The NHL landscape is littered with highly touted defensemen who could never quite fulfill the expectations that come along with the 1st round nametag. In fact, you can go year by year for the past decade and come across countless ‘blue chip’ blueliners who were once upon a time considered the hope of a franchise. Of course you could do this with any position. Everyone suffers from a flare up of failed prospect syndrome every now and then, but compared to their forward counterparts, drafting a defenseman in the 1st round is a much riskier proposition.
With this being such a widely accepted belief it raises the question of why do teams continue to roll the dice on d-men in the first round? There are the obvious answers of drafting the best player possible or taking someone that fits your organizational need, but there is also the hope that they’ll hit the blueline jackpot. They’re hoping that they’ll sift through the A.J. Thelen‘s of the hockey world and pull out a Chris Pronger or Scott Niedermayer. They’re dreaming of drafting a franchise defenseman that will lead them to the promise land.
Of course that jackpot dream doesn’t blind anyone of the harsh reality that the odds of snagging an elite defensemen in the 1st round are not in their favor. Since 2000 you can pretty much count these types of franchise cornerstones on a single hand. NHL GM’s understood this risk when 12 defensemen were selected in the first round of the 2008 draft. They knew that some of them would inevitably falter and earn the brand of ‘flop’ (looking at you Colten Teubert and Tyler Cuma), but they also knew that someone in the bakers dozen of talented blueliners could potentially be their jackpot. What none of them could have guessed was that of the 12 d-men taken, three of them would become the best defensemen the NHL has to offer.
Drew Doughty – 2nd Overall Selection – Los Angeles Kings
There was no denying who the best defenseman in the 2008 draft class was. Standing six feet tall and weighing in at 213 pounds, Drew Doughty was physically ready to skate at the NHL level. Scouts had gushed about his ability to join the rush and the offensive prowess he displayed in the OHL in his three seasons with the Guelph Storm. NHL Director of Central Scouting, E.J. McGuire, even went as far to say that ‘he is a defenseman around which a team is going to build their next 10 years’.
It didn’t take long for Doughty to justify that praise. As an 18 year-old rookie he logged the most minutes per game for the Kings (23:49) and tallied 27 points in the process. In his second season he saw his minutes increase to 24:58 (13th amongst NHL d-men) and more than doubled his point production to 57, which placed him third amongst NHL defensemen.
Although he hasn’t come close to that 57 point mark in the three seasons since, Doughty has still managed to develop into one of the premier blueliners in the game. He has evolved into a physical presence on the ice (something scouts had worried about) that acts as a shutdown defenseman who is more than capable of providing a jolt to the offense at any given moment. Basically, he’s turned himself into the swiss army knife of defensemen.
After five years it’s safe to say that the Kings struck gold with Doughty. At the age of 24 he already has a Stanley Cup and two Olympic gold medals to his name. All thats left is the coveted Norris trophy, and with the way that he is playing in 2013-14, that might come sooner rather than later.
Alex Pietrangelo – 4th Overall Selection – St. Louis Blues
The theory with Alex Pietrangelo was that at the time he wasn’t considered the best defenseman in the 2008 class, but he just might develop into that title in the next five years. He was the type of player that had all of the necessary tools for an elite defenseman (size, skating, poise, etc), but no one could guarantee that all of those tools would fully blossom at the NHL level.
The St. Louis Blues accepted that risk when they took him 4th overall and have been reaping the rewards ever since. In his first full season with the Blues he tallied 43 points and logged 22 minutes per game. In his second season he boosted both of those totals, racking up 51 points and 24:43 of ice time per game while anchoring the best defensive team in the entire NHL. All of that led me to believe that he was the heir apparent to Nick Lidstrom’s Norris throne.
The lockout shortened 2012-13 season was a step back for Pietrangelo (24 points in 47 games with a +0 rating) but the memory of that tainted season has been all but wiped clear thanks to a superb showing in 2013-14. His 44 points in 66 games puts him on a pace to shatter his career high of 51 and he is once again the anchor of a Blues team that has the Presidents trophy in their gaze.
Erik Karlsson – 15th Overall Selection – Ottawa Senators
Six defensemen were drafted before Erik Karlsson’s name was called by the Ottawa Senators. None of those six d-men can claim that they were once considered the best defenseman in the entire NHL. Erik Karlsson can.
No one can necessarily blame the GM’s who passed on Karlsson during the draft. Although he had been named best defenseman at the IIHF World U18 Championship there wasn’t a lot of information on him out there. That didn’t deter the Ottawa Senators from moving up in the draft (from 18th to 15th) to take snag the talented offensive-defenseman.
In the span of five years he has gone from a talented offensive-defenseman to the best the NHL has to offer. His ability to jump into the rush and find holes in the offensive zone is unparralleled amongst blueliners. He proved as much when he went on an offensive tear in 2011-12, accumulating the most points by a defenseman (78) since fellow Swede Nick Lidstrom bagged 80 in 2005-06.
He’ll always be criticized for his apparent lack of defensive gifts (whether that’s justifiable is debatable) but with the way that the defensive game is trending (more value being placed on the offensive side of the puck) he will always be considered one of the best in the league. And as long as he keeps putting up a near point per game pace (2013-14: 0.89 points per game) he’ll be in the discussion for the Norris for years to come.
More to Come?
With Doughty, Pietrangelo and Karlsson, the 2008 NHL draft class is arguably the best defensive class in the past 25 years. What that doesn’t take into account though is that there is a distinct possibility that we haven’t seen the last of franchise defenseman from 2008. Take Tyler Myers as a prime example. He took home the Calder trophy in 2010 thanks to a 48 point rookie season. He hasn’t managed to recreate similar results in his three seasons since but he still has the physical tools to turn into an elite blueliner.
Zach Bogosian was taken with the 3rd overall pick by the Atlanta Thrashers (now Winnipeg Jets) but injuries have plagued his first five NHL seasons. His best year came in 2011-12 when he grabbed 30 points in 65 games while averaging 23:18 of ice time per contest. If he could manage to stay healthy for an entire season (something he hasn’t done since 2009-10) its not out of the realm of possibility that he could become the cornerstone defenseman that the Winnipeg Jets desperately needs.
The possibilities don’t just end with those two though. John Carlson of the Washington Capitals is on the verge of becoming the top defenseman in the organization and made his Olympic debut in Sochi. Jake Gardiner, taken 17th in the draft by the Anaheim Ducks, has finally been given the chance to consistently play at the NHL level and has shown his promise in Toronto.
With the trio of defensemen who are already considered elite and the potential for more members to join that club in the near future, its clear that 2008 draft will go down in history as one of the best we’ve ever seen from the bluelines perspective.