Since the lockout in 2004-05, hockey has returned with a more exciting product that accentuates the speed and skill of the game. The new rules to prevent holding and slowing by way of obstruction, have re-shaped the old idea of teams needing the majority of their defenseman to be big, truculent players whose quickness isn't necessarily as important as their ability to roadblock.
Over the seventy decades, there has always been diminutive defenseman who somehow played tough, strong, and fast enough to make significant contributions in the NHL. The present fast-paced game suits quicker defenders who compensate for size with ultra quick sticks and tremendous transition skills.
The position of the defense may now be the most difficult to fill on major league rosters. The players a team drafts and expects to eventually play on the back-line, now need an inert "feel" for the position whether they are one or three years away from being ready to make the jump. Plenty of players on NHL rosters are good enough to play back there, but there are far fewer who do so with a high level impact.
The NHL Entry Draft is the main way skilled youngsters are acquired and developed. It is not surprising to see the trend of drafting average-sized defenders if they display high levels of puck skills and speed.
2008 saw nine defenseman drafted in the first round (two more on the doorstep), many of whom stepped in quickly to do on-the-job training with little wait time before logging big minutes.
Now there is an entire generation of youngsters who have had to play under the new obstruction rules and have developed both quick sticks and significant offensive roving skills.
What makes the 2012 NHL draft so unique and unusual is that besides being top-heavy with potential defense prospects in the early parts of the draft, there is reasonable evidence that more than a third of the first 90 picks selected will be defensemen. This is not saying that they will all make the NHL, just that they exhibit skills that, pared with hard work, might eventually get them looks at the NHL level.
When perusing through our 2012 NHL Mock Draft, one can find as many as twenty different defenseman listed in the top 50 picks all who could end up as possible first rounders. But after the selecting of the first couple defensive prospects there will a quandary as to just how those next seventeen defenders draftees project into NHL lineups.
So as the draft continues teams determine their best player available in terms of whether or not the selection yields a top two line forward, a top pairing defender, a top six forward, a second pairing defender, a third line centre, etc.
The 2011 NHL Draft had a small core of a half dozen youngsters who may eventually become very good NHL players and a "thick" group of 40 more forwards and defensemen that look to be promising prospects who will make contributions to NHL rosters. Arguably, two of the defenseman that were selected have the upside to anchor an NHL first pairing.
The 2012 NHL Draft is very similar in that maybe three players of this abundant defender class, project as possible first pair players. The rest of the defensemen taken in the first round and for that matter well past the third round will be players with many desirable characteristics and abilities, but will all be seen as players that can make rosters or eventual reach second pairing status.
So, yes, there is an inordinate amount of available defenders, but not ones who can be considered to have the upside that the special 2008 class is now exhibiting.
The underlying benefit of the plethora of back-end talent in the 2012 draft is that teams will end up finding good forward prospects later than usual, even though there is a lack of highly skilled North American forwards.
In most drafts there are a set number of rear-guard prospects and when the first tiers are off the board, and teams view a defenseman and forward as equal, they will more likely take the forward as he will probably be ready sooner. The teams that gobbled forwards in the late first round and early second rounds will still be given strong choices to go in various directions for their team.
Most NHL teams have come to decisions on which defensive prospects are worth investing in by the time it is those prospects' draft eligible year. Many forwards tend to start gaining strength and showing all-around abilities and tendencies though as the draft approaches, to which they start being slotted as higher round selections. With the D-men, the teams know what they are working with far in advance, and will have already made decisions on whether or not a youngster's talent is worth the early pick.
Despite the early hype, most of this defender group has the possibility of morphing into second pair players, not the first pair projections that we originally hyped them to be. Thus the final determination of who the best defensive players are, will be left up to that day for the selection process.
What also strengthens this 2012 draft class is there are more than a dozen strong Euro-prospects that have already displayed characteristics that translate well to the skill of the pro game.
The 2012 class is shaping up to be a draft where ten rear-guards will go in the top two-thirds of the first round, and maybe as many as half the first round being defenseman selections. There is at least one can't-miss, high impact, star offensive forward, and a half dozen forwards that should be better pros than all but four of the forwards drafted in the 2011 draft. 2012 may even be a thicker class than in 2011, as it will yield really nice long term prospects far into the slots in the 70's.
Nail Yakupov will undoubtably be chosen first overall and will probably be given every chance to play right away. In my humble opinion, he can already be a complimenting wing in the big leagues. A year ago, many would have ranked him ahead of Nugent-Hopkins if Yakupov was a possible 2011 choice. I don't quite agree that he will be able to gain the lofty status of an an NHL superstar, but he will be one of the few impact players of this draft.
All the top early forward picks do exhibit excellent skill levels but it remains unclear if any or all will be able to make a seamless transition to the pro game as impact superstars.
What makes the 2012 NHL draft so unique and unusual is that after the first 16 or so picks, there is reasonable evidence that a solid group of first, second, and even third year youngsters whose games have yet to round out, look and project as eventual NHL players just below the top line, top pair, or top scorer.
Over the course of the last few drafts, North America produced few sure-fire goaltender prospects. This is due to stalled development/growth factors that normally would help these youngsters to continue up the ladder.
Teams seem to be more secure in taking the much larger goalies and waiting. So while many goalie prospects may be chosen, others will be passed on for another draft year when teams feel more comfortable in the finished product.
It also shouldn't surprise if goalies eligible in past years are picked this June. Detroit Red Wings starter Jimmy Howard was passed on for two draft years until finally chosen in his third.
The work will be left to the scouts to figure out just who that best player is when their team comes up to the podium microphone. Fortunately for them, with this thick draft, they can't go too wrong.