The 2008 NHL Draft was the "draft of the defenseman." four out of the top five choices were d-men: Drew Doughty, Zach Bogosian, and Alex Pietrangelo, and Luke Schenn all went in order after Steven Stamkos was selected first overall. All of them had their rookie year struggles numbers-wise, except for Bogosian. Bogosian's success his injury shortened first season had fans claiming that the Thrashers won the draft, but with the 2009-2010 season, some were questioning Bogosian's abilities.
First, a look at the stats of three of the four guys through their NHL careers (all stats from NHL.com - I will leave out Schenn from this comparison due to the differences his role on his team holds in relationship to the other three):
Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings:
- 2008-2009: 81GP, 6G-21A-27Pts; -17
- 2009-2010: 82 GP, 16G-43A-59 Pts; +20
- 2010-2011: 43 GP, 4G-22A-26Pts; +14
Zach Bogosian, Atlanta Thrashers:
- 2008-2009: 47GP, 9G-10A-19 Pts; +11
- 2009-2010: 81 GP, 10G-13A-23 Pts; -18
- 2010-2011: 40 GP, 3G-5A-8 Pts; -13
Alex Pietrangelo: St. Louis Blues:
- 2008-2009: 8GP, 0G-1A-1 Pt; Even
- 2009-2010: 9GP, 1G-1A-2 Pts; -9
- 2010-2011: 45GP, 5G-18A-23 Pts; +8
Out of the four, three played full time in the NHL. Only Pietrangelo was returned to his Junior club(s) after eight games. Why? Necessity. The Maple Leafs, Kings, and Thrashers judged their picks to be physically ready to play in the NHL, and regardless of mental development they needed to play them. The teams were hurting for quality defensemen, especially Atlanta and LA, who needed defensemen to score in their more up-tempo systems. The Leafs needed some solidity at the blue line. St. Louis did not practice a system that encouraged the defense to hop into the rush, and they didn't need offensively minded defensemen, so they allowed Petro to return to the Niagara Ice Dogs for further development. This step in development for Pietrangelo versus Bogosian is important, and I'll be back to that point in a moment.
The Kings still struggled the year after Doughty was drafted, going 34-37-11 and finishing 14th in the Western Conference. Their offense struggled, scoring just 204 goals on the season, and with a goal differential of -27, it was hard pressed to find many players who had a positive +/- rating. Only six players finished with more than an even rating, and out of those defenseman Sean O'Donnell led the team with a +2. Factor in the defensive problems to Doughty's learning on the job, and the -17 is understandable. The following season, scoring picked up considerably, with the team scoring 241 goals and allowing 219, which was a drastic improvement from the previous year. In contrast to the previous season, six players had a +/- of over 10. Doughty was set up by his teammates to succeed, not just because of the team's numbers but because the positive play aided his development and steered him into becoming the player he is. You are what you're surrounded by.
Pietrangelo and the Blues had the luxury of being able to nurture his development. The Blues, even with injuries to Erik Johnson (who missed the entire 2008-2009 season) and Eric Brewer, the team was always able to find solid defensive defensemen to hold the blueline. Andy Murray's style of play never called for the defensive corps to jump into the rush, so having player like Barret Jackman, Roman Polak, and Carlo Colaiacovo were more than useful. Having Jay McKee and Mike Weaver strengthened the penalty kill, and Steve Wagner, Jeff Woywitka as well as Tyson Strachan helped plug necessary holes while the youth was being cultivated. The focus in St. Louis never has been to "win now," but rather to grow the team to have multiple successful seasons instead of one explosive one followed by a less than stellar season (see Doughty's team, the Kings, for an example of that). Pietrangelo benefited because of this, adding speed and weight in Juniors, while learning fundamentals that are necessary for successful defense. Of course, working in the off-season with Al MacInnis probably didn't hamper his development either. Petro, then, had the tools he needed to come into the league and play a game sans learning curve, and he has done that so far this season, having the best year out of St. Louis' defensemen, with the exception of captain Eric Brewer.
Bogosian's route to the NHL mirrors Doughty's. The Thrashers needed Bogosian to step up right off the bat, and promptly inserted him into the league in a run-and-gun, uptempo coaching system that played to his offensive talents. Being paired with a veteran in Matthieu Schneider also helped Bogo develop. Unfortunately, Bogosian's rookie season had a speed-bump during the October 28th game against the Philadelphia Flyers. Bogosian, who had just fifty two seconds of ice time so far that game, was checked into the boards and broke his leg. This injury knocked him out of commission for two months, until the January 14th game against the Carolina Hurricanes (Bogosian played one ill-advised game on New Year's Eve that year, but he wasn't conditioned enough for his full return yet). Those two months gone hampered his growth by taking away valuable ice time, both during games and during practice, as well as strength and conditioning time.
Bogosian attempted to make up for lost time last season, bulking up significantly. Then-coach John Anderson responded by putting Bogosian on ice for significantly more ice time, and initially paired him with Tobias Enstrom, the team's top defenseman. The pair played well together, and as a reward Anderson inexplicably broke up the pairing, putting Bogosian with Ron Hainsey. The new pairing had minimal chemistry, and both players' stats dipped after the move. Bogosian's ice time barely waned through the season, even as his output lessened and his +/- diminished. Anderson made no move to take Bogosian out of the game to place him in the press box to give him a chance to observe and learn, which would have been beneficial. Also, Bogosian injured his wrist at some point during the second half of the season so much so that he hesitated to shoot, cutting the previous season's offensive totals when you adjust his rookie year's for 82 games. No attempt was made to rest him as the team was heading into its failed playoff push, and no attempt was made to rest him after it became obvious that the team wasn't making the post-season. Bogosian was playing between 17 and 23 minutes a night all the way to the end of the season.
Bogosian (and Bryan Little) regressed significantly in 2009-2010, which partially prompted the firing of Anderson and the Thrashers' coaching staff. It is hoped that new coach Craig Ramsay can have the patience to work with Bogosian. So far, the team has sat him when injured to give him time to recover, and has not been afraid to limit his ice-time and put him in the press box for perspective. He's having issues adjusting to his second NHL coach in three seasons, and these issues - along with improper development - are holding him back this season significantly. Bogosian could have benefited from an extra year in Juniors had the Thrashers had that luxury. Unfortunately, they did not, and poor management of one of the top defensive talents in the 2008 draft is making fans call Bogo a bust. It's a shame that Atlanta couldn't mirror the development of Pietrangelo, and it is a shame that Bogosian injured himself his rookie year. Frankly, though, the biggest shame was the ignorance in John Anderson's playing him both injured and slumping. Bad player management is detrimental to any player, but a second year defenseman? Atrocious.
Defensemen take a while to develop, so have patience. The past sins of the Thrashers and coaches will add time to Bogo's development; he hasn't been well-managed like Doughty and Pietrangelo. Whether Ramsay can get through to save him remains to be seen, but if fans were upset regarding the team giving up on Brayden Coburn so quickly, if they trade Bogosian and he breaks out, upset will be the understatement of the decade.