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Photo Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig / USA TODAY Sports

Picking the best defenceman available at the draft might not be as obvious as it seems

With Toronto’s lack of defensive prospect depth, there’s been a lot of discussion lately concerning whether or not the Leafs should target a defenceman with the 17th overall pick. While most draft pundits typically agree that selecting the best player available (BPA) is the smartest way to maximize the value of the pick, it’s hard not to take the organizational need for defence into account. When you look at the public’s perspective on this issue (ie. in Pension Plan Puppets’ latest poll), there are clearly two different schools of thought amongst fans:

This got me thinking: how quickly can we reasonably expect a defenceman drafted 17th overall to contribute at the NHL level? Considering that the Leafs need help on D sooner rather than later, it would help to know if the player that they draft in this position will be able to make the jump to the NHL in the near future (within the next year or two), or if they’ll be more of a long-term project (3+ years away).

To get to the bottom of this, I decided to do some research. I looked at defencemen drafted between picks 15 and 20 since the 2005 lockout and determined how long it took those players to reach the NHL. For the purposes of this mini-study, “reaching the NHL” will refer to their rookie season, in which they played at least 25 games at the NHL level. Here are the results:

*Luca Sbisa played 39 games with the Flyers in 2008 before being sent back down to junior (he didn’t return to the NHL until 2010)

The 2012 Draft is the last year in which each defenceman selected in the 15-20 range made it to the NHL level, so we’re going to exclude players selected afterwards (2013-2016) to minimize sampling bias. For example, it’s very possible that all 4 defencemen in this table from the 2016 Draft will make it to the NHL level, but only Jacob Chychrun did so in his post-draft year. If we were to use him as the only player in our sample from the 2016 draft, it would unfairly skew the average number of “Years Away” that a defenceman selected in that range is from the NHL. Because of this, we will only be looking at defencemen drafted between 2005-2013.

The magic number here is 2.6 – this is the average number of “Years Away” defencemen in our sample were from making it to the NHL. It’s worth noting that this doesn’t take into account the players who never made it to the NHL (4 of the 17 players in the sample), in addition to the Luca Sbisa situation. When you account for these factors, it’s probably more realistic to assume that it takes closer to three years for the typical defenceman drafted in the 15-20 range to make it to the NHL. Now, it’s worth noting that this is a trend over the last decade and not a set-in-stone template. It’s very possible that Callan Foote, Nicolas Hague, Juuso ValimakiErik Brannstrom, or Conor Timmins may be able to contribute at the NHL level as early as 2018, potentially even this upcoming season. This definitely isn’t impossible, but recent history indicates that it’s improbable, so I’d recommend that we adjust our expectations accordingly when projecting the development of these draft eligible prospects.

If your argument for targeting a defenceman in the first round is based on Toronto’s shoddy prospect depth on the back-end, I completely understand your line of thinking. If you’re more concerned with the team’s current defensive struggles though, I think it’s important to remember that defencemen picked in this range are typically about three years away from becoming contributors at the NHL level. If you believe that one of these defencemen is the best player available (independent of position), then it’s a very easy choice to select them, since they provide both value and a position of need. To make things interesting though, let’s assume that a high-end forward slips in the draft.

If someone like Elias Pettersson, Cody Glass, or Nick Suzuki is still available at pick #17, Leafs’ management has a difficult question to ask themselves: would they prefer the forward with arguably higher upside or the defenceman who will help fill out their prospect pool? Essentially what it comes down to is whether or not the Leafs should select the best player available (BPA) or the best defenceman available with the 17th overall pick.

What do you think they should do?

  • MartinPolak

    That poll is so out there in left field but as much to be expected from that site. Outside of Katya, I wouldn’t listen to those PPPers. (Jeffler you should bring Katya on board to leafsnations so then I don’t need to read that site at all).

    For the pick, I’m not so concerned about it as much as the need to restock the pipeline with quality prospects. With the 5 players that graduated to the the NHL this year, the pipeline is modestly average and largely depleted outside of a couple nice pieces. A low round first round pick will generate a player likely to be available in 3 to 5 years which lines up with our competitive window. That is fine, though the difference in the 17th pick and lower 1st round or early 2nd round pick is not that much. And so if the team can get two picks by trading down (provided the BPA is not at clearly a slam dunk and obvious at #17) then more lotto tickets is a good option.

    Depth at all positions is important in the playoffs and cheap depth players on entry contract to support Matthews and Nylanders (who will get big raises in the coming years) and nice pieces to support trades (both at the trade deadline and off season) will be needed.

    • Kevin

      I agree the prospect pool needs to be improved with so many prospects graduating this past year. I’d personally like the Leafs to get a quality D prospect but they may need to take BPA if someone slips through or trade down to get one without wasting assets. However, if the Leafs want to get better on D and maximize their window with the big three up front, trading the pick may be the best option. If they could pry a young D that could play in their top four that may be the best outcome given their draft position.

  • LOVEthoseLEAFS

    Most importantly is BPA! , and if that happens to be a RH D-man, then its a bonus. Stay the course of this multi-year process, and get deep with BPA.

  • Gary Empey

    Saying best player available is far too simplistic. Who is the best player available at 17th? If I look at 10 different mock draft sites to see who they think BPA listed at 17th is, I come up with 10 different players. When looking at the top 4 or 5 it is often easy to see who the best player available is. When picking 15th to 20th (home run territory) there is only a slim chance of ending up with a good top of the line player. At 17th, think it would be foolish to not consider organizational needs. The two areas the Leafs are short of depth are, center and defence. A serious injury to either of those postilions could spell real trouble. When you have wingers like Leivo, Kapanen, Leipsic, and Rychel who should be NHL regulars but instead will struggle to make the team, why would you draft another winger at 17th? My first choice would be a defenceman but good two-way centers who were undervalued earlier, are often taken in the 15 to 20 area and end up having solid NHL careers.
    My conclusion:… At 17th you really can’t tell for sure, who is the best player available. They are all too close, so draft for need…..I wonder if Mark Hunter has any more big surprises for us all this year. I really enjoy Jeff saying ” I can’t figure out why Hunter picked that guy I had him way down on my list”

    • Neil B

      It’s not actually a weak draft by the time it gets to the Leafs. This year is a relatively average draft class, overall, but without the one or two top-end blue chippers. It’s weak in the 1-5 range (unless it turns out Makar & Mittelstadt really are as good as they look playing against 2nd tier opponents, and unless Niko is being severely downgraded for being Swiss, not Canadian). That will have no impact whatsoever on the Leafs’ pick at 17.

  • G2

    I would think that it will be determined by what The Brain Trust knows they can get (one way or another) and what they think they have internally. These are things that we cannot know from way out here. I imagine that if there was a defence man they thought had serious potential (does that make him BPA) they would grab him and otherwise they would take a forward. Then try to solve the defence problem otherwise, or perhaps they think they have a solution for that already. With the time it takes for most players to be NHL ready they can’t really think short term. Regardless, it will be a very interesting off season

    • G2

      I would think that it will be determined by what The Brain Trust knows they can get (one way or another) and what they think they have internally. These are things that we cannot know from way out here. I imagine that if there was a defence man they thought had serious potential (does that make him BPA?) they would grab him and otherwise they would take a forward. Then try to solve the defence problem otherwise, or perhaps they think they have a solution for that already. With the time it takes for most players to be NHL ready they can’t really think short term. Regardless, it will be a very interesting off season.Having said that, I lean toward Foote or Suzuki if they are available.

  • Harte of a Lion

    Draft the best player available and I hope Lilijegren falls to 17. If not trade the pick for 2 or 3 more picks.
    People talk about the Leafs prospect pool being weakened with the graduation of so many players to the NHL this past year yet I feel most players not playing in NA are overlooked. Take Korshkov, he was having a tremendous year as a 20 year old in the KHL scoring at a .5 ppg pace as a 20 year old before breaking his leg. This kid will be NHL ready for the 2018 season and with Grundström, be ready to have an impact.
    As far as defence, they need to sign Desrocher to an AHL deal as he had a very good season with Kingston as an over age player. The three defencemen drafted last season, Mattinen, Greenway and Middleton have all made strides in their development. I only saw Middleton a couple of times but he was Saginaw’s best defenceman on an average team. His decision making process and skating were the two greatest areas of improvement and if his skating continues to improve he is a future NHL player.