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Should the Devils take a defender with the 4th overall pick no matter what?

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The Devils have the 4th overall pick in a weird draft year and are in desperate need of defenders. Should that matter? If so how much?

2019 NHL Draft - Round One Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images

In most mock drafts you find, the the crowd has the Devils selecting a defenceman with their 1st rounder, the 4th overall selection. Part of this is because there are an uncharacteristically large amount of defencemen at the top of this draft class, but part is also because the Devils appear to have an organizational need at the position.

With the advent of the analytics era, across sports, the approach to the draft has veered away from “needs-based” drafting and more towards Best Player Available (BPA). Being a GM of a major sports team is all about managing assets, and the draft is a singular opportunity to acquire a new asset without having to give anything up. And there are a number of reasons why you’d want to maximize the value of that asset regardless of the position.

This Devils team is perhaps one of the most lopsided in the league in terms of the disparity between their forward value and the defender value both in the NHL and in the system as a whole. So, given our draft position, I think it’s helpful to review the tenets of the BPA philosophy and explain why/if they should apply to the Devils this season.

Why Best Player Available (BPA)?

Let’s say you’ve decided that your team has all the forwards it needs to compete in the NHL, but what is standing in the way between your franchise and a Stanley Cup victory is a top-pairing (let’s say 80th-percentile) defenceman. At your draft position, there is an 80th percentile forward and a 70th percentile defender available. Who do you pick?

In general, the better answer is the 80th percentile forward. For one, because it can be exchanged for an 80th percentile defender via trade. It’s much harder to get someone to give you an 80th percentile defender for your 70th percentile one. Exchanging an asset’s position is easier than exchanging its value.

Similarly, drafting for value is the best way of overcoming the ton of uncertainty contained in each NHL season. Circumstances and randomness may lead your franchise to have different needs than originally expected over the course of the assets maturation timeline. In other words, by the time your prospect hits the NHL, you may not need him as much anymore at that particular position.

If it takes your 70th percentile defender 2 years to develop, and in that time, you found 2 top pairing defenders via development/free agency/trades and lost a top forward due to retiring/deterioration/trades, you now wish you would have acquired that 80th percentile forward instead.

Both of these ideas — the relative ease of changing the position of an asset, and the uncertainty of specific need 2-3 years in the future — contain some implicit assumptions worth reviewing, however. And those assumptions mostly have to do with time.

It is assumed that the drafted player will likely take at least 2-3 years before debuting. If they play in the NHL immediately, some of the uncertainty surrounding the positional needs of a franchise are lifted. Similarly, if you need to acquire a top defender for Stanley Cup contention immediately, then forcing yourself into a position where you would need to make a trade in order to land that defender is not ideal and could hurt your leverage in negotiations. It might be that other GMs know you’re in a bind and are only willing to give you a 60th percentile defender for your 80th percentile forward prospect. If your NHL lineup is flush with forwards, but sub-replacement on defense, at that point it’s probably better to roll with the 70th percentile defender.

So how does this all apply to the Devils?

The Devils Draft Situation

As of right now, the Devils possess the 4th overall selection. The top of this draft class has not gained the separation from the “second tier” that normally exists so there is almost no player that is out of the question to be available at 4th overall except for maybe Owen Power. According to Elite Prospects Consolidated Rankings, the consensus top 5 goes like this: Owen Power (D), Matthew Beniers (F), Brandt Clarke (D), William Eklund (C/W), Luke Hughes (D). Not to far behind are Dylan Guenther (W) and Simon Edvinsson (D) in what I’d call “Tier 1B”. Indeed, in the SBNation mock draft, Guenther jumped into the 3rd overall spot behind Power and Beniers.

So that leaves us with several scenarios possible for the Devils 4th overall pick.

The “Simple” Scenario

The easiest scenario is the one where Buffalo, Seattle, and Anaheim all choose forwards (say, Beniers, Eklund, and Guenther). The Devils probably just go with the best available defencemen on their board in that scenario given the way these draft tiers pan out. Here is one data point for consideration, though.

There are two public models for predicting NHL probability and success (Patrick Bacon and Byron Bader). In the average of the two models, Guenther, Eklund and even Cole Sillinger outrank every defender in this draft class in terms of probability of becoming a “star” in the NHL (Note: the models define “star” differently). And a huge chunk of forwards (Coronato, Pastukov, Johnson, Beniers, and Lucius) outrank Owen Power and Luke Hughes. Here are some of the prospects for whom the two models agree on being high potential stars.

As you can see, 8 of the top 9 most star-probable players in this draft are forwards with only Brandt Clarke cracking the top 4. This is not surprising since, historically, superstar forwards are 1) more common, 2) easier to identify. So, while it’s certainly not the consensus, Selecting Cole Sillinger in the scenario described above is a thoroughly defendable selection on the basis of value. Though, given that he is in basically no one’s top 10 trading down to the 5-10 range to select him would be even wiser.

To be honest, in this situation, I’d probably take Owen Power. He’s very likely to be an NHLer and, even if I don’t like him, I’m sure I won’t have a problem finding a suitor for a 6’6’’ top-ranked defensive prospect. I simply wanted to make the point that the value argument skews towards forwards to a degree that may surprise you.

Where Things Get Tricky

The intelligence of selecting a defender with the 4th overall pick wanes with each defender selected before us (assuming they’re selected in the order we’d want). In the “simple” scenario above, the scales have tipped heavily towards defenders and so we clearly should go that way. But, things get pretty complicated pretty fast.

Let’s say one of the 3 top defenders is gone, along with Eklund and Beniers. Geunther is an excellent forward prospect and an excellent shooting winger. That’s very appealing to the Devils! Power is a consensus top pick, Clarke is the most valuable in prospect models, and Hughes is the best skater and a legacy pick. They’re all easy to argue for as well.

So let’s now look at the dreaded scenario: Power, Clarke, and Hughes go 1-2-3. Do you still want a defencemen? Scouts like Edvinsson, models like Zellweger, and neither have them anywhere close to the top forwards in this draft.

In my opinion, this is actually another “easy” scenario — if all top 3 defenders are gone, you go with your top forward in the draft.

It’s the in-between area that would all come down to what your draft board looks like, where you draw the tiers, and how far you think your values are from those of other teams. And the fact that we all have our own opinions on those (and none of them are the same as the Devils management) is what makes talking about the draft so damn entertaining.

Concluding Thoughts

Basically all I want to say is that the Best Player Available philosophy needs very specific parameters to be worth ignoring. If you have a Luke Hughes and Dylan Guenther on the nearly identical in terms of their projected contributions to your NHL team, then, sure, you can make the fact that Hughes is a defender the “tierbreaker”. But if there is a difference to any degree of certainty in the projected value of the asset, you should take the more valuable one.

Time moves fast in the NHL. Let’s say the Devils go out an get a defender like Dougie Hamilton in free agency and then big years from Ty Smith and another D-prospect (say, Kevin Bahl) along with continued top-4 performance from Damon Severson. I don’t think any of those are unreasonable. Now you’re in a situation where you want top-end talent up and down the lineup no matter where.

So what are your draft rankings? And is there any reason you would avoid your draft rankings? In what circumstance would you take a forward this season, if any?

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