Jun 122012

If you browse through the list of top NHL forwards you will find it consisting mostly of first round picks, and especially top 10 overall picks.  But when you browse through the list of top NHL defensemen far fewer of them were drafted in the first round and even fewer among the top 10.  Here is a list of all defensemen who gathered 40 points in the NHL last season.

Defenseman Points Round Position
 Erik Karlsson 78 1 15
 Brian Campbell 53 6 156
 Dustin Byfuglien 53 8 245
 Zdeno Chara 52 3 56
 Alex Pietrangelo 51 1 4
 Alexander Edler 49 3 91
 Shea Weber 49 2 49
 Dan Boyle 48 Undrafted
 Mark Streit 47 9 262
 Ryan Suter 46 1 7
 Dennis Wideman 46 8 241
 Dion Phaneuf 44 1 9
 Kevin Bieksa 44 5 151
 Kevin Shattenkirk 43 1 14
 Kimmo Timonen 43 10 250
 Keith Yandle 43 4 105
 Kris Letang 42 3 62
 Michael Del Zotto 41 1 20
 Duncan Keith 40 2 54

Of the 19 defensemen listed above, just 6 were first round picks and there were also 6 defensemen drafted in the 5th round or later as well as an undrafted defenseman.  Another method for identifying top defensemen is to look at their salary cap hits.  There are 20 NHL defensemen who have a salary cap hit of $5M or higher, only 7 of them were drafted in the first round and 4 of those were top 10 picks (including Redden who is no longer in the NHL) so pretty close to what we see above.

Comparing those numbers to NHL forwards, 14 of the top 20 point producing forwards this past season were first round picks, and 9 of them were top 3 picks.  Additionally the top 9 forwards in highest salary cap hits were all top 3 picks and all but Gaborik were top 2 picks.  Among the 23 forwards with salary cap hits above $6.5M only Pavel Datsyuk (round 6, 171st overall), Brad Richards (3, 64) and  Paul Stastny (2,44) were drafted outside the first round.  The elite forwards in the NHL are almost exclusively first round picks.

In the 14 years from 1996 through 2009 there were 420 first round draft picks with 61% of them being forwards, 32% of them being defensemen and 7% being goalies.  If you consider a standard 22 man NHL roster to have 13 forwards (59%), 7 defensemen (32%) and 2 goalies (9%), that ratio of forwards to defensemen to goalies in first round draft picks is almost exactly as expected so it isn’t like the absence of first round picks on defense leaderboards is due to a lack of defensemen being drafted in the first round.  It seems more likely that something else is going on here with the most likely explanation being that defensemen take longer to develop and thus drafting them is an even greater crap shoot than drafting forwards.

So, what do I take away from this?  Well, I think it probably means that teams should adjust their drafting strategy so that they have a bias towards drafting forwards in the first round and focus on drafting defensemen with your later round picks.