Drafting a Defenseman First Overall: Pass or Fail?

News broke yesterday that the Colorado Avalanche, owners of this years first overall draft pick, were considering taking a forward rather than the top rated prospect, defenseman Seth Jones. Jones has a connection to Colorado, his father played for the NBA’s Denver Nuggets. But it looks like the Avs new regime has little interest in sentimentality. They need to do what’s best for their franchise.

Seth Jones [David Chan]

Seth Jones [David Chan]

Joe Sakic may not be revealing everything. He might be posturing. He might be trying to facilitate some kind of trade. But if there is 100% truth to this report, the Avs certainly can’t go wrong taking a guy like Nathan MacKinnon, who many feel deserves to be number one anyway. They haven’t committed to him either, though, saying they could go with Jonathan Drouin or Alexander Barkov. Regardless, the hockey world would like to thank the Avalanche will providing some intrigue to this years draft and giving us something to talk about.

The Avs need better defensive players, which is why people are scratching their heads at the news. Seth Jones might be that franchise defenseman that every team needs to be successful. He skates well, he plays big minutes, he’s got offensive skill and he moves the puck with ease. The only knock against Jones is his lack of physical play. But it’s his only “weakness”. Choosing him may seem like a no-brainer, especially for a team who already has a lot of skilled forwards. Perhaps they are concerned about choosing a defenseman first overall, because it’s proven to be a risky position to take at number one.

A Brief Draft History

Since 1990, only four defensemen have been chosen first overall, probably for two main reasons: they take longer to develop, and highly-rated forwards usually have a higher success rate in the NHL. (Similar to why goaltenders aren’t often taken first).

In 1992, the Tampa Bay Lightning chose Roman Hamrlik first overall. He’s been a solid player throughout his career. He was a three-time all-star, and put up decent offensive numbers. He’s yet to win the Stanley Cup or any individual awards.

In 1994, the Florida Panthers chose Ed Jovanovski at number one. He was a runner-up for the Calder trophy and a five-time all-star. An all around good player, but not someone you build a team around.

In 1995 the Ottawa Senators choose Bryan Berard. He won the Calder trophy in 1997, and had the makings of becoming a real franchise defenseman, but a terrible eye injury in 2000 derailed his career. He was never the same player after that.

In 1996, the Senators selected Chris Phillips first overall. He’s been one of their most important players, and he will likely retire in Ottawa, but again, not considered to be a franchise type guy. The Senators had one in Zdeno Chara, but didn’t hang onto him.

In 2006, the St. Louis chose Erik Johnson first overall. He came with a lot of hype, but never could live up to it. The Blues eventually traded him to the Avalanche where he is a serviceable player, but not what everyone thought he would be.

Nathan MacKinnon

Nathan MacKinnon [photo: David Chan]

Jones or MacKinnon?

Recent history sure looks bleak for the success of defensive prospects going first overall. For the most part they’ve been underwhelming, and followed by players who ended up with better careers. That doesn’t mean Seth Jones won’t be a Duncan Keith/Scott Niedermayer type guy. But he’s not a safe pick, no matter how highly the scouts rate him. ┬áThe Avs feel like the forwards available are too good to pass up, and when you have the benefit of taking anyone you want, it’s hard not to go with the best talent.

This years draft feels like 2008. Center Steven Stamkos went first to Tampa Bay. He’s a superstar. Defenseman Drew Doughty went second to Los Angeles. He’s one of the best d-men in the league. The Kings won the Stanley Cup with Doughty anchoring their blueline in 2012. Does that mean the Lightning shouldn’t have taken Stamkos? They probably don’t regret it. Both players are great, the Kings are simply a better overall team. Stamkos is a franchise player, maybe even more so than Doughty.

Comparisons are all we have to go by because we simply don’t know what these players will do at the NHL level. But the Avs appear to know what they want. We’ll find out on June 30th in New Jersey. Until then, let the debate war on.

Marcy Di Michele

  • Nolan

    You say only four defenseman have been picked since 1990, then proceed to list five…