a·cu·men [ak-yuh-muhn] noun: keen insight; shrewdness

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Wednesday, 23 March 2011

03/23/11 5.2 Draft Primer Part Three: Look No Further Than St. Louis

Ah, 2006. What a year it was. The Edmonton Oilers marched all the way to the Stanley Cup Final and came a mere two goals away from winning it all for a sixth time. The Oilers weren't terribly concerned about the NHL draft, having traded their first round pick to the Minnesota Wild in exchange for Dwayne Roloson. Fans didn't much mind, either, since we were all trying to think of ways to get back to the Finals right away, not in the long, slow and painful process required to do it through the draft. But there were plenty of other teams whose futures were being decided on the draft floor in Vancouver. One of those teams was the St. Louis Blues, who held the first overall pick.

A debate raged in the months leading up. Would St. Louis opt to take Jordan Staal or Jonathan Toews? Perhaps they would take Phil Kessel, or even Nicklas Backstrom. Or as many suspected, maybe they would attempt to shore up their sagging blue line by taking stud defenseman Erik Johnson. As it turned out, Johnson was the name the Blues called.

A few things led to this decision. First, the Blues had just finished trading away franchise defenseman Chris Pronger due to financial issues. The pressure to replace him was enormous, as fans were used to having a bonafide superstar on the backend. Also, there was the little matter of how truly terrible St. Louis' defense was in 2006. Of the ten defensemen they used that season, only two - Eric Weinrich and Eric Brewer - had more than five years of NHL experience. Dennis Wideman and Matt Walker were in their first seasons, as was Jeff Woywitka, who played just his first 26 NHL games that year. Christian Backman, Kevin Dallman and Barret Jackman were all in their second years and Bryce Salvador was in his fourth.

All told, this team had the worst goals for / goals against differential in the league at -95. They were third worst in total goals against; only Washington and Pittsburgh were worse. Taking the defenseman first overall made sense, right? It's what they needed most.

Perhaps not. Five years on, the teams who drafted the top centers that year - the aforementioned Washington and Pittsburgh, plus Chicago - are much better teams than the St. Louis Blues. Realizing that scoring is what wins hockey games more than anything else, and with Johnson's defensive play not coming along as hoped, the Blues traded him to Colorado for Chris Stewart and Kevin Shatterkirk. Both were mid-first round picks by Colorado who rounded into effective players. However, where the Blues really missed out is on one of Staal, Backstrom and Toews, who arguably could not be had for any price.

Take a look at the Edmonton Oilers today. The elder statesmen among the defense are Jason Strudwick and Jim Vandermeer, both of whom are likely to be gone next year. That leaves Ryan Whitney and Kurtis Foster. Next year will be the seventh full season for both. As of right now, the team has allowed the second most goals in the league. Ironically, only Colorado, which acquired Johnson from St. Louis, has allowed more. The goals for / goals against differential is the worst in the NHL at -64. By all accounts, leaving the centers on the board and drafting a defenseman makes as much sense for the Oilers as it did for the Blues in 2006.

How'd that turn out?

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