Ryan Murray and a brief history of drafting defencemen No. 1 overall

No sooner had the Edmonton Oilers unexpectedly won the NHL draft lottery on Tuesday night than Ryan Murray became a trending topic on Twitter.

The logic needs little explanation. The Oilers have spent the past two No. 1 picks on Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and boast other budding scoring stars such as Jordan Eberle, so they should get a defenceman this time, be it with the top pick or after trading down the draft board. Since Murray is ranked at the top of the Defenceman Draft, that created a mini-clamour to draft the polished Everett Silvertips captain.

[Nail Yakupov is] a tantalizing talent, but this could be one of those times when the team with the first selection is in quandary.

"You could take Yakupov. You could keep the No. 1 pick and take somebody else. You could trade the pick and move back in the draft, couldn't you?" TSN host James Duthie asked Oilers general manager Steve Tambellini.

"Yes, all of the above," said Tambellini.

The Oilers have greater needs on defence with Ryan ­Murray of Everett Silvertips and the Edmonton Oil Kings' Griffin Reinhart very high on their list. (Edmonton Journal)

History suggests that going for a D-man with the No. 1 pick almost never becomes a home run. The Oilers surely know this, which is why it would follow they would try to trade down and have drafting Yakupov as a very nice fallback. Ryan Murray likely is going to be a long-term solid NHLer, but it bears pointing out that the history of drafting a defenceman right off the hop is fraught with misfortune. Also, contrary to popular belief, the Oilers have blueline prospects in their system, as Chris Lund astutely noted at Backhand Shelf.

You probably know that Denis Potvin is the only defenceman taken No. 1 who went on to win a Norris Trophy and earn a plaque in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Seven defencemen have gone No. 1 since the arguable modern NHL took wing in 1979 when it absorbed four surviving World Hockey Association franchises. Of the seven, arguably no one became an A-list star. Four of the six did become reliable contributors who played 1,000-plus NHL games, while the other three's careers were all altered by injury problems. In most cases, the choice was dictated by not having a can't-miss centre or winger available. Yakupov is in that can't-miss territory.

Perhaps Murray could break that mould. The history here might dictate either trading down (where Murray could still be the guy) or taking Yakupov and letting the Oilers' young forwards determine who stays.

In reverse order, here's a look at what happened with each defenceman taken first since 1979.

2006 — Erik Johnson, St. Louis Blues. It's unfair to judge Johnson, whose progress was slowed when he tore an ACL and MCL in 2008 while operating a golf cart. The four selections who followed him — Jordan Staal, Pittsburgh Penguins; Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks; Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals and Phil Kessel, Boston Bruins — are all fairly accomplished at the next level. Go ahead and roll your eyes at Kessel being included in that group, but this exercise is about the value the drafting team got from that pick. The Bruins ended up turning Kessel into two other top-10 choices, Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton.

1996 — Chris Phillips, Ottawa Senators. Taking the long view, the Senators could have done much worse than taking a serviceable stay-at-homer who's played 1,000-plus games for one NHL team. The '96 draft was very weak so it's hard to say how Ottawa erred even if Phillips didn't exactly have a high ceiling. Only five players from that year went on to score 500 points in the NHL, led by No. 24 pick Daniel Briere's 643 and counting.

1995 — Bryan Berard, Ottawa Senators (rights later traded to the New York Islanders). Berard was a dominant offensive defenceman with the OHL's Detroit Jr. Red Wings (75 points in his draft season). Of course, the Senators never signed him and traded his draft rights to the Isles for No. 2 choice Wade Redden. It's probably been forgotten, but Redden did blossom into a decent NHL defender — just not decent enough to justify keeping over Zdeno Chara.

Berard's career is tough to judge, as you know, because of the horrific eye injury he suffered in March 2000 while playing for Toronto. Without that accident, he might have become an elite player.

Meantime, the nos. 7 and 11 picks in 1995, Shane Doan (the original Winnipeg Jets) and Jarome Iginla (Dallas Stars) became perennial all-stars and long-time team captains.

1994 — Ed Jovanovski, Florida Panthers. Much like Phillips, Jovanovski became the consensus top prospect amid the dearth of a dynamic centre or scoring winger. Ryan Smyth (806 career points) emerged as the most accomplished forward from the top of that draft, but it's hard in retrospect to picture Ryan Smyth being everyone's No. 1 pick.

Jovanovski, to retroactively apply today's draftnik argot, was a high-risk, high-reward defenceman who'd played only one season with the OHL's Windsor Spitfires. The Panthers' reward, ultimately, was including him in a package that brought Pavel Bure to Miami in 1999. It is tough to say whether Jovanovski could have become a franchise player under better or different circumstances. He's merely had a good NHL career, playing more than 1,000 games.

1992 — Roman Hamrlik, Tampa Bay Lightning. Ottawa won a coin flip with Tampa Bay and elected to pick first in the expansion draft and No. 2 in the entry draft. The Lightning elected to build on the back end and took Hamrlik, who was also able to come to North America that fall. He's had a good NHL career that's still ongoing, but second pick Alexei Yashin had a greater impact in the NHL, at least in short run, leading Ottawa to respectability in the late 1990s before being essentially traded for Jason Spezza's peak years at the 2001 draft.

1982 — Gord Kluzak, Boston Bruins. Thirty years before this season's Injury Draft, the Bruins used the top pick on a two-way defenceman whose junior season had been cut short by a knee injury.

Boston GM Harry Sinden, in hindsight, got fixated on having Kluzak and Ray Bourque helming his back end for years. But Kluzak's knee ailments amounted to a failure to launch, limiting him to just 299 NHL games. The cost of taking him was missing out on either Brian Bellows, who went on to score 1,000 points in the NHL, or one of two future Hall of Fame defencemen, Scott Stevens and Phil Housley.

Stevens and Housley went fifth and sixth. Another defenceman, Gary Nylund, who was taken No. 3 by the Harold Ballard-era Toronto Maple Leafs. That might make the point obvious: it's seldom clear which defenceman will be the best in his class — the Most Likely To Succeed honour in your high school yearbook is about as good a forecaster — so why compound the risk by using the first pick in such a fashion?

(Nylund, of course, is a great footnote. He later became the first NHL free agent to change teams.)

1979 — Rob Ramage, Colorado Rockies. This was Bourque's draft year, so hindsight might dictate the original Colorado team simply could have picked another defenceman. Let's assume there was no way of gauging Bourque would become one of the best defenders to ever play the game based on the information available at that time.

Guess what, though? Even with that Bourque variable thrown out, future Hall of Famer Mike Gartner, who went No. 4 to the Washington Capitals, was still at the top of that draft.

Ramage, in a what was a good NHL career, was traded to St. Louis after three seasons. By the time he left, the Rockies had transmogrified into the New Jersey Devils. That put them in the Patrick Division, where they got to face Gartner seven times a season. Fortunately for the Oilers, if they take Murray and Yakupov goes to the Columbus Blue Jackets, at least they won't be in the same division. Ryan Murray will be a fine NHLer, but history suggests cornerstone defencemen usually lurk a few rungs down the draft board.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at neatesager@yahoo.ca and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.

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