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Drafting a forward is the way to go

There is a draft-related theory out there that teams, when in doubt, should take the forward over the defenseman – especially at the top of the draft. Why? At 17 or 18 years old, defensemen are harder to project than forwards. Defense is a harder position to play, it takes longer to adjust to the speed of the NHL and sometimes highly-touted defensemen never live up to their potential.

Some people agree with this theory. David Poile does not agree.

“I don’t think they are harder to project, no,” Poile said. “I just think it’s an evaluation.”

Former NHL assistant general manager and scout Grant Sonier differs with Poile, saying in our recent Q&A that defensemen are harder to project “because they are going to be facing the best forwards in the world. Any given shift you are in defense mode and don’t know what you’re up against.”

The big debate in advance of this year’s NHL Draft is whether the Colorado Avalanche should select defenseman Seth Jones or forward Nathan MacKinnon with the No. 1 overall pick. Jones is the consensus top prospect, by a slim margin, over MacKinnon and the rest of the pack. However, Colorado says they plan on taking MacKinnon – which is probably the right move.

Selecting a defenseman in the top 10 just doesn’t carry the same value as taking a forward. Consider this: Since 2000-01, only one defenseman that was a top-10 pick won the Norris Trophy (Scott Niedermayer). In that same timeframe, six forwards that won the Hart Trophy were drafted in the top 10 (Peter Forsberg, Joe Thornton, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Henrik Sedin and Evgeni Malkin).

Also, look at this list of defensemen taken in the top 10 between 1992 and 2010 (the latest we feel you can judge a draft class). Outside of Chris Pronger, 2003 and potentially 2008, it’s a very pedestrian list.

1992 2001
1 Roman Hamrlik (TB) 7 Mike Komisarek (MTL)
3 Mike Rathje (SJ) 2002
5 Darius Kasparaitis (PIT) 3 Jay Bouwmeester (FLA)
1993 4 Joni Pitkanen (PHI)
1 Chris Pronger (HAR) 5 Ryan Whitney (PIT)
1994 2003
1 Ed Jovanovski (FLA) 7 Ryan Suter (NSH)
2 Oleg Tverdovsky (ANA) 8 Braydon Coburn (ATL)
10 Nolan Baumgartner (WSH) 9 Dion Phaneuf (CGY)
1995 2004
1 Bryan Berard (OTT) 3 Cam Barker (CHI)
2 Wade Redden (NYI) 9 Ladislav Smid (ANA)
3 Aki Berg (LA) 10 Boris Valabik (ATL)
9 Kyle McLaren (BOS) 2005
1996 3 Jack Johnson (CAR)
1 Chris Phillips (OTT) 9 Brian Lee (OTT)
2 Andrei Zyuzin (SJ) 10 Luc Bourdon (VAN)
5 Ric Jackman (DAL) 2006
8 Johnathan Aitken (BOS) 1 Erik Johnson (STL)
9 Ruslan Salei (ANA) 2007
10 Lance Ward (NJ) 4 Thomas Hickey (LA)
1997 5 Karl Alzner (WSH)
5 Eric Brewer (NYI) 10 Keaton Ellerby (FLA)
7 Paul Mara (TB) 2008
9 Nick Boynton (WSH) 2 Drew Doughty (LA)
10 Brad Ference (VAN) 3 Zach Bogosian (ATL)
1998 4 Alex Pietrangelo (STL)
3 Brad Stuart (SJ) 5 Luke Schenn (TOR)
4 Bryan Allen (VAN) 2009
5 Vitali Vishnevski (ANA) 2 Victor Hedman (TB)
1999 6 Oliver Ekman-Larsson (PHX)
10 Branislav Mezei (NYI) 9 Jared Cowen (OTT)
2000 2010
4 Rostislav Klesla (CBJ) 3 Erik Gudbranson (FLA)
7 Lars Jonsson (BOS) 10 Dylan McIlrath (NYR)

Let’s go one step further. We recently compiled a list of all the No. 1 centers and defensemen for each team. For some teams compared to others, it may be a bit subjective because there’s no clear-cut No. 1 player at either position. It’s also a rough representation because some very good No. 2 centers (i.e. Evgeni Malkin) are not included.

But look at the average draft position for teams’ No. 1 defensemen compared to the top-line centers.

Center Defenseman
 ANA Ryan Getzlaf 19 Francois Beauchemin 75
 BOS David Krejci 63 Zdeno Chara 56
 BUF Cody Hodgson 10 Christian Ehrhoff 106
 CAR Eric Staal 2 Joni Pitkanen 4
 CGY Mike Cammalleri 49 Jay Bouwmeester 3
 CHI Jonathan Toews 3 Duncan Keith 54
 CBJ Brandon Dubinsky 60 Jack Johnson 3
 COL Matt Duchene 2 Erik Johnson 1
 DAL Jamie Benn 129 Stephane Robidas 164
 DET Pavel Datsyuk 171 Niklas Kronwall 29
 EDM Ryan Nugent-Hopkins 1 Ryan Whitney 5
 FLA Stephen Weiss 4 Brian Campbell 156
 LA Anze Kopitar 11 Drew Doughty 2
 MIN Mikko Koivu 6 Ryan Suter 7
 MTL Tomas Plekanec 71 P.K. Subban 43
 NSH Mike Fisher 44 Shea Weber 49
 NJ Travis Zajac 20 Marek Zidlicky 176
 NYI John Tavares 1 Mark Streit 262
 NYR Brad Richards 64 Marc Staal 12
 OTT Jason Spezza 2 Erik Karlsson 15
 PHI Claude Giroux 22 Kimmo Timonen 250
 PHX Martin Hanzal 17 Oliver Ekman-Larsson 6
 PIT Sidney Crosby 1 Kris Letang 62
 SJ Joe Thornton 1 Dan Boyle N/A
 STL David Backes 62 Alex Pietrangelo 4
 TB Steven Stamkos 1 Victor Hedman 2
 TOR Nazem Kadri 7 Dion Phaneuf 9
 VAN Henrik Sedin 3 Alexander Edler 91
 WSH Nicklas Backstrom 4 Mike Green 29
 WPG Bryan Little 12 Tobias Enstrom 239
 Average draft position:  28 66

This isn’t to say it’s not important to get a defenseman in the top 10 – rather, it’s a sign that more No. 1 centers are taken in the top 10 (or even the first round) than No. 1 defensemen, and that the place to get those elite centers/forwards is at the top of the draft.

Hockey Prospectus took this topic to a whole different level earlier this calendar year with some extensive research. Here’s a snippet from a similar piece done by the excellent Jonathan Willis at Cult of Hockey:

Three-quarters of elite forwards are gone by the end of the first round, as are one-half of elite defensemen and one quarter of elite goaltenders. Ninety percent of elite forwards are gone by the first 100 picks, as are 75% of elite defensemen and 60% of elite goaltenders. In both cases, defense falls precisely at the midpoint between forwards and goaltenders.

Put simply, teams are just as likely to find a top defenseman after the first round as they are in the first 30 selections. That clearly is not the case with forwards.

As the debate rages as to who is the top prospect, Jones or MacKinnon (or even Jonathan Drouin), the Nashville Predators are sitting at fourth overall in a mighty fine position. They need a forward. They will take one if Jones doesn’t fall to them, which is unlikely but can’t be dismissed.

Even if Jones does fall to No. 4, it may be best if the Predators go ahead and draft a forward (or trade down a couple spots and then take a forward). It’s a position of need and they could potentially get a franchise forward for years to come. They already have their franchise defenseman and a good No. 2 defenseman. Drafting Jones would simply be a luxury – a nice luxury, but an unnecessary one at that.

The Predators are in a rare, unusual spot and they don’t intend to be in this position again anytime soon. With that in mind, this pick has to be a home run. The Predators have never owned a franchise forward and they never have the opportunity to draft one. They rarely become available via trade or free agency. In other terms, they don’t grow on trees.

Recent draft history would suggest forwards taken at the top of the draft have a much better chance at being a home run compared to defensemen. And the best way this selection becomes a home run for the Predators is if it’s a forward.

 
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