Loose for Larsson or Hope for Hopkins: What Should the Oilers Do Come Draft Day?

Salim Valji@@salimvaljiCorrespondent IMarch 23, 2011

TORONTO, CAN - JANUARY 19:  Ryan Nugent-Hopkins #9 of Team Orr skates against Team Cherry in the 2011 Home Hardware Top Prospects game on January 19, 2011 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Canada. Team Orr defeated Team Cherry 7-1. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Once again the Oilers will likely have the first overall selection at the NHL entry draft, where they will be able to draft another potential cornerstone for a franchise that surprisingly has, in fact, won the Stanley Cup before.

Right now, there are four players that are in contention to go first overall: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Gabriel Landeskog, Adam Larsson and Sean Couturier.  With Taylor Hall going first overall last year, the Oilers system still lacks two key elements: a No. 1 centre, and a top-pairing defenceman.  With much of the debate surrounding whether the Oilers take Nugent-Hopkins or Larsson, the choice has to be Hopkins, and here's why:

Over the past 10 years, only two top-five picks have won the Norris Trophy as the league's top defenceman; those being Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer.  In fact, over the past 10 seasons those are the only two first-round draft picks who have won the Norris Trophy.  Niklas Lidstrom, Zdeno Chara and Duncan Keith, the other winners, were all drafted in the third round.

Now look at the Art Ross Trophy, given to the league's top scorer, where over the past 10 seasons nine of the winners are former first-round draft picks, with seven out of the nine having been selected in the top five.  By looking at these numbers, we can infer that top-flight defencemen are able to be found later in the draft; whereas premiere forwards have to be taken higher.

Another interesting observation is the Chicago Blackhawks—the reigning Stanley Cup champions and an organization that many teams view as a blueprint for success.  On that 2009-10 champion team, the average draft position of their top-six defencemen (Brent Seabrook, Dustin Byfuglien, Duncan Keith, Brian Campbell, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Sopel) was pick No. 121; or the beginning of the fourth round. The average draft position for their top-six forwards (Patrick Kane, Jonathen Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Troy Brouwer, Kris Versteeg) was pick No. 77, in the middle of the third round, and 44 picks higher than the average Blackhawks defenceman.

Fourty-four picks equates to approximately 1.5 rounds.  In 2004, the first overall pick was Alex Ovechkin.  The 45th overall pick?  Ryan Garlock.  Clearly the Blackhawks wanted to build their team by drafting forwards high (Kane—first overall in 2007, Toews—third in 2006) and then focus on defence.  

In fact, since the 2003 NHL entry draft when they took Seabrook, the Blackhawks have picked a defenceman in the first round exactly twice (Cam Barker and Dylan Olsen), and Barker, considered by many to be a bust, has since been dealt.  That strategy certainly paid off, and the Blackhawks are the reigning hockey champions.

Another organization to look at is the Pittsburgh Penguins, another model franchise, and Stanley Cup champions of 2008-09.  The average draft position for the top-six defencemen (Brooks Orpik, Sergei Gonchar, Alex Goligoski, Brooks Laich, Phillip Boucher, Rob Scuderi) on that championship team was pick No. 50, or the late second round.  The average draft position of the Penguins top-six forwards (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Chris Kunitz, Bill Guerin, Petr Sykora)?  Approximately pick No. 6, or the very beginning of the first round (Kunitz was not drafted, so he is not included in that figure).

That is a difference of 44 picks which, coincidentally or not, is the exact same number we obtained by performing the exact same test on the 2009-10 Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.  In fact, since 2003, the Penguins have chosen a defenceman in the first round only once (2009, Simon Despres).  Again, this organization consciously built itself around offence, at one point going four years in a row selecting a centre with its first-round pick (Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Angelo Esposito).

What we can infer from these figures is that high-quality defencemen can be found after the first round, and that the past two Stanley Cup champions (Pittsburgh and Chicago) built their organizations around the ability to put the puck in the net.  Oilers management has promised us a Stanley Cup contender soon; well, this is how they are built.