Monday night’s Draft Lottery has come and gone, and the Colorado Avalanche have won the right to choose 1st overall in June’s NHL entry draft. They will almost undoubtedly select defenseman Seth Jones with that pick. If you’re disappointed that the Bolts won’t be getting Seth Jones – don’t be. Junior scouts have a terrible history of assessing defensemen.
By all appearances, Seth Jones is the real deal. He’s big, he’s fast, and he has great instincts. I must confess, he looks better than any junior defenseman that I’ve ever seen. But therein lies the problem – he’s a defenseman.
Now, as you read this, I must make one thing clear: I am not saying Seth Jones is going to be a bust. In fact, I think it’s likely that he’s going to go on to have a wonderful NHL career. All I’m saying is defensemen are trickier, riskier picks than forwards simply because of the nature of their position. They have been giving junior scouts fits for years. Forwards are much easier to assess and project. So if scouts are raving about a defenseman and two forwards, logic dictates that there’s a better chance the scouts will be right about the forwards. Therefore, Nate MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin, both of whom appear to be franchise-quality players, are safer bets.
Maybe you’re thinking there’s no guarantee that MacKinnon and/or Drouin will be great NHLers either. And of course, there’s always a chance either or both of them could turn into the next Alexander Daigle (1st overall, 1993) or Patrik Stefan (1st overall, 1999). Daigle’s name has become synonymous with the word “bust,” and Stefan’s career was so forgettable that we often, well, forget him entirely.
However, whatever bugs were in the scouting system that led to the likes of Daigle and Stefan being drafted 1st overall appear to have been worked out in recent years. At least when it comes to forwards.
Let’s take a look at the forwards drafted 1st overall since 2000 (or, as I like to call it, PPS – Post Patrik Stefan). The list is as follows: Rick Nash, Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Nail Yakopov.
If you’re not impressed by that list, then maybe hockey isn’t for you. Most of those players turned out to be, indeed, the best player available in their draft year, thus justifying their pick. And the even the ones who arguably aren’t the best player that was available in their year have nonetheless embarked on what look to be incredible NHL careers. In fact, would anyone be surprised if 100% of the players on that list were someday in the Hockey Hall of Fame?
Now let’s compare that to defensemen. In the PPS world, only one defenseman has been drafted 1st overall. His name? Erik Johnson. I can see your quizzical stares from here. Johnson was drafted 1st overall in 2006 by the St. Louis Blues and now, somewhat ironically, plays for the Colorado Avalanche. He has scored 131 points in 329 games, which isn’t too shabby, until you consider the players he was drafted ahead of in 2006. That list looks like this: Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom, and Phil Kessel in the top 5 alone, and Claude Giroux later in the first round.
Try as they might to deny it now, I clearly remember analysts comparing Johnson to Chris Pronger. The fact of the matter is, more often than not you don’t really know what you have in a defenseman until at least a few years after their draft year.
Have a look at the defensemen currently dominating the NHL. Do you know how many of them were drafted first overall? The answer is zero. Not Zdeno Chara (56th overall, 1996), not Shea Weber (49th overall, 2003), not Erik Karlsson (15th overall, 2008), not Ryan Suter (7th overall, 2003), and not PK Subban (43rd overall, 2007). And not whatever defenseman you’re no doubt thinking of right now. Most of the best defensemen in the NHL weren’t even drafted in the first round.
To further illustrate the point, let’s take the list back to pre-PS times (Pre Patrik Stefan). If we go all the way back to 1980, the list of defensemen drafted first overall looks like this: Gord Kluzak (1982), Roman Hamrlik (1992), Ed Jovanovski (1994), Bryan Berard (1995), Chris Phillips (1996), and Erik Johnson (2006). (Ed Jovanovski, I should note, might have well wound up the best player in his very mediocre draft year.)
In order to put the mediocrity of that list into perspective, you have to consider some of the great defensemen that have played this game in that span. Think about the Stanley Cup Champions, the Hall of Famers. Many of them were drafted high, like Scott Neidermayer (3rd overall, 1991), and many of them were drafted low, like Niklas Lidstrom (53rd overall, 1989), but none of them were drafted 1st overall.
NHL teams covet true blue chip defensemen because they’re so rare. You can build a true Stanley Cup contender around a solid cornerstone defensemen. So it’s no wonder why scouts go wild whenever the supposed next big thing comes along. The problem, however, is they’re handing blue chip status to prospects who are still years too young to properly assess and compare to each other.
What I’m saying here is not that Seth Jones will be another Erik Johnson. I would be very surprised if Seth Jones doesn’t turn into an NHL superstar. What I am saying is that, given the recent record of scouts concerning junior forwards, Nate MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin are virtual locks to be franchise players. Seth Jones, on the other hand, is a defensemen. And defensemen are never locks.
And this is why, in my own personal opinion, the result of Monday night’s NHL draft lottery was the best, and the safest, the Tampa Bay Lightning could have hoped for.