The first thing that immediately came to mind was size. Were a large proportion of the late round success stories smaller players? I suspect this is true but as I don't know of a reliable resource for the size of players in their draft year I decided to let this one go for now. The second thing i looked at was the leagues that the players were drafted from. Unfortunately I'm only looking at a small sample of players and so unless I saw a big tip-off, I didn't think the results would be too significant. There was no big tip-off. Europeans did slightly better than I expected, but it didn't seem like enough to run with though I might come back to this issue later.
The last one was age and the results here are pretty significant. How old were the success stories when they were drafted? The following table looks at the draft age for each of the 75 impact players taken after pick #100 from 1994 to 2003. The ages are measured in terms of the age of a given player at the time of the draft. The first age bracket is 17 years and 10 months to 18 years and 3 months. This identifies the "young" players in a given draft class. The second age bracket is 18 years and 4 months to 18 years and 9 months. This identifies the "old" players in a given draft class. The third age bracket is 18 years and 10 monts to 19 years and 9 months. These are players who were eligible for an earlier draft but passed through. The fourth age bracket is 19 years and 10 months to 20 years and 6 months. These are players who have either passed through two drafts or are reentering the draft because they didn't sign a contract with the first club that picked them. 20 years and 6 months is the oldest any North American player who has not yet been drafted is allowed to be according to the CBA (article 8). An older player would automatically become an unrestricted free agent. The fifth age bracket is 20 years and 7 months to 21 years and 6 months. This age bracket applies only to Europeans since all North Americans in this age bracket would be undrafted unrestricted free agents. For whatever reason, Europeans are eligible to be drafted for one more year before they become unrestricted free agents (they need more European representation in the NHLPA). The sixth and last age bracket is players who were 21 years and 7 months or older when they were drafted. These players are eligible to be drafted in the current CBA. so here's the chart:
The trends are obvious. Most of the best picks were either young players, players who had already passed through one draft or older players who, in the current CBA, would now just be signed as free agents (players like Jonas Hiller, Fabian Brunnstrom and Ville Leino). Incidentally, none of the success stories are re-drafts. All of the players taken late were also taken in their third year of eligibility (like Pavel Datsyuk) were also taken there for the first time. Here is the same information broken down by position:
So, generally, young forwards and defenders or goalies that everyone passed on in their first year of eligibility are the most successful picks. I think that a smart team should recognize these trends and roll with them if they have two players ranked closely. Also, I know that on draft day, I'll be checking the ages of players the Oilers have taken with their late round picks. Incidentally, both Philippe Cornet (18y3m) and Teemu Hartikainen (18y1m) qualified a year ago while Jordan Bendfeld (20y4m, re-draft) was probaly a waste of a 7th round pick. The year before that, Milan Kytnar (18y1m) and William Quist (17y11m) were both young forwards. On the one hand, this is heartening, on the other, I now feel like I may need to check whether or not the birthdates of these (or any) players is actually signficant. If far more young players get drafted, it wouldn't be surprising to see more succeed... but that will need to be a question for another day.