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Lots of high picks on defense: lessons from past teams who went all-in on the blueline

If you’re a Detroit Red Wings fan, you’ve probably noticed that over the last four drafts, the Wings have invested in their defense. A lot. It’s a logical move given that the blueliners on the current teams have been… rough, as well as the fact that the decay of the defensemen was one of the most prominent factors that led to the end of the playoff streak (more on that later). But still, what Detroit has done is dramatic and bold: over four drafts they’ve used two first rounders and five second rounders on defensemen, resulting in Dennis Cholowski, Filip Hronek, Gustav Lindstrom, Jared McIsaac, Moritz Seider, Antti Tuomisto, and Albert Johansson. 

That run on defenders got me wondering, just how often do NHL teams use that much draft capital on defense? And what are the results of when it happens? 

How often it happens 

Evidently not that often. I went back to 1990 and found just 8 times in the past three decades that a team has spent 6+ 1st/2nd rounders on a defenseman in a four draft span. Just once prior to this run from the Red Wings had any team spent 7 1st/2nd rounders on a defenseman in a four draft span in the preceding three decades of NHL history. What the Red Wings are undertaking is a historic draft investment in defense. Even instances where teams spent 5 1st/2nd rounders in a four draft span on defense is pretty rare. 

While I was a bit surprised at first, it is rather intuitive. After all, given that every team initially gets one second and one first rounder per draft, the average team should only have 8 first/second rounders to begin with and using 7 of those 8 on one position is quite risky. Then you have to consider that many teams don’t have all 8, with most teams that are in “win now” mode having far fewer than that. This leaves a small group of teams that would have enough high picks to feel comfortable spending that many on defense, and from which only a few actually go through with picking that many defenders. 

With all that said, here is the result: 

Team Years How many picks used?
Washington 2004-2007 7
Washington 2005-2008 7
Washington 2006-2009 7
Tampa 2014-2017 6
Pittsburgh 2009-2012 6
Detroit 1993-1996 6
Dallas 2002-2005 6
Boston 2013-2016 6
Chicago 2016-2019 6

Interestingly, as the table shows, it’s becoming slightly more common, with Chicago embarking on a similar, albeit not quite extensive, defensive crusade as the Red Wings over the same draft span (6 picks instead of Detroit’s 7). There’s also a trend in that teams often concentrate their defensive selections, in that Washington, for example, had two separate but overlapping spans of 7 in 4 years, as well as another overlapping span of 6 in 4 years. If you take the threshold down to 5 picks in 4 years, then you get lots of overlapping spans, some of which I will expand on below. 

What are the results when you go all-in on defense? 

This is perhaps the most pertinent section for Red Wings fans. It’s first important to remember that not all first and second round picks are created equal. A top 10 pick comes with much higher value than pick #25, and the same is true for #35 as opposed to #55. Thus, comparing two teams who both spent 6 first/second rounders in four years on defense can sometimes be comparing apples to oranges if there was a big disparity in pick values. With that said, the results I found largely manifested themselves into three trends: 1.) not getting much of anything out of it, 2.) getting a star or two and a few busts, or 3.) getting a bunch of solid players. 

Let’s first examine category #1, where you largely don’t get much from it, which is by far the most grim projection for Red Wings fans. The best example of this is probably Pittsburgh from 2009-2012, who selected Simon Despres, Philip Samuelsson, Joseph Morrow, Scott Harrington, Derrick Pouliout, and Olli Maata, or six players in four drafts. Out of that, they got Maata, who was a solid second pairing guy they just dealt to Chicago, Despres, who played just short of 200 games and then washed out of the league, and Pouliout, who never produced much and was dealt to Vancouver where he has struggled to be more than a third pairing guy. Philip Samuelsson only played 13 games in the league while Morrow and Harrington are both still around, albeit on other teams as third pairing guys. Pittsburgh got not a single first pairing guy out of that and not a single guy still on their roster 10 years later, now that Maata is gone. Oh and four of those six were first round picks, too. Not great. 

Then there’s category #2, where a team gets a star defender and a few busts, best exemplified by Washington’s slew of defensemen drafted in the mid-2000s. Over six drafts, the Caps selected 10 defensemen with first/second round picks, and again you can draw up any particular span that you want from this (2004 to 2007 or 2006-2009). In that time frame, the Capitals netted two players who were Norris-caliber guys in their primes, Mike Green in 2004 and John Carlson in 2008. There were a lot of busts in between though, including Sasha Pokulok, Josh Godfrey, Theo Ruth, Keith Seabrook and Eric Mestery, all of whom never played a game in the NHL. In between the busts and stars, there were a few in between, like Dmitry Orlov in 2009, who has been a reliable defender on Washington’s teams, as well as Karl Alzner, who has played close to 700 games in the NHL. The Chicago Blackhawks took 5 defensemen with first/second rounders between 2002 and 2004, and it also followed a similar pattern, with big busts (Cam Barker) but also two massive successes (Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith). This is the all or nothing group: some big hits and some big misses, with not a ton in between. 

Finally, we have the third group, which is when you get a lot of solid players. None that become stars, but also no real busts. This might best be exemplified by Anaheim, who spent five first/second rounders on defenders from 2012 and 2015, producing Hampus Lindholm, Brandon Montour, Shea Theodore, Marcus Pettersson, and Jacob Larsson. While it is still quite early in some of these careers, all five have reached the NHL, and all five seem like they will be fixtures in the league for years to come. None seem to be on track to be superstars (Shea Theodore is quite good though), but the Wings could do much worse than produce a bunch of second/borderline-first pair guys. 

Conclusion 

Obviously, this is pretty all over the place. Some teams reaped huge rewards from investing into defense by getting the pillars of their future (Nashville netted Ryan Suter and Shea Weber in a small window as well), while others didn’t get much out of it. That said, teams who invest more in their defense are generally going to get quite a bit more out of it than those who don’t, which sounds rather simpleton, but it’s basic fact. One of the biggest mistakes that Ken Holland & Co. made during the late-2000s and early-2010s was by ignoring the blue line altogether when it came to the draft, trying to patch it together with free agent signings (Mike Green, Danny DeKeyser), trades (Kyle Quincey, Marek Zidlicky), and late-round picks (Alexey Marchenko). 

Indeed, upon further review, in the 10 drafts between 2006 and 2015, the Red Wings spent just three first/second rounders on defense. Three. Those were Brendan Smith (1st, 2007), Ryan Sproul (2nd, 2011), and Xavier Ouellet (2nd, 2011), with Sproul and Ouellet being picks in the back-half of the 2nd round. It’s hard to develop good defensemen when you aren’t really trying. Furthermore, in the 2006, 2010, 2012, and 2013 Drafts, Detroit didn’t take a defender until after the 4th round and in the 2014 Draft, they didn’t take one at any point! At the very least, there has been a very obvious change in philosophy from before the rebuild in making a concerted effort towards building on the back end. While this deep dive paints some cautionary tales and makes us really trust the scouts, the good news is that some of the early returns on Hronek and Cholowski seem positive. Now we just have to wait and see.