Defensemen Development Myths: Part 1

Doug Pensinger

In this draft-based installment, we'll look at the overall success rate of defensive draftees as well as the reliability of both the QMJHL and WHL for blueliners.

It's no secret that good defensemen are always in short supply.  It's also no secret that without a talented set of blueliners, a team's playoff dreams are no more than wishful thinking.  Unfortunately, the unpredictable nature of drafting defensemen has left the hockey world at large with a number of myths that may or may not hold true.

For the Avs, the past few months (or few years, really) have made it very clear that our defensive corps isn't where it needs to be.  However, the team has a solid crop of D prospects on the way and a new set of draft picks each year.  Since top notch defensemen typically don't come available on the UFA or trade markets, the ability to draft and develop young players is key to the future success of the team.

So, instead of simply just relying the old rules of thumb, let's dig into some data to see which are true and which are just old tales.  With any luck, these numbers will shed some light onto the drafting and developmental process of our own prospects and give us a better idea of what to expect from them down the line.

A few notes on the data:

I originally intended for this series to be focused mostly on defensive development.  As such, the first data sheet I pulled together was all defensemen from the '13-14 season who played "significant minutes" of over 30 GP and 16+ TOI/60.  It included 185 players and was focused on exploring the development paths that contributed to success in today's NHL.

However, as the project evolved and expanded, I realized that just as many - if not more - myths exist about the draft.  Since Sergei Gonchar was the eldest statesman on the original list, I decided to pull draft records back to his draft year of 1992.  Luckily, the subsequent 20 drafts also had at least one representative on the main list in addition to many more blueliners who have since retired, busted out, or show promising potential as a prospect.  A total of 5459 players have had their names called in the past 21 years, and the 1777 defensemen from that group form the sample for this part of the study.

I also split the draft data according to NHL games played.  The reasoning behind the 1+GP benchmark is fairly clear - I wanted to see how many of these prospects were even given a chance in the NHL.  The 25+ GP mark was chosen since it's the main guideline for the Calder Trophy (NHL Rookie of the Year).  There are a few other rules associated with the trophy that will come into play later in the article series, but for now, 25GP is a good indicator of loss of rookie status.  Finally, the 200+GP mark was fairly arbitrary, but I felt it was a good way to judge whether or not the player had a significant NHL career.

A few notes on the series:

In an effort to keep this from getting too wordy and statistical, I've chosen to present this in Mythbuster format.  A myth will be presented, tested, and then deemed CONFIRMED, PLAUSIBLE, or BUSTED.  There are also likely to be around 10 articles in this series: 3 will be focused on draft myths, 3-4 will focus on development, 1 will take a look at current draft eligible defensemen, 1 will look at the current Avs prospects, and 1 will tie everything up.  It's a long off-season, and this might give us something else to talk about besides cat gifs and beer.

Also, if you're wondering why Liles is featured in the picture for this article, no, it is not only in an attempt to gain favor from Cheryl.  Throughout this series, I'll be showcasing defensemen who played their rookie season for the Avs.

John-Michael Liles was chosen by Colorado with 159th overall pick in the 2000 NHL draft.  He was actually an overager since he was draft eligible in 1999 due to his late November birthday, but he went on to play 4 years of NCAA and a smattering of AHL games before becoming a regular with the Avs in 2004.  After 523 games in the burgundy and blue, he was traded to Toronto at the conclusion of the '11-12 season and has since found a home with the Carolina Hurricanes.

Alrighty now.  With that out of the way, onto the myths.


Myth 1:  It's harder to draft defensemen than forwards.

Not by much, but statistically, it is a little harder to find defensemen that pan out.  Since 1992, 3111 forwards have been drafted, but only 41.6% went on to play a NHL game.  That seems like a low number until you compare it to the 1777 defensemens' 37.6%.  Even as you move up in games played, there exists a gap at both the loss of rookie status point (25+ GP) and the 200 GP plateau in favor of forwards.

Position Total 1+ GP % 25+ GP % 200+ GP %
All 5459 2172 39.8% 1578 28.9% 841 15.4%
Forward 3111 1295 41.6% 977 31.4% 516 16.6%
Defense 1777 668 37.6% 485 27.3% 267 15.0%
Goalie 571 209 36.6% 116 20.3% 58 10.2%

The 1.5-3% differences between the two doesn't seem like much, but when you're talking about 5459 draftees since '92, those numbers become fairly significant.

Now, if you want to talk about accuracy of draft picks, let's take a look at the first round.  Since the number of NHL teams has fluctuated since '92, for the sake of consistency, I'll be looking at the Top 30 picks from each draft.  Interestingly, defensemen are actually around 2% more likely to play in at least 1 NHL game than forwards; however, the forwards take the lead again past the 25+ GP mark.

Position Total 1+ GP % 25+ GP % 200+ GP %
All 660 569 86.2% 496 75.2% 324 49.1%
Forward 396 339 85.6% 306 77.3% 203 51.3%
Defense 218 190 87.2% 164 75.2% 107 49.1%
Goalie 46 40 87.0% 26 56.5% 14 30.4%
So, in short, defensemen are not only harder to draft, they're also more unpredictable when it comes to finding ones that will go on to have a significant career in the NHL.  The gap between the two positions is much smaller than it's usually made out to be, but it does still exist.
Myth: CONFIRMED.

Myth 2:  Teams shouldn't draft defensemen from the QMJHL.

There's certainly no question that teams typically don't draft defensemen from the Q.  Even though a whole mess of players have come from Major Juniors (45.9% of all draftees since '92), only 9.5% of the total drafted defensemen have come from the Quebec-based league.  That's a tiny fraction compared to the 16.7% from the OHL and 18.7% from the WHL.  Also, when you start talking about GP, only 36.3% have played a game, 25% have lost rookie status, and just 23 have played over 200 games.   Compared to other Major Junior leagues, it becomes pretty clear that there is a higher chance of a blueliner from the Q busting out than average.

Draft League Total % of D 1+ GP % 25+ GP % 200+ GP %
All 1777 100% 668 37.6% 485 27.3% 267 15.0%
Major Junior 796 44.8% 323 40.6% 239 30.0% 138 17.3%
QMJHL 168 9.5% 61 36.3% 42 25.0% 23 13.7%
OHL 296 16.7% 117 39.5% 87 29.4% 50 16.9%
WHL 332 18.7% 145 43.7% 110 33.1% 65 19.6%

But how true is that trend in more recent times?  Since the '05 lockout, 641 defensemen have been drafted, and around 1 in 10 of them have come from the Q.  Of those Q draftees, 40.9% have played one game, which is actually the best percentage from an amateur league.  Even as the players start moving towards the 25+ GP and 200+ GP marks, the Q remains above average.  This trend indicates that while the Q remains the least popular Major Junior league for defensemen, the success gap is starting to close.

Draft League'05+ Total % of D 1+ GP % 25+ GP % 200+ GP %
All 641 100% 206 32.1% 134 20.9% 45 7.0%
Major Junior 289 45.1% 110 38.1% 75 26.0% 24 8.3%
QMJHL 66 10.3% 27 40.9% 15 22.7% 5 7.6%
OHL 109 17.0% 44 40.4% 31 28.4% 10 9.2%
WHL 114 17.8% 39 34.2% 29 25.4% 9 7.9%

The question now becomes how much impact do the players who make the show have?  Last season, there were only 14 players with over 30 games and 16+ TOI/60 from the Q.  Of those players, 3 had among the hardest zone starts in the league (below -2.5 rel ZS%) and another 3 had a QualComp north of 29.0%.   That 21.4% for each category is below the league average of 34.6% with a low ZS% and the 29.2% for nasty QualComp, but it could also be a matter of small sample size.

Despite the small number currently active, the Q doesn't lack star power.  Vlasic, Yandle, and Letang are all alums, and Oduya, Kulikov, Despres, Robidas, MacDonald and Scandella are other notables.

So, should teams draft from the Q?  If you start playing the overall averages, the answer is still no.  However, there is definitely talent available in that league if the team is willing to take the chance, and the development out of the Q is getting better and better all the time.  Unfortunately, since so few are active in the league right now, it's hard to tell if this is an indicator of things to come or just a fluky trend.  As the more recent draft classes begin to mature, we'll be able to learn more.  Until then, there's just too much grey area to call this myth busted or confirmed.

Myth: PLAUSIBLE


Myth 3:  The WHL is the best league for drafting defensemen.

The QMJHL isn't the only league with a reputation when it comes to defensemen, but luckily for the WHL, theirs isn't as poor as their eastern cousin.  It's not without reason either.  Of the 1777 defensemen drafted since '92, almost 1 in 5 were alums of the W.  By strict numbers, no league has had more success than the Western Hockey League, but percentage-wise, that isn't quite as much the case.

If you look at above average defensive leagues for the past 21 years, the WHL is joined by not only the OHL, but by the Czech Republic, Sweden, and the NCAA.  The Czech system actually has had the best success rate, and the WHL and NCAA are neck-in-neck in North America.

Draft League Total % of D 1+ GP % 25+ GP % 200+ GP %
All 1777 100% 668 37.6% 485 27.3% 267 15.0%
Major Junior 796 44.8% 323 40.6% 239 30.0% 138 17.3%
QMJHL 168 9.5% 61 36.3% 42 25.0% 23 13.7%
OHL 296 16.7% 117 39.5% 87 29.4% 50 16.9%
WHL 332 18.7% 145 43.7% 110 33.1% 65 19.6%
Europe 498 28.0% 194 39.0% 142 28.5% 77 15.5%
Czech Rep. 74 4.2% 38 51.4% 30 40.5% 16 21.6%
Finland 77 4.3% 31 40.3% 20 26.0% 10 13.0%
Russia 144 8.1% 42 29.2% 31 21.5% 15 10.4%
Sweden 144 8.1% 54 37.5% 43 29.9% 28 19.4%
Other 59 3.3% 29 49.2% 18 30.5% 8 13.6%
USHL/USDP 135 7.6% 47 34.8% 33 24.4% 15 11.1%
NCAA 126 7.1% 53 42.1% 37 29.4% 24 19.0%
High School 112 6.3% 23 20.5% 19 17.0% 8 7.1%
Other 110 6.2% 28 25.5% 15 13.6% 5 4.5%

But when you start to look at more recent post-lockout numbers, the results shift.  The Czech Republic has completely fallen off as a strong developmental league, with only 30 games of Tomas Kundratek to claim since 2005.  The NCAA has slipped in prominence as well, although a good part of that might be attributed to NCAA-bound youngsters getting snagged by NHL teams out of high school instead of after a year of NCAA play.  The USHL and USNTDP programs have also become a powerhouse in recent years, and the OHL and Sweden remain strong options.

However, perhaps most interestingly, the WHL has slipped to a below average league for drafting defensemen since 2005.  That doesn't mean teams have stopped taking their alum - no other system has produced more draftees in this time - but as a whole, their success rates have fallen below the NHL average.

Draft League'05+ Total % of D 1+ GP % 25+ GP % 200+ GP %
All 641 100% 206 32.1% 134 20.9% 45 7.0%
Major Junior 289 45.1% 110 38.1% 75 26.0% 24 8.3%
QMJHL 66 10.3% 27 40.9% 15 22.7% 5 7.6%
OHL 109 17.0% 44 40.4% 31 28.4% 10 9.2%
WHL 114 17.8% 39 34.2% 29 25.4% 9 7.9%
Europe 124 19.3% 35 28.2% 22 17.7% 6 4.8%
Czech Rep. 4 0.6% 1 25.0% 1 25.0% 0 0.0%
Finland 20 3.1% 3 15.0% 2 10.0% 0 0.0%
Russia 21 3.3% 6 28.6% 2 9.5% 0 0.0%
Sweden 67 10.5% 20 29.9% 14 20.9% 6 9.0%
Other 12 1.9% 5 41.7% 3 25.0% 0 0.0%
USHL/USDP 88 13.7% 32 36.4% 22 25.0% 8 9.1%
NCAA 36 5.6% 12 33.3% 4 11.1% 2 5.6%
High School 58 9.0% 10 17.2% 8 13.8% 5 8.6%
Other 46 7.2% 7 15.2% 3 6.5% 0 0.0%

Even though the success rate has slipped, this myth isn't quite dead yet.  There's still no question that there are a large number of elite defensemen in the NHL right now from the W.  To quantify "elite defenseman", I decided to look at TOI/60 to see who the minute eaters are, Relative Zone Starts to see who were tasked with hard defensive assignments in comparison to the rest of their team, and Quality of Completion to see who had to play against the opposition's best players.

Draft League Current Total % of D 23+ TOI % -2.5 Rel ZS% % 29%+ Qual Comp %
All 185 100% 35 18.90% 64 34.60% 54 29.20%
Major Junior 102 55.10% 19 18.60% 30 29.40% 28 27.50%
QMJHL 15 8.10% 3 20.00% 3 20.00% 3 20.00%
OHL 38 20.50% 9 23.70% 10 26.30% 12 31.60%
WHL 49 26.50% 7 14.30% 17 34.70% 13 26.50%
Europe 39 21.10% 9 23.10% 14 35.90% 13 33.30%
Czech Rep. 6 3.20% 1 4 3
Finland 4 2.20% 0 0 2
Russia 7 3.80% 1 2 0
Sweden 17 9.20% 5 29.40% 6 35.30% 7 41.20%
Other 5 2.70% 2 2 1
Non-Swede 22 11.90% 4 18.20% 8 36.40% 6 27.30%
USHL/USDP 6 3.20% 0 3 3
NCAA 49 26.50% 9 18.40% 22 44.90% 12 24.50%

The only system that consistently ranks above average in all categories is actually Sweden.  It may be a question of sample sizes since there are only 17 D-men from that country on the list, but there's no doubt that if a Swedish player is good enough to make it to the NHL, he has a strong chance of playing a significant role.  The other 22 European non-Swedes hovered right around NHL average.

As far as North American leagues go, both the QMJHL and USHL are still works in progress.  Most of their current ranks are post-lockout draft picks who may not have had a chance to earn big roles in the NHL yet.  The OHL ranks above average in two of the three categories, and the WHL and NCAA rank above average in one.

There's no doubt that the WHL is a good league for development and finding talent.  More WHL'ers become NHL regulars than any other league, but that's only because more of them are given a chance to do so.  However, when one starts looking at success rates in terms of percentages, the WHL is actually fairly average.  It, along with the NCAA, OHL, and Swedish leagues (and perhaps the USHL/USDP and QMHJL in the next few years) are all just about even.  There's certainly not enough of a gap to say that it's the "best" option at the draft.

Myth:  BUSTED

Part 2 will run tomorrow.

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