FanPost

Testing the Conventional Wisdom on Picking Defensemen Early: What Does History Tell Us?

This Friday, the Islanders are likely to face a basic question when it's their turn to pick at 4 (assuming that's where they stay). This year's top draft prospects includes a wealth of highly touted defensemen: Ryan Murray, Matthew Dumba, Griffin Reinhart, Morgan Rielly and perhaps a few others. At least a couple of this group (as well has a several highly touted forwards) will be available at the #4 pick. Should they pick a defenseman?

Several writers would say that as a matter of principle, "no." Some have argued that the development of defensemen is too slow to provide scouts with accurate evaluations as early as 18 years old. Others have noted that elite NHL defensemen often come from later rounds of the draft. These sorts of arguments led Corey Pronman to "downgrade" this year's many top defensive prospects, ranking none of them within the top 5 of his ranking.

According to Pronman:

There has been one major change to my ranking process from last year. Based on talks I've had with Hockey Prospectus writers Tom Awad, Jonathan Willis, and Kent Wilson, I have made a significant systematic change to how I approach defensemen in the draft. While very valuable when you truly hit on them, defensemen tend to have much more uncertainty in their projections coming out of the draft. As Tom Awad said to me in an e-mail exchange: "It doesn't help you to know that there may be a Duncan Keith somewhere in the draft class if you can't identify him before he's 22."I have decided to approach defensemen with much more caution. Due to their value in the NHL, and persistent production of good defensemen, I have not decided to knock down defense prospects like I have goalie prospects, but if I think it's close especially in the first round, I will tend to lean the direction of the forward even if I feel the defense prospect in the discussion has a slightly higher talent level. Forward production out of the draft tends to just be so much more linear than defensemen and the development time is less as well.

However, the notion that defensemen take longer to develop or that you often find talented defensemen in later rounds isn't directly relevant to the question of whether a team should pick a comparably talented forward or defenseman all things being equal. After all, it is also drafting orthodoxy that you don't pick based on current need anyway. So the slower development curve of defensemen should not by itself be a reason not to pick them early.

To test the argument, I looked at all defenseman picked in the top 10 since 1995, determined their success rate based on my four-tiered ranking system and compared their success to forwards picked top 10 during the same time period. Just to give you a sense of the group of players under discussion, here is a list of every top 10 defenseman picked since 1995 and how I rated each:

Draft Year

Pick

Player

Rating

1995

1

Bryan Berard

Key Player

1995

2

Wade Redden

All-Star

1995

3

Aki-Petteri Berg

NHLer

1995

9

Kyle McLaren

NHLer

1996

1

Chris Phillips

Key Player

1996

2

Andrei Zyuzin

NHLer

1996

8

Johnathan Aitken

Bust

1996

9

Ruslan Salei

Key Player

1996

10

Lance Ward

Bust

1997

5

Eric Brewer

Key Player

1997

7

Paul Mara

Key Player

1997

9

Nick Boynton

Key Player

1997

10

Brad Ference

Bust

1998

3

Brad Stuart

Key Player

1998

4

Bryan Allen

NHLer

1998

5

Vitaly Vishnevsky

NHLer

1999

10

Branislav Mezei

Bust

2000

4

Rostislav Klesla

NHLer

2000

7

Lars Jonsson

Bust

2001

7

Mike Komisarek

NHLer

2002

3

Jay Bouwmeester

All-Star

2002

4

Joni Pitkanen

Key Player

2002

5

Ryan Whitney

Key Player

2003

7

Ryan Suter

All-Star

2003

8

Braydon Coburn

Key Player

2003

9

Dion Phaneuf

All-Star

2004

3

Cam Barker

Key Player

2004

9

Ladislav Smid

Key Player

2005

3

Jack Johnson

Key Player

2005

9

Brian Lee

NHLer

2006

1

Erik Johnson

Key Player

2007

4

Thomas Hickey

Bust

2007

5

Karl Alzner

Key Player

2008

2

Drew Doughty

All-Star

2008

3

Zach Bogosian

Key Player

2008

4

Alex Pietrangelo

Key Player

2008

5

Luke Schenn

TBD

2009

1

Victor Hedman

Key Player

2009

6

Oliver Ekman-Larsson

Key Player

2009

9

Jared Cowan

TBD

2010

3

Erik Gudbranson

TBD

2010

10

Dylan McIlrath

TBD

2011

4

Adam Larsson

TBD

2011

9

Dougie Hamilton

TBD

2011

10

Jonas Brodin

TBD

Based on a quick scan of the list, this groups seems to be a fairly solid group of defensemen. In fact, the only bust over the past decade is Thomas Hickey. (As always, feel free to quibble with my ratings).

Anyway, here are how the percentages break-down:

Allstar

5

11.1%

Key Players

19

42.2%

NHLers

8

17.8%

Busts

6

13.3%

TBD

7

15.5%

While there is a fairly low percentage of elite talent, there is also a low percentage of busts. Most fall somewhere in the middle, with a plurality (40%) developing into solid top 4 defenders.

How does this compare to forwards? Here are the percentages for this group (listing them out would be way too long):

Allstar

30

28%

Key Players

22

20%

NHLers

34

32%

Busts

15

14%

TBD

7

6%

While the "bust" rate among the forwards is similar to that of defensemen, the rate of elite players is a notably higher.

What does this tell us? I guess it means that notwithstanding the slower development curve, defensemen who have talent levels designated as elite by pro scouts at 18 years old are usually good enough to be serviceable or even effective defensemen in the NHL. Whether that elite talent level translate into elite NHL-level talent is more of a crapshoot for defensemen than for forwards.

<em>Submitted FanPosts do not necessarily reflect the views of this blog or SB Nation. If you're reading this statement, you pass the fine print legalese test. Four stars for you.</em>

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