We’ve heard a lot of complaints—the loudest of them from Don Cherry—about Brian Burke’s affinity for drafting players born and raised in the United States.
Now, it’s no secret that Burke prefers to build his teams with North American players. Sure, Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski are important cogs in his team, but, even looking very casually at the makeup of Burke’s teams over the years, it’s clear that Europeans are not as well represented in the ranks as their North American colleagues.
So what’s the deal?
There are probably many reasons behind Burke’s team construction, but one seems to be that he is attempting to capitalize on a rapidly improving American Junior hockey development system. Obviously, it’s a shrewd idea for any GM to try to be among the first to tap into a new source of players, and Burke appears to be one of the earlier prospectors looking for gold south of the Canadian junior system’s border. Yes, the CHL has 9 American teams, that is true, but I’m only speaking of players in the USHL, NAHL, and EJHL.
The Leafs currently have several players in their system under the age of 25 that have gone through the American Junior system at some point in their development, and it’s no coincidence that all of them were drafted or acquired by Burke:
Phil Kessel – NAHL + USNTDP
Tyler Biggs – USNTDP + NCAA
Kenny Ryan – NAHL + USNTDP
Tony Cameranesi – USHL
Dominic Toninato – USHL
Jerry D’Amigo – NAHL + USNTDP
Max Everson – USHL
Eric Knodel – USHL
My attention was first called to this point by a few quotes I read in the art of Scouting by Shane Malloy. The first, from Jim Hammet, an NHL scout (and former Director of Player Personnel fro Tampa Bay), describes the emerging U.S. junior system as being slightly below the level of the CHL, but nevertheless an important source of players:
"It takes a little bit more projection [to guess whether or not the players will make the NHL], and when you are talking about those leagues you are talking about guys that are going to be, for the most part, trying to pursue a college scholarship. So sometimes they are four or five years away from being a pro, but they are all quality leagues and they can’t be ignored."
The second quote I have to offer is from Ross Mahoney, Director of Amateur Scouting for the Washington Capitals:
"I think the USHL, NAHL, EJHL are really starting to produce a lot of hockey players, as is anywhere in the USA. Before, we had sort of the traditional areas like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and parts of New England, but now we are seeing players come out of Florida, Texas, and California. I think it helped that the NHL progressed and started to get teams in different markets. It takes a while for the minor hockey to develop, but eventually they start to produce."
Oh, and that U.S. National Training Development Program? Mark Kelley, Director of Amateur Scouting for the Chicago Blackhawks had this to say:
"I think the U.S. national program is probably getting 75 to 80 percent of the top U.S. kids each year for the NHL draft. The benefit to scouting that program is there are kids that play on that team who are first round to seventh round picks. If you see someone playing against that team, it’s very comparable. In other words, you watch that team play in the USHL and you get a good read on USHL players. Some of those kids will play in international tournaments against some of the better Canadian teams, but you never know based on what type of team they are able to put together which players are available at that time and how they go head-to-head against the Europeans."
Imagine that the CHL had a pair of All-Star teams that travelled about playing against players from the OHL, QMJHL, and WHL. It sure would make for easier comparisons when trying to spot a future NHLer.
It’s not as though the USNTDP is under-scouted. Heck, even these other, second-tier Junior leagues in the States are pretty well known at this point. I wouldn’t have quotes from scouts of other teams to offer you if they weren’t, but no other team can scout them as thoroughly as the Leafs.
Identifying the next hockey hotbed is not the kind of legwork that Brian Burke does himself. Naturally, it’s his team of scouts – the largest in the league – that are making every effort to connect with coaches and management of teams that until the last couple decades didn’t exist. Being the first team to a well may be the difference between a late-round surprise and another wasted pick.