In professional sports, there is an oft-quoted saying that suggests that “defense wins championships”. It’s no surprise that in the NHL, the best of the best are getting extensions like Aaron Ekblad (8 years, $60MM) and Victor Hedman (8 years, $63MM). They’re valuable assets in a league that doesn’t have enough capable defenders.
Back in the summer, we looked at the increasing value of right-handed defensemen, with players like Jason Demers (5 years, $22.5MM), Ben Lovejoy (3 years $8MM) and Roman Polak (1 year, $2.25MM) all getting contracts that seemed expensive for their on-ice value.
Perhaps it’s not just the right-handed ones though. Prices for defensemen are skyrocketing on both the open market and in trade negotiations, and it’s because even though teams want to draft and develop their own blueliners, it’s incredibly difficult to do so.
In the 2007 entry draft, there were 60 defensemen selected and only 13 of them have played more than 200 NHL games. Even that group includes players like Keaton Ellerby, Ian Cole and Yannick Weber who would not inspire much confidence at the top of anyone’s depth chart (apologies to Cole, who is having a fine season in Pittsburgh).
In comparison this is actually a fairly good draft, as in 2006 just six out of the 65 defensemen chose have crossed that 200 games threshold. While 2006 is perhaps the most stark example, as Erik Johnson (drafted first overall) is the only high-end defenseman in the entire draft – his competition for that title are the likes of Andrew MacDonald, Jeff Petry and Mike Weber.
Drafting defensemen is even more of a crap shoot, as often they develop later than forwards and rely more on experience and positioning than raw skill. In 2006, eight were taken in the first round and only Johnson is still in the NHL. Ty Wishart, Bobby Sanguinetti and Chris Summers highlight the rest of the round.
This past draft nine defenders were taken in the first round, with Jakob Chychrun in Arizona and a three-game taste from Montreal’s Mikhail Sergachev being the only forays into the NHL so far. Obviously, it’s much too early to tell whether any of these will be long-term options, but the past seems to say that many won’t.
For teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs or Edmonton Oilers, whose fan bases and media members have said for years to ’just draft a defenseman’, it’s much more difficult than it seems. Even using your first round pick on a blueliner does not guarantee success, or even an NHL player. It’s hard to find those elite defensemen, even if you sink your whole draft into them.
With only a few successful ones coming out each year, it’s no wonder players like Jacob Trouba and Cam Fowler have huge price tags on their heads. Their teams may never get a chance at a player of their caliber again (although, Anaheim seems to buck this trend and have success with a high number of defensive draft picks).