Adam Larsson: Really, A Defenseman?

These days, the name most often mentioned as an alternative to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins at the top of this summer’s NHL Entry Draft is defenseman Adam Larsson. The big Swede has been in the conversation all season, but there is concern in some corners about the lengthy development curve of defensemen.

Is that a concern?

Before I get into the philosophy of drafting and developing a defenseman with a lottery selection, I’d like to talk a little more about Larsson. Unfortunately, I’m in no position to speak with any kind of authority on his skill-set, so I turned to someone who was: Corey Pronman, the prospects expert with Hockey Prospectus and someone who has seen Larsson a number of times.

“Above average” is the phrase Pronman used the most in describing Larsson – he applied it to his skating, vision, and a host of other qualities. In fact, Pronman sees Larsson as a complete defenseman in most areas, with the exception being his shot, which he doesn’t see as being a significant weapon at the NHL level. With the exception of that point, it was an awfully appealing scouting report.

Others are even more flattering. Prospects guru Kirk Luedeke raved about Larsson entering the season. Red Wings writer George Malik (with a little help from Jim Matheson) pointed to him as a potential Lidstrom-type player. Tommy Boustedt, the director of development with the Swedish hockey federation, says that Larsson will be “one of the best defenders [Sweden] has ever produced.”

It’s high praise.

The statistical side of things is a little more mixed. Defensemen are almost impossible to evaluate, although thanks to improvements to the Elitserien’s website over the last few years we have more data than we used to. We know Larsson’s time on ice has jumped since last season – up more than two minutes per game from last season’s playoffs, at 18:44. We know his plus/minus has improved (it’s one of the best marks on the club) and we know that his offense has dropped off – from 17 points last season down to nine this year.

Certainly Larsson was impressive at the World Juniors – with four points and a plus-4 rating despite only being draft eligible this year. It’s a performance that puts him on good footing with previous first overall picks, although it is vital to remember that it’s only six games.

Can the Oilers draft a defenseman? Is the development curve of those players simply too long? After all, it was five years before Chris Pronger really became a difference-maker, and that wasn’t with the team that drafted him. It was three years before Nicklas Lidstrom even made his NHL debut. What if Larsson’s three to five years away?

My take: So what if it is? I don’t know what people have in mind as their window for contending, but it is years away. The team probably won’t make the playoffs next season. Possibly not the season after that, either. If the Oilers were looking at an accelerated rebuilding plan, it might make less sense to draft Larsson. Right now, it doesn’t. As it stands, he’d be my first overall pick.

On Trading Down

If the Marc Pouliot/J-F Jacques/Zach Parise trade did anything, it soured Oilers fans on trading down in the NHL Entry Draft (although oddly enough, not on drafting size). It shouldn’t have. The problem wasn’t that the Oilers traded down – if they’d been able to move up a pick, they could have grabbed Robert Nilsson, the player they supposedly targeted. That’s not a slight against trading down, that’s a slight against the scouts for not realizing what Parise is.

Besides, it isn’t like teams always suffer as a result of trading down. Vancouver traded down from first overall (Patrik Stefan, above in the most famous moment of his career) to snag Daniel Sedin. Florida got a little extra for trading down and picking the player they wanted to pick anyway – Jay Bouwmeester – in 2002.

Decisions need to be made on a case-by-case basis. For instance, hypothetically, let’s say that Stu MacGregor likes Ryan Strome just a tiny bit less than the players at the top end of the draft and figures the Oilers can snag him at sixth overall. Now, continuing our hypothetical scenario, let’s pretend the return for moving down from first to sixth is enough to move that first round pick from the Kings into the top-10 – and MacGregor has his eye on another player there. Would it make sense to trade down and get two almost certain high-end players, or to stay the course and get one and a late first-round pick?

Obviously, that’s a hypothetical situation. It may be that the Oilers scouts see one player as well ahead of the others in this draft, be it Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Adam Larsson or someone else entirely. In that case, it would be very hard to justify moving down in the draft.

What I don’t like is a dogmatic stance: It may make sense to move down, and it may not. But there’s no blanket, one size fits all policy that should govern the approach of any team. Generally, I’m opposed to moving down from the first overall pick, but this draft may be an exception. It’s just hard to tell without access to an NHL scouting staff to confirm or deny that.

  • O.C.

    Geez…

    2006 Draft… results at bottom of this post…

    It’s the best example to compare this draft to, because it doesn’t have studs like Ovechkin / Malkin as 1/2 and then a bunch of pretty good players… … and it’s not like there is a Stamkos or Crosby as a runaway #1 with a bunch of lower ranks after.

    In 2006, the top 5 are all highly touted players.

    And ya… we can all have a lot of fun poking fun at Toronto and Kessel – and he still might be a great player… but for comparison to 2011 Draft, the top four of 2006 are eerily similar to 2011.

    Tell me that if Oilers were picking any of these top 4 they would be bummed about what panned out?

    (Did it hurt Chicago to wait until #3 or Washington having to wait #4…?)

    Trading down in a year of interchangeables and different needs, makes sense, if you get something useful out of making the move.

    I still think NYJ is where you focus… if you don’t trade down then you really pretty up a pig and get their 4th overall too.

    1 STL Erik Johnson D

    2 PIT Jordan Staal C

    3 CHI Jonathan Toews F

    4 WSH Nicklas Backstrom C

    5 BOS Phil Kessel C

      • O.C.

        Jason, i agree… that’s the point I am making. #3 and #4 were studs in 2006, as good as # 1.

        At the time of the draft, there were four or five equally hyped players. Actually, in fairness, no one knew Backstrom was gonna be THAT good.

        Evegny and Alexander were over the top favorites at draft day. No one after that was touted closely.

        But you might be right. Maybe Florida doesn’t want to move up and maybe flip seconds and give up a second next year… As example.

  • O.C.

    The reason we should trade down is that there isn’t a single player in this draft who will be as good as Staal, Toews, Backstrom, or Kessel. That’s the problem. There is no true #1 pick.

    Now, that said in order to trade down there has to be an asymmetry of information. Some other team has to play the sucker and believe that there is a true #1 pick. I have no idea whether such a team exists.

    So the right move is obvious. It is to attempt to trade down in what is a mediocre draft at the top. However that may not be possible in which case you bear down and take whomever you think is the best player (RNH).

  • stevezie

    I’m surprised no one has brought up the greatest recent example of trading up/down, the 1998 (Legwand/Stuart/Lecavalier) draft. Those three picks bounced around multiple times. It is too complicated to explain here, but basically
    A)Tampa won by trading up and getting the best player,
    B)San Jose won by trading down and getting a good player in Stuart, as well as much needed quantity in Cheechoo and Marchment. Would they have rather had Vincent than those three? Thing certainly worked out well for them, and
    C) Nashville also got a good player, but would you rather have Legwand or Stuart/Cheechoo?
    A good year for intrigue and second-guessing.

  • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

    Larsson probably won’t be Nik Lidstrom, but RNH won’t be Joe Sakic either. Neither of them are even at Taylor Hall’s level. I’d just like to see both sides acknowledge that the likelihood that either of them turn into elite NHL players is small.

  • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

    I’m really baffled that this is up for debate, do people honestly think a team wouldn’t give up a 2nd rounder to get the 1st overall pick if they had a specific guy they wanted??.

    If we were drafting #2 and we thought one guy was head and shoulders above the rest, would we not want to give up a 2nd rounder to move up and get him?

  • stevezie

    Sorry to be late to the party BUT…
    all of this talk that drafting a stud d-man is a waste:

    please don’t use pre-2007 in your examples. Granted, it’s the only history that we can work with (post 2007 dmen are still developing)
    but the trade and value game changed dramatically after the value of “2nd contracts” jumped up. (RFA’s signing after their entry level deals expire), I think it’s important.

    Teams traded 5 year guys because they could still be signed relatively cheaply into their rfa years. Apart from the odd Johnson/ Phaneauf 1x/year deal, I don’t think we’ll see a lot of trades of elite talent before the RFA deals expire…

    So all of this is way of saying relax. If it’s best [player available- and we need 3 of them, it’s ok for it to be a defenseman because we will be hanging onto him a lot longer than teams did in the past.

    Does this make sense?

      • Peterborough

        I keep trying to remember the deal where team A sent a first round player to team B for the contract rights for an elite player. I keep thinking it was Philly but don’t remember the player.

        My WAAAY earlier point was that could we trade a pick- either LA’s 1st or our second for the contract rights to an elite level pending ufa-Shea Weber being my wet dream big fish. It gives you about a week or so to sign him before his ufa status activates. Now THAT would be good value for a later pick.

        • Peterborough

          I think its when Philly traded a late 1st maybe a 2nd for the rights to Timmonen and Hartnell from Nashville. Is that the one?

          Also I would love that trade but to correct you I believe Weber is an RFA (somebody know this for sure?) so I think the price is way higher then that because he can’t go anywhere, except an offer sheet which the Preds would likely get two 1sts and 2nd for.

          • Peterborough

            Weber is an RFA and the face of the team. It will be very hard to get him out of Nashville. I really think Nashville matches any reasonable offer sheet.

            You are right that these guys might not be “Elite” but what does that mean? I’m saying that D-men taken in the top 5 in the past 5 years have been relatively safe picks and there isn’t a real advantage in taking the forwards there. Take the BPA. Whoever you think that is. We need help everywhere.

          • Peterborough

            Ya I agree with you completely there, I think the years of busts of top 5 picks is kind of over. Even if a guy doesn’t end up being that huge threat I think he will still be effective like Scotty Upshall (Spelling?). I agree take BPA I just have a problem with Larsson at #1 I don’t know what it is but I think if I would rate the D-men in this draft I would have Hamilton, Larsson, Murphy in that order.

            I am saying “elite” while its tough to put a figure on it is a defenseman who is a threat to score and solid in his own end aka Lidstrom, Keith, Weber etc. I would say Doughty is elite but those other guys aren’t yet.

            I think in 2006 shows that taking any pick from 2-5 would have been better then Johnson. (But who knows because every team is different and it effects player development).

  • Peterborough

    @Peterborough

    Before you start slamming someones facts, why don’t you try checking your own first. The only one you got right is that JJ gets top two minutes.

    • Peterborough

      You sir are a fool. Ask any leaf fan who their best D-man is. Hedman led the Bolts in TOI. Alzner plays on the to pairing with Carlson in Washington, he doesn’t get the PP time maybe but top pairing.

      Maybe you should check a fact or two?

      Or just keep on spouting verbal diarrhea.

      Sorry to be harsh but you earned it. Call me on BS, but make sure its actual BS dude, or continue looking like the South end of a North bound horse.

      • Peterborough

        I understand what your thinking and where your coming from and yes those defenseman are all pretty good but you can’t say they are elite (some might be but not right now) an elite dman would be someone who can do it all and play top line minutes kind of like an elite forward is that 100 point guy, there aren’t many of both but that’s what makes them eilte. I can’t see Larsson being elite because I can’t see him on the PP or I can’t see him being a scoring threat. The Oilers D is terrible so anyone would be awesome but not at 1st overall.

        Also anyone can play top pairing (obviously not everyone but you get the point) some teams might pair an inexperienced guy with their best defenseman to balance things out.

  • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

    @ Peterborough

    BTW, Top minutes is only an indicator of the quality of your teams defensemen, nothing else. Otherwise, by your logic, Petry = elite talent.

  • Peterborough

    Anyone know if Adam Larsson will be playing at the World Championship for Sweden April 29th?

    If he is obviously a good place to to evaluate him especially with a number of Oilers playing.

  • Mike Modano's Dog

    Love the article, JW!

    I do think this probably would be the year you might be better off moving down in the draft. Of course as you mentioned if there was someone the Oilers had to have at #1, then that changes things. But I don’t know that’s the case this year. How would you like to move down to say #4 and see that Larsson or Landeskog are still available when you pick? I think that may be the way to go, especially if you can bring up that second first round pick, or get valuable prospect like Bogosian out of Hotlanta (although their pick at #7 may be too low for the Oilers liking).