The 1998 Entry Draft was not a proud day for the NHL, or at least its ability to evaluate talent. There was a very strong crop of talent available from the QMJHL that year, not that most NHL teams noticed. They were busy drafting hulking brutes who, unsurprisingly, have had unremarkable careers.
Coming out of the Q that year were Vincent Lecavalier, Ramzi Abid, Mike Ribeiro and Brad Richards, who were drafted in that order. That's probably the right order based solely on their junior stats (though an argument could be made for Lecavalier-Ribeiro-Richards-Abid, which better reflects their NHL careers), but the problem was where they were drafted. Lecavalier went #1 overall, being one of the many cases where the stats and the scouts agree on who is the best player available. But Abid went #28, Ribeiro #45 and Richards #64. Looking at their numbers, they should all have been 1st-round picks.
Name GP G A Pts PIM
Lecavalier 58 44 71 115 117
Ribeiro 67 40 85 125 55
Richards 68 33 82 115 44
Abid 68 50 85 135 266
I rank Lecavalier first because per-game rates are more important than raw scoring totals, and because of his (excellent) performance in the previous year (not shown above). Abid is dropped to the bottom due to his penalty totals and because of his poor numbers in the previous year. These sorts of adjustments will be looked at in detail as Up and Coming progresses and we develop more formal methods of ranking junior players.
Abid certainly hasn't had the career that the other players have had. However, with 30 NHL points in 68 games, he certainly can't be ashamed of his output. Given his relatively impressive AHL scoring numbers, Abid probably could have had a solid NHL career with the proper opportunity. Unfortunately, that's neither here nor there; I'll never claim that drafting based solely on statistics is a good idea and sometimes players will simply not live up to their potential.
The draft placement of these players isn't the whole trouble with the 1998 draft. The real problem is the identity of a number of players drafted ahead of them (other than Lecavalier, obviously). It serves as an effective illustration of the NHL fetish of drafting large players, regardless of whether they might actually be good players or not.
Starting at #4 overall, we have defenseman Bryan Allen. After a slow start to his NHL career, Allen has made himself into a decent defenseman. At 6'4” and 210 pounds, NHL teams undoubtedly saw him as a future crease-clearing, pure physical force. Thus, his high draft placement. Unfortunately, he only recorded 19 points in 48 games in his draft year, which hinted at his future prospect as an NHL defender: it was very unlikely he would become a true force in the NHL and that's exactly what happened.
Manny Malhotra (6'2” and 210 pounds, drafted #6) is another player who has had a decent NHL career, but not nearly good enough to justify his high draft placement. He scored only 16 goals in his draft year, and a stats-minded drafter would have avoided him entirely in the first round.
Huge Mike Rupp (6'5” and 230 pounds) was drafted #9 by the Islanders. He too scored only 16 goals in his draft year, and unlike Malhotra he didn't even have a good assist total to fall back on, recording only 27 points. Seen as a future power forward, crashing the net and dominating smaller defensemen, Rupp has scored a mere 27 NHL goals (through March 15), and can be considered nothing but a disaster given his draft position. A predictable disaster, of course, if you noticed that he wasn't good enough to score in junior, much less the NHL.
Robyn Regehr (6'3” and 225 pounds) was another huge defenseman, going #19 in the draft. Now Regehr is definitely a solid NHL defender, but his lack of offense makes him unworthy of the #19 pick; he had 14 points in his draft year. With a pick that high, you should be able to get a better all-around player.
Scott Parker (6'5” and 240 pounds) went immediately after Regehr, and one truly wonders why. He's played in the NHL for several years, but purely as an enforcer. Enforcers are freely available in the marketplace, so there is no need to throw away a first-round draft pick on one. Parker recorded 52 points in 1998, but of course this is not his first draft year. He was originally drafted in 1996 (63rd overall), with the stunning total of 7 points in 64 games. His 1998 numbers are a result of his age, and the fact that he was playing against younger players. Parker's been a major bust for a 1st-rounder, once again something that can be foreseen through his stats.
Next up in the draft at #21 was Mathieu Biron, another hulk of a defender (6'6”, 230 pounds). Biron had decent scoring numbers in his draft year (36 points), but nothing to justify a 1st-round pick. His NHL career has consisted of only 253 games, the last in 2006. He's another 1st-round bust with an impressive shoe size.
Kyle Rossiter went #30 overall, a defenseman standing 6'2” and weighing 215 pounds. His 22 points in his draft year suggested that he was nothing special. His 11 career NHL games suggest the same thing.
Stephen Peat was drafted two picks later; he's also 6'2” and weighs in at 230 pounds. As a winger he scored 18 points in his draft year, which should have set off alarm bells to avoid him in the draft. He played in the NHL, but again only as an enforcer. He played 130 NHL games, recording only 10 points. Remember that at this point in the draft, Ribeiro and Richards were still undrafted. Washington could have had either of them, but decided Peat was the better option. History has proven them wrong.
Andrew Peters is the same story. Drafted #34, he was huge (6'4”, 245 pounds) but not skilled (18 points). His NHL career is as an enforcer, as his 7 career points attest. There's no reason to use a 2nd-round pick on something you can get pretty much anywhere.
Detailed comments are getting repetitive at this point. Suffice it to say that John Erskine (#39), Jason Beckett (#42), Ian Forbes (#51), Paul Manning (#62) and Lance Ward (#63) were all also drafted before Brad Richards. Other things these players have in common are large size, poor amateur scoring totals, and the lack of significant NHL careers.
This is clear evidence that size by itself is often considered an important factor by NHL teams when drafting players. It is far too common a problem to be explained by claiming that scouts saw something in each of these failed draft picks, and that they just didn't pan out. It is systematic and pervasive. Brian Gionta was also drafted in 1998, at #82 overall despite excellent scoring totals. His major problem was his height (5'7”). NHL teams show a definite preference for large players who don't play well over small player who do play well.
1998 was an especially bad year for this sort of thing, but it happens to some degree every year. Make no mistake that NHL teams systematically overvalue large players, and undervalue small players, in the Entry Draft. Some teams may not (which we'll investigate in the future), but as a whole teams allow themselves to be deceived into drafting a player, with dreams of dominant power forwards dancing in their heads. It rarely comes to be.