In 2007, the Kings passed on Karl Alzner, Alex Cherepanov and Jakub Voracek, making a reach on lower-ranked Thomas Hickey of the Seattle Thunderbirds with the fourth overall selection.

One thing that should strike you about the successful Los Angeles defence is how it was put together more a random association of functional parts rather than built a certain fashion. What I mean is, there was an organizational philosophy instilled in the Kings’ management system to improve the team’s back-end at the draft between the years 2006 and 2010 and it didn’t necessarily work.

Willie Mitchell came to the Kings after they gambled on him coming off a concussion with a multi-year deal. Rob Scuderi was a free agent. Matt Greene was a thrown-in as part of a Lubomir Visnovsky-Jarrett Stoll trade.

Granted, three defencemen were drafted by the Kings who were on the team, but not the ones you’d think. Drew Doughty is there, of course, but in a two-year period between 2007 and 2008, the Kings also drafted two defencemen in the first round, beaten out organizationally by Alec Martinez and Slava Voynov who were drafted in the late rounds.

Thomas Hickey and Colton Teubert each had successful-enough WHL careers, but they function better as warning signs at this stage in their hockey careers than successful players. Teubert was eventually traded as a major piece to acquire Dustin Penner, while Hickey, a former fourth-overall pick, is now 23 and has yet to play an NHL game.

Not just through the draft: the Kings in 2007 continued their push to get better, younger defencemen, trading Tim Gleason for the highly regarded Jack Johnson while also dealing longtime rearguard Mattias Norstrom, still a year left on his contract, to Dallas.

This is interesting to consider. Now, while not every team land successful NHLers with every first round pick they make, the Kings hit 3-for-7 with their first round picks between 2006-2010, though a case could be made for two players who were pieces in deals that the Kings used to acquire better players.

Jonathan Bernier was selected 11th overall in 2006 and was a backup goalie who didn’t see any postseason action. Not only was he selected ahead of more successful goalies Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth and James Reimer (also, Steve Mason) but a pick ahead of successful forward Bryan Little.

In that 2006 draft, Erik Johnson was made a first overall selection and nine defencemen were picked in the first round, compared to four goalies and 17 forwards.

Of the defencemen: Johnson, Ty Wishart, Mark Mitera, David Fischer, Bob Sanguinetti, Dennis Persson, Ivan Vishnevskiy, Chris Summers and Matt Corrente, only one is an NHL regular. Of the goalies, Bernier, Riku Helenius, Varlamov and Leland Irving, just one is an NHL starter.

Now, if you want to put the folly of drafting non-forwards in the first round in perspective, that first round yielded NHL regulars Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom, Phil Kessel, Peter Mueller, Little, Chris Stewart, Claude Giroux, Patrik Berglund and Nick Foligno, a much higher batting average.

In 2007, of 11 defencemen selected, NHL teams “hit” on three of them: Karl Alzner, Ryan McDonaugh and Kevin Shattenkirk, while of the 19 forwards taken, NHL teams “hit” on 11.

Why is this important? Defencemen take a little longer to develop and sometimes the best ones taken in the draft fall out of the first round. In 2007, a defenceman named Carl Gunnarsson was selected by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the seventh round. Talk all you want about how lousy the Leafs are, but Gunnarsson capably plays very tough minutes on Toronto’s top-pairing with Dion Phaneuf. Another impressive young blue liner, PK Subban, was drafted in Round 2 of that year.

Draft expert Corey Pronman in a recent interview with BD Gallof (question bolded):

Of course, just about every Isles fan is demanding a defenseman, thinking of what is needed on the NHL level right away, despite the fact that it takes years to develop. What is the usual development time and are there any defenders this year that the Islanders should consider bucking their trend and contemplating a selection at the No. 4 spot?

“Even the ‘NHL ready’ defenders out of the draft are only usually ready to be a third pairing defender in year 1. A reasonable time for them to become notable producers is about 2-3 years post-draft, and about 4-5 years for them to peak. Most top defense prospects aren’t NHL ready though, and you may have to add another 1-2 years onto that for pre-NHL development time. You’ll sometimes find outliers like Drew Doughty and Alex Pietrangelo who play tough minutes and play at a high level right out of the gates, but even for top prospects that’s pretty rare. My top five players in the draft are forwards, and if I were in the Islanders shoes, I would take one of them.”

Surely there are going to be some teams looking to improve on defence in the upcoming NHL draft, and the top half of the first round is loaded with defensive talent. Ryan Murray, Mathew Dumba, Morgan Rielly, Griffin Reinhart and Derrick Pouliot are all WHLers who may go in the Top 15 and there has been reason to believe the Edmonton Oilers think Murray may be the best player in the draft.

Outside of the five WHLers, you have Cody Ceci, Jacob Trouba, Matt Finn and Olli Määttä as definite first rounders. With everything you’ve just learned above, and what we’ve seen with defencemen historically making an impact in their first few seasons after getting drafted, how many of these guys can we reasonably expect to “hit”?

Offence is offence no matter where you go, but so much about the way junior teams use their defensive players means you don’t quite know what you’re getting. Some guys work better in certain roles, but with a limit of spots on NHL teams, there’s less room for error or for these players. The defenceman I’m the most familiar with who will go in the first round, Pouliot, was deployed in a primarily offensive role with partner Joe Morrow (another first rounder), while the tough minutes were given to more veteran, bigger, stronger guys on the Portland Winterhawks team.

Why? Because Pouliot, like a lot of good offensive defencemen, is an absolute nightmare in his own end and the Winterhawks, moreso than trying to develop him as an overall defenceman, would rather hide his defensive misgivings by putting him out in as many favourable situations.

It’s not that this doesn’t typically happen for defencemen on good teams, but it doesn’t allow scouts to critically observe every facet of a team’s game. A team maybe has one and maybe two spots open for a defenceman with an offensive game. Now, with a player in a similar draft rank, one of the two-way centre men in Radek Faksa or Zemgus Girgensons (allegedly. I’m going off of what I’ve read because I’ve never actually seen Girgensons play), you’re looking at definitely three spots open on an NHL team between lines 2-4, with a potential for more available if they can slide over to a wing.

If the draft is about loading your NHL team for the near future, teams are much better off if they stick to forwards in the early rounds. They have higher talent ceilings, and star forwards are less replaceable at the NHL level. Not only do defencemen take longer to develop, but they end up competing for more spots, making them significantly less likely to become impact NHL players before they turn 25.

Comments (12)

  1. I’d argue that there’s 12 forward slots as opposed to six Ds per team, so realistically you have a 100% better chance of a forward sticking on a roster than a D simply through the need for a warm, low-salary body to take the spot in the lineup.

    And don’t mention Hickey. How he’s been such a flop is mystifying. Teubert at least I knew wasn’t all that great when they picked him, although admittedly standards are much higher on the Kings’ defensive depth chart than the Oilers’.

  2. Yet they still drafted Doughty with 2nd overall in 2008.

    What about that 2008 draft? Doughty, Bogosian, Pietrangelo, Schenn, Myers, Karlsson, Gardiner, Sbisa, Del Zotto, and Carlson in the first round?

    Seems like you’re selecting the evidence to fit the argument…

  3. Expanding on the thought of measuring success by the percentage of first round draft picks…

    2003
    F 20/21 95%
    D 6/7 86%

    2004
    F 12/17 71%
    D 6/9 67%

    2005
    F 11/15 73%
    D 5/7 71%

    2006
    F 17/17 100%
    D 1/9 11%

    2007
    F 10/17 59%
    D 4/11 36%

    2008
    F 10/16 63%
    D 10/12 83%

    It looks like forwards are typically slightly more likely to make it than defensemen most years. 2006 was a complete anomaly and 2007 and 2009 are a little off as well.

    My guess is forwards will have a higher success rate because they develop quicker than defensemen. And goalies have such a low success rate because they take so long to develop.

    I had started to do a little more analysis on draft position and success that might be worth looking into. I looked at top forwards in terms of points, defensemen in terms of time on ice, and goalies in terms of wins. Can’t remember how many and it was over the last 5-6 years or something, but:

    Forwards – 51/69 drafted in 1st round (73.9%). Avg draft pos 28.6 (thanks Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Moulson). St Dev of 47.9. Meaning they are typically picked early.

    Defense – 57/104 drafted in 1st round (54.8%). Avg draft pos 87.0. St Dev of 82.3. Meaning they are more evenly picked throughout the draft.

    Goalies – apparently I didn’t finish this, but looks like 16/59 1st round (27.1%) and avg draft pos 100.3 with St Dev of 86.9. So they are picked pretty evenly through the draft and even less skewed early than defense.

  4. Offensive talent, in general, is easier to quantify. I don’t think you should avoid defenseman as a rule in the first round but if you are going to pick one high I’d say go for one who shows very high to elite offensive skills. Murray is the only exception as he is pretty much NHL ready making him a safe pick (even if his offensive upside is a question mark).

    Also, when it comes to forwards, one should probably focus more on centermen then wingers. I’m pretty sure they have a higher success rate (centermen see the game better and typically can handle a two way game better).

    • Also, at the younger levels, the better players are often move into the center role. I believe this propagates up through the ranks, so that center often has a higher percentage of better players. This is why you see so many supposedly centermen playing out on the wing.

      It’s similar to QBs in football, and pitchers (at the high school level) in baseball.

  5. With regards to the goalies you mentioned, the biggest differentiation between those who were successful and those who weren’t seem to be how good the goaltending is at the parent club. Washington and Toronto are not widely considered to be bastions of good goaltending. On the other hand, Bernier and Irving are competing with Quick and Kiprusoff, which is not exactly and enviable position. In addition, most teams keep a young goalie down in the AHL much longer than with a skater, until there is space for them to start on the big team. This is a large reason why the Kings kept Bernier down with the Monarchs for so long. In fact, many people thought he’d be better than Quick, and were just waiting for Quick to slip up so the team could insert Bernier into the starting lineup. Alas, this has yet to happen.

    Anyways, point is that sometimes other factors factor in to things I guess.

    • What most people don’t know is that la management had planned on bernier being the starter ahead of quick. Bernier was a first rounder the year after the picked quick in the third round it’s just quick developed faster

      • While it’s true Bernier was considered the possible #1 of the future, I don’t know if I’d say Quick developed faster. Quick is 3 years older. When he got his shot at the NHL level, Bernier was considered too young by management because they wanted to bring him on very carefully and slowly.

  6. I have to echo the sentiment here that some of your examples are maybe not the best. I can’t say for sure that I agree or disagree with your premise and conclusion, but if you go case by case with your examples on the Kings team, I think they tell a different story.

    Bernier was drafted to be the Kings starting goalie. It’s only because Quick has played better and better each season (culminating in his vezina nod this year) that Bernier hasn’t seen more time. Bernier is ready to grab a starting job… on another team. He’ll be a good, possibly great goalie. But it won’t be with the Kings. Teubert was dealt to the Oilers. Hickey, after fighting some injuries, appears to be ready as well. He was always a controversial pick, but Lombardi drafted him on “character” (his favorite buzz word). But where do the Kings slot him when they’ve got possibly the best defensive core in the league. So here, I think you could argue that the kings should have taken more forwards, but I think the intention here was to draft a flock of defensemen. Sign some top talent to fill some holes. Trade for forwards. Lombardi has said as much, stating his belief that scoring wingers can easily be replaced and found via trade.

    The other thing to consider in the case of the Kings, was Lombardi’s plan to build from the net out. Grab a bunch of tenders and defensemen. Establish a very formidable back end. trade remainder away to fill the top.

    Certainly, in hind sight Lombardi would have loved to have drafted some of those forwards instead of the defensemen he has, but at the time he had a plan and stuck to it. I’d say it has worked.

  7. Excellent article! Unless a team believes a Dman prospect can be a cornerstone of their D like a Doughty is, you have to go for the forward.

  8. Gotta agree with Helvetica here. I think your analysis is a bit flawed probably because you don’t follow the team as closely as a Kings fan would. I don’t think you can really say DL’s vision to build the D through the draft hasn’t worked when he probably knew full well that some of his picks would take longer to mature. That’s also probably why he brought in veteran stay at home defensemen via trade and free agency (Mitchell, Scuderi, Greene).

    I wouldn’t call Hickey a bust until he actually gets to play for the big club. He certainly seems capable (AHL all-star this year) and would probably be playing on the big club in another organization. It seems like DL was really looking for an elite puck moving defensemen and he ended up getting his man a year later in Drew Doughty.

    I don’t really know what to say about your Bernier point either. He is a backup to Jonathan MF Quick. It’s not his fault we have the best (hottest & best supported as well) goaltender in the league right now.

    • Also in this article, Cam includes the 2006 draft. Bear in mind that Lombardi was hired in April of 2006. Dave Taylor’s scouts were in place. 2007 was the first year of the new team.

      Lombardi stockpiled more picks than anyone over his first five years, and drafted many other defensemen in the later rounds. So it’s not simply a build from the first round mindset. He hoards d-prospects like a squirrel does nuts.

      There’s an argument to be made for drafting forwards over defensemen high. I think the focus on whom the Kings 2006-2010 to prove that is a little dodgy. 2006 was a Dave Taylor scout year; 2007 was weak but they got Martinez out of it; 2008 saw Doughty and Voynov; and players drafted in 2009 and 2010 may still make it, since the team is tough to crack and defensemen take longer to develop.

      Then there’s this statement that their D is “a random association of functional parts rather than built.” 3 of their 6 defensemen were drafted since 2007, including their #1. Would they be “built” if the number was 4 of 6? 5 of 6? What? Are all six defensemen supposed to be 23 years old for the organization’s focus on defense to count? I don’t know what standard this article is proposing.

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