I sense that many Leaf fans love playing “Monday Morning Quarterback”. We enjoy parsing the team’s mistakes after the fact, though many also see themselves as pretty darn good ‘armchair’ GM’s. This latter group would claim to know good and bad moves- in advance. I think we all feel that way sometimes, and that’s not completely crazy. Hey, on occasion, as fans, our instincts turn out to be right.
I don’t think you have/had to be a terribly good, full-time, veteran, NHL junior hockey “scout” to determine that, say, Marcel Dionne, Gilbert Perreault, or Denis Potvin were going to be not too bad. In more modern terms, could anyone really have missed Kovalchuk, Crosby, Ovechkin—guys of that ilk? By the time they were 19, it was evident they were abnormally talented and played with a passion you don't see very often.
Now, I’ll give you a higher grade if you projected (publicly), back in 1981 or whatever it was, that Doug Gilmour would some day be a Hall-of-Famer—when he played at maybe 140 pounds in his first year in Major Junior hockey. But even that scout, whoever it might have been, probably missed badly on ten other guys that we never heard of after they were also drafted. That’s just the way it is.
My point? GM’s - and scouts - hit and miss. Sometimes they look brilliant, other times, not so smart. Individual hits and misses, in my mind, don’t make you a good or bad GM or scout, or brilliant or stupid.
Sammy Pollock was considered an absolute hockey genius- the best hockey mind of his time, during his tenure as GM of the Habs. His scouting staff adjusted well to the new universal draft system that was introduced in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s (before that, NHL teams could basically sign and control players at ridiculously young ages) and he was renowned for making the trade that helped land him Guy Lafleur (left) with the first overall draft pick in the summer of 1971. But he also drafted plenty of guys that fans never really heard of again. Even Slick Sammy wasn't perfect.
It was the same with the Edmonton Oilers in the ‘80s. If you listened to those pumping their tires in that era, Sather (and Chief Scout Barry Frasier, was it, I may have the name wrong) were the best in the business. Well, they started with Gretzky (not having to draft him) and they, like Pollock and his crew, missed on tons of guys over the years. But they made enough “good calls” that they were indeed able to build a dynasty in that memorable decade for hockey in the province of Alberta.
When it comes to the Leafs, goodness, fans have so many complaints about what has happened over the last decade or so, eh? Some criticisms are valid, others, in m mind, not so much. For example, I’ve never fully accepted the premise that the Leafs, in the early 2000s, traded away all these outstanding young players and brilliant potential draft picks for short-term gain. Because we didn’t win a Cup at the time, that is now considered to have been 'dumb', and something we 'always' did. But the fact is, I can’t name one player or draft pick that was traded in that Quinn era (when he was GM) that has made me regret any of those deals. The Leafs weren’t just trying to get into the playoffs in those days—they were actually fighting to win a Cup. They were trying to improve, while showing the veterans on those teams that the organization would do everything they could to win. They came damn close in 2002.
The other criticism is that we have missed on too many draft picks. And at times, that has been true, But again, that happens to all teams.
Anyway, this happens a lot.
For fun, I looked at recent drafts to see what the Leafs have done in the first round. It’s still ‘early” to make any fair assessments about the players chosen (or not chosen), but we can make some broad observations.
In 2008, Cliff Fletcher’s single year in charge of the draft as “interim” GM, the Leafs took Luke Schenn 5th overall. To provide some context, the Canucks took Cody Hodgson at 10, Tyler Myers went to Buffalo at 12. Norris candidate Erik Karlsson went to Ottawa at 15. Jake Gardiner went 16th overall.
Those guys are now all solid young players. But let's go a little farther: 21 teams passed on Jordan Eberle. He went 22nd. (Now that’s a player I would love to see in blue and white. Loved him as a junior—haven’t changed my mind yet.)
Were the Leafs incompetent in drafting Schenn? Or was their error in unnecessarily rushing him to the league at the age of 18? (For the record, I have long said “yes”.) Did they make a mistake in not drafting those other guys? Well, one could certainly make that argument. They have van Riemsdyk now, and that eases the pain of giving away a young, tough defensemen drafted so high. As you’ve heard me say before, I hate giving up young defensemen, like Schenn and Keith Aulie. For me, the issue with Schenn was a) rushing him in the first place b) lack of development and c) killing his confidence.
So it’s not just drafting a guy, but how you help him learn the game at this level.
In 2009, Burke’s first year at the helm of the draft, Kadri was our 7th pick overall. Most observers at the time saw that as a reasonable choice. How we have yo’d-yo’d this kid for the past two seasons was not impressive, in my view, but now he’s here. Will he be a star? A nice, second-line player? I have no idea.
There was not a lot drafted after him in the first round. (I may be missing someone; I’m not an expert at following how every draft pick turns out.) Ryan Ellis, a dynamic young defenseman with Nashville that many other teams wanted at the trade deadline, went 11th. Rugged Zack Kassian (now looking pretty strong with the Canucks) went at 13 and Ashton, now with the Marlies, was 29th.
In 2010, well, we didn’t pick, of course, but that is when the Bruins were able to select Tyler Seguin with the choice we dealt for Kessel. Then, in 2011, Doug Hamilton (playing about 19 minutes a game with the Bruins this season) was drafted 9th overall, I think it was, by Boston, the second shoe to drop in the Kessel deal.
In 2011, we did get Stuart Percy in the deal that sent Vertseeg to Philly (Stalberg is still playing for the Hawks, having been shuttled to the Hawks in the initial Versteeg deal that brought the much-traveled winger here). Some folks are very high on the young 19 year-old defenseman.
I’m not drawing any conclusions here, other than to say that GM’s (and their scouting staffs) do their best to select the players they believe will mature, develop and play a role with their team at some point down the road. Sometimes you deal a future draft pick for a player and it works out great for both teams. At times, you get burned. Sometimes you ‘win” the deal. Every once in a while, your draft picks turn out awfully well. But there is rarely a guarantee, is there?
Have the Leafs done a “worse” job than other teams in the above circumstances over the years, or even very recently? I don't know. Mistakes or not, I think one of the biggest issues in this market is we have not had an elite goalie here since Curtis Joseph left (hey, I loved Belfour but he was on his relative ‘last legs’). And we haven’t had a top center since Sundin’s prime. The Leafs have never truly replaced the grit they had in the Quinn years. We're getting better, yes, but we have issues to deal with, still.
We have had an opportunity to bottom feed at the draft in recent years, but haven’t hit the low-enough depths (like in the ‘90s Senators, later Pittsburgh and more recently, the Oilers) to get the very best draft options—expect for the year we could have grabbed Seguin.
Management’s fault? Bad luck? It is what it is. We are where we are. I only have clichés.
But bottom line: we’re not alone. Even the vaunted Red Wing drafting machine has not found a Datsyuk or Zetterburg every year.
At some point, the Leafs will need to get some big-time free agents to come here. Otherwise, this building with youth approach, whether by trade or via the draft, while perhaps very wise, will take a long time to pay dividends- if it ever does.
The most recent poll on the new-look VLM site saw 60% of respondents indicate they believe the Maple Leafs will make the playoffs this season. 40% believe they won't make it.
Episode 31 of the "Leaf Matters" podcast is available! Those interested can tune in on iTunes or the Podalmighty Network. We cover plenty of topics, including whether the Leafs should go after Ovechkin, Phaneuf's leadership, thoughts on Grabovski and rating the Leaf tough guys.