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The First Lottery Winner: Was Selecting Adam Larsson the Right Call in 2011?

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The Devils won the lottery in 2011 and with the 4th overall pick, selected Adam Larsson. Given who was available (and reasonable) at that selection, did we pick right?

New Jersey Devils v Tampa Bay Lightning Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images

In the 2009-10 season, the Devils made the playoffs for the 13th straight season — a stretch which included 2 cups, 9 Division titles, and only 2 seasons below 100 points. They were the best defensive team in the league, and they had added superstar winger, Ilya Kovalchuk, midseason to a forward corps that already Zach Parise and Travis Zajac in their prime alongside a still-excellent Patrik Elias. The Devils were projected by Vegas to be the 7th best team in both O/U and Cup Odds.

There would be no 14th consecutive playoff appearance for the 2011 Devils, though. As the narrative goes: rookie head coach, John MacLean was over-matched and unable to corral his roster after a 3-8-1 first month that ended with the injury of Zach Parise. He would go 9-22-2 as head coach before being replaced by the previous bench boss, Lamoriello-favorite Jaques Lemaire. Lemaire went 29-17-3 that included a stretch of 23 wins in 28 games before coming back down to Earth and missing the postseason.

For the first time in over a decade — and the second time the life of young millennial Devils fans such as me — the Devils missed the playoffs. Which means that, for just the 2nd time time since it’s inception in 1995, the Devils would take part in the draft lottery. At this point the lottery allowed you to move up no more than 4 positions. The 8th worst team in the NHL, the Devils would win the lottery and move up to 4th overall. For one of the most dominant teams of the past decade and a half to get a top 5 pick from the lottery was highly unusual and the Devils couldn’t waste the chance. Did they?

The Options

No one should criticize any team for passing on a player that everyone passed on, only ones that very few passed on. For instance, it’s okay to say the Trail Blazers whiffed by picking Sam Bowie (2nd) ahead of Michael Jordan (3rd), but it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to criticize anyone in particular for not drafting Tom Brady (199th). So in this context, I’m not going to consider it an option for the Devils to have drafted Nikita Kucherov who was passed up by every NHL team at least once including the one that ultimately drafted him. So, to ground ourselves with the least charitable “what might have been” portrayal, here are the leaders from the 2011 draft according to Hockey-Reference’s Point Shares.

Like I said, it doesn’t seem fair to blame the Devils for missing on Kucherov or Gaudreau because so did everyone else. But there are a LOT of single-digit draftees on this list that outrank Larsson as well. But, were they really being considered at a pick as high as 4? What was the talk around the guys that were available at the Devils pick?

Let’s see a few top 10 lists. I looked at the top google results for “nhl draft prospect rankings” for articles posted in the 2011 offseason, and I found one from Corey Pronman, one from The Hockey News, and one from The Hockey Writers. I’ve crossed out the 3 players that had already been selected by the time the Devils had their pick.

In all 3 of these rankings, the next 3 players were Larsson (5th, 1st, 3rd), Sean Couturier (2, 5, 4), and Ryan Strome (3, 6, 5) in some order. It’s clear that those two picks would not have been outlandish. Also, for what it’s worth, our very own managing editor, John Fischer, said at the time that Couturier was his 2nd prospect behind only Larsson.

If, however, the Devils had decided that the wanted a defender, the top 3 would’ve been Larsson, Dougie Hamilton (12, 7, 8), and Ryan Murphy (6, ?, 6).

Did We Pick Right?

Interestingly, all 5 of the players we’re considering here did appear in the top 25 players shown in the Point Share chart above from Hockey-Reference. Dougie Hamltion leads the way with 56.3 Point Shares (2nd overal), then Huberdeau (46, 7th), Couturier (41.6, 10th), Larsson (30.8, 16th), and Strome (24.3, 21st). But if you know anything about these players you have a suspicion about if defensive value is being calculated accurately. Couturier’s defensive value seems underrated just as Hamilton’s offensive value seems overrated. A more robust metric based on the impact a player has on the on-ice performance of his team would be helpful here.

Luckily this exists for all of the years these players have been in the league. Here is how the players are valued on a more all-encompassing perspective according to the GAR (Goals Above Replacement) from Evolving-Hockey.

The Devils do appear to have missed out on both the best overall option at this spot (Couturier) and the best overall defeceman (Hamilton). Larsson’s 21.1 career goals worth of value is 3rd behind Hamilton’s 44.9 and WAY behind Couturier’s 108.2.

First, let’s talk about what we missed in Couturier. That figure you see above is the 19th highest GAR value of any player since he was drafted. This is made more impressive by the fact that he was not really being given a ton of opportunity earlier in his career. In 2017-18, Philly promoted Couturier to the top line center — moving Giroux to his wing in the process — and gave him more than 200 minutes over his previous career high. He rewarded them by nearly doubling his career high (39) in points with 76. Since that promotion, Couturier has been the second most valuable player in the NHL behind only Connor McDavid according to WAR. That’s what the Devils — who still don’t have a top 6 Center outside Nico Hischier — missed by not drafting Couturier.

Second, let’s see what we’re missing in Dougie Hamilton. Those who pay attention to classical hockey analytics might already be somewhat familiar with Dougie’s work. He is 2nd only to Jake Muzzin in CF% among defencemen (2000+ minutes) since he was drafted, thanks to a CF/60 2nd only to Brent Burns. If you look at the colored bars in the GAR graph, you’ll see that Larsson is actually the best defensive value among the players that we’re looking at, which might explain why the Lamoriello Devils, saddled with a nearing-40 Martin Brodeur and a D-corps that only really included Andy Greene as a potential top-4 defender moving forward. But when you look at what the 200-foot impact of these two players is at even-strength, you begin to see the scope of the differential here.

via HockeyViz

If you only look through the point where the Devils traded him, Larsson actually does appear to be the stalwart defender that he was advertised as. Opposing teams were generating 10% less xGs than expected with him on the ice and his net impact was +5.3% to Dougie’s -1.5%. But, just as Couturier’s career took off with Giroux, Hamilton went to stratospheric impact levels when he was paired up with Mark Giordano. His impact is more on shot locations than actually converting them to goals (as is the case with most defenders) — as such, his xGAR since 2016 is 2nd among NHL defencemen only to Jared Spurgeon.

Conclusion

The Devils did not make the right choice at 4th overall with Adam Larsson — Couturier was a comparable prospect and is a better player, and Dougie Hamilton was possibly yhe next defender on the board and he also has had a better career. The Taylor Hall trade does make things a little more interesting, but if we consider Larsson = Hall because we traded him 1-for-1 then we also have to turn Hall into what we got for him. If you gave be the option today to have either Sean Couturier or the package we got for Hall, I’d still take Couturier. Might even take Hamilton, to be honest.

It’s worth pointing out that the Devils managed to avoid Strome and Murphy who would’ve been even worse than Larsson. But, the question at the headline is “Was Adam Larsson the right call” — the answer is, fairly inarguably, no.

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What do you guys think? Did the Devils select right? Who would you have selected with the 4th overall in 2011. With the benefit of hindsight, who would you pick now? Kucherov? Couturier? Hamilton? Someone else?

Thanks as always for reading and leave your thoughts in the comments below.