Let's say you have to build a championship team through the draft. What do you do? You go with forwards.
That's the conventional wisdom. Forwards develop faster, reach the NHL faster and make an impact faster -- which makes the GM look smarter and gives the franchise more years of production from their cornerstone players before they reach unrestricted free agency.
With all of those points advocating for selecting forwards, you'd be crazy to build your core around defensemen. The odds of finding elite-level blueliners are long, even if you have high first-round picks. But now the Nashville Predators have built a team around two elite defensemen and suddenly look like they could break through in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. So, is there an argument to be made for the Preds' blueprint?
It should be noted that the Preds didn't follow this D-first draft model intentionally. When they drafted Shea Weber and Ryan Suter in 2003, they didn't know they were drafting the cornerstones of their franchise. Even though Suter was selected No. 7 overall, he was far from a guarantee to be an elite-level defenseman. Weber was a huge steal at No. 49, but that's a major exception to the draft's rule of diminishing returns.
So now the Predators are in a territory that few other teams have been in. With NHL teams always searching for the latest strategy to give them a competitive edge, and the 2012 draft ripe with talented defensive prospects, we wondered if the Nashville draft model is one that other teams should follow. Turns out that there may be more merit to it than we first thought.
The biggest problem in pursuing the Predators' model is scarcity, which could be reason enough to avoid it. Since 1990, only a few teams have drafted two "elite" defensemen within a five-year span. And we have to use the term "elite" somewhat loosely just to put a few other teams in the Predators' class:
You're likely right to believe that some of the guys in the chart above are not exactly elite players. But even then, only six teams are on this list. The Predators arguably have the best pair, and probably the only duo around which you would even think about building a franchise. But as both players near unrestricted free agency -- Suter this summer and Weber next summer -- we see a hiccup. This is likely the first time since drafting these defensemen that the Predators have been a legitimate Stanley Cup threat and their championship window with this tandem is almost closed.
Even if you can find two elite defensemen in such proximity to each other, the argument against this model is simple: Defensemen take time to develop. By the time a blueliner develops into an all-star level player, he only has a few years left before he hits unrestricted free agency -- at which point the player can hit the open market, or demand a huge contract which no longer makes them good values. This means the championship window is pretty small.
For example, Weber made his first all-star game in 2009 and he'll be an unrestricted free agent in 2012, when he could easily demand upwards of his current $7.5 million a year salary. Suter made his first all-star game this year, and he hits the open market this summer. And even if the Predators re-sign both players, that'll cost an incredible amount. Along with goalie Pekka Rinne, it would surprise no one if the three guys consume about $22 million in cap space. That means over a third of your current salary cap would be devoted to three players. And that's assuming the cap remains unchanged, when most believe the cap will go down with next year's new collective bargaining agreement.
This is why young players are so valuable to championship team. As entry-level players and restricted free agents, they have limited negotiating power -- plus the team can match any offer sheets -- so they are great values.
This is the why the Penguins, Blackhawks and Oilers prefer the forward-first model. And, remember, this isn't even considering how hard it is to find two elite defensemen via the draft.
Since 1990, the best teams at finding high-value defensemen in the draft are San Jose, Toronto, Los Angeles, Buffalo and the New York Rangers. So perhaps it would behoove those teams to follow Nashville's blue print more than other teams. But finding elite caliber defensemen like Suter and Weber is beyond rare -- as we saw in the above chart. You're really chasing a longshot, but if you can ID two star blueliners, there is some virtue to following in the Preds' footsteps.
It's not an entirely bad idea
Let's assume you can find two elite defensemen, like the Predators. At that point, how big is the championship window? How long do you have your defensemen at an elite level, before they reach unrestricted free agency?
Conventional wisdom says that D-men take longer to develop than forwards. But in reality, the gap isn't that significant. In the graph below, you can see the median GVT (a stat that measures total player production value) per season for players as they age:
And as you can see, defensemen don't trail forwards by much and, in fact, the difference may be attributed to the GVT metric's relative devaluation of defensive-minded defensemen with little offensive impact.
However, another way to look at this is how forwards generally peak at about age 27, which is just about the time they reach unrestricted free agency, while defensemen peak a few years later. There are several reasons for this -- something scouts could hypothesize about. For our purposes, though, it means that if you draft a defenseman, he won't be in his prime during his restricted free agency years.
But even so, defensemen don't develop that much slower than forwards, especially when you look at high-end players. Plus, the difference can be made up in the money you save on the elite blueliners you don't have to pay in unrestricted free agency.
So in the end, the championship window is smaller -- but not that much smaller. After all, the Predators have made the playoffs seven of the last eight years, including a second-round exit last year. And the results may have been different if the Predators were able to spend a little more money on high-end forwards (or if Alexander Radulov didn't stay in Russia all these years). The Preds have always been among the lowest spending teams in the league, which has prevented them from adding high-end free agents.
So it's not crazy to try to build a team around two young defensemen. You just have to get them help -- and not just right before they hit unrestricted free agency.