It’s early Christmas morning and I have time on my hands. Over the past few weeks I’ve been researching a topic and coming up with stats and facts to back my point of view. As the title of this blog says, I feel like there is a downside to picking defensemen with very high draft picks. It’s a well-known fact that defenseman take longer to develop and often don’t come into their own until their mid-twenties. Taking an 18 year old kid who is physically underdeveloped with a top pick is not necessarily a stable option. Upon researching, I came up with some information that surprised even myself.
Here is a table I compiled of the top defenseman (my opinion) from each team and when they were drafted.
Cam Fowler (1/12)
Zdeno Chara (3/56)
Tyler Myers (1/12)
Mark Giordano Undrafted
Jamie McBain (2/63)
Duncan Keith (2/54)
Erik Johnson (1/1)
James Wisniewski (5/156)
Stephane Robidas (7/164)
Niklas Lidstrom (3/53)
Ryan Whitney (1/5)
Brian Campbell (6/156)
Drew Doughty (1/2)
Marek Zidlicky (6/176)
Andrei Markov (6/162)
Shea Weber (2/49)
Adam Larsson (1/4)
Mark Streit (9/262)
Marc Staal (1/12)
Erik Karlsson (1/15)
Chris Pronger (1/2)
Kris Letang (3/62)
Keith Yandle (4/105)
Dan Boyle Undrafted
Barret Jackman (1/17)
Victor Hedman (1/2)
Dion Phaneuf (1/9)
Alex Edler (3/91)
Mike Green (1/29)
Dustin Byfuglien (8/245)
Out of all those D-men, only 6 were chosen within the top 5. That means that only 20% of top defensemen in this league were top 5 selections. On the contrary, forwards seem to dominate the discussion when you look at teams’ talent. Even just looking across Canada, you can see that Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, and Ottawa all boast top end talent that was selected in the top 5. That’s not to say that forwards are “better” than D-men, but it is saying that there may be something to choosing D in the later rounds. Pick your favorite defenseman from that list I have above and it’s a pretty sure bet that your guy isn’t a top 5 pick. The exceptions to that rule are Drew Doughty and Chris Pronger.
When the Lightning selected Victor Hedman second overall in 2009, the passed up the likes of Matt Duchene, Evander Kane and many other forwards who have had immediate impacts. That’s not to say that Victor Hedman hasn’t been a good player for the Lightning, it’s just that I don’t believe he has played like a top-5 selection should be at this point in his career. When you draft a guy in that top 5, you almost always want that player to have an immediate impact on your team’s fortunes. Has Hedman really done that for the Lightning? In my mind, he’s been more of a complimentary player than a superstar.
Drafting defenseman is incredibly difficult as evidenced by that chart above. Teams really never know what they are getting when it comes to these enigmatic young players. If there was a re-draft right now, do you think Shea Weber would be second round material? I guarantee he would be a top-5 selection. How about that Niklas Lidstrom guy? I hear he’s supposed to be pretty good. The point I’m trying to make is that a top-5 drafted defenseman is not necessarily going to be the game breaker a top-5 forward may be.
Since the lockout and the introduction of the salary cap, drafting well has become such an important and integral piece of winning the Stanley Cup. Rarely do you see a team win the cup that hasn’t drafted incredibly well. When a team fails one season and ends up with a high end draft pick, that pick essentially becomes the franchise. It is a symbol of the present and more importantly the future. Remember the buzz in the Lightning community when Stamkos was drafted? That buzz makes its way to one city each year. That pick is something that shouldn’t just be gambled away. I have no problem making the assertion that drafting a defenseman so highly is risky business. Here are some defensemen (not included in the list above) that were taken in the top 5 between 2000 and 2008 (any more recent doesn’t give us a good enough sample size to judge). How many of them do you feel are worth a top-5 selection? Remember what that pick is worth when you are analyzing the situation.
D-men Taken in Top 5 from 2000-2008 (not included in list)
2000: Rostislav Klesla (4th to Columbus now playing in Phoenix)
2002: Jay Bouwmeester (3rd to Florida now playing in Calgary)
2004: Cam Barker (3rd to Chicago now playing in Edmonton)
2005: Jack Johnson (3rd to Carolina now playing in Los Angeles)
2007: Thomas Hickey (4th to Los Angeles now in Kings’ system)
2008: Zach Bogosian (3rd to Atlanta now playing in Winnipeg), Alex Pietrangelo (4th to St. Louis now playing in St. Louis), Luke Schenn (5th to Toronto now playing in Toronto)
Out of that group, who would you re-draft in the top 5? The 2008 class has potential, but at this point it’s even a little early to know what they are truly worth. When you are drafting highly, that shouldn’t be the case. With a high draft pick you should quickly know what you have. To me, that’s one of the things that makes the NHL so great. You can go from a bottom feeder one year to potential playoff team in the next. It’s those top end draft picks that really make that possible. In all honesty, is Luke Schenn what turned the Maple Leafs around? No. Was Steven Stamkos the driving force of the Lightning’s drive back to respectability? I think so. Out of that list, you have Hickey and Barker who appear to be total busts and then you have some solid guys who can play big minutes but are not spectacular in doing so. What’s that worth to you?
In a few years’ time, Victor Hedman could really surprise me. He could be that number one D-man that the Lightning are so obviously lacking right now; or, he could be a really solid guy who plays big minutes in an unspectacular fashion. What’s more likely? I think the Hedman we see now is going to be similar to the Hedman we see in years to come. That said, I do believe that his defensive game will develop over time. If I were an NHL GM, my strategy with a top 5 draft pick would be to take the best forward available. Not only does drafting defensemen create a huge development timeline, it also is a one risky business.
Thanks for reading my little rant; I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and holiday season.
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