On Drafting Defenseman

Photo courtesy of NHL.com

The 2012 draft is days away and Flyers fans have been discussing draft strategy for the first round.

What should the Flyers do?

The general consensus seems to be that they need to draft a defenseman in the first round and anything else is disappointing. There has also been lots of talk on whether or not the Flyers should move up to draft one of the higher ranked defenders. Most specifically, Ryan Murray, who will likely be selected second. I’ve seen someone go as far as suggesting a trade of James van Riemsdyk, Andrej Meszaros, Sergei Bobrovsky, and a first-round pick for the second-overall pick so the Flyers can select Murray.

I can’t help but wonder. Do they Flyers really need to select a defenseman? Would it be disappointing if they took something else? Does it make sense to trade up for a defender? I think the answers to these questions aren’t what some would expect. Let’s examine the latter first.

Should the Flyers move up in the draft?

The idea is that if the Flyers move up they would be securing a better defenseman in the draft. Makes sense, right? If only it was that simple. I’m of the belief that drafting defensemen is more similar to drafting goalies than it is forwards. When it comes to forwards the best talent always lies at the top and the chance to draft a high caliber forward diminishes greatly with each round.

If we take a look at the top three forwards in scoring over each of the past three years we can see that all but one of them were drafted in the first round. Six of the nine forwards were selected in the top three picks. If you want to draft a high quality you want to be drafting in the first round, the top three preferably.

Name Year Drafted
Crosby 2010 1st round, 1st pick
Giroux 2012 1st round, 22nd pick
Malkin 2012 1st round, 2nd pick
Ovechkin 2010 1st round, 1st pick
 Perry 2011 1st round, 28th pick
 D. Sedin 2011 1st round, 2nd pick
 H. Sedin 2010 1st round, 3rd pick
 St. Louis 2011  undrafted
 Stamkos 2012  1st round, 1st pick

It’s the exact opposite with goalies. Goaltending talent is found throughout the draft. A goalie drafted in the first round is no more likely to pan out than a goalie in the third round. It makes little sense to use a high pick on a a goalie. Looking at the the Vezina Trophy candidates over the past three seasons illustrates this point. Only one candidate was drafted in the top ten. Six of the eight nominees were drafted after the first round.

Name Year Drafted
Brodeur 2010 1st round, 20th pick
Bryzgalov 2010 2nd round, 44th pick
Lundqvist 2012 7th round, 205th pick
Luongo 2011 1st round, 4th pick
Miller 2010 5th round, 138th pick
Rinne 2011, 2012 8th round, 258th pick
Quick 2012 3rd round, 72nd pick
Thomas 2011 9th round, 217th pick

Now let’s take a look at the Norris Trophy nominees over the past three seasons to see how it compares to drafting high end forwards and goalies.

Name Year Drafted Chara 2011,2012 3rd round, 56th pick Doughty 2010 1st round, 2nd pick Green 2010 1st round, 29th pick Lidstrom 2011 3rd round, 53rd pick Karlsson 2012 1st round, 15th pick Keith 2010 2nd round, 54th pick Weber 2011,2012 2nd round, 49th pick

Four of the seven nominees were drafted after the first round. Only one of them was taken in the top-10 picks. As we see with the goalies, drafting a defenseman early doesn’t necessarily produce high end talent. Unlike with goalies, you still want to stick to drafting defenseman in the first three rounds.

It extends beyond there. Kimmo Timonen, Dan Boyle, Kris Letang, P.K Subban, Brian Campbell, Alex Edler, Toby Enstrom are all #1 defensemen on their rosters. All were drafted after the first round or went undrafted as in the case with Boyle. If you’re looking to draft and develop a high end defenseman it’s not necessary to pick one early. It really doesn’t make much sense to give up quality pieces off of the NHL roster for Ryan Murray when he’s no more likely to be a number one blueliner than some kid being picked in round three.

Another point I’d like to mention that these defenseman have in common is that almost all of them were given enough time to develop before becoming NHL regulars. Shea Weber, Duncan Keith, Nick Lidstrom, Timonen, Letang, Subban, Campbell, Edler, and Enstrom all spent two-plus years playing outside of the NHL after their draft. Chara spent a year in juniors and was shuffled between the AHL and NHL over the next two seasons. Mike Green spent a year in juniors and a half of season in the AHL before becoming a regular. Drew Doughty is the only defender mentioned that played in the NHL immediately after being drafted.

Ultimately, development is just as key as the player you select. There aren’t many 18 year old defenders being drafted that can come into the league right away and play on your top pairing. It takes time to develop high end defenders capable of playing big minutes.

Which brings me back to the original question.

Do the Flyers need to draft a defenseman in the first round?

The Flyers need on defense is on their NHL roster. Chris Pronger suffered what looks to be a career ending injury. Timonen will be 38 years old and can’t be relied on to carry a top pairing much longer. Their need on defense is immediate, but it cannot be solved through the draft. They aren’t going to find someone that can replace Pronger’s minutes with the 20th pick in the draft. Ryan Murray may play in the NHL next season, but he’s not going to be replacing Pronger either. As I’ve illustrated, he’s no more likely to become a Norris caliber defender than a kid drafted in rounds two or three.

The Flyers need on defense is going to be solved through free agency or via trade. Whoever the Flyers pick this year is likely two or three years away from contributing. Therefore it doesn’t really make sense to draft a defender that will contribute in two or three years to solve a current need.

Much can change in two or three years time. The Flyers defense could be set by adding Suter, Weber, or someone completely unexpected. While the need for forwards could potentially be greater three years time. jaromir Jagr will be gone. Danny Briere’s contract will expire in three years. Van Riemsdyk might be traded this offseason. Jake Voracek, Scott Hartnell, Wayne Simmonds, Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, and Brayden Schenn will all need new contracts over the next two years. It could be tough fitting them all in.

The Flyers depth at forward at the farm level is almost as bare as their depth on defense. I don’t think their need for prospects on defense is really much greater than their need at forward. Their farm system is in desperate need of improvement in all areas.

Remember, the first round is your best opportunity to draft high end forwards while high end defenseman can be found in rounds two and three. It certainly wouldn’t be a poor strategy to draft a forward first and focus on defense during day two. Unless that forward is Tom Wilson then feel free to facepalm, but as long as they are sticking with best player available they won’t be going wrong even if it is another forward.