John Carlson, drafted in 2008, is the most recent Caps defenseman selected in the first round. (Photo: Andre Ringuette/Getty)
Reading the comments in Ian’s post covering the draft lottery, most fans seem convinced that the Capitals must select Haydn Fleury with their 13th pick, if he’s available. It’s easy to see why: Fleury, who plays for the Red Deer Rebels of the WHL, is a responsible defenseman in a draft dominated by forwards. It is likely that 13 out of the 15 top picks will be forwards. And the Caps blue line struggled with injuries and inconsistency all year long. Defense hasn’t been Washington’s forte for the better part of the Ovechkin era, and those defensive shortcomings have often been pegged as the key to the Caps’ early playoff exits (or, this year, pre-playoff exits).
Despite all of this, I’ll disagree with the notion that the Caps should select Fleury, or any other defenseman, with their first-round pick.
First of all, I have to note that I will not be using the good old three-letter abbreviation “BPA” (Best Player Available) to prove my point. The concept of BPA works fine until we try to define “best.” The NHL Draft doesn’t have separate selection process for each position or playing style; some of these players had down years, some saw their stock rise significantly during the previous season. They all are up for draft together, making selecting the “best” player an almost impossible task, especially when you get past the top three or five players.
1. Defensemen take longer to develop
This is not rocket science. The more defensive responsibility a position requires, the more time it takes for a player to become ready to carry the load at the NHL level. That’s why many centers start their NHL career on the wing. If you look at the 2011 draft, 50 players have already debuted in the NHL, just 15 of them defensemen. Of the 15 players with most games played, just three are blueliners. It’s easy to see the pattern: if you want to see your pick in the NHL in the next couple years, forwards are your best bet.
Fleury, or any other comparable defenseman, probably shouldn’t be relied upon for at least three more years, so a team taking him should probably be focused on the long term.
Are the Caps in that position? A lot of it depends on how the ownership sees the team right now, but most likely they don’t think a re-build is needed (and rightfully so), and the management should be working to compete for the Stanley Cup as soon as possible without mortgaging the future. In that case, it seems like the Caps should look in the direction of forwards in the first round of the draft.
The principle that the defensemen take longer to develop was also evident in the way the Capitals have drafted during the re-build: they picked a lot of defensemen in the first rounds in 2004-06 (four of six first-round selections to be exact), then took one in each of the 2007 and 2008 drafts. When it was clear that the re-build was over, the Caps concentrated on getting more forwards. That strategy by itself was right, but many of the defensemen Caps took back then never panned out (Joe Finley, Sasha Pokulok, Jeff Schultz, Josh Godfrey).
2. Caps have no shortage of youth on D
Despite taking forwards regularly in the first rounds, Washington has an abundance of blueline prospects and young NHL players. Caps scouts have done a great job finding back-end talent in later rounds, selecting the likes of Dmitry Orlov, Patrick Wey, Connor Carrick, Christian Djoos, and Madison Bowey. The Caps also managed to land a highly sought after college free agent in Nate Schmidt and acquired Tomas Kundratek in a trade. All of these players are in the position to get an NHL roster spot now or in the near future. Getting a forward early in the draft and then selecting some defensemen (there are quite a few interesting mid- and late-round candidates this year) would be the smarter way to approach the draft from the prospect pool balance standpoint.
Since 2009, 12 of 27 Caps picks in the second round and lower were defensemen. What their defense needs is immediate help from an experienced NHL player, not another prospect.
3. Forwards picked in the first round perform slightly better
There have been quite a few attempts to measure the success in drafting, but all have their flaws. The visual analysis based in GVT (a composite statistic that measures an individual player’s contribution to team’s success) provides an interesting look, but the stat it uses seems to favor forwards and goalies (noticeable if you look at the current NHL GVT leaderboard, in which the highest-ranked defenseman is 21st).
As I said, no solution is perfect, but for the purposes of this post I decided to go with the statistic based on player’s number of game played. Each skater taken in the 11-20 range in eight drafts (2001 through 2008) is measured against games played threshold. Forwards are given two “development” years after the draft, while defensemen are given three (as I mentioned earlier, defensemen generally take longer to develop). After that, the effects of NHL lockouts are eliminated and the threshold is set at 50% of NHL games, which means a player should appear in more than 50% of his team’s games to get over the threshold. You can view the full spreadsheet here (draft and games played data courtesy of Hockey Reference).
- Overall, success of defensemen and forwards drafted in the taken range is similar. Forwards surpassed the threshold 59% of the time; 54% of defensemen fit the provided criteria. Forwards also hold the lead in average games played versus threshold, if you eliminate the players that didn’t pass the criteria too.
- On the other hand, there’s a striking difference in the number of forwards and defensemen drafted in that range, though it’s hard to tell whether this is justified or if most GMs have some bias against drafting defensemen that early.
- Forwards get the advantage when you look at the list of leaders — 13 of 15 are forwards.
After considering this evidence, I think the Washington Capitals should draft a forward with their 13th overall pick. While there’s no argument that their D needs fixing, the Draft, especially in the first round, is not the right place to do it.