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When It Comes To Draft Risk, Center > Defenseman

Over the last few weeks I’ve highlighted the top defenseman Timothy Liljegren and a top three forward Nico Hischier. Either prospect would be a great start for Vegas. Stud defenseman like Liljegren don’t come around often. In fact, 2012 was the last draft multiple defenseman were selected in the top five. Crazy enough, eight rookie blueliners were picked in the top ten that year. (Ryan Murray, Griffin Reinhart, Morgan Rielly, Hampus Lindholm, Mathew Dumba, Derrick Pouliot, Jacob Trouba, Slater Koekkoek)

All this draft chat had me thinking about McPhee’s strategy. Who would the Golden Knights draft between the highest rated defenseman, or a top three center? commenter James made a strong point about a few somewhat recent drafts. Drew Doughty selected second could easily have jumped over Steven Stamkos. Same with the 2009 draft with John Tavares and Victor Hedman. Of course, all four organizations feel incredibly satisfied with their selections. I will always lean towards a top-rated center over a defenseman. As important as goaltending and defense is, NHL offense comes at a premium. However, if a talent like Doughty comes up my decision wouldn’t be tough.

Drafting a center in the Top-5 of the NHL Entry Draft has been almost ridiculously successful for NHL clubs over the past 10-15 years. There will always be a few misses, like Alex Galchenyuk in 2012 or Kyle Turris in 2007, but just about every other one during the past 13 years has had major impact. Take a look at the centers drafted early from 2003-2016.

Centers in the Top-5
2003: Eric Staal– 2nd Overall
2004: Evgeni Malkin– 2nd Overall
2005: Sidney Crosby– 1st Overall
2006: Jordan Staal– 2nd/ Jonathan Toews– 3rd/ Niklas Backstrom 4th
2007: Kyle Turris– 3rd Overall
2008: Steven Stamkos– 1st Overall
2009: John Tavares– 1st Overall
2010: Tyler Seguin– 2nd Overall
2011: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins– 1st Overall
2012: Alex Galchenyuk– 3rd Overall
2013: Nathan MacKinnon– 1st Overall
2014: Sam Reinhart– 2nd Overall
2015: Connor McDavid– 1st/ Jack Eichel– 2nd Overall
2016: Auston Matthews– 1st Overall

It’s pretty clear when it comes to the Top-5, scouts get it right most of the time. Top line centers can change an organizations destiny. The Penguins are the perfect example drafting back-to-back top two centers in ’04 & ’05. It will be tough for Vegas to pass on one of the three highly-rated centers. Now let’s look at top five defenseman drafted during that same period.

Defenseman in the Top-5
2003: No Top 5/ Ryan Suter– 7th Overall
2004: Cam Barker– 3rd Overall
2005: Jack Johnson– 3rd Overall
2006: Erik Johnson– 1st Overall
2007: Thomas Hickey– 4th Overall
2008: Drew Doughty– 2nd Overall
2009: Victor Hedman– 2nd Overall
2010: Erik Gudbranson– 3rd Overall
2011: Adam Larsson– 4th Overall
2012: Ryan Murray– 2nd/ Griffin Reinhart– 4th/ Morgan Reilly- 5th Overall
2013: Seth Jones– 4th Overall
2014: Aaron Ekblad– 1st Overall
2015: Noah Hanifin– 5th Overall
2016: Olli Juolevi– 5th Overall

High defensive picks don’t compare to the illustrious centers drafted. There are multiple Hall of Fame center candidates compared to possibly one defenseman. There are plenty of star blue liners in the NHL but they’re not necessarily drafted in the top five.

Possibly, Vegas could use a later draft pick on defense. Or maybe goaltending. The Golden Knights will have their own strategy, and the rumors of tanking suggest an offensive mindset. Nolan Patrick is the consensus number one but other talent like Hischier and Gabriel Vilardi are worth the risk. In order to select Patrick Vegas would need some puck luck, or a frozen envelope.


Shout out to James and Phisig150 for the comments that led to this post.


2017 Prospect Spotlight – Nico Hischier


“Make All Kinds Of Deals With Clubs” – Former Expansion GM’s Advice


  1. asdf

    Galchenyuk is putting up (or was putting up until he got injured) a point per game this season.

    He’s definitely not a miss. He just never had a solid winger to play with. Then Radulov came.

  2. PhiSig150

    Awesome article Jason. I’m somewhat of a draft junkie when it comes to the NBA and NFL so this is definitely another way to hook me on the Knights. So to use a football analogy Defenseman are like running backs, unless an elite talent like Elliot last year is in the draft (Doughty) that you just can’t pass up on, you can wait most years for later in the draft where there is a lot of value to be found. Centers are more like QBs you kind of need a top one to win a Super Bowl (except my Broncos who won it all with the corpse of Peyton Manning and a legendary defense last year). So Patrick sounds like that almost can’t miss Andrew Luck tier prospect while Hischier and Vilardi are closer to Winston and Mariota. Guys you definitely can build a team around but have more flaws and come with a bit more risk. The question might be then if Liljegren is that outlier like a Doughty that is too good to pass on (assuming we get top pick otherwise just take whatever one of the 4 that drops to us).

    So are any of these guys players you can plug in from day one? How long does it typically take before top draft picks get significant playing time? Which position has the quicker learning curve C or D? Usually RBs can play from the get go while Qbs take a bit more time to get acclimated, same case in the NHL? Also I’m assuming we’ll have a top 3 or so pick next year does that play into this draft at all? Take the stud defenseman this year because next year there’s another crop of stud Centers to be had or vice versa?

    Keep the draft articles coming Jason I love it.

  3. James

    That’s a very impressive list of centers. The worst-case scenario is drafting a top six forward based upon recent results. I wouldn’t regard Alex Galchenyuk and Kyle Turris as misses. I would regard RW Nail Yakupov who went 1st Overall in 2012 as a miss. Galchenyuk has shown potential.

    It’s clear from your list that drafting a defenseman is a more dicey proposition.

    Bear in mind that Las Vegas could have 5 lines of third line calibre players thanks to the expansion draft. Where are the goals/excitement going to come from? Patrick and Hischier sound like fine choices to help fill the void. The Golden Knights goaltending and defense should be better than the offense. However, I would seriously consider drafting Liljegren over Patrick if he is as good as touted. As your list proves bonafide number one defenseman don’t grow on trees.

  4. James

    Centers are somewhat like QBs. It’s hard to win without a franchise center. You need to be strong up the middle. The only thing I would say is the center in hockey has less impact on the game due to ice time. Connor McDavid is LeBron James-esque, but he only plays one-third of the game. Hockey is the ultimate team game. Ideally, you will need a core group of seven players to win a championship. The rest are somewhat interchangeable parts. The core group of seven players will take up the majority of the salary cap.

    Goaltenders are very unpredictable, so drafting a goaltender high is a risk. GMs tend to take flyers on them later in the draft. Generally speaking, it takes a long time to develop goaltenders.

    The easiest position to play is LW or RW. Wingers have less defensive responsibilities than centers. The learning curve is steeper for centers. Defenseman take longer to develop than forwards. Aaron Ekblad– 1st Overall 2014 is the exception rather than the rule. He looked like a 5 year veteran in his rooke year, Andrew Luck-esque.

    The NHL is changing. The league is getting younger. Prospects are more prepared for the big time due to skills coaches and some can make an impact right off the bat. Although American football and basketball are on another level. Some prospects need time to marinate by plying their trade at lower levels. The Detroit Red Wings are renown for over ripening their prospects. You can ruin a player by rushing him to the show. You don’t want to shatter their confidence.

    • PhiSig150

      Thanks James Sin Bin seriously needs to get you on their staff. So what should our expectation be for our top 6 (hopefully #1 pick). In the NBA and NFL I would expect them to get a ton of minutes if not start. While in the MLB I would expect them to work their way up for 3 or 4 years through the different levels of A ball first. It would be great if our top pick could make the club next year and we could actually go watch him play. It would be kind of a disappointment if we had to wait a couple of years while he developed out in Bakersfield.

      • James

        From the sound of things, Patrick appears to be NHL ready.

        If the draftee is playing limited minutes on the Golden Knights fourth line, he would probably be better served developing in juniors or the American Hockey League. Some prospects take longer to develop than others. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if our pick plays a year or two in juniors after being drafted. It’s better to tear up juniors than rot on the bench in the NHL.

        Rookies are more prominent in the NBA and NFL. I would say that NHL draftees are more seasoned than MLB draftees. Generally speaking, they don’t take as long to develop. I would say that it’s easier to hit on mid to late round picks in the NFL. Most teams in the NHL hope to hit on two or three picks a year to keep their future stocked.

  5. Jason Pothier


    I wrote a note blaming the Habs crappy coach being the blame for Galchenyuk’s development. Therrien wouldn’t position Gally as a center and it took him back a few years. Finally, the front office stepped in… signing Radulov and forcing Terrien to use Alex as a center. His natural position.

    I edited out that mention because IMO Montreal should dump their coach and that’s for another day. Although, I’ve slammed the Habs organization for not firing him for over a year now.

    Personally, AG will be fine I’m not so sure about Kyle Turris. He’s been limited but more was expected out of him. His Face off % is below 50% and he’s barely visible on special teams. Plus giveaways triple his takeaways… you need better puck control from a center.

    • James

      @Jason Pothier
      I’m not Therrien’s biggest fan, but from what I gather Galchenyuk struggled on the defensive side of the puck. As I mentioned earlier wingers have less defensive responsibilities than centers.

      I believe that Galchenyuk took his offensive game to the next level towards the end of last season. It went somewhat unnoticed because the Habs season was done. He carried the good form into this season. As asdf pointed out Radulov was a great pick up. With that being said, Galchenyuk has a 39.5% faceoff percentage which isn’t ideal. Can you win a Stanley Cup if your number one center wins 39.5% on draws? In the playoffs you are facing the best of the best.

      Kyle Turris didn’t live up to the lofty expectations of a number 3 pick. Apparently, Wayne Gretzky grew frustrated with him because he didn’t see the game like the great one, but then again who does? I’m guessing you have to go all the way back to 1999 (Patrik Stefan) or 1993 (Alexandre Daigle) to find a total bust at the center position.

  6. pfh64

    Centers are the biggest need, but you can not win a championship without a big time d-man. They take longer to develop but are harder to find. They are also not as obvious. To boot, league is changing, even the “stay home” defenseman has to be able to skate and pass the puck.

    Plus, as mentioned earlier, a quality second line center is needed (not easy to find, either), because teams are too good, and one line can easily be shut down. So, unless LV scouts think a particular defenseman is Victor Hedman (or better), center is definitely the way to go. Of course, I doubt that this would be news to the LV staff.

    Of course, when it gets to the point of being needed, the last piece, and sneakily the most important piece, a championship goalie, is the hardest to find, due to the unpredictable nature of intangibles.

  7. James

    Hypothetical question: Would you draft right winger Patrik Laine over Patrick and Liljegren? I understand the importance of a big time d-man and centers, but I would learn towards drafting the best player available regardless of position. Vegas isn’t one piece away from contention. I think it would be a mistake drafting a player based upon need. The Oakland Raiders drafted JaMarcus Russell because quarterback is the most important position in the sport. The best player available was WR Calvin Johnson. If I were George McPhee, I would just draft the best player available regardless of position going forward. He will miss on more draft picks if he drafts based upon need.

    • pfh64

      Part of the equation here, unlike most is the expansion issue. Based on what is likely to be the make up of the roster, I would go with the forward. Scoring will be far harder to come by, and I’m guessing that there will be enough second pair defensemen (even if they have to play first pair minutes) in the expansion draft, so I would go that way. Even if I had not seen Laine, my instinct would still be center and go Patrick. Especially if I thought he could be an elite face off guy.

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