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Why it's hard to find elite defensemen

It's not easy for scouts to identify the next Shea Weber. Joe Sargent/NHLI/Getty Images

Nashville Predators defenseman Shea Weber fell to No. 49 overall in 2003 NHL draft. He was a late-bloomer, played a physical game and didn't look like a future Norris Trophy candidate. Scouts had a lot of questions about his game, and they just didn't know if he would develop to be a legitimate NHL player.

That same year, the Predators drafted another defenseman No. 7 overall, Ryan Suter. Suter was seen as a smooth-skating blueliner who could anchor a blue line. There were far fewer questions about his game, although -- like all defensemen -- he still had to adapt to the next level.

Nine years later, Weber -- the second-rounder -- is arguably the best defenseman in the league. Suter -- the top-10 pick -- is close but he's not quite in the held in the same regard.

Weber's story is quintessential of elite NHL defensemen. Most of them aren't pegged as future stars; most of them aren't first-rounders; most of them have huge holes in their game as 17-year-olds. However, it's these guys -- not high first-rounders -- who end up having elite careers. So just how often are scouts missing these guys? And why are they missing them?

Finding Steven Stamkos vs. finding Shea Weber

When scouts see forwards like Steven Stamkos, Patrick Kane or even 2011 No. 1 pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, they can be fairly certain the player will be elite. But when they see similarly touted defensemen -- like Erik Johnson, Drew Doughty or Adam Larsson -- it's hard to feel as confident. This uncertainty isn't just for elite players; it occurs all throughout the draft. The correlation between draft slot and performance is much greater among forwards (0.26 correlation coefficient) than defensemen (0.11).

But back to the elite player: NHL scouts are great at figuring out which 17-year-old will be a star forward, but they are hit-or-miss with defensemen. As an experiment, I looked at top-20 defensemen and top-20 forwards drafted since 1990, and where they were drafted:

The median draft position for elite forwards is No. 3.5. In other words, top forwards are almost always selected very high in the first round. In comparison, the median for defensemen is 44.5 -- in the middle of the second round, almost exactly where Weber was selected.

This means, since 1990, scouts have pegged the next great forward almost every time. But more often than not, scouts have missed the next great defenseman -- guys like Weber, Duncan Keith and Zdeno Chara.

Defensemen are like caterpillars

Imagine you have 100 caterpillars. If your task is to select the one that will develop into the biggest butterfly, you won't do very well.

The reason for the analogy is to illustrate the massive changes defensemen undergo before reaching their peak in the NHL. Forwards are far more predictable; while there is some growing to do, it's much easier to see what they will look like at their peak. But for blueliners there is so much development that has to occur between their draft year and their peak that it's incredibly hard for scouts to figure out which guys will be the best.

So while most elite forwards step into the league immediately, defensemen need time to develop. Just look at Weber: He scored 18 points in 70 games in the WHL during his draft year (2003), spent two more seasons in junior and then one year mostly in the AHL. And only then -- in 2006 -- did he earn a full-time job in Nashville.

One scout said, "In many cases when you're projecting defensemen, they don't have that complete game yet. In the NHL, elite defensemen need to be able to have success in all types of situations -- offensively, defensively, on the power play. But when they're playing in junior, you don't know if all those aspects are going to translate to that type of success."

How a kid becomes the next Shea Weber

But why are defensemen like caterpillars? Why are they so far from their peak potential as 17-year-olds?

First of all, the position is harder. I talked to a few scouts, and that was first thing out of their mouths. There are so many intricacies to playing defense in the NHL that takes time to learn.

Secondly, defensemen are under more pressure. Their mistakes are amplified because their mistakes lead to opponents' goals. Confidence is easily lost. Former scout and current colleague Grant Sonier told me, "Most young defensemen learn their craft in the minors unless you are an elite player like [Drew] Doughty, [Jay] Bouwmeester or [Kris] Letang -- and even then they have lows in their careers. Franchises are more cautious with d-men because they can easily be damaged."

And there's another factor. As one Western Conference scout told me, elite forwards can be hidden on defense, especially early on; elite defensemen need to be good on both defense and offense. So going into a draft, scouts have several more questions about most every defensemen than they have about forwards. And as another scout puts it: "How many times are all of the questions answered?" Hint: very few.

Finding the elite when it all looks the same

The fact that elite defensemen are so hard to peg is a sign that, early on, they often look very ordinary. There are no factors on the ice that separate them from the pack. What eventually separates them is their development after the draft. So can we predict that?

Physical development is easier to project, at least from a raw perspective. But the tougher questions are: How will a player translate his game to the NHL? Will he overcome the intense pressure? Will he work on his weaknesses to be an all-around player?

A lot of these are attitude and character questions, which means scouts have to look just as much off the ice as they do on it. If they want to find the next great defenseman, they are also the questions they have to answer.