#1 pick- Winger or Centre? – from 2010

Today I will republish a third post from the now defunct Low on Oil site. This sure beats coming up with new ideas; I feel like a modern day Rick Reily.

This post originally followed the Taylor vs. Tyler debate that I posted last Sunday. When reading, try to eliminate the “Ilya Kovalchuk is currently in the Stanley Cup” narrative from your mind. I would quickly counter that the Kings made the dance with three quality centres in Kopitar, Richards and Carter.

And that is gist of the post. If you can draft a centre who is almost as good as a winger, draft that centre.

—original post below—

I was thinking a bit more about the debate of taking the best player available with the first overall pick versus fulfilling a need or focusing on a particular position.  There have been some comments to that post indicating that Hall in fact is a natural centre.  I have no idea if that is true or not but it certainly would take a lot of steam out of my argument of picking Seguin.  

With the above said, I will not take any conclusions about Kovalchuk vs. Spezza and apply them to the Hall vs. Seguin debate.  I am simply curious if Atlanta had to do it again back in 2001, should they draft Spezza over Kovalchuk?  The quick answer is, “Hell no, Kovalchuk is way better than Spezza!”  The somewhat thoughtful answer is that Atlanta was only in their third year of existence and they needed a marquee star to get fans into the arena.  Perhaps the true answer is that Spezza adds more value to a team in terms of wins, even if he does not bring the speed, the shot or the hitting ability that Kovalchuk brings.  In a simple world where the only goal is winning the Stanley Cup, perhaps Spezza is the better pick.

Kovalchuk came into the 2001 entry draft with a lot of well deserved hype.  He was big, he could skate like the wind and he possessed one of the best shots in recent memory.  A year after picking Dany Heatley with the #2 overall pick, Atlanta wasted no time taking the best player available in Kovalchuk.

Ilya made the jump to the NHL as an 18 year old and scored 29 goals on his way to the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie. In his eight NHL seasons, he has scored more than 50 goals twice and has scored more than 40 goals the past seven years.  He has scored 642 points in 621 career games.

In his eight NHL seasons, he has played in the postseason twice, including this year as a rental player for the New Jersey Devils.  Despite his talent, he has only tasted victory in the postseason once.  And by once, I mean a single solitary game.  Ouch. 

While it isn’t fair to pin the playoff responsibility onto Kovalchuk, the fact of the matter is that he has to take responsibility as one of the league’s superstars and one of the league’s highest paid players.   

In terms of contribution to his team, Kovalchuk is one of the league’s top scorers on the power play and always a dangerous player at even strength (though he is -75 for his career).  Offensively, he is somewhere on the list of the league’s top 5 players with Ovechkin, Malkin, Crosby and a player of the reader’s choice.

Finally and most importantly to Atlanta, Kovalchuk no longer plays for the team after refusing to sign a contract extension.  Despite a contract offer of over $10 million per season. Ilya wants to play somewhere else where he has a better chance of winning a Stanley Cup.

Looking at Spezza, Ottawa picked him second overall after Atlanta selected Kovalchuk.  Unlike Kovalchuk, Spezza did not immediately make the jump to the NHL after he was drafted.  He spent an additional year playing junior hockey and half a year playing in the AHL.  He wasn’t a full time NHLer until he was 20 and did not make a real impact until he was 22.  In his six and half NHL seasons, he has scored 475 points in 464 games. 

Like Kovalchuk, Spezza is a powerplay and even strength threat due primary to his ability to create opportunities for his teams (+73 for his career though -14 over the past two seasons).  Like Kovalchuk, Spezza generally does not kill penalties.  Offensively, he probably ranks somewhere in the 10-15 range of top players in the game.  His major criticism is being inconsistent and not being able to bring his top game to the arena every night.

In his seven NHL seasons, Spezza has made the postseason six times, including a run to the Stanley Cup final in 2007.  On that run, Spezza had 22 points in 20 games and was a key part of their success.  His other five trips to the postseason have not been nearly as productive, with only one playoff series victory.  The Senators are a team that threatened to be one of the best in the league but they have not managed to translate regular season success to a Stanley Cup.

Lastly, Spezza is signed for another five seasons at $7 million per season. 

I will be the first person to admit that the comparison gets really difficult when trying to attribute team success and failure to the individual player.  The reality of the situation is that both players were key to their team’s relative levels of success.  It is probably fair to say that Spezza was surrounded with a better team than Kovalchuk.

I think it is also fair to say that Spezza made his line mates better, while Kovalchuk did not have as significant an impact.  Obviously a player’s point total will go up when playing with Kovalchuk, but good players did not become great players.  With Spezza, both Alfredsson and Heatley became better and more productive players. 

When I look at Atlanta, the unanswered question in my mind is why were they not a little bit better?  Kovalchuk had Heatley and then Marian Hossa during his time in Atlanta.  In my last post, I noted that two superstars are generally key to Stanley Cup success.  Atlanta could not get into the playoffs let alone near the Stanley Cup despite having two of the league’s top offensive players the past six of seven years.

What do you guys think?  If the Oilers had choose between Spezza and Kovalchuk back in 2001, who should they have picked?  Who would you rather have on the Oilers today?

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