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.
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.