In 2002, the Colorado Avalanche selected defenseman Johnny Boychuk with the 61st overall pick. For six years, he lingered in the WHL and then AHL, until he finally made his NHL debut in 2008. But that summer, the Avs traded their slow-developing blueliner to the Boston Bruins. There, he played in the minors for another year. In 2009 -- seven years after being drafted -- he finally became an NHL regular.
This was a nightmare for the Avs, who spent a second-round pick on Boychuk. You want your investments to pay off -- but not for another team. Even if they had kept Boychuk, he would've been eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer, just two seasons after becoming a regular.
While this is a worst-case scenario, it's the reason some teams hesitate when drafting a D-man. Conventional wisdom says that defensemen take longer to develop than forwards. So teams figure that, by the time a blueliner develops, he'll already be close to free agency, and the draft investment will not pay off.
But, meanwhile, those teams are likely looking at their NHL rosters and seeing a shortage of good defensemen. That's why, in free agency, we're seeing above-average blueliners rake in huge salaries. On the trade market, they can command absurd returns. So the bottoms of these depth charts are filled with mediocre players, who could be replaced by, say, a young prospect.
So what's a GM to do? Push young defensemen to the NHL:
It takes about 2.58 years for a defenseman to debut in the NHL -- just a hair longer than forwards. But if D-men take longer to develop than forwards, shouldn't they stay in the minors at least a few more months? Shouldn't GMs be more patient?
The short answer is no.
Statistically speaking, patient teams made the playoffs slightly more often, but that's probably because winning teams don't need to rush their prospects to fill holes. In addition, patient clubs have gotten very slightly better value from their draft picks -- and by "very slightly," I mean close to negligible.
While teams aren't patient with D-men, they are judicious. Almost 40 percent of drafted forwards reach the NHL, but only about 34 percent of D-men sniff the league.
The collective bargaining agreement says that players can be unrestricted free agents after seven years of NHL service or if they're 27 or older. So, ideally, a player would be promoted to the NHL when he's 20. Obviously, most guys won't be ready by then, but because the clock is ticking, perhaps GMs are pushing their D-men to the league to get the most out of them before they hit age 27.
But just because a prospect is capable doesn't mean he should be in the NHL. We often see top draft picks debut in the NHL during their draft year, and those guys tend not to fare as well as players who get an extra year of seasoning outside the league.
That said, strictly from a financial standpoint, you want defensemen who will develop quickly and be ready for the NHL as soon as possible -- ideally by age 20. (This could all change with new free agency rules in the new 2012 collective bargaining agreement.)
So where does one look for fast-developing D-men? Here are some trends since 1990:
1. Look for them early: This is obvious, but D-men drafted in the first round get to the NHL in about 1.5 years. Second-rounders make it in about 2.5 years -- but, of course, far fewer of them make it in the NHL. From the fourth round and beyond, development time doesn't improve, and your chances of finding an NHLer improve only slightly.
2. Look at the OHL and QMJHL: The OHL (2.38 years) and QMJHL (2.21 years) provide D-men who get to the league quicker. Also, drafting out of professional leagues abroad nets you more polished players. As expected, prospects who play at a higher level before being drafted get to the NHL almost a year quicker.
3. Don't overestimate size: Taller players tend to get to the league quicker, but only by an average of a few months. Surprisingly, weight is almost a non-factor when it comes to NHL debut time -- as long as the player isn't a twig.