We've all heard the reasoning - taking defensemen too early in the first round is a bad idea because they take so much longer to develop and have a higher likelihood of being a bust. But is this really true? When you take a defenseman early, what sort of player are you likely to get?
To answer these questions, I decided to conduct a study on the top 10 picks from the past 10 drafts. With technology changing how scouting is done, I didn't want to go too far back, and besides, stopping at 2003 meant that all the defensemen in question made their debut in the post-lockout NHL. By limiting the study in this way, I removed a number of variables while still providing an adequate sample size.
Since 2003, there have been 33 defensemen drafted in the top 10. Of those, 9 have yet to play in an NHL game.
Of the 24 defensemen that remain, two were busts and one was tragically killed before establishing himself in the NHL (Bourdon). It should be noted that Hickey is currently playing for NYI, so perhaps calling him a bust is premature, but he was a waiver-wire pickup who took 6 years to make the NHL and is only being given limited minutes. Valabik is no longer in the league.
That narrows the field to the 21 serviceable defensemen who will be the focus of this study.
The charts are sortable. Just click on the words in the blue box, and the table will sort to that column.
Draft and Team Information:
- Entry = First year the player had over 10GP in the NHL. For example, " '05 " means the 2005-'06 season.
- D. Yrs. = "Development Years", or full seasons played at a minor league level before making the NHL full-time.
- Same = Indicates if player is still with his draft team or if he has been traded/signed elsewhere.
One of the things that stands out is how few defensemen taken prior to 2007 are still on their draft teams. Perhaps these players just have had more time to be traded, but the fact that none of them are where they started implies that their organizations either lost patience with their development or were forced to move them somewhere along the way. None of these players (except perhaps Suter) became the blueliner their teams expected them to be when their names were called at the draft.
However, there seems to have been a shift around 2008 in a number of ways. Very few of them have been traded, and more importantly, they've required fewer years of development. Doughty, Bogosian, Schenn, Hedman, and Larsson all jumped straight to the show instead of going back to Juniors or Sweden, and even Pietrangelo was given two NHL stints prior to starting in on his ELC in '10. While leaving a player in minors for 2+ years was customary before '08, only Jared Cowen was given the same treatment afterwards. Also, there was a shift from the WHL and USDP providing the top defensive players to the OHL and SEL during this time. It should be noted that most of the 2012 draftees were from the WHL.
- Exp = "Experience" or number of seasons played in the league.
- PPG = "Points Per Game"
- PIM/S = "Penalties in Minutes per Season"
Most of these defensemen aren't huge scorers. Phaneuf, Suter, Doughty, and Pietrangelo are the only ones over .5 PPG, which would equate to a 40+ pt season across an 82 game span. The average of .31PPG translates to only around a 25 pt season. However, these defensemen launch over 1.5 shots per game, so they are at least getting the puck on the net with some consistency. They also typically stay out of the box, a blessing for most teams since these players are often top penalty killers.
- Fancy stats = behindthenet.ca, regular stats = NHL.com
- Corsi = A measurement of possession. Positive number = mostly on offense, negative number = mostly on defense.
- QoC = "Quality of Competition". Positive number = faced opposition's top players, negative number = faced weaker players.
- Rel QoC = "Relative Quality of Competition". Quality of competition as compared to their defensive teammates. Roughly gives an idea what pairing they were on. Typically 1st/2nd = Top Pair, 3rd/4th = second pair, 5th/6th = 3rd pair, 7th and lower = injury fill-in. Can be highly affected by teammate injuries.
- OZ-St% = "Offensive Zone Start Percentage", or how often a player was started in the offensive zone. Numbers above 50% = sheltered minutes, numbers below 50% = more defensive minutes.
- OZ-Ch% = "Offensive Zone Change Percentage", or how much player gains or loses possession. Positive numbers = typically gains possession and transitions from defense to offense on their shift. Negative numbers = often lose possession and transition from offense to defense on their shift.
***First of all, please note that Cowen, Barker, and Lee played less than half the season due to injuries or being waived, so they were not included in this chart.***
It's amazing how many minutes these players can eat. When the average TOI is upwards of 22 minutes a game and only 4 of them are receiving under 20, it's clear they're a major part of their respective clubs. They're also on defense for most of that time, yet the're still able to gain possession and finish in the offensive zone more often than not. On top of that, almost all of them are on their team's top defensive pair, so they're facing off against the opposition's mid- to top-tier players every night. In sort, all but around 5 of these blueliners would be considered a Top 4 player on any team in the league.
This analysis shows that around 13 of the 24 blueliners drafted in the top 10 over the past decade that have played in the NHL can be considered bona-fied Top 4 defensemen. Four more (Cowen, Hamilton, Larsson, and Gudbranson) will likely achieve that status in the next couple years as they develop. With this in mind, selecting a defenseman with one of the first 10 picks yields around a 70% chance that they'll end up on the second pairing or better.
Also, given the recent trend of top defensive prospects being ready at a younger age, they're having more luck becoming the "franchise defensemen" they were billed to be. As a result, fewer organizations seem to be losing patience and trading them away before they hit their stride. Perhaps the influence of the OHL and SEL are responsible for this change, but the WHL has produced many good players in the past and has the ability to reestablish itself as the top league for defensemen if the Class of 2012 works out.
As for the Avalanche, they're expected to select top ranked defensive prospect Seth Jones this summer. He's being billed as a complete package, and there are some experts who believe he could be NHL ready as early as next year.
He is a WHL prospect, and over the past decade, only one such player has instantly made the jump (Schenn). Cowen is the only other prospect drafted from the W in the top 10 since 2008, and he required 2 additional years of Juniors before joining the Sens. However, the Avalanche blueline is very weak. There is a possibly that Jones could earn a spot out of camp, but he'd likely need to be treated like Larsson and Hamilton and given limited, protected minutes against weaker competition for a few years. Expecting him to become the next Brodin and instantly jump onto the top pair likely isn't going to happen, especially because we don't have a Suter-type player to pair with him.
Even if we have to wait a few years for him to start contributing big minutes, if the past is any indication, he'll likely end up as a strong member of our top defensive pair in a relatively short amount of time. He won't have the instant impact that a forward will, but the odds of him becoming a highly reliable - if not franchise - defenseman are still in his favor.