Defensive Development

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Every year, a handful of of the top forwards selected in the summer’s NHL Entry Draft make the jump to a significant role with the team that selected them.  It’s rarer, however, to see a defenceman make that leap, as Cam Fowler has this past season (Fowler has been making strides at the NHL level too – after recording just three points in his first 10 games, he has eight in his last nine).

I wondered how long it took the average highly-touted defensive prospect to make the jump to being a top four defenceman, so I went back over the last 10 drafts to see. 

I looked at every defenceman taken in the top 10 spots in the draft, and counted the years it took for them to be playing top-four even-strength minutes for their hockey club.  This chart shows what I found:

Player Drafted Top-Four EV Minutes
Rostislav Klesla 4th, 2000 2nd season after being drafted
Lars Jonsson 7th, 2000  
Mike Komisarek 7th, 2001 6th season after being drafted
Jay Bouwmeester 3rd, 2002 2nd season after being drafted
Joni Pitkanen 4th, 2002 4th season after being drafted
Ryan Whitney 5th, 2002 4th season after being drafted
Ryan Suter 7th, 2003 6th season after being drafted
Braydon Coburn 8th, 2003 5th season after being drafted
Dion Phaneuf 9th, 2003 3rd season after being drafted
Cam Barker 3rd, 2004  
Ladislav Smid 9th, 2004 6th season after being drafted
Boris Valabik 10th, 2004  
Jack Johnson 3rd, 2005 3rd season after being drafted
Brian Lee 9th, 2005  
Erik Johnson 1st, 2006 4th season after being drafted
Thomas Hickey 4th, 2007  
Karl Alzner 5th, 2007 4th season after being drafted
Keaton Ellerby 10th, 2007  
Drew Doughty 2nd, 2008 Immediately
Zach Bogosian 3rd, 2008 2nd season after being drafted
Alex Pietrangelo 4th, 2008 3rd season after being drafted
Luke Schenn 5th, 2008 Immediately
Victor Hedman 2nd, 2009 Immediately
Oliver Ekman-Larsson 6th, 2009  
Jared Cowen 9th, 2009  

The chart shows that just three of the 25 defenceman selected (12%) made the jump to top-four minutes the year after being drafted.  All three were top-five selections, but even so they represented just 21% of the selections made in the top-five.  The average top-five selection takes between three and four seasons of development before they’re ready to step into a top-four role on an NHL team.

That means that for teams looking to rebuild their blue-line, unless they luck out with a player like Drew Doughty, it will take between three or four years before their lottery selection is ready to make a real impact on their club.

And while Fowler has had some struggles, it also suggest that all those folks who let him slide out of the top-10 at this past summer’s Entry Draft probably had it wrong.