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.