Why, many bewildered Avalanche fans were asking Wednesday, would the team not take defenseman Seth Jones with the first pick in the NHL draft a week from Sunday? The Avs' biggest need is at defense, and Jones is said to be the best prospect at the position in years. And yet Avalanche executive vice president of hockey operations Joe Sakic told The Denver Post on Tuesday the team probably will draft one of three forwards instead.
To the angry and confused searching for answers, one great place to start is: NHL draft history.
Since the NHL instituted the draft in 1963, only 12 times has a defenseman been selected first, and the list of household names among them is very small. One — Rick Pagnutti, drafted first by Los Angeles in 1967 — never made it out of the minor leagues. The last defenseman selected first was the Avalanche's Erik Johnson, by St. Louis in 2006, and he has yet to live up to expectations. Denis Potvin, by the New York Islanders in 1973, is the only top-pick defenseman to have a Hall of Fame career.
A look at some of the players taken after Johnson in that 2006 draft illustrates why teams are shy about using a high pick on a defenseman. Taken elsewhere in the first round that year were stars Jonathan Toews, Claude Giroux, Jordan Staal, Phil Kessel and Nicklas Backstrom, all forwards.
History has shown that top-rated forwards taken in the top five of the draft tend to pan out much better than defensemen taken in the same slots. Other defensemen drafted in the top four in recent years include forgettable names such as Rostislav Klesla, Joni Pitkanen, Cam Barker, Thomas Hickey, Eric Gudbranson and Zach Bogosian. Some forwards drafted in the top four recently include standouts Steven Stamkos, Taylor Hall, John Tavares, Matt Duchene, Gabe Landeskog, Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin.
"Historically, D-men take longer to develop at the national level," said legendary former coach Scotty Bowman. "It's tougher to project where they'll be in five years, whereas a supremely skilled forward, you kind of know where they're headed."
Sakic said if the Avalanche keeps the first pick, he probably will draft Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin or Alexander Barkov. The Avs could trade the first pick, but Sakic indicated they wouldn't drop down far in the draft order if they do make a trade in what is considered a supremely talented draft class at the upper end.
MacKinnon and Drouin are known to the general hockey public, but Barkov, a Finn, isn't. At 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, he has the most size of the three forwards, and the Avs would like to be a bigger, heavier team up front.
Barkov, 17, became the youngest player in Finnish pro league history to play last year at 16 and is the top-rated European prospect by the NHL's Central Scouting. Barkov is said to have excellent skill and hockey sense, but there is some question about his speed and grit. He also is recovering from shoulder surgery in April.
"You're not going to get a guy who races up and down the ice. His skating is very good, though, and he goes as fast as he needs to," Craig Button, an NHL analyst for Canadian TV and a noted draft expert, said in a recent TSN interview. "He's got exceptional hands. He's a shooter as much as he is a playmaker. His ceiling and upside, we don't even know what it is right now."