Why Taking A Forward At #5 Is The Right Move For The Canucks

*Author’s Note: This article makes extensive use of the Prospect Graduation Probabilties System (pGPS). To learn more about pGPS, you can read our introductory post.

Now that the draft lottery has long passed, and the Canucks are guaranteed to pick fifth overall, all eyes have turned towards the draft, and which player the Canucks will select with their first round pick. 

Ever since the Canucks found themselves in lottery territory, it’s appeared as though Benning has intended to take a forward at that spot. In spite of somewhat contradicting statements in the past, however, Benning indicated yesterday that he believes there is a “clear cut defenseman” that has separated himself from the pack.

While addressing the team’s needs on defence is tempting, selecting a forward at 5 is likely a wise decision. That may seem counter-intuitive, given that based on what we know about prospect graduation, defensemen selected in the first round are more likely to play 200 games in the NHL than their forward counterparts. But one of the limitations of using the 200 game benchmark is that it only tells us what happened, and not why it happened. 

Because defence is a premium position, a defenseman selected in the first round is likely to be given every chance to succeed, and many of those that do manage to reach the 200-game plateau do so based on reputation, or because NHL general managers often overvalue things like size and physicality in defenders. For example, Cam Barker, Jared Cowen, and Luca Sbisa would all be considered successful by pGPS, but you’re unlikely to find someone who’d categorize any of those players as first-round talents. Depending on a team’s draft position, just selecting an NHL player could be considered a success, but since the opportunity to pick in the top 5 doesn’t come along very often, (unless you’re the Edmonton Oilers,) the player the Canucks select at #5 should be held to higher standard of success than just being a warm body at the NHL level.

THE RISK ASSOCIATED WITH SELECTING A DEFENCEMAN

The common refrain when it comes to prospect analysis has always been that defencemen are more difficult to project. Historically, this statement appears to hold some truth. Here’s a list of the top five defencemen selected over the last ten drafts:

Jack Johnson, Brian Lee, Luc Bourdon, Marc Staal, Erik Johnson, Ty Wishart, Mark Mitera, David Fischer, Bobby Sanguinetti, Thomas Hickey, Karl Alzner, Keaton Ellerby, Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Shattenkirk, Drew Doughty, Alex Pietrangelo, Zach Bogosian, Luke Schenn, Tyler Myers, Victor Hedman, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Jared Cowen, Ryan Ellis, Calvin De Haan, Erik Gudbranson, Dylan McIllrath, Cam Fowler*, Brandon Gormley, Derek Forbort, Adam Larsson, Dougie Hamilton, Jonas Brodin, Duncan Siemens, Ryan Murphy, Ryan Murray (benefit of the doubt?), Griffin Reinhart, Morgan Rielly, Hampus Lindholm, Matthew Dumba, Seth Jones, Darnell Nurse, Rasmus Ristolainen, Samuel Morin, Josh Morrissey, Aaron Ekblad, Haydn Fleury, Julius Honka, Travis Sanheim, Anthony DeAngelo, Noah Hanifin, Ivan Provorov, Zach Werenski, Jakub Zboril, Thomas Chabot. 
For comparison, here are the top 5 forwards from those same ten drafts: 
Sidney Crosby, Bobby Ryan, Gilbert Brule, Jack Skille, Benoit Pouliot, Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews, Phil Kessel, Nicklas Backstrom, Derick Brassard, Patrick Kane, James Van Riemsdyk, Kyle Turris, Sam Gagner, Jakub Voracek, Steven Stamkos, Nikita Filatov, Colin Wilson, Mikkel Boedker, Josh Bailey, John Tavares, Matt Duchene, Evander Kane, Brayden Schenn, Nazem Kadri, Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin, Ryan Johansen, Nino Niederreiter, Brett Connolly, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Gabriel Landeskog, Jonathan Huberdeau, Ryan Strome, Mika Zibanejad, Mark Scheifele, Nail Yakupov, Alex Galchenyuk, Filip Forsberg, Mikhail Grigorenko, Radek Faksa, Zemgus Girgensons, Nathan MacKinnon, Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Drouin, Elias Lindholm, Sean Monahan, Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett, Leon Draisaitl, Michael Dal Colle, Jake Virtanen, Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Dylan Strome, Mitch Marner, Pavel Zacha. 
It only takes a glance to notice that the former is a much less impressive list. The reason for this likely lies in the difference between how top forwards and top defencemen are evaluated. If you’re drafting a forward with a high pick, you’re likely doing so based on how well they’re able to produce offence. The value of a defender, however, is still measured in large part by their ability to suppress offence. As a result, scouts are more likely to rely solely on their observations, which are subject to large amounts of bias and randomness over the course of a relatively small sample size. Because defensive acumen is considered a more important quality in a defenceman than a forward, a team is less likely to veer away from a defender that failed to produce at an elite clip over his draft-eligible season, in spite of the fact that history shows us that this is unwise. 

Quality of Forwards vs. Defencemen available with the fifth pick 

But enough about the past, let’s look at this year’s draft, and the top two forwards that may be available when Jim Benning approaches the podium. The first is Cape Breton Screaming Eagles C/LW Pierre-Luc Dubois. The commonly held belief is that if both Tkachuk and Dubois are available when the Canucks make their pick, they will choose Dubois, not only because he’s played centre, and could make suitable replacement for captain Henrik Sedin in the future, but also because he has the well-rounded two-way game Jim Benning covets. 

 

It’s easy to imagine multiple scenarios where Dubois isn’t be available by the time the Canucks make their pick. The first is that Edmonton sees him as a winger, and Peter Chiarelli believes he can address his club’s needs on the back end via trade. Another is that Edmonton trades that pick to a team that’s looking to select Dubois, who is likely fourth on a number of team’s lists. 

If that’s the case, the Canucks will have a fantastic consolation prize in Matthew Tkachuk. While there are legitimate concerns about whether or not Tkachuk’s offence was inflated by playing with elite OHLers Mitch Marner and Christian Dvorak, he still posses high-end offensive upside and an excellent physical toolkit. 

   

Either player would immediately become the organization’s best prospect the moment they were selected. Both players possess offensive pedigree that hasn’t been seen in a Canucks prospect in some time (Brock Boeser notwithstanding), and each has the potential to be a bona-fide first-line player in the NHL, something every team should be looking to draft. 

When looking at Tkachuk and Dubois through the lens of the prospect Graduation Probabilities System (pGPS), both players appear to be as impressive as their traditional boxcar stats would indicate. Both players have only three statistical matches respectively in the entire system, all of whom went on to play over 200 games in the NHL, for a success rate of 100%. Both players also match statistically with players whose points-per-game output could be generously described as “elite” in today’s NHL (.742 for Tkachuk, and .639 for Dubois.) 

Tkachuk and Dubois are the forwards most likely to be taken in that fifth slot, but there are other players who have worked their way into the conversation, all of whom have very high pGPS rates, including Logan Brown (80%), and Alex Nylander (67.5%), as well as two forwards, Clayton Keller and Tyson Jost, whose seasons were so productive they have no comparables at all.

Availability of Defencemen Later in the Draft 

In contrast, the player many believe will be the first defenceman selected, Olli Juolevi, has a pGPS% of 83.3%, a lower mark than both of Dubois and Tkachuk, and only just slightly north of Logan Brown. 

Sergachyov, Chychrun, and Bean all have success rates north of 70%, but likely still present a greater risk with the fifth pick than either of Tkachuk or Dubois, and even if they do succeed, scouts are torn on their respective upsides. Unlike in previous drafts, the 2016 class is lacking a consensus top defenceman, and it’s arguable whether or not any of Sergachyov, Juolevi, Chychrun, or Bean possess legitimate top-pairing upside. 

If the Canucks want to address their lack of prospect depth at defence, there will likely still be very good players available with the 64th overall pick. JD Burke profiled three defensemen that could be good potential targets in the middle of the draft, and Ryan Biech also took a look at some of the better defensemen from North America and Europe that will be available in the later rounds. 

In all likelihood, there will be a first-round talent defenceman by pGPS available when the canucks pick at 64. If they’re incredibly lucky, perhaps one of Cam Dineen (50%), or Markus Niemelainen ($5.5%), will fall into their lap. If not, one of Chad Krys (33.3%), Adam Fox (50%), Frederic Allard (20%), Dawson Davidson (29.4%) , Dylan Coghlan (23.4%) or Luke Green (22.7%) will most likely be available, any of whom would be fantastic value with the 64th overall pick. If they really want to get fancy, they could also swing for the fences and select Samuel Girard or Sean Day in the hopes that they tap into their high-end upside. 

Where Do Elite Players Come From? 

I thought it might be fun as an exercise to take a look at where today’s high-end players were selected in their respective draft years. I took the top 60 scoring defencemen for the 2015-16 season and placed them in Group A, which could generously be described as “top-pairing defencemen”. Then, I took the top 90 scoring forwards from last season and placed them in Group B, which could generously be described as “first-line forwards”: 

Group A: 

Player G A Pts Draft Position
Erik Karlsson 16 66 82 1st round, 15th overall
Brent Burns 27 48 75 1st round, 20th overall
Kris Letang 16 51 67 3rd round, 62nd overall
Roman Josi 14 47 61 2nd round, 38th overall
John Klingberg 10 48 58 5th round, 131st overall
Mark Giordano 21 35 56 Undrafted
Oliver Ekman-Larsson 21 34 55 1st round, 6th overall
Dustin Byfuglien 19 34 53 8th round, 245th overall
Drew Doughty 14 37 51 1st round, 2nd overall
Ryan Suter 8 43 51 1st round, 7th overall
Shea Weber 20 31 51 2nd round, 49th overall
P.K. Subban 6 45 51 2nd round, 43rd overall
Tyson Barrie 13 36 49 3rd round, 64th overall
Brent Seabrook 14 35 49 1st round, 14th overall
Keith Yandle 5 42 47 4th round, 105th overall
Victor Hedman 10 37 47 1st round, 2nd overall
Shayne Gostisbehere 17 29 46 3rd round, 78th overall
TJ Brodie 6 39 45 4th round, 114th overall
Torey Krug 4 40 44 Undrafted
Kevin Shattenkirk 14 30 44 1st round, 14th overall
Andrei Markov 5 39 44 6th round, 162nd overall
Dougie Hamilton 12 31 43 1st round, 9th overall
Duncan Keith 9 34 43 2nd round, 54th overall
Rasmus Ristolainen 9 32 41 1st round, 8th overall
Jake Muzzin 8 32 40 5th round, 141st overall
Nick Leddy 5 35 40 1st round, 16th overall
John Carlson 8 31 39 1st round, 27th overall
Marc-Edouard Vlasic 8 31 39 2nd round, 35th overall
Sami Vatanen 9 29 38 4th round, 106th overall
Alex Pietrangelo 7 30 37 1st round, 4th overall
Justin Faulk 16 21 37 2nd round, 37th overall
Zdeno Chara 9 28 37 2nd round, 56th overall
Alex Goligoski 5 32 37 3rd round, 61st overall
Michael Stone 6 30 36 3rd round, 69th overall
Aaron Ekblad 15 21 36 1st round, 1st overall
Morgan Rielly 9 27 36 1st round, 5th overall
Mattias Ekholm 8 27 35 4th round, 102nd overall
Mike Green 7 28 35 1st round, 29th overall
Ryan McDonagh 9 25 34 1st round, 12th overall
Francois Beauchemin 8 26 34 3rd round, 75th overall
Anton Stralman 9 25 34 7th round, 216th overall
Colton Parayko 9 24 33 3rd round, 86th overall
Matt Niskanen 5 27 32 1st round, 28th overall
Ryan Ellis 10 22 32 1st round, 11th overall
Dion Phaneuf 4 28 32 1st round, 9th overall
Jake Gardiner 7 24 31 1st round, 17th overall
Brian Campbell 6 25 31 6th round, 156th overall
Alec Martinez 10  21 31 4th round, 95th overall
Seth Jones 3 28 31 1st round, 4th overall
Andrej Sekera 6 24 30 3rd round, 71st overall
Jared Spurgeon 11 18 29 6th round, 156th overall
Dmitry Orlov 8 21 29 2nd round, 55th overall
Trevor Daley 6 22 28 2nd round, 43rd overall
Hampus Lindholm 10 18 28 1st round, 6th overall
Cam Fowler 5 23 28 1st round, 12th overall
Erik Johnson 11 16 27 1st round, 1st overall
Tyler Myers 9 18 27 1st round, 12th overall
Kevin Klein 9 17 26 2nd round, 37th overall
Codi Ceci 10 16 26 1st round, 15th overall
Matt Dumba 10 16 26 1st round, 7th overall
Niklas Kronwall 3 23 26 1st round, 29th overall

28 first round picks 

Percentage of players that were first-round picks: 46%

14 top 10 picks

Percentage of players that were top 10 picks: 23%

Group B:  

Player G A Pts Draft Position
Patrick Kane 46 60 106 1st round, 1st overall
Jamie Benn 41 48 89 5th round, 129th overall
Sidney Crosby 36 49 85 1st round, 1st overall
Joe Thornton 19 63 82 1st round, 1st overall
Johnny Gaudreau 30 48 78 4th round, 104th overall
Joe Pavelski 38 40 78 7th round, 205th overall
Blake Wheeler 26 52 78 1st round, 5th overall
Artemi Panarin 30 47 77 Undrafted
Evgeny Kuznetsov 20 57 77 1st round, 26th overall
Vladimir Tarasenko 40 34 74 1st round, 16th overall
Anze Kopitar 25 49 74 1st round, 9th overall
Tyler Seguin 33 40 73 1st round, 2nd overall
Alex Ovechkin 50 21 71 1st round, 1st overall
John Tavares 33 37 70 1st round, 1st overall
Nicklas Backstrom 20 50 70 1st round, 4th overall
Patrice Bergeron 32 36 68 2nd round, 45th overall
Claude Giroux 22 45 67 1st round, 22nd overall
Nikita Kucherov 30 36 66 2nd round, 58th overall
Jaromir Jagr 27 39 66 1st round, 5th overall
Taylor Hall 26 39 65 1st round, 1st overall
Filip Forsberg 33 31 64 1st round, 11th overall
Steven Stamkos 36 28 64 1st round, 1st overall
Max Pacioretty 30 34 64 1st round, 22nd overall
Kyle Okposo 22 42 64 1st round, 7th overall
Ryan Getzlaf 13 50 63 1st round, 19th overall
Sean Monahan 27 36 63 1st round, 6th overall
Loui Eriksson 30 33 63 2nd round, 33rd overall
Jason Spezza 33 30 63 1st round, 22nd overall
David Krejci 17 46 63 3rd round, 63rd overall
Corey Perry 34 28 62 1st round, 28th overall
Jeff Carter 24 38 62 1st round, 11th overall
Mark Stone 23 38 61 6th round, 178th overall
Brad Marchand 37 24 61 3rd round, 71st overall
Mark Scheifele 29 32 61 1st round, 7th overall
Mats Zuccarello 26 35 61 Undrafted
Daniel Sedin 28 33 61 1st round, 2nd overall
Ryan Johansen 14 46 60 1st round, 4th overall
Wayne Simmonds 32 28 60 3rd round, 61st overall
Jussi Jokinen 18 42 60 6th round, 192nd overall
Ryan O’Reilly 21 39 60 2nd round, 33rd overall
Brayden Schenn 26 33 59 1st round, 5th overall
Jonathan Huberdeau 20 39 59 1st round, 3rd overall
Matt Duchene 30 29 59 1st round, 3rd overall
Aleksander Barkov 28 31 59 1st round, 2nd overall
Mike Hoffman 29 30 59 5th round, 130th overall
Phil Kessel 26 33 59 1st round, 5th overall
Tyler Toffoli 31 27 58 2nd round, 47th overall
Derick Brassard 27 31 58 1st round, 6th overall
Evgeni Malkin 27 31 58 1st round, 2nd overall
Jonathan Toews 28 30 58 1st round, 3rd overall
James Neal 31 27 58 2nd round, 33rd overall
Kyle Palmieri 30 27 57 1st round, 26th overall
Bobby Ryan 22 34 56 1st round, 2nd overall
Jack Eichel 24 32 56 1st round, 2nd overall
Alex Galchenyuk 30 26 56 1st round, 3rd overall
Mikko Koivu 17 39 56 1st round, 6th overall
Henrik Sedin 11 44 55 1st round, 3rd overall
Jakub Voracek 11 44 55 1st round, 7th overall
Milan Lucic 20 35 55 2nd round, 50th overall
Patrick Sharp 20 35 55 4th round, 95th overall
Tomas Plekanec 14 40 54 3rd round, 71st overall
Cam Atkinson 27 26 53 6th round, 157th overall
Gabriel Landeskog 20 33 53 1st round, 2nd overall
Ryan Kesler 21 32 53 1st round, 23rd overall
Brandon Saad 31 22 53 2nd round, 43rd overall
Zach Parise 25 28 53 1st round, 17th overall
Derek Stepan 22 31 53 2nd round, 51st overall
Vincent Trocheck 25 28 53 3rd round, 64th overall
Justin Williams 22 30 52 1st round, 28th overall
Nathan MacKinnon 21 31 52 1st round, 1st overall
Alexander Steen 17 35 52 1st round, 24th overall
Max Domi 18 34 52 1st round, 12th overall
Frans Nielsen 20 32 52 3rd round, 87th overall
Lee Stempniak 19 32 51 4th round, 148th overall
Leon Draisaitl 19 32 51 1st round, 3rd overall
Jeff Skinner 28 23 51 1st round, 7th overall
T.J. Oshie 26 25 51 1st round, 24th overall
Patric Hornqvist 22 29 51 7th round, 230th overall
Mika Zibanejad 21 30 51 1st round, 6th overall
Mikkel Boedker 17 34 51 1st round, 8th overall
Carl Soderberg 12 39 51 Undrafted
Reilly Smith 25 25 50 3rd round, 69th overall
Adam Henrique 30 20 50 3rd round, 82nd overall
Henrik Zetterberg 13 37 50 7th round, 210th overall
Mike Ribeiro 7 43 50 2nd round, 45th overall
Ryan Spooner 13 36 49 2nd round, 45th overall
Boone Jenner 30 19 49 2nd round, 37th overall
Scott Hartnell 23 26 49 1st round, 6th overall
Pavel Datsyuk 16 33 49 6th round, 171st overall
Paul Stastny 10 39 49 2nd round, 44th overall

54 first round picks 

Percentage or players that were first round picks: 60%  

36 top 10 picks 

Percentage of players that were top 10 picks: 40%

There are some obvious flaws to this methodology. These lists are biased towards offense, something that a defenseman doesn’t necessarily have to bring to the table to play on a top pairing. That being said, the lowest player in group A, Niklas Kronwall, only had to manage 26 points to make the cut, so it’s not like any of these players had to blow the roof off with their offensive production. Overall, most of the league’s good defenders are on this list, even if some are ranked lower than they to ought be. 

Sixty percent of the players in Group B (forwards) were drafted in the first round, and forty percent were top 10 picks. In contrast, the players in group A (defencemen) were comprised of only 46% first round picks, and 23% in the top ten.

This is admittedly fairly soft analysis, but I think we can tentatively draw the conclusion that defencemen are more difficult to project, and that their NHL success is more influenced by random chance. With this in mind, a slight positional bias towards forwards is entirely defensible at the top of the draft. If you have a forward and a defenceman that you believe are of a similar talent level, history suggests the forward may be a safer bet. Because defencemen are more difficult to project, I would advocate a quantity approach to drafting defencemen in the later rounds, in the hopes that you hit on a John Klingberg or a Dustin Byfuglien. 

PROSPECT DEPTH 

In Vancouver’s case, prospect depth at forward is often cited as a reason to look at defencemen at the fifth slot. In reality, I’d argue that depth is a bit of a mirage. After Brock Boeser, the team is lacking clear future top-six forwards. Baertschi, Horvat, and Virtanen all have that potential, but are far from locks. There’s also the fact that with McCann and Shinkaruk having recently been shipped off, that offensive prospect depth has been somewhat eroded over the past few months. 

Even if prospect depth at forward is an area of relative strength for the Canucks, it’s not anywhere near the level where it’s acceptable to begin drafting for position, especially if their scouts believe that one of the forwards is truly the best player available at fifth overall.

CONCLUSION: 

In essence, this has just been a very long-winded way of saying “take the best player available”, but with two caveats: One, that forwards are generally a safer bet, especially near the top of the draft, and two, that the spread in quality among draft-eligible defencemen is more difficult to measure than it is for forwards. 

This is a market inefficiency that the Canucks would be wise to exploit, and with more and more teams beginning to employ statistical draft models, it’s not one that’s going to exist forever. If the team gets a little clever and creative, they can have their cake and eat it too by drafting a forward in the first round, and addressing their lack of prospect depth at defense in the later rounds. 

At the end of the day, this should be a tap-in. Take one of Pierre-Luc Dubois or Matthew Tkachuk and move on.

  • TrueBlue

    The draft should be used as a tool to acquire that which cannot be easily acquired via trade or free agency…

    As an example, there were 28 thirty goal scorers in the NHL this past season.

    9 of these players (Ovechkin, Kane, Stamkos, Crosby, Seguin, Tavares, Spezza, Duchene, Galchenyuk) were top 3 draft selections…

    This is fitting as there is a clear cut big 3 in the 2016 draft.

    NONE of the other 19 thirty goal scores were selected in the top 10 of the entry draft…

    The reason I am using goals is because both Tkachuk and Dubois should be considered wingers and a winger’s perceived value is, by and large, related to his goal scoring rate.

    A half season in the Q does not necessarily make Dubois a centre…

    On the other hand, the Canucks have a very good shot at acquiring the top defenseman in the draft.

    And even if that defenseman does not project as a true #1 defenseman today, a top 4 defenseman is FAR more valuable than a top 6 winger.

    While there might be an argument to take Dubois at 5, selecting any other forward over the top defenseman would be Gillis level, basement blogger, risk-averse delusion…

    • Graphic Comments

      Wow that was a great explanation.

      I tend to agree that the Canucks need to swing for the fences on a defenseman or centre and that means avoiding Tkachuk.

      He looks like he could be this year’s Dal Colle.

    • Graphic Comments

      Excellent points. Year in, year out, it is impossible to get a top 4 d-man to help in a playoff run in the trade deadline – you are pretty much stuck with the Kris Russell’s of the world. And look what Florida and Arizona just paid for Yandle and Goligovski…yikes.