Martin St. Louis and the 2000 Expansion Draft

In one of his books on baseball, Bill James wrote about using a simple litmus test to analyze something:

  • Is that true?
  • What does it mean?
  • Is it relevant to the discussion?
  • How is it relevant to the discussion?
  • Is it biased for any reason?
  • What does it indicate?
  • What does it prove?

What prompted my interest in expansion drafts and expansion draft history was wondering how things would have changed if one of Minnesota or Columbus had taken Martin St. Louis in the 2000 expansion draft.  Certainly it would have negatively impacted Tampa Bay’s immediate future, as St. Louis would score 105 goals and 239 points in the ensuing four seasons.  This was capped off by a magical 2003-04 season, in which he led the NHL in assists, points, +/-, and shorthanded goals.  In the awards that year, he’d be named a First-Team All-Star, then take home the Hart and Pearson Trophies; he’d already been awarded the Art Ross as the leading scorer, but actually got to handle the trophy after the season.  One other trophy he got to hold was the Stanley Cup, as the Lightning ran the gauntlet through the playoffs and won their first (and so far only) title.  St. Louis led the league in playoff assists as well.

In those four seasons that saw St. Louis go from unclaimed in the expansion draft to the pinnacle of the NHL, Columbus would rank 26th, 30th, 16th, and 29th league-wide in goals scored; Minnesota would rank 30th, 25th, 24th, and 23rd.

Many a media type or lazy blogger will opine about how much different the fortunes of Minnesota and Columbus would have turned out if one of them had taken the undersized winger.  Obviously this is said with the benefit of hindsight, which is dishonest analysis right from the start.  One of the reasons that I can’t stand a lot of re-drafts that make it out there is because of this very thing.

Here is a very simple reality: if a team was looking at an undersized scoring winger in the expansion draft and took St. Louis over Stacy Roest, there would have been an outcry of a magnitude that seems absurd in hindsight.  That Roest could score in the NHL was unquestioned; he had 7 goals and 16 points in 49 games the year before while getting no special teams time, and that was while averaging fewer than 10:00 a night in ice time.  Why?  Because he was on the Red Wings and couldn’t break into their top two lines.  And because he was on the Red Wings, he was learning all sorts of intangible things like what it takes to be a professional, and what it means to have a work ethic that is beyond reproach.  St. Louis?  He had around 50% more ice time per night, played more games, and scored 3 goals and 18 points while getting power play time on a bad Flames team.  And on a bad franchise that was going nowhere, he likely wasn’t absorbing much of anything except bad habits that would have him back in the minors to stay for a long time.

St. Louis was 25 years old and a college boy who’d played a season and a half in the minors; Roest was 26, a veteran of a brutally tough WHL, and had three full seasons in the AHL before making it in the NHL full-time.  Both scored in the minors at a blistering pace, but only Roest had shown more in the NHL and that was while in a less advantageous situation as far as his production was concerned.  And Roest, who was listed at (a widely-regarded as undersized) 5’10”, while St. Louis was listed at an incredibly undersized 5’7″.  Only Theo Fleury could play in the league at that height, and he was tenacious as hell, scrappy on the ice, and highly skilled; St. Louis either wasn’t any of those or hadn’t shown it.

This is an example of how much history can get flipped over time.  When the 2000 unprotected lists were released, there was immediate speculation about which team would take Roest and liberate him from bottom-six hell in Detroit.  St. Louis?  He was just a name on a list, between Dave Roche and John Tripp.  He might have gotten a slightly larger blurb in a Vermont paper, maybe referring to him as “UVM alum”, but that would be about it.

That Roest would be near the top of the draft boards for both Columbus and Minnesota was pretty much unquestioned.  Whether St. Louis would be on them at all instead of going immediately into the scrap heap of NDs (players not to be considered for drafting) is unknown, but unlikely.

Each existing team would lose two players in 2000; if a team lost a goalie, it could not lose a defenseman, and if a team lost a defenseman then it could not lose another.  Thus, every team would lose at least one forward, and one of a goalie or a defenseman.  Four teams would lose two forwards, and no defenseman or goalie.

In the actual draft, Minnesota took defenseman Filip Kuba from Calgary, meaning that the Flames would then lose one forward.  Would it be St. Louis?  Should it be St. Louis?  The actual player who was taken (by Minnesota) was Sergei Krivokrasov.

First, a comparison between the two.  Krivokrasov was a first-rounder in 1992 at a time when having a Soviet birth certificate would boost a prospect’s draft stock substantially.  To more fully understand this, it’s worth pointing out that hockey was in a bit of a crisis point.  More attention had been paid to Soviet and other European hockey since the Summit Series in 1972, and the various top-to-bottom training methods that were used by the federations of various countries.  The Soviet players were freakishly strong and worked exceptionally well within a system, embodying the idea of “creativity within structure”.  The Finnish players were physical and could play suffocating defense, the Swedish players were extremely skilled and creative, the Czechoslovakian players were some weird hybrid.  None of them produced NHL-caliber goalies except for the rare one like Dominik Hasek who simply defied everything that was taught about goaltending and was too stubborn (and effective) to ever change.  Whereas Patrick Roy was a torchbearer for the new generation of goalies from Quebec, Europe wasn’t producing goalies.  I recall Mika Noronen being touted as the best Finnish goalie prospect in the history of the NHL draft, and for a time it was actually true.

This all stands in stark contrast to what was happening in North America at the time.  Perhaps it’s a case of contempt through familiarity, but there was a thought that the next great crop of NHLers was going to come from overseas.  The North American players were too casual in their approach; the Soviet players would be training while the Canadian and American players were out doing what typical teenagers do.  A Soviet player would be doing 500 squat thrusts and medicine ball drills, a Canadian was unwinding from a game with pizza and beer (assuming, of course, that they were of legal age only).  And from a hockey standpoint, the North American players were thought to be given too much of a free hand; there wasn’t the same type of focus on structure and discipline, and too much letting a guy just freewheel.  Feuding and politics were creeping into youth and junior hockey at an increasing pace as the stakes – and future money – got higher.  This wasn’t helped by the fact that, with an increasing focus on physical size, the prospects who were generating the most hype may not have been the most skilled.

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned over the years, it’s that suspension of logic is pretty well standard when it comes to defending your viewpoint.  And if two scouts are arguing over their preferred player, everything comes out onto the table.  And one of those factors undoubtedly would be that an NHL team could draft a physically mature, disciplined, focused prospect at age 18 or 19 out of Europe, or they could draft a physically immature (and might never mature), possibly undisciplined (and might be uncoachable), lackadaisical (and might never grow up) prospect out of North America.  Take a look at the first round of the 1991 draft: European players selected were Peter Forsberg, Alexei Kovalev, Markus Naslund, Niklas Sundblad, and Martin Rucinsky.  The second round saw Ziggy Palffy, Sandis Ozolinsh, Martin Hamrlik, and Jozef Stumpel.  Out of nine European players, that’s five all-stars, two guys who were more than serviceable in the NHL (Rucinsky and Stumpel), and two guys who enjoyed long and productive careers in Europe (Sundblad and Hamrlik).  That’s a staggering success rate.  None of that was known in 1992 when Krivokrasov was on the draft board; all that was known was that these European players were drafted and, to a man, their stock as future NHL players skyrocketed in the ensuing twelve months.

So Chicago drafted Krivokrasov.  He came over that same year, and as an 18-year-old played big minutes on a line with Brad Lauer and IHL legend Tony Hrkac.  Lauer was basically a point-per-game guy during his lengthy minor league career; the 1992-93 season with Krivokrasov saw him hit 50 goals and 91 points in just 62 games.  Krivokrasov was third on his Indianapolis Ice team in both goals (36) and points (69).  Over the coming years, he would consistently hover around a point a game in the IHL, but never could quite get the scoring down in the NHL.  By the time Nashville picked him up in 1998, his NHL season highs were 13 goals and 24 points.  His first year in Nashville with the expansion Predators saw him lead the team with 25 goals and finish third with 48 points.  He was traded in March of 2000 to Calgary for Cale Hulse and a 3rd-rounder.  In the two NHL seasons before the 2000 expansion draft, Krivokrasov had 35 goals and 85 points; not spectacular, but solid numbers.

Now, St. Louis.   He burst onto the NCAA scene as an 18-year-old with Vermont, leading the Catamounts with 51 points while his linemate and classmate Eric Perrin led with 24 goals (to St. Louis’ 15).  For four years, the two were inseparable; St. Louis led the team in scoring as a sophomore with 71 points; Perrin had 67 but had five more goals than St. Louis.  As juniors, both put up identical 29-56-85 stat lines; as seniors, St. Louis led with 60 points, Perrin right behind him with 59 (but two more goals).  Each year they were together, Perrin led the team in goals while St. Louis led in points.  And both would end up with the IHL’s Cleveland Lumberjacks in 1997-98.  After that year, St. Louis would catch on with Calgary as a free agent and split time between the Flames and the AHL team in Saint John; Perrin bounced around a bit.

St. Louis, like Krivokrasov, could score in the minors, but hadn’t carried it to the NHL yet.  Krivokrasov got his chance with an expansion team and scored 25 goals, almost doubling his previous high.  Could St. Louis do the same?  In comparing the two, it would be a big factor if there were a sizable age difference.  But there wasn’t.  Krivokrasov had just turned 26 when the 2000 expansion draft took place, St. Louis had just turned 25.  Between the two players, Krivokrasov was absolutely the logical choice for an expansion team.

Now, to the question of whether St. Louis should be considered for placement on the draft board at all as a potential acquisition at all.  After all, side deals involving pieces both minor and major take place around expansion drafts; should St. Louis be a target?

In 1999-00, St. Louis had 15 goals and 26 points in 17 games with the Saint John Flames of the AHL; certainly that’s an impressive clip.  And at age 24, he was also the second-oldest forward on the team (just five days younger than Dave Roche) to get anything resembling regular action.  Benoit Gratton had 66 points in 65 games and was two years younger than St. Louis, and he also was left unprotected in the expansion draft.

In going through the old reports, I can’t find anything praising St. Louis’ physical play or defensive game.  Plenty about his offense and a bit about his speed, but not much about the other stuff.  So what we have is a 25-year-old offensive forward whose best production rate came in a 17-game stint in the AHL; outside of that he wasn’t even the equal of Tony Hrkac.

The AHL’s leading scorer that year was Christian Matte of Hershey, who was second in the league in goals, first in assists, and first in points by a wide margin.  Matte was less than five months older than St. Louis, and was left unprotected by Colorado.  Matte had two 50-goal seasons in the QMJHL after being drafted, then followed that with two 30- and one 40-goal season in the AHL.  The guy could score, he was six feet tall, and he was 25 years old and had done little in NHL action.

Mike Maneluk led the league in goals and was second in points, and sandwiched in between minor league action was some brief NHL action.  Third in goals and fifth in points was Serge Aubin, who’d started scoring in the AHL but couldn’t break through in the NHL; he was four months older than St. Louis.  Steve Brule was seventh in points; his previous five seasons in the AHL saw him put up 154 goals and 365 points, and he was just five months older than St. Louis and was unprotected.  Eric Boguniecki was ninth in scoring and had demonstrated a solid all-around game the previous two years (split between the AHL and IHL); he was one month older than St. Louis and only a couple inches taller.  And he had also come from the college system, graduating from New Hampshire.  Every one of these players was comparable to St. Louis, and none of them would have anything resembling an actual NHL career.  Both Maneluk and Aubin would end up playing for the first-year Columbus Blue Jackets, and neither produced despite plenty of opportunities for the first time.

Ultimately, these are the players that St. Louis would be in the same class as: mid-20s minor league scoring forwards who had failed to impress in NHL action.  The biggest difference was that most of them had only gotten brief callups; St. Louis had 56 games in the most recent NHL season and seemed to have proven that he was not worth an extended look beyond that.  There was little, if anything, to separate him from the group of similar players both in the season in question and in previous ones as well.  Any given season would see a handful of minor league scorers get NHL action, look completely overwhelmed, and return back to the long bus trips from which they came.  There was no reason to assume that St. Louis would be the outlier; why him and not Boguniecki, or Maneluk, or any of the others?  The aforementioned Tony Hrkac had gotten actual NHL action on eight different teams by this time and was put in every situation imaginable: on a fourth line, on a line with All-Stars, on established teams where he could play a simple role, on expansion teams where he could log big minutes and play his game, on teams that were looking for an injury replacement and on teams that were looking for something longer-term.  And he could not stick anywhere for any period of time outside of the usual cities: Peoria, Milwaukee, Kalamazoo, and all sorts of other locales that the NHL has never called home.

Which then leads us back around to the question of what an expansion draft is supposed to do.  Occasionally teams will find a gem who’s simply not been given a chance in the NHL.  But then we come right back around to “what is a gem?”  What are the expectations of an expansion draft player?

Most teams are at least aware of the fact that the majority of players that they’re picking from aren’t going to be long-term solutions; we can look at any expansion draft since 1991 and plainly see this to be the case.  1991 and 1992 might as well be thrown out since they were little more than attempts by the established teams to unload their problems without the risk of losing anything of value.  1992 saw only one player taken who would be with his team five years later (Brian Bradley going from Toronto to Tampa Bay); that is the nature of an expansion draft.  There were several other actual NHL players taken in 1992, but the reality is that 27 out of 42 players chosen were out of the league for good just two years later.  That goes to 28 if you include Steve Maltais, who was out of the league in that time period as well except for a brief stint on the first-year Blue Jackets.

But in the 1993 expansion draft, the parameters of which were mirrored for the 1998, 1999, and 2000 drafts, the story was similarly dismal.  Out of the 48 players taken by Florida and Anaheim, eleven were out of the league within two years, twenty-two were out within five years, and it seems obvious that several more aging players were kept around an extra year or two because of the looming expansion adding new roster spots.  Just five players (Guy Hebert, Gord Murphy, Paul Laus, Scott Mellanby, and Bill Lindsay) would make it past the five-year mark with the team that drafted them.  On the flip side, Sean Hill was taken by Anaheim and didn’t play his last NHL games until 2008.

St. Louis would go unpicked in the 2000 expansion draft, and would sign as a free agent with Tampa Bay.  GM Rick Dudley was in the process of rebuilding what had one looked like a promising team and then had fallen apart, and part of his plan was to churn the roster constantly to find the type of players who could either stick in the long term or else become productive enough to be traded for an asset.  With a handful of acquired assets and a whole lot of aggression, Dudley was able to build the core for the Lightning’s Stanley Cup run in a mere two years.  When St. Louis was signed thirty days into the 2000 free agency period, Dudley said that his speed was a primary reason and was confident that his scoring touch would come around.  I don’t read too much into this; GMs say plenty of things about signing longshot or afterthought players that clearly have no chance of coming to fruition.  GMs undoubtedly said the same when they acquired Maneluk, or Matte, or Hrkac, or any of a number of other older guys who could score in the minors and hadn’t shown any ability to do it in the NHL.

The odds that a 5’6” guy in the early 2000s would be the one outlier among literally hundreds of other similar players is staggering.  To have expected it to happen is illogical, to have guessed that it would happen would be a miraculous stroke of luck more than anything.  That it happened at all is incredibly rare.

With all of this in mind, no, Martin St. Louis would not be added to the draft board.  Calgary had a total of 32 unprotected players, 17 of them forwards, and he doesn’t make the cut for the reasons above.  The best-case scenario for him would be to be among the five best Calgary forwards available, which is basically meaningless since no team could lose more than two players.  Marty Murray made more sense, Andreas Johansson made more sense, Krivokrasov definitely made more sense, and among prospects even Benoit Gratton made more sense.  St. Louis would be a longshot on his best day, and would simply not be worth even the limited risk that an expansion draft provides.

Therefore, it is not reasonable to conclude that St. Louis would have been seriously considered in the 2000 expansion draft.

Should he have been?  For the same reasons outlined above, it’s very doubtful.  That said, I’m not a scout; scouts looks for different things than most of us.  I used to wonder how it was that a guy who could score 60 goals and 150 points in juniors wouldn’t be regarded as any type of an NHL prospect.  Who’d have guessed that the players who were the top two goal scorers and point scorers in the QMJHL in 1996-97 (Pavel Rosa and Martin Menard) wouldn’t make it, while the two leading players in penalty minutes (Jody Shelley and Peter Worrell) would?

With the fact that St. Louis signed with Tampa Bay a month into the 2000 free agency period, and the fact that his own GM offered a couple of bland statements at the time, it’s safe to say that even the best scouts wouldn’t have expected St. Louis to have amounted to much of anything.

So to back up to the beginning, let’s start with the statement that one of Columbus or Minnesota should have had the foresight to take St. Louis and that it would have positively altered the fortunes of the franchise that took him.

  • Is that true? No.
  • What does it mean? Nothing, it’s an absurd conclusion.
  • Is it relevant to the discussion? No.
  • How is it relevant to the discussion? It isn’t.
  • Is it biased for any reason? It’s tainted by hindsight and ignores both the historical record and simple deduction.
  • What does it indicate? Mostly that the person making the statement is either unaware of their bias or doesn’t care about their bias.
  • What does it prove? More about the person making the statement than anything.

After being passed over in the 2000 expansion draft, St. Louis turned himself into a player who is, at worst, a marginal Hall of Famer; he will warrant serious discussion when he’s eligible for such an honor.  I’m very confident that it wouldn’t have happened if he’d gone elsewhere, and he deserves a ton of credit for making himself into such a player when he was most likely on his last shot in the NHL.