How the Lightning Invert Perceptions of How to Build a Contender
This is the point in the summer when we get to mull over team construction and positional value because of the NHL Draft and free agency. The Lightning’s success in the last several years stems from excellent scouting and luck. They drafted Nikita Kucherov in the second round. Tyler Johnson was undrafted, but Tampa Bay managed to discover him. Brayden Point was selected in the third round. Ondrej Palat was unearthed in the seventh round. The Lightning snookered the Canadiens in the Jonathan Drouin for Mikhail Sergachev trade.
But the Lightning also struck gold when they drafted Victor Hedman No. 2 overall in 2009. Drafting a defenseman in the top 10 is a risky proposition. Drafting one in the top 3 is putting your life savings on the roulette table. In Hedman, the Lightning selected arguably the best defenseman – who was highly coveted at draft time – over the last 15 years. (Drew Doughty is the other possibility for this distinction.)
When charting the Lightning’s trajectory from dregs of the East to juggernaut, this fact is important to consider. Hedman is everything a franchise could want. He deservedly just won the 2018 Norris Trophy. He has significant offensive ability. He commands order when things destabilize in the defensive zone. He has effortless mobility for his size and can be put in any situation.
The Buffalo Sabres just selected Rasmus Dahlin No. 1 overall, and the Florida Panthers took Aaron Ekblad No. 1 in 2014. These defensemen’s teams are hoping for a Hedman or Doughty in terms of efficacy, but the results are rarely a superstar and include a distressing amount of busts. Which highlights two important questions: Is drafting a defenseman that high worth it? How remarkably fortunate are the Lightning to have stumbled onto Hedman?
It is one thing to generalize about how defensemen are a high-risk proposition, but it is another to see it in writing. Since 2003 (and ending in 2016 because it is difficult to gauge 2017), here are the defensemen who have been drafted in the top ten: 2003 NHL Draft (Ryan Suter, Braydon Coburn, Dion Phaneuf); 2004 (Cam Barker, Ladislav Smid, Boris Valabik); 2005 (Jack Johnson, Brian Lee, Luc Bourdon); 2006 (Erik Johnson); 2007 (Thomas Hickey, Karl Alzner, Keaton Ellerby); 2008 (Drew Doughty, Zach Bogosian, Alex Pietrangelo, Luke Schenn); 2009 (Victor Hedman, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Jared Cowen); 2010 (Erik Gudbranson, Dylan McIlrath); 2011 (Adam Larsson, Dougie Hamilton, Jonas Brodin); 2012 (Ryan Murray, Griffin Reinhart, Morgan Rielly, Hampus LIndholm, Matthew Dumba, Derrick Pouliot, Jacob Trouba, Slater Koekkoek); 2013 (Seth Jones, Darnell Nurse, Rasmus Ristolainen); 2014 (Aaron Ekblad, Haydn Fleury); 2015 (Noah Hanifin, Ivan Provorov, Zach Werenski); 2016 (Olli Juolevi, Mikhail Sergachev).
There are a striking amount of busts in that list. Fifteen by my count, and that is showing an incredible amount of respect to Adam Larsson, Ryan Murray, and Karl Alzner, especially considering where those three defensemen were drafted.
Of the 18 defensemen who received votes for the NHL Norris Trophy this year, nine of them were taken in the first round. Four defensemen who received votes were taken in the top five overall, and six of the 18 players were drafted in the top ten. Also worth considering is that three players who received votes were taken in the third round or later and one (Mark Giordano) was undrafted. Juxtapose that with forwards. Among the top 30 NHL scorers in the NHL this season, 22 of those players went in the first round. Among the 15 Hart Trophy forwards who received votes, 10 went in the first round. Seven were drafted first or second overall, and Blake Wheeler was 5th overall.
In the Cup final, there were first-rounders in both defensive groups, but not ones selected in the top ten. There were three former first round picks on the Capitals and two on the Golden Knights. Brooks Orpik, taken 18th overall in 2000, was taken highest among the Capitals’ defensemen. But during the postseason, Orpik was fifth among Capitals defensemen in time on ice. John Carlson and Matt Niskanen, the other two first-round picks, were taken 27th and 28th overall in their respective draft years.
For the Golden Knights, their No. 1 defenseman, Nate Schmidt, went undrafted. Deryk Engelland was drafted in the 6th round and Brayden McNabb was taken in the 3rd round. Shea Theodore went 26th overall, also deep in the first. The other first-rounder who saw time for the Golden Knights is Luca Sbisa, and he was taken 19th overall.
There is an uncomfortable truth in plain sight. Forwards dictate winning in the NHL. It is harder to consistently score than to control possession. If a defenseman is mobile, he can lead efficient breakouts and pragmatically pinch. Almost every defenseman in the NHL can check that box. But it is far more difficult to generate offense. The best teams stockpile forwards who are creators, and those players are more likely to be drafted in the first round. In fact, Washington had nine (!) forwards who were former first-round picks on their roster.
Thinking about this decade, there is an obvious through line. The Capitals won the Cup with Alexander Ovechkin (No. 1), Nicklas Backstrom (No. 4), and Evgeny Kuznetsov (No. 26th) powering them past the competition. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel all have top-5 overall pedigrees. Same with past winners like the Chicago Blackhawks’ Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter were both taken 11th overall. The Bruins reclaimed powerhouse status thanks to David Pastrnak’s incandescence (25th overall).
The Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets, and maybe at some point Edmonton Oilers, loom as the next group of elite teams due to their aggregation of forwards drafted in the first round. Finding a singular talent at defenseman is a rarity, but that does not mean they are more important than the best forwards or that the best way to obtain them is through the first round of the draft. Most people consider the Predators to have the best defensive corps in the NHL, but their two best defensemen – Roman Josi and P.K. Subban – were drafted in the second round. The Hurricanes love to draft defensemen high and yet their best one, Jaccob Slavin, was taken in the fourth round.
The Lightning know what it feels like to whiff on a defenseman with a high draft pick. In 2012, they selected Slater Koekkoek at 10th overall and he has been a bust. And the very next pick was the luminous Filip Forsberg, drafted next by Washington. Of course the next pick, who proved to be a disaster and is no longer playing in the NHL, was Mikhail Grigorenko, taken 12th by Buffalo. It is not worth entertaining whether the Lightning would have drafted the superstar or the now KHL forward if they had drafted a forward instead of Koekkoek. But what I do know is that the first round presents a unique opportunity to obtain an indispensable forward.
Steven Stamkos certainly worked out nicely in 2008 at No. 1 overall. But in this decade, the Lightning are fascinating because they have found value from a host of forwards who were drafted outside the first round. And concurrently, they failed when drafting forwards in the top ten. In 2010, they misfired with Brett Connolly and then the mercurial Drouin disappointed when they drafted him 3rd overall in 2013. But the Lightning are very unusual. Their inversion of where they obtained impactful forwards (not in the first round) and their best defenseman (in the first round) is the exception to the rule.