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NHL Teams Draft For Skill Early, Find Defensemen and Goalies Throughout Draft

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
Between 2003-06 the Penguins drafted first or second overall four consecutive seasons. Those top picks enabled the team to select goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (’03, 1st overall) and centers Evgeni Malkin (’04, 2nd overall), Sidney Crosby (’05, 1st overall) and Jordan Staal (’06, 2nd overall).

They have hit a home run with each picks as Crosby and Malkin have already won several individual awards, including two Art Ross Trophies, a Calder Trophy, a Conn Smythe Trophy and the Rocket Richard Trophy between the two. Staal nearly contributed some hardware of his own after he finished third in this season’s Selke Trophy race. Fleury backstopped the Penguins, along with the help of the other three, to a Stanley Cup championship in 2009.

Needless to say, the Penguins certainly got their moneys worth at the top of the draft.

After examining how well the Penguins have done in the first round and seeing where those players ranked among the National Hockey League’s best players, we decided to examine where the best value lies in the draft for each position. In doing so, we came up with a few trends which held up throughout much of the course of our evaluation.

Our first revelation is that high-end offensive talent is found in the first couple rounds.

Of the top-20 NHL point producers in ’09-10, 17 were chosen in the first round, including six former No. 1-overall picks, four No. 2-overall selections and a total of 13 top-four overall picks.

Only three players, Tampa Bay’s Martin St. Louis, who went undrafted, Dallas’ Brad Richards, taken 64th overall in the third round in 1998 by the Lightning and Colorado center Paul Stastny, the 44th overall pick in Round 2 of the ’05 draft, were chosen outside of the first 28 picks.

Moving on to the NHL’s top-five goal scorers, the list contained three No.1-overall picks at the top including Crosby (51 goals; ’05), Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos (51 goals; ’08) and Washington’s Alex Ovechkin (50 goals; ’04). Rounding out the list was 1997 No. 2-overall pick Patrick Marleau (44 goals) of the San Jose Sharks and 2000 No. 3-overall selection Marian Gaborik (42 goals).

Before you ask if it is just top-five talent leading the way we have more statistics which prove early-round picks play a heavy part in carrying their team’s offensive production.

Of the 30 NHL clubs, 24 – or 80 percent – were paced in points by a former first- or second-round pick, including 19 teams (63 percent) who were led by a player drafted within the first 20 picks. Twenty of the 30 teams (67 percent) had a first-round pick lead them in points.

In the goal-scoring department, 19 teams (63 percent) featured a leading goal scorer from the first round, with 12 (40 percent) of those former top-five selections.

Penguins general manager Ray Shero wasn’t surprised when he heard these numbers because he says teams generally look for offensive upside with their early-round picks.

“You are usually getting top skill in the first round,” Shero said. “It is getting harder and harder to draft offensive guys late like Detroit did with Henrik Zetterberg. The top-end guys are going in the first round.”

While the best offensive talent is going early in the early rounds, our research shows teams have been able to find a variety of quality blueliners throughout the selection process.

Taking a glance at the NHL’s top-20 highest-scoring defenseman, you will find players taken from a wide-range of different draft positions including No. 2-overall (Drew Doughty and Chris Pronger), players taken in the high 200s (Tobias Enstrom; 239th overall, 2003; and Mark Streit; 262nd overall, 2004) and even a pair who went undrafted (Dan Boyle and Brian Rafalski).

Evgeni Malkin is one of several high draft choices to turn up roses for the Penguins this decade. Credit - Getty Images
Of the 30 blueliners who led their team in points this past season, only 10 (30 percent) were taken in the first round, while 14 (47 percent) were picked 91st overall or later, with 12 (40 percent) of those names called 151st or later.

Because the position is called “defense,” we also took a look at the highest plus/minus finisher among blueliners on each team. Including ties, there were 34 such players in ’09-10. Further proving that solid defenseman can be found anywhere, 11 of the 34 (32 percent) were taken in Round 1 while another 8 went between Rounds 2 and 3. Conversely, 15 of the 34 (44 percent) went in the fourth round or later, with 13 (38 percent) of those being tabbed after pick No. 151.

Shero said these numbers are right on par with what he would expect because of how much tougher it is to evalutate 18-year-old defenseman.

“It takes time with defensemen, so you need to develop these guys,” Shero said. “You just never know how some of them are going to project.”

Finally, we looked at the goaltenders, which much like defensemen, is a tough position for scouts to analyze and project at age 18. Rarely do you see goaltenders drafted in the first or second rounds, and these numbers will prove why.

Only three netminders (Fleury: 1st overall, ’03; 37 wins; New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur: 20th overall, 1990; 45 wins; and Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo: 4th overall, ’97; 40 wins) ranked among the NHL’s top-10 wins leaders.

Expanding the research to include the wins leader from all 30 teams, we found that of the 31 goalies (Christobal Huet and Antti Niemi of the Blackhawks tied), just five (17 percent) were taken in the first round.

That number has to make you appreciate even more the job Fleury has done, especially when you consider the high failure rate of goaltenders in Round 1.

“History will show that when you draft goaltenders in the top-20, you never know how they are going to work out,” Shero said. “Sometimes you’ll have better luck in the third-through-fifth rounds developing goaltenders. It takes them a while.”

Nobody knows this more so than Shero, who was with the Ottawa Senators in 1998 when they chose goaltender Mathieu Chouinard with the 15th-overall selection. At the time, the Ottawa brass was split between taking Chouinard and a skilled forward.

Chouinard ended up playing just one NHL game for the Los Angeles Kings while the forward went on to become a 40-goal scorer in the NHL.

“That is where you can run into problems when you try to draft for needs,” Shero said. “We needed a goaltender in the organization.”

Instead the Senators would have been better served to wait until later in the draft. Such a strategy helped many of teams this year, as 18 of the 31 (58 percent) wins leaders were taken in Round 5 or later.

No, all these numbers don’t mean that if the Penguins pick a forward at No. 20 on Friday he will automatically score 40 goals, and if they pick a couple defensemen in the latter rounds they will have the second comings of guys like Boyle and Rafalski, but these trends should help fans as they analyze the potential roles draft picks may play down the road.

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