The Great Draft Debate: Taking the best player available

My stance on what the Hurricanes should do with the fifth overall pick is to take whoever is the best player available and in this year's draft, it's looking like that player will be a forward. One of Jonathan Drouin, Aleksander Barkov, Valeri Nichushkin or Elias Lindholm will likely be available when it is Carolina's turn to pick and these are some of the best prospects to come out of their respective countries in years, so it's going to be tough for Carolina to pass on anyone of them. However, as we get closer to the draft, I've seen more and more people predicting that the Hurricanes will take a defenseman, passing on either Nichushkin or Lindholm by doing so.

It's easy to see why Carolina would take a defenseman early, as they were one of the worst defensive teams in the NHL last season and there aren't many free agents available who would improve their blue-line much. They also don't have many prospects in their system who project to be top-four defensemen with the exception of Ryan Murphy who is more of an offensive threat. There is always the chance that someone like Brett Bellemore or Danny Biega can step into a big role within the next couple of years but neither will give Carolina a huge upgrade on defense as of this moment. Therefore, it would make sense to draft a defenseman because he would likely help the team somewhere down the line and possibly provide an upgrade as soon as next year.

The one negative of drafting a defenseman this early is that they take a longer time to develop than forwards and usually aren't contributors at the NHL level until 1-3 years after they are drafted. There's nothing wrong with drafting a defenseman in the top-five when you have a need there, but if you're looking to draft someone who will provide an immediate impact, there's a low chance that a defenseman will give you that in his rookie season. This is why I subscribe to the "best player available" philosophy. There is a good chance that an 18-19 year old forward can contribute in a top-nine role on an NHL team, but a defenseman of the same age is likely a third-pairing guy, so the foward gives you more immediate value.

The Hurricanes might need defense more, but if they can get a forward with elite potential that can make an impact as soon as next year, then they shouldn't pass on it. Plus, once some of the team's older corps begin to age (Semin, Ruutu, E. Staal), someone like Barkov, Nichushkin or Lindholm can slide into their place. So drafting a forward can fit both into the team's short and long-term plans if all goes correctly.

Who says a defenseman can't contribute after the year he was drafted, though? It has been done before and the pedigree of this year's draft class has been noted plenty of times, so it's possible that the Canes might be able to find a defenseman who is good enough to play a top-four role in the NHL next season. Defense isn't cheap these days and if you can find a young player who can play in the top-four on an entry-level contract, then that is amazing value. However, players like this are also very rare and whether or not this draft class has any of them remains to be seen. Just how rare are they? Find out after the jump.

Since 1990, there have been over 400 drafted defensemen to play at least 100 games in the NHL and among them, only 76 made their NHL debuts prior to their 20th birthday. That alone should tell you how likely it is to get immediate contributions from a defenseman draft pick. However, the waiting period for them to make their NHL debuts isn't as long as some may think. It may take a defenseman longer to fully develop than a forward, but there have been a lot of blue-liners to make their NHL debuts pretty early in their careers.

If the Canes were to draft a defenseman, they shouldn't have to wait too long before he is in the NHL because a good chunk of the blue-liners who were drafted since 1990 made their debuts before turning 22.The problem is that the Hurricanes are looking to draft someone who will make an immediate impact, and history shows that they won't get that from a defenseman. Only 76 out of 400+ defensemen drafted made their NHL debuts before their 20th birthday and only 30 of these players made the jump to the NHL in the year they were drafted. It's also worth noting that this chart shows which age these players made their debut in, which is misleading because a player can make their "debut" in the NHL but not become a full-time NHL-ers until years after that.

Once we limit the data to defensemen who played at least 40 games in the season after they were drafted, it becomes pretty clear how rare players like this are. There have been 13 players like this drafted since 1990 and most of them were either rushed or of an elite quality.

Player  Drafted Selection Age League NHL Debut Debut Age Rookie GP
Jay Bouwmeester 2002 3rd 19 WHL 2002 19 82
Chris Pronger 1993 1st 19 WHL 1993 19 81
Drew Doughty 2008 2nd 19 OHL 2008 19 81
Cam Fowler 2010 12th 19 OHL 2010 19 76
Kyle McLaren 1995 9th 18 WHL 1995 18 74
Victor Hedman 2009 2nd 19 SEL 2009 19 74
Luke Schenn 2008 5th 19 WHL 2008 19 70
Dmitri Kulikov 2009 14th 19 QMJHL 2009 19 68
Roman Hamrlik 1992 1st 18 Czech 1992 18 67
Adam Larsson 2011 4th 18 SEL 2011 18 65
Aki-Petteri Berg 1995 3rd 18 SM-liiga 1995 18 51
Stanislav Neckar 1994 29th 19 Czech 1994 19 48
Zach Bogisian 2008 3rd 18 OHL 2008 18 47

I don't know enough about this year's draft class to comment, but if there is anyone comparable to Drew Doughty, Chris Pronger or Viktor Hedman in this year's draft, then I wouldn't have a problem with the Canes taking a defenseman in the top-five. Whether or not there is a player like that available remains to be seen. This isn't to say that drafting someone like Darnell Nurse or Rasmus Ristoainen would be awful because both project to be very good players, it's just that defensemen in general take time to develop and there is a low chance that you'll get immediate results from them. Even some of the better young defensemen in the NHL now like Alex Pietrangelo, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Oliver Ekman Larsson waited another year or two before breaking into the NHL full-time.

This is why a lot of people have a hard time taking a defenseman early in the draft, especially when there are better players at other positions available. For the Hurricanes, there will be at least two top-tier forwards available when their turn comes up, both of whom will be able to help out the Canes short and long-term needs. Whereas reaching for a defenseman would help out in the long-term while still leaving Carolina's current defensive situation in a lot of trouble.

Defensemen can also be found later in the draft, as players like Keith Yandle, Shea Weber, Willie Mitchell, Stephane Robidas, Brian Campbell, James Wisniewski and Duncan Keith were all taken after the first round and developed into very good NHL-ers. It obviously took a few years before they got to the NHL but this is the case with almost every defenseman drafted at a very young age.

When it comes to the debate of drafting for need or taking the best player available, I tend to side with the latter category. Having a top-five pick is an opportunity you want to make the most of and while a defenseman addresses the Canes long-term needs, it's debatable that using the number five pick on one is a smart move when he isn't the best player available at the time.

Data courtesy of HockeyDB