their roster comprised of players they drafted, while the East only has 4 at 40% or above. The West average for drafted players is 39.9%, compared to the East average of 34.6%. I wonder why this is. Do Western Conference teams draft better/have better scouting or do they do a better job at developing players? It might be something to look into. I also noticed that Eastern Conference teams sign more free agents than Western Conference teams. The East has 11 teams with over 30% of their roster comprised of free agents, while the West only has 6 teams over 30%. The East averages 34% free agents, while the West is at 29.8%. What causes this to occur? Is it a result of the big market teams with a lot of money in the East, having more money to spend on free agents? Or is it that free agents prefer the travel schedule that Eastern Conference teams have? While I wasn’t really able to find any solid pattern for making the Playoffs, I think I did find that the teams in the two Conferences approach the construction of their teams in slightly different ways; possibly because of geography?

Top 9 Forwards - Top 9 Makeup Charts

Eastern Conference Top 9 Forwards Makeup

Drafted 55.6% 66.7% 44.4% 11.1% 22.2% 33.3% 55.6% 55.6% 77.8% 22.2% 44.4% 33.3% 33.3% 44.4% 44.4%
Free Agent 0.0% 11.1% 22.2% 33.3% 44.4% 44.4% 33.3% 33.3% 0.0% 33.3% 22.2% 33.3% 33.3% 22.2% 33.3%
Traded 44.4% 22.2% 33.3% 55.6% 33.3% 22.2% 0.0% 11.1% 22.2% 44.4% 33.3% 22.2% 33.3% 33.3% 22.2%
Waivers 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 11.1% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 11.1% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

When you look at the EC Top 9 Makeup, it seems to be even more random than the Overall Makeup. While 3 of the top 4 teams with the highest drafted percentage made the Playoffs, so did 2 of the 3 lowest teams. Ottawa led the way in drafted Top 9 players and Florida was at the bottom with 11.1%, and both made the Playoffs. New Jersey & Montreal were the top free agent teams, 1 made the Playoffs and the other did not. Boston & Ottawa were at the bottom of the Top 9 free agent with no free agents in their top 9. All 3 teams that acquired at least 40% of their Top 9 through trades did make the Playoffs this season. Maybe it is just me, but I just can’t see any consistent pattern.

Western Conference Top 9 Forwards Makeup

Drafted 33.3% 22.2% 55.6% 66.7% 55.6% 44.4% 66.7% 77.8% 33.3% 33.3% 66.7% 33.3% 55.6% 44.4% 55.6%
Free Agent 22.2% 33.3% 11.1% 0.0% 11.1% 33.3% 22.2% 0.0% 11.1% 11.1% 0.0% 22.2% 0.0% 11.1% 11.1%
Traded 33.3% 33.3% 33.3% 33.3% 33.3% 22.2% 0.0% 11.1% 55.6% 44.4% 33.3% 44.4% 44.4% 44.4% 33.3%
Waivers 11.1% 11.1% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 11.1% 11.1% 0.0% 11.1% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

As a whole, the Western Conference uses more drafted players in their Top 9 than the East. Even Vancouver with a very low overall drafted percentage has over 50% of their Top 9 in the drafted category. Edmonton, Detroit, and Colorado led the way in drafted Top 9 players, but only 1 of them made the Playoffs this season. Calgary & Dallas were tops in the free agent Top 9 category and neither of them reached the postseason. The funny thing was that 4 of the 5 teams with over 40% of their Top 9 acquired through trade made the Playoffs and 3 of those made it to the 2nd round of the Playoffs. The Western Conference also had a lot more waiver players in their Top 9 than the East, but only 1 team with a waiver player in the Top 9 made the Playoffs.

My Summary of These Top 9 Forward Numbers

The only slight pattern that I could see is that 7 of the 8 teams that had at least 4 players in their Top 9 that were acquired through trades made the Playoffs this season. But that means that 9 of the other 16 Playoff teams built their Top 9 differently. And like the Overall Table, the Top 9 Table shows that the Western Conference teams are heavier with drafted players and the Eastern Conference has more free agents in their Top 9 ranks. The Western teams Top 9 consisted of 49.6% drafted players, while the Eastern teams were at 43%. The Eastern team had 26.7% of their Top 9 slots occupied by free agents as compared to the Western with only 13.3%. This information supports the conclusion that I found with the Overall Table that the teams in the West rely more so on their drafting of players while the East tends to sign more free agents.

Top 6 Defensemen - Top 6 Defensemen Makeup Charts

Eastern Conference Top 6 Defensemen Makeup

Drafted 0.0% 50.0% 33.3% 33.3% 33.3% 33.3% 33.3% 33.3% 50.0% 0.0% 33.3% 16.7% 33.3% 66.7% 33.3%
Free Agent 16.7% 16.7% 16.7% 50.0% 33.3% 33.3% 50.0% 33.3% 16.7% 16.7% 50.0% 33.3% 16.7% 16.7% 16.7%
Traded 83.3% 33.3% 50.0% 16.7% 33.3% 33.3% 16.7% 33.3% 33.3% 83.3% 16.7% 50.0% 50.0% 16.7% 33.3%
Waivers 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 16.7%

If you thought the first 2 Tables didn’t have much correlation, now comes the Top 6 Defensemen Table. With the defensemen, everything is all across the map. Certain teams like Boston & Philadelphia have no drafted Top 6 defensemen; their defenses have really been built on acquiring defensemen through trades. Then a team like Washington has drafted 2/3rds of their Top 6 defensemen. And teams like Florida & Pittsburgh have signed half of their defense. All of these teams made the Playoffs, so it doesn’t appear one way is better than another. The Eastern Conference drafted Top 6 Defensemen only account for 32.2% of those spots. So maybe JR philosophy of not drafting defensemen high has some merit?

Western Conference Top 6 Defensemen Makeup

Drafted 16.7% 16.7% 50.0% 0.0% 16.7% 33.3% 50.0% 16.7% 50.0% 50.0% 83.3% 33.3% 66.7% 66.7% 33.3%
Free Agent 16.7% 50.0% 0.0% 33.3% 16.7% 50.0% 16.7% 33.3% 33.3% 33.3% 16.7% 33.3% 0.0% 0.0% 33.3%
Traded 66.7% 33.3% 50.0% 66.7% 66.7% 16.7% 33.3% 50.0% 16.7% 16.7% 0.0% 33.3% 33.3% 33.3% 33.3%
Waivers 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

Now this is the first time I actually see somewhat of a pattern. Of the 8 Western Conference Playoff teams, 6 of them have at least 50% of their Top 6 defensemen in the drafted category. Only Phoenix & Vancouver are not included and they have a balanced defense in terms of how they were acquired. The 2 teams with the highest free agent percentage missed the Playoffs as well as the 3 teams that acquired the most through trades. Nashville, San Jose, and St. Louis had the highest percentage of drafted defensemen.

My Summary of These Top 6 Defensemen Numbers

Again the Western Conference showed to be built with more drafted defensemen than the East. They had 7 teams at 50% or higher compared to the East with only 3. While it was much closer on the free agent side, the East still acquired more players through free agency than the West. The West actually had 3 teams, all made the Playoffs, that didn’t have any free agents in their Top 6 Defensemen. But the bottom line is I really don’t see any correlation between the 2 Conferences. The top drafted team in the league made the Playoffs as did the top traded teams in the league. It just seems random, particularly more so when it comes to defensemen.

The Canes

Hurricanes Overall Team Makeup

Season 2005/2006 2008/2009 2011/2012
Drafted 23.1% 24.2% 35.5%
Free Agent 30.8% 30.3% 25.8%
Traded 46.1% 42.4% 35.5%
Waivers 0.0% 3.0% 3.2

The last thing I looked at was how the Hurricanes were constructed for this past season as compared to their 2 Playoff appearances since the lockout. One thing I’ve noticed is that the Canes have changed their construction philosophy since the Stanley Cup year. The amount of drafted players went from 23.1% in 05/06 to 24.2% in 08/09 to 35.5% in 11/12. The amount of traded players went from 46.1% in 05/06 to 42.4% in 08/09 to 35.5% in 11/12. So the trend would say that the higher percentage of traded players we use, the better our results. It even shows that the less drafted players we use, the better our results. Is this an issue of us not drafting well or not developing players well? If you look at our main drafted players, you might come to the conclusion that we don't develop players very well. Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner stepped right into the NHL from Juniors. Justin Faulk only played 25 games in the AHL; Brandon Sutter only played in 43 AHL games (both totals include AHL Playoff games). Cam Ward only had 1 season in the AHL and Jaime McBain, who still has some improvements to make, only had about 1 full season in the AHL if you include his Playoff games. The other players that have played for us that were drafted have only been average to below average. If you really look at it, only 3 players that have spent more than a year in the AHL (or Canes development) have made significant contributions to this year's squad; Chad LaRose, Patrick Dwyer, and Drayson Bowman. And the only one we actually drafted was Bowman. I think this might suggest that the Hurricanes don’t exactly do a tremendous job at developing players and maybe should focus a little more on trading for players or signing free agents.


In conclusion, this research didn’t exactly give me the information I desired. I was expecting to find the best way for building NHL teams and what I found was there is no best way. Many teams do it in many different ways. I guess I would suggest that each organization determine what they are strong at and build a team using those strengths. Detroit does an excellent job of scouting Europe and developing their players. Boston is quite shrewd at acquiring key players through trades. Phoenix has a knack for finding "hidden gems" in the free agent market and plugging them into roles where they will prosper. Ottawa seems to do a good job of developing their players. And Vancouver seems to have worked out a healthy balance of all 3 methods of acquisitions. If organizations play to their strength and avoid just trying to copy another franchise, they should be alright. But the "cream" or the better front office will always eventually rise to the top.

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