There’s a common theme in the NHL when it comes to perceiving the success of any given draft.
You’ll see it everywhere in the hours and days following: “Who were the winners and losers?” or “Grading each team: 2017 NHL Draft”. However the headline, the idea is the same: instant reaction about the 17-20 year old players picked up in any given year. There’s endless arguments and debates, even though the average fan likely hasn’t seen many of these players play much, if at all.
At the same time, scouting has never been more advanced, and never have so many fans known players deep into the late rounds, compared to even ten years ago when knowing the first round outside of the top 10 made you seem like a draft expert. There’s far more resources than ever before, and so many are quick to judge how exactly things will shake out for each of the 31 teams.
Instant reaction can be useful. Some picks are objectively bad at the time, and many will agree. Take Tyler Biggs or Frederik Gauthier being taken in the first round by the Leafs, for example. There was a vocal enough contingent of the fanbase who were able to justifiably be mad at these picks considering the other options left on the board, and in Biggs’ case, trading up for him.
Through a series of front office overhauls, though, the Leafs have been very good at drafting the past four years, with the odd exception. Usually, it’s a swing for the fences type draft pick. “We’re not really sure what we’re getting, but if he turns out he could really be something” is a sentiment attached to more than one Leafs’ mid-late round pick.
A draft is like a season. You can judge them one at a time, but unless you match it up with a couple other ones as well, it won’t give you much of a picture of how strong an organization is at drafting. For examples sake, we’ll use the Florida Panthers.
The Panthers in 2015-16 won the Atlantic Division with 103 points, had a goal differential of +36 and looked like a legitimate Eastern Conference contender.
They bowed out in six games to the New York Islanders in the first round. The franchise hasn’t won a playoff series since 1996, and has only been in the playoffs five times since the inaugural 1993-94 season.
So while they may have been one of the league’s best few teams a year ago, it’s hard to really refer to them as a successful organization.
Drafts, in a sense, are the same way. One good pick looks nice, but even the best draft pick in the world can’t turn things around immediately.
Need proof? All of Connor McDavid, Alex Ovechkin, and Sidney Crosby missed the playoffs in their rookie year. Auston Matthews didn’t but of course, the three other supporting casts in those rookie seasons don’t quite match up to the group Toronto had this year.
It’s no secret, but you need to land more than just a sole good player to find draft success, just in the same way that unless you go on a Cinderella run and manage to win it all (which basically never happens), it’s hard to be viewed as successful with just one good year.
In the past four drafts, the Leafs have somehow managed four players who all hit the top five on Bob McKenzie’s ranking at some point in the season: William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, and Timothy Liljegren.
They’ve only picked in the top five twice.
And even though there’s been three definite hits so far, and from all accounts, another one on the way, out of the four, there was still only one glaringly obvious pick: Auston Matthews. The perceived #1 from the time he was 15 or 16, Matthews never lost his top spot in the majority of people’s eyes, but even then, things weren’t always abundantly clear. Though Matthews continuously took the reigns at #1 in just about every ranking, (hey, Corey Pronman!), there was never a consensus on who the Leafs should draft. A strong World Championship from Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi and hoo boy, there were a lot of articles
In a purely hypothetical sense, let’s re-run those four drafts, assuming the season results went the same way.
2014: The first five picks go the same way, but at 6th overall, William Nylander becomes a Vancouver Canuck. At 7th, Haydn Fleury still goes to the Hurricanes, and at 8th, Jake Virtanen goes to the Leafs.
2015: There’s about three ways this could have played out.
Scenario 1: At third overall, Mitch Marner becomes an Arizona Coyote. Dylan Strome becomes a Maple Leaf.
Scenario 2: At third overall, Noah Hanifin becomes an Arizona Coyote. Dylan Strome becomes a Maple Leaf.
Scenario 3: At third overall, Dylan Strome becomes an Arizona Coyote. The Leafs decide they need help on defence after selecting Virtanen the year prior, and Noah Hanifin becomes a Maple Leaf.
There’s a fourth scenario where Hanifin goes 3rd and the Leafs still select Marner, but it’s not nearly as scary as the other three.
2016: The Leafs are in a tough spot, debating whether Matthews’ stock is actually falling and whether Patrik Laine is a legitimate option as well. At first overall, they can’t decide, and take Jesse Puljujarvi.
2017: One of 16 other teams takes Timothy Liljegren. The Leafs take anyone else. For the easiest pick in this scenario, we’ll go with the guy who was taken 18th, Urho Vaakanainen.
The Leafs are now tasked to build their franchise with Urho Vaakanainen, Jesse Puljujarvi, Dylan Strome (or Noah Hanifin), and Jake Virtanen.
Doesn’t sound quite the same now, does it? And yet, even if it’s a stretch, it’s totally within the realm of possibility.
The other hits
In addition to nailing the four picks inside the top 10, there’s also four or five legitimate NHLers inside the Leafs’ system. You can read a million things about Leafs prospects on this site and others, but let’s just run through a few of the other picks the Leafs have had.
The Swedish red-haired wonder Grundstrom played the season mostly in the SHL before making the late season jump to the Marlies. He shone in the playoffs through the two rounds the Marlies made it, picking up 3 goals in just six games of action.
Another 2016 selection, Brooks is Jeff’s favourite guy because he puts up tons of points in the WHL and he liked the pick at the time.
Jeremy Bracco tore it up at the Memorial Cup this year, leading Windsor in scoring in the tournament as the host team took, there’s still some size concerns as he’s a little on the smaller side, but hey, we heard the same things about more than one Leafs rookie this year.
One of the other picks acquired in that 2015 trade with Philly, Dermott is likely the best non-Liljegren defensive prospect the Leafs have.
You could make the case that these four will all see NHL time next season. There’s more potential, in Andreas Johnsson, Dmytro Timashov, Andrew Nielsen, to name a few. If they manage 10 NHLers out of four consecutive drafts, that’s quite impressive.
Hitting on the mid round picks is important, and though none of the picks past the first round of the past four years have materialized yet as regular NHLers, a few of them seem on the verge of breaking through.
But hitting on your first round picks is what makes and breaks your team, and the Leafs, boy, they’ve made it real well. While it’s not perfect, it’s really hard to find a team that’s really managed to land as many hits as the Leafs in the same timeframe.
The Leafs have consistently been great at drafting, especially at the area it counts the most, at the top end of the draft.
Without making wise picks, the bottom line is would not be in the spot they are right now. Being bad only gets you to the top of the draft, but that’s only half the battle.