Full disclosure: When the Florida Panthers passed over Seth Jones with the second overall pick at this year’s NHL Draft, thus giving the Tampa Bay Lightning the opportunity to draft him, I, who had my heart set on Jonathan Drouin all along, suddenly found myself having a moment of doubt. If you’ve followed my articles, you’ll understand how significant that is. Drouin had been my preferred choice since at least March, to the point that I was actually hoping the Lightning would lose their last few games of the season and be in a position to draft him. But then the unthinkable happened – the Panthers took Sasha Barkov when they were supposed to take Seth Jones, and suddenly I found myself having a moment of doubt.
Seth Jones was widely believed to be the most coveted prospect available at this year’s Draft. He’s a big, mobile, puck-moving defenseman with a keen sense for joining the rush. TSN’s resident scout Craig Button calls Jones “the most unique prospect [he's] seen since Chris Pronger.” And let’s not forget, the Tampa Bay Lightning need defense.
But in the end I came back to my senses. I came back to my long-held belief that passing over a potential franchise forward for a potential franchise defenseman is always a mistake. The key word in that sentence is “potential.” (Please don’t think I’m saying franchise forwards are more valuable than franchise defensemen.) By the time Steve Yzerman took the podium, I was 90% sure he was going to call Jones up to the stage to put on a Lightning jersey – Jones was the safe choice, the choice no one could criticize, and he’d be regarded as a steal in the three-spot. But deep down, I didn’t think he was the right choice.
Now, if you take into account the fact that I’d been looking forward to the draft like a seven year-old looks forward to Christmas (counting down the days, et cetera, wishing the finals would just get over and done with so we could please focus on the draft), perhaps you can imagine the rush of unpolluted joy I felt by the time G.M. Steve Yzerman got the “Hal” in Halifax out of his mouth. Disney songs about stars and wishes and dreams coming true went through my head.
So now for some analysis. And here’s the part where I explain why I believe it’s always a mistake to pass up a potential franchise forward for a potential franchise defenseman.
What it comes down to is simple math. While we all know that every player in the draft comes with a heavy dose of risk, if you compare high-drafted defenseman to high-drafted forwards in recent years, you’ll see that it’s much more likely a defenseman will turn out to bust than a forward.
With that in mind, the problem with drafting Jones wouldn’t have been drafting a defenseman. The problem would have been drafting a defenseman (regardless of how highly he is being touted) when there are elite-level forwards available. Had there not been an elite-level forward available, Jones would have been more than worth the risk that comes with selecting a defenseman high in the draft. But Jonathan Drouin looks like a special player, and that, in my mind, made Jones too risky.
Whatever bugs there are in scouting underage prospects, they’ve been mostly worked out of the scouting for elite-level forwards. A lot of very good forward prospects wind up as busts, but I’m not talking about very good forward prospects. I’m talking about elite forward prospects. And the last forward prospect tagged with potential franchise status that wound up a bust was one much-forgotten Patrik Stefan, drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers in 1999. Since then amateur scouts have been ringing up hit after hit when it comes to elite-level forwards. Our own Steven Stamkos is one, as is the New York Islanders’ John Tavares, and Patrick Kane, and of course Sidney Crosby. Even the trio of kids drafted first overall in Edmonton are looking pretty good, and to the best of my memory, none of them were even projected as franchise players. The moral of this story is, if amateur scouts are unanimously projecting a forward to be a franchise player, as they were with three forwards in this year’s draft? You can rest assured they’re going to be pretty good at the very least.
Not so with defenseman. Defensemen are a whole different kettle of wax and ball of fish. They continue to give amateur scouts fits. And no matter how many scouts tout a young defensemen to be the next be-all, end-all of blue liners, you probably shouldn’t believe it until you see it. History has shown us over and over again that defensemen are mysterious creatures that can’t simply be measured against each other to figure out which one’s going to be best in five, seven, or ten years.
2013 Hart Trophy Finalists: Alexander Ovechkin (1st 2004), Sidney Crosby (1st 2005), John Tavares (1st 2009)
2013 Norris Trophy Finalists: P.K. Subban (43rd 2007), Kris Letang (62nd 2005), Ryan Suter (7th 2003)
Of the Norris finalists, only Ryan Suter was drafted in the first round. And even so, he’s only arguably the best defenseman to be drafted that year, because his former teammate, Shea Weber, was drafted 49th overall. The top forward drafted that year? Eric Staal (2nd). The best forward drafted that year? Either Staal or Ryan Getzlaf (19th overall).
What those numbers should tell you is how hard it is to judge a defenseman’s potential. Don’t get me wrong – a lot of very good forwards are drafted in the later rounds, and even a couple of elite ones (Pavel Datsyuk for instance). But if you take the elite defensemen in the NHL and have a look at their draft years, what you’ll find is the best of the best are usually later draft picks. Elite defensemen, it seems, not only sometimes slip through the scouting cracks, but they actually slip through the scouting cracks more often than not.
Want more proof?
Here’s more proof.
NHL Norris Trophy Winners since the 2005 lockout:
2006: Niklas Lidstrom (53rd 1989)
2007: Niklas Lidstrom
2008: Niklas Lidstrom
2009: Zdeno Chara (56th 1996)
2010: Duncan Keith (54th 2002)
2011: Niklas Lidstrom
2012: Erik Karlsson (15th 2008)
2013: P.K. Subban (43rd 2007)
If that information tells you anything, it’s that the best defensemen in the league start out as mid-to-late second round picks. Of course that’s not actually the case, but it’s hard to argue that top-picked defensemen very rarely turn out to be the top defensemen in their draft class when you look back years later.
Of that list, the highest drafted was Erik Karlsson at fifteenth overall. Here are some of the defenseman that were believed, at least by drafting teams, to be better than him at the time: Drew Doughty (2nd – and that one’s arguably true), Zach Bogosian (3rd), Alex Pietrangelo (4th), Luke Schenn (5th), Tyler Myers (12th), and Colten Teubert (13th).
Now, let’s judge that list (Norris Winners) against the list of Hart Trophy Winners in the same time period.
Hart Trophy Winners since the 2005 lockout:
2006: Joe Thornton (1st 1997)
2007: Sidney Crosby (1st 2005)
2008: Alex Ovechkin (1st 2004)
2009: Alex Ovechkin
2010: Henrik Sedin (3rd 1999)
2011: Corey Perry (28th 2003)
2012: Evgeni Malkin (2nd 2004)
2013: Alex Ovechkin
All first rounders. And what you can take from that is that amateur scouts have a pretty good handle on what an 18 year-old forward is going to look like years down the road. Of course there are still going to be busted draft picks, but the likelihood of that happening with a forward, particularly when he’s been deemed an elite prospect, is slim these days.
You might be thinking: But Seth Jones is different. All the scouts say so.
And yet if you’ve seen enough drafts, and seen how they’ve played out, you’ll know that this is familiar territory with scouts. Let’s not forget that the last defenseman selected 1st overall was Erik Johnson. Who was passed over? Among others, a now two-time Cup captain named Jonathan Toews.
But Johnson actually isn’t the best argument for why I believe the Tampa Bay Lightning, and also the Colorado Avalanche and the Florida Panthers, were correct to take forwards ahead of Seth Jones.
Take a look at this scouting report: “Has incredible skating ability, a keen sense of when to join the rush, size and hockey smarts. A capable shutdown defender, he can log huge minutes. He’s also a durable player.” (courtesy: forecaster.thehockeynews.com)
If you think that’s a scouting report on Seth Jones, it’s probably because it looks exactly like Seth Jones’ scouting report. But that scouting report actually belongs to Jay Bouwmeester.
You might be surprised to learn (or surprised to remember, as the case may be), that in
2002, Jay Bouwmeester was ranked the #1 prospect in the NHL Entry Draft. On draft day, the Florida Panthers wound up trading the 1st overall pick to the Columbus Blue Jackets for the 3rd pick, but only after receiving a guarantee from the 2nd-picking team, the Atlanta Thrashers, that they would not be choosing a defenseman. Rick Nash wound up being drafted 1st overall, and yet in a lot of ways, because of the way the trades worked out, Bouwmeester still came away being looked at as #1a.
I’m not saying Jay Bouwmeester isn’t a very good player. What I’m saying is he was once believed to be an elite player. 11 years later, here in 2013, you’re not going to find many people that think Bouwmeester is an elite defenseman (with all due respect to Mr. Bouwmeester). You will find plenty of people, however, that still believe Rick Nash is an elite forward.
Seth Jones may very well end up among best defenseman in hockey someday. And Jonathan Drouin might end up among the league’s best forwards. But again, it comes down to math. Why was Drouin a smarter pick than Jones? Because, simply, the percentages are more on his side.
If I were to offer you a 90% chance of winning $1 million, or a 40% chance of winning $1.1 million, which would you take?