I actually had doubts about posting this because it seems insane to think that the Oilers won’t just do the obvious smart play and take the guy they think will be the best forward. As the day has progressed, and guys like Bob Stauffer and Dan Tencer keep hinting it’s going to be Ryan Murray, I figured I might as well post this. I’ve never seen the Oilers fanbase and media so unified against the team doing something.) Oh and, as is tradition, we’ll be doing a live draft chat at around 6:45 PM.
There’s a kind of curious feeling as the Oilers head to their third draft in a row with the top pick. With the last two first round picks having been spent on forwards and the existence of Jordan Eberle and the ongoing fiasco of the defence cops, there’s a kind of sense, perpetuated by the local media (and the house guys), that the Oilers are going to use the pick to try and address the defence. As I write this, Jim Matheson has just tweeted:
One veteran NHL coach who has seen Ryan Murray says it’s a slam-dunk Oilers should take a D-man in draft who can play now
You see what I’m talking about.
I’m agnostic on the possibility of using the pick in a trade to fix the defence problem – it would defend on what they got back. If they could get a real deal number one defenceman, a young guy who’s four or five years further along the development curve, it’s something I could see making sense.
The idea of spending the top pick on a defenceman though…that just strikes me as insane. NHL teams are astonishingly poor at turning high draft picks into elite defencemen, relative to how good they are at turning high draft picks into elite forwards. I’ve put together a table showing the split of picks at first, second, third, fourth and fifth between 1996 and 2008.
Looking at the guys taken first overall, the crop of forwards is pretty stellar. The only one you wouldn’t think of as being a legitimate top three forward is Patrik Stefan. The defencemen are more of a hit and miss group; you can’t complain about the Chris Phillips pick; although it’s disappointing to spend a first overall and get Chris Phillips, if you look at what came afterwards…yeesh. Erik Johnson in 2006? Do you think that pick haunts the St. Louis Blues? When it was followed by Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom and Phil Kessel?
The scouts thought Erik Johnson was going to be something: Bob McKenzie’s blurb on Johnson was “This is a franchise defenceman who scouts say is better at age 18 than Chris Pronger is. He’s ready to go.” Six years down the road, he’s getting less ES TOI than Jan Hejda. The guy can play but he’s hardly a franchise player.
The preference that NHL teams have for forwards at the very top of the draft is probably noteworthy. Of the top two picks between 1996 and 2008, there were nineteen forwards taken, four defencemen and three goalies. If NHL teams were equally confident in their ability to identify elite defencemen as they are in their ability to identify elite forwards (and assuming that an elite defenceman has similar value to an elite forward and that there’ve been the same number of each coming through the system), you’d think there’d be something more like a 3:2 ratio of forwards:defencemen drafted in the top two, something like 14 forwards and nine defencemen.
That sure suggests to me like NHL teams aren’t equally confident in their ability to identify talent at forward and talent on defence when dealing with 18 year olds. There’s probably an interesting discussion to be had about why that might be – it seems possible, for example, that the junior game isn’t good enough to test the competencies you need to be an NHL defenceman, letting guys appear to be good while getting by with deficiencies that get exposed at the NHL level.
There’s an idea that defencemen need more team to develop but I’m not sure that’s necessarily true. I put together a list of all the guys who played at least 60 games last year in the NHL and were 21 or younger on February 1, 2012. (The name at the bottom is cut off but it’s Marco Scandella.)
You’ll note that there were 15 F and 12 D who were top six. The D who were top six tended to be drafted later than the forwards. If defencemen require more time to develop on average, why are there so many in critical roles relative to forwards? Moreover, why do they tend to come from further down the draft? Shouldn’t we expect those guys to be further away from the NHL when they’re drafted? Do they just suddenly figure it out? Or is it possible that lower levels of hockey aren’t particularly good tests of one’s ability to be an elite NHL defenceman?
Whatever it is, it’s inarguable that, despite the importance NHL teams claim to place on defence, teams shy away from picking defencemen high.
I tried looking at it another way. How many times would you rather have had the first forward drafted in the last twenty years instead of your pick of the first three defencemen drafted? I come up with twelve times for the forwards, six times for the defencemen and two pushes. (I’m ignoring injury; if I didn’t, you’d prefer Niedermayer over Lindros and Tanabe over Stefan.)
To me, this all comes back to managing risk, something that the Oilers have been exceedingly poor at during the Tambellini years. This is exemplified most clearly by the Khabibulin contract, which was an insane bet to make in the context of the market, Khabibulin’s track record, where the Oilers were and the data on older goalies. Tambo didn’t perceive it that way and the Oilers paid the price.
When you’re in the position that the Oilers are in, which is basically one in which they have less talent than everyone else, it seems to me that adding the surest thing possible is more important than trying to thread the needle and add someone at the position where you perceive your greatest weakness, even if he’s less of a sure thing. If the Oilers were picking later in the draft, at a spot where NHL scouts hadn’t demonstrated an amazing ability to suss out sure thing NHL forwards relative to their ability to find sure thing NHL defence, maybe it’s different.
If they take Murray, it’s a noteworthy decision because it’s such a stark deviation from the accepted practice. Personally, I think it’s an insane risk to take – I’d ask my scouts who the best F prospect is and pick that guy. If they take Murray and he’s Rusty Klesla or Jack Johnson…well, it’s like the bad hockey team version of a gang initiation. “You want to be one of us? Pick a defenceman ranked as low as 13 at number one.” Steve Tambellini will get to tattoo tears on his face and the team will probably stink for much longer than it needs to.