NHL Teams looking to find bottom line forwards or bottom pairing defensemen have a wide assortment of journeymen players and waiver wire fodder available on the open market to fill any holes. The holes that get harder to fill via free agency and waiver wire are top 6 forwards and top 4 defensemen (which in this case will be defined as a forward averaging greater than 16m of ice time in the NHL per game, and greater than 20m for defense). These are the assets we covet the most in the draft. So what is the probability of acquiring either of these two asset-types at any given draft pick?
On the graphs below, draft picks are bundled into groups of ten picks, with the probability representing all seasons over age 21 for all picks. Picks are bundled into groups of 10, so each dot you see on a vertical gridline represents the 10 picks before that number. The continuous line is just for visual effect.
If you draft a forward in the first 10 picks of the draft, you're more likely to get a top line player than if you're drafting defensemen. Forwards may have a higher success rate in the early picks, but it's still the most likely you'll be to hit the jackpot on a defenseman. There is only a 50% chance that your defense drafted in the top 10 picks will develop into a top 4 D, and yet it still offers the highest probability of getting one of these highly coveted assets. It creates a bit of a paradox. If you're going to need a top pairing D anytime soon, by the time you get beyond the 20th pick in the draft, the probability falls to the 10% range.
The graph above came from a sample of draft picks from 2004-2013. The graphs below are a count of the players who played in 2016/17 who played at least 20 GP and averaged over 16m for forwards and 20m for defense and where they were drafted. Also note that there were several undrafted players playing top line roles, but that's a subject of a different blog post.
The probability of getting a 16m forward in picks 1-10 is significantly higher (63%) than picks 11-30 (28%ish). The drop off is steep once you get out of the elite tier of forward prospects. The probability drops down to 10% by the 2nd round, and under 5% by the 3rd round. There are more forwards drafted in the top 10 picks than any other "ten pick bundle" in the draft, at 69% of all non-goalies drafted. Then from picks 11-20, defensemen are drafted more often and have a higher success rate. The middle of the first round has the highest proportion of defensemen drafted (40% of non-goalies) than any other range in the top half of the draft.
The higher probability of striking out on defensemen in the first round leads to a preference for drafting forwards with top picks. It's slightly easier to hit home runs on defensemen in the later rounds, but that doesn't mean it will produce results. We've seen some cases of future Norris Trophy contenders drafted after the 1st round like Shea Weber, Kris Letang, PK Subban, Roman Josi, etc. It's very difficult to hit a lottery ticket on top 4 D outside of the 1st round of the draft. It's not impossible, just improbable.
The Detroit Red Wings drafted a defenseman in the 1st round in 2007 (Brendan Smith) and 2016 (Dennis Cholowski), and none in between. Then in between those two picks were the retirements of Nick Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski. Over those 8 drafts they drafted 16 defensemen and ended up with 2 third pairing guys. That's what can happen if you rely on the later rounds to fill your top pairings. The Red Wings haven't been able to draft a top 4 defenseman in over a decade and now find themselves mired in mediocrity.
If you draft forwards in the top half of the first round you are less likely to strike-out, but it’s also your best chance of getting a top pairing defenseman, which are incredibly difficult to acquire. There is a risk-reward quotient to consider based on the needs of your depth chart., but you'll take heat if the pick is a flop. Do you play it safe or roll the dice? That's why they get the big bucks...