I’ll never forget the NHL draft from the summer of 1973. I was 20. Teams couldn’t take guys until they were my age—no hard-to-project 18 year-olds were available in those days.
The Leafs, under GM Jim Gregory, had managed to garner three first-round picks—in fact 3 in the top 15 selections, as I recall. We grabbed three outstanding young talents: Lanny McDonald, Ian Turnbull and Bob Neely..
Lanny went on to a Hall-of-Fame career. Turnbull was the eternal enigma—all kinds of talent but a short, frustrating career. And Neely, for a variety of reasons, never achieved the sum of his many skills as an NHL’er. (Click on their names to check out some earlier posts on those former Maple Leafs...)
That was probably the most “fun” I had as a young guy around the Leafs and the draft, knowing they had three shots at making something happen. And Gregory did pretty darn well in taking the guys he did. Those three, along with fellow newcomers Inge Hammastrom and Borje Salming helped to turn that Leaf team around for years to come.
Now, though, I have to admit here that while I’ve always enjoyed draft day (as a Maple Leaf fan), over the past twenty or so years I’ve become a bit more jaded about the whole thing.
Why? It’s probably a number of factors.
I’ve never been enthusiastic about 18 or 19 year-olds signing for huge money. Yes, they’ve “worked hard” to catch the attention of scouts, but I think you should be 'proven' at the major-league level before you start making the big dollars.
But that aside, I think it’s just the reality that the draft is different in hockey than in other sports. Oh, you’ll get the occasional Lemieux, or Crosby, etc. who come in and make an immediate impact, but by and large you’re waiting a few years to see if guys develop. (In the NBA and the NFL, teams draft guys to have an impact right now…) And more often than not, all the scouting reports about a player’s potential just become crumpled up pieces of paper.
So while I still enjoy hearing about who the Leafs pick every year, it’s not easy to make the grade. I think of the people the Leafs have selected in the last 10 years or so. Brad Boyes was picked 24th overall in the year 2000. He’s had a nice career, and fans sometimes complain that the organization should have kept him. But the reality is he has played for several teams, so the Leafs weren’t the only ones to “give up on him”. No one else from that Leaf draft has had a lengthy NHL career. But every player drafted received glowing reviews from the Leaf brass on draft day.
The very next year the blue and white drafted a number of guys who played in the NHL. Of course Carlo Colaiacovo was grabbed 17th overall, and he too left Toronto and while he has had an OK career, it would be hard to argue that he has had the kind of career many predicted for him. Karel Pilar, Brendan Bell, Jay Harrison and little Kyle Welwood have all had their moments, but none have been NHL standouts.
2002 saw us pick up Alex Steen and Matt Stajan in the first two rounds. Both have been pretty solid NHL’ers, though Stajan has struggled in recent seasons. Have they performed as expected? (Ian White at 191st overall was probably a more impressive selection, but even he has bounced around the league…)
2003, 2004 and 2005 were utterly forgettable draft years for the Maple Leafs. The only individual who may become an impact player some day is Tuukka Rask and we all know he doesn’t live here anymore.
In 2006, it was a good crop selected by John Ferguson Jr. and his staff—at least the way things look now: Kulemin, Reimer, Holzer and Stalberg are all NHL players. Leaf supporters are hoping the first three will be long-term contributors to the club.
2007 is best known so far for the drafting of Carl Gunnarsson 194th overall. I think he will be a “top-four” d-man, so there is no complaint there. And the organization is promoting Matt Frattin as a guy who can play, so we’ll see.
No one is complaining about Luke Schenn being taken in the first round in 2008. And we know that in 2009, Nazem Kadri was Burke’s first “flag in the ground” choice as GM of the Leafs. Jesse Blacker and Jerry D’Amigo, among others, remain in the “prospect” category. (It feels too early to know if anyone selected last summer, in 2010, will ever play in
So what’s the reality? Every guy who is drafted has skill and should be proud that they were highly-enough thought of to be picked by an NHL team. It’s a tremendous achievement,
But as a fan, well, I’ve seen too many guys not make it—or end up in another uniform—to get too excited.
Unless you’re drafting a Crosby or Ovechkin (and the Leafs have not been in a position to do that since, well, 1985 and Wendel Clark), you’re generally not getting a huge difference-maker in the short term.
So, as much fun as the draft always is, I’ll leave it to the younger Leaf fans to love the anticipation and the build up, in my stead...