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Do the Maple Leafs understand player development?

Let me first make an obvious statement: I’m simply a long-time hockey observer, not an analyst.  I don’t pretend to be able to break down the subtleties of the game.  I read about “advanced stats” and I don't doubt there is some value in what they tell an organization but I just know what I see and typically like (or don’t) in a player at the NHL level.

So when I write about player development, as we kick off "draft week" in the National Hockey League, I am offering a very unsophisticated view of that term. As a hockey layman, I simply mean that there is more to that term, in my mind, than drafting a guy, stuffing him in the minor for six weeks or six months and then expecting him to be “a pro”.  Somewhere along the way really good organizations (and really good coaching staffs) must somehow know how to continue the teaching/development process with young players.

With so many young athletes in all sports a lot of whether they succeed in the conventional sense has to do with their natural skills and their work ethic.  But I also have to believe, based on my own personal life experience (and experience in and around sports over many years) that the ability to continue and actually extend the education process with young people that have various degrees of potential can and should be a crucial component of helping them  to reach that potential.

In simple terms, can an organization not only draft someone with character, skill and a strong work ethic, but also provide the little things that help that young person on and off the ice to become all they can be?

I know the Leafs have a seemingly checkered history in this regard with young players.  I mean, I have memories of young Maple Leafs going back to the late 1950s. Why do some “make it” and some don’t?  (I’m not talking about the young players the Leafs have traded away in my lifetime and went on to become stars elsewhere, that’s a topic for another day…). Today I’m simply asking VLM readers if they believe the Leafs have, in very recent times, done an adequate, poor or very good job of taking the talent they’ve drafted or acquired and developing them into the kind of NHLers they could and should be.

Jake Gardiner hasn’t played 300 NHL games as a defenseman, and that’s an evaluation demarcation point for a lot of hockey assessment experts. But have the Leafs truly developed him, I wonder, to bring him to where he should be as an all-around player?  (And I simply raise Gardiner’s name as an example.  He has only played a little over 160 regular season NHL games- about two regular seasons worth of games.)

There are so many things that go into development.  It’s teaching the nuances about the position the youngster plays; it’s also about helping with positioning. It includes effective communication, being able to clearly show what you want from the player, understanding their current limitations as well as  patience and discipline. We can probably throw in establishing realistic roadmaps and expectations along with  proper and timely feedback.

And when does this all stop?  Are the Leafs still developing Dion Phaneuf, for example, or is he so far along in his career that true growth is improbable? Do good organizations help make even mature (but willing) veterans better?

Would Phaneuf be an even better player by now in a different environment (even setting aside whether he is truly a first-line defenseman or has the right partner)?

I read with interest a piece a few days ago, quoting former NBA great Jerry West.  I remember watching West as a youngster play for the LA Lakers in the 1960s.  (Talk about a guy who could play.)  I don’t follow the NBA closely any more, but I know a bit about what’s going on as a casual observer.  West, a Hall-of-Famer with talent, smarts and a great work ethic as a player and NBA executive, marveled at how well the San Antonio Spurs “develop” their young players.  If guys have weaknesses, West suggests they are able to reach down and help those individuals become better than expected. 

I can’t verify West’s claim, but the Spurs haven’t high a high draft pick (they’ve been a top team for 15 seasons or more) in ages, I don’t believe, and yet they have continued to be a tremendous team.  Like the Detroit Red Wings in hockey, they seem to know how to identify talent and character through the draft, trades or free agency.  It doesn't mean they’re never wrong.  Every team makes choices and decisions that don’t move the needle.  But they are progressive, classy organizations with a strong management structure, employing legitimate leaders that don’t have to talk about creating a winning culture as much as simply act it out.

This all leads to my point.  Maybe West is on to something.  There are organizations that “teach” and develop better than others.  I’m not suggesting this is news, but even in this high-tech world of player assessment where everyone should be on a level playing field, a select few organizations still seem to stand out over prolonged periods of time in their respective sports. And it’s not always about who has the most money.

These clubs hire the right executive and management people, surround them with the administrative and assessment tools (as well as the human resources talent) they need to thrive.  And eventually it falls on the chosen coach, his staff and the players that management provides them with.  And that dynamic—between coaching staff and players—either works or it doesn’t.

When it comes to really and truly developing players, I’m not saying some organizations and some coaches have it and some don’t, but some seem to get it right more often and more consistently than others.

Some observers think the Leafs have a lot of great young prospects.  Others aren’t so sure.  Some believe Dallas Eakins, a fine coach, was outstanding at developing players with the AHL Marlies, though that development skill may be in question after a season behind the Oiler bench where he coached some of the most gifted youngsters in the game and saw the team fall far short of expectations.

But I’m not so much questioning whether the Leafs have young talent at the Junior or minor league (or even on the projected Leaf roster) level, but are they doing what they have to do to make those players better?

My guess is a core of Leaf supporters will suggest things are better now than they used to be when it comes to development, but I’m not sure I’m seeing the proof, as in a number of solid, two-way NHLers who can contribute in important situations all over the ice.  Yes, some of these players are really young and I have always recognized it takes time to properly develop talent, but I'd be more comfortable if the Leaf history was proven in this area.

The culture of an organization has to provide something when it comes to development and expectations.  The coaching staff certainly has a significant role. And the players have to bring the right attitude, embrace organizational objectives, work on their flaws and be genuine team guys while embracing what’s asked of them. 

It’s a two way street.

Where are the Leafs?


  1. So many things come to mind on how to approach this question. It must be difficult for minor league teams to balance the need to make a profit, which means in most cases, win games, and the need to develop players to make the next step in development.

    I think for years the leafs did not see a need to spend a lot of time and energy developing players. They had the money to overpay good players developed by other teams. They were so unprepared for the Cap era that they are still suffering from a lack of a player development system. Now they have had to rebuild (build?) a system from the ground up.

    They also seem to keep running into the same problem minor league teams have with the whole development process and the desire to win games now. I think Nonis is at least saying the right things, in that he keeps talking about "the future" of the team, and bringing Shanahan on board to get an insight as to how the Red Wings development system works, is a big step in the right direction. Now the key is patience. While widely criticized for it, I believe Nonis made the right decision to not give up young assets to obtain temporary help at the trade deadline last year. My sincere hope is that he doesn't bow to external pressure and keeps travelling down that same road.

    1. Hi Stan- you raise a very good point about minor league teams. That always seems to be a difficult balance. I do agree we were unprepared for the cap era, which set us back years.

      Now, we have more depth, and a minor league system. I do agree that many Leaf fans are willing to be patient and Nonis is on that path, keeping his young players.

    2. I'm hoping for the same. Patience, patience, please be patient.

  2. I think there are two questions coming out of your article above.
    1) Is the organization good at developing prospects?
    2) Is the organization good at identifying player strengths, weaknesses and overall ability to play?

    I think the answer to #1 is a definitive yes. The second question is debatable. Leafs showed a commitment to keeping players in the minors when they thought it was correct (Kadri, Gardiner) and both are playing relatively well now. The Leafs always partake in the rookie tournament. The Marlies were one of the youngest AHL squads and had a surprisingly good year with limited veteran assistance. I don't see too many former Leafs prospects I wish I had back on the team with the exception of Steen and that was five years ago. So I'd say the Leafs appear good at helping prospects achieve their potential.

  3. Hi Michael,

    today I want to start with your last question. Where are the leafs?

    I have a fun fact here. On March 29 th the Leafs hosted the Red Wings. Both teams fighting for a playoff berth. The injury plagued Red Wings dressed 18 skaters. Four of them where not drafted by the Wings. Eleven where drafted and developed by the Red Wings organization (the highest where some late first round picks). Three where undrafted free agent signings developed by the Wings organization. Four of five missing players (Datzyuk, Zetterberg, Abdelkader, Ericsson, Cleary) were drafted and developed by the Wings.
    The Leafs dressed their 18 best skaters. Five of them drafted by the Leafs. One was an undrafted free agent signing by the Leafs.
    I think there is some work to do.

    The Leafs can not only draft someone with character, skill and a strong work ethic. They have to! And they have to get better in providing the little things that help that young person on and off the ice to become the player they can be an contribute right away if called up.

    The Leafs were not very good in developing young players in the near past.
    Luke Schenn was to good to play another year in junior but could not play in the AHL (like Rielly this year) so they gave him a roster spot in the NHL. That really hurt his development and he stagnated from there on. That raised some questions. Why did they draft this kind of player at number 5? Why played a right handed D-man on the left side? Why were the Leafs scouts not able to identify bad decission making and lack of foot speed in such a player?

    Kadri was sent down and called up multiple times from 2010 - 2012 between the NHL and AHL.
    He was called up played terriffic then cooled down and was sent down a few games later where he had problems adjusting to the Marlies. A few weeks later the whole scenario repeated again. In between he was called out publicly by Burke and Wilson for bad habits.
    If they thought he is ready why didn't they keep him with the Leafs? And if they thought he needed time to develop why not simply giving him time in the AHL? If he stayed there becoming a dominant player with lots of responsibilities it had not hurt his development.

    Good organizations make players consistently better. No matter how old they are. Development never stops. Phaneuf has developed a great deal in the last few years.

    It is nearly impossible to say if he would be better in a diffrent environment.
    But he would be better with a better partner, cutting down his minutes a bit and allowing him to connect the "old" Dion with the "new" Dion a bit more .

    The Leafs clearly have to do more to make their players better.

    The Leafs are better now in developing players then they used to be but it will take a few years to really see the proof.

    1. You raise a lot of good points -and questions- today, Marcus. I have long thought Schenn could have been developed differently, and I, too, did not like the yo-yo Kadri was on during the time you mentioned.

      We are in a development cycle with the Leafs right now that will indeed take years to see if the organization has -or hasn't- done a good job at helping their kids achieve their potential.

    2. Every player develops differently and has their own ultimate level. When the leafs kept schenn it looked like a great move his first season. It wasn't until the second year that he seemed to regress. Was it coaching? Did other teams have a book on him and know how to capitalize on his weaknesses? Was it a conditioning issue? Or did he just reach his plateau? I actually thought the way they handled Kadri was correct for his situation. They dangled the carrot and then sent him down to work on what he needed to work on to stay full time. I frankly don't understand the flak Kadri gets from some fans and media. I think he had played well the past two seasons and had the potential to be a key player moving forward. Oh, and going back to Schenn, they developed him well enough to get JVR for him.

    3. Hi Stan,

      thank you for your answear.
      A player receives the education to become an NHL before he steps into the league, in Junior and in the AHL (or elswhere). There is no education in the NHL itself. Sure there is growing and developing but players not ready, do not grow into NHL players in the NHL.
      Schenn was not ready. He played in the NHL because he was not allowed to play the AHL. The problems started in the secend seasen, that is not unusual, but to this very day they were never solved. The team is responsible for the education of the player and to make sure that he is really ready when he makes the step.The possible reasons you suggest are all the responsibility of the Leafs.Make sure you have the right coaching staff to teach young players. If he had condition issues why did he play? And if he had conditional problems or opponents discoverd his weaknesses and took advantage of it, the coaching staff has to find a way to solve the problem. If they are not able to, they have to be replaced! Did you really think he reached his plateau in his second year? Why did the Leafs pick a player at number 5!!!!! who reached his limit in his second year? Your scouting staff has to identify players that can reach or better excel the projected level. And the Leafs are not good in identifying these players and in providing them with the education and development to do so.
      Center and Defensman are the most difficult positions to learn. Kadri never learned to be a centerman in professional hockey. If the Leafs thought he was ready, do n ot send him back. But they didn't thought he was ready so they send him back and jo joed him up and down instead of allowing him to develop into a professional center at the AHL. But he never had a full year in the AHL. That would have helped him a lot.
      Carlyle did a great job (2012/2013) in giving him 10 - 15 min ice time and keeping him away from strong players. Last season he had no choice and Kadri turned invisible when he had to cope. That is a lack of development and education. Peter Holland a player who is not as gifted as Kadri, steped in an played like a well ripened centerman. He is not a first line guy and he is not even a second line guy like Kadri but he did everything you can expect from a well developed young player. That is the difference.

  4. I am certainly not an expert on player development or anything pertaining to professional hockey. Just a long time Leaf fan wishing for success.

    I also don't know if the Leafs have a good developmental program for their young ones now. When Brian Burke came on board, he convinced me that he did know the importance of development and had a recipe of how to prepare a championship team.

    Unfortunately, he seemed (over time) to me more bluster than I would have liked. Worst, he was constantly inconsistent with what he said was needed to be done. For example, building from the net out, truculence and testosterone, etc.

    I think that we need a GM who knows how to create a successful team and knows whether or not that he has a good scouting and coaching team in place. Kind of like Burke, but without the constant conflicting philosophical attitudes and 'smoke and mirror' excuses.

    Can Shanahan do this? I would love it if he could but I think it would be a surprise to us all because he doesn't have any previous examples with other teams.

    The Leafs are a team rich with money and adoring fans. Couldn't they just hire someone who has expertise in knowing how to create a championship team and stick with him until he's finished? They could pay someone well and make it worth his while. A championship team in Toronto could make such a GM immortal.

    1. I nodded along throughout your post, drgreg. Thanks.

  5. Michael,

    It should be very clear to any long time fan of the Maple Leafs, that the organization knows absolutely nothing in the area of drafting and developing talent. This may seem a little harsh, but honestly, they are as intellectually bankrupt in this area as is humanly possible. Other than the years that Pat Quinn was at the helm, there has been no success in the last 47 years to even contemplate. The lone late round pick to do anything of consequence was Kaberle.

    There are many reasons for this ineptitude. First, the teams have generally been a garbage fire. This necessitates the keeping of raw rookie talent with the big club solely because they don't have anyone who is better currently. This was the situation with Schenn, and is the current situation with Morgan Rielly. Even though both players showed well in their rookie campaigns, my feeling is they would have been better served back in Junior as over aged players. Time with the World Junior entry certainly wouldn't have hurt them, me thinks. The problem isn't the fault of the kids getting drafted, its the problem of the Leafs management that they need Schenn in a top 4 role, because they are so incompetent at their job running the team.

    Other organizations take chances on players with high talent ceilings, the Leafs have always seemed interested in grit, character, and leadership. Believing that a rookie NHL'er is going to have a role in this department is insane, minus the generational talents, Gretzky, Lemieux, Orr, Crosby. Carl Hagelin was a 6th round draft pick for the Rangers, Gustav Nyquist was taken 121st overall by the Red WIngs. I do realize that these kind of players don't always work out, but they sure seem to work out for other organizations at a far higher rate than they do for the Leafs.

    I don't know whether the Leafs are more terrible at assessing talent, or developing it. The tizzy this franchise is in when it drafts a player to get him on the big club, is maddening. They never seem to just be even a little bit patient. From the moment Kadri was drafted, there has been a rush to get him in Toronto. The Red Wings would have had him in Grand Rapids, in New Jersey, he would have got to spend 3 years at Lou U. The Leafs actively burn entry level years of Rielly's contract so that he can be the 6/7th d'man on a team that finishes twelfth. It would be amusing if it wasn't so incomprehensible.

    end of part one

  6. Back to the drafting of players. How is it even possible that the Leafs never stumble into a player that ends up being better than advertised? They never find a hidden gem, never do they get a player who is decent at 18 and a world beater at 24. Other franchises wind up with Giroux, the Leafs get Antropov. The Leafs have had middling first round draft picks forever it seems. How do the guys in charge never have a hunch and take Anze Kopitar at 11? We drafted Tlusty, in that position in another year. The fact that Toronto trades a lot of draft picks for minimal returns, is another side of this coin. You can't draft quality players with picks you trade away.

    I am convinced that the Leafs only see one way to do things, the way they always have. Somewhere in the bowels of the ACC, there is a handbook that has been around since the fifties. Imlach probably wrote it, tilted something like, How to Win in the NHL. Ever since, the new guy has read this and thought of it as God's work, never once thinking that perhaps time has moved on. This, at least explains why the richest franchise in hockey can't be bothered to find an avenue to spend an analytics budget when every successful team in the League is. Sorry, no use for that nerdy math stuff, we'll just take guys from Mimico, it's simpler. It really is all this franchise can do, to turn bread into toast. Forget that water into wine stuff, or even chicken salad from something else from a chicken.

    Serious question, have they re-signed Dave Bolland? And hey, whatever became of those vaunted assistant coaches the organization was sure to remedy the situation.

  7. The answer is Dave Morrison, Director of Amateur Scouting is horribly incompetent. He must have pictures of somebody important to have escaped the axe for so long. Look at the list of Leaf scouts for crying out loud. Mike Penny come on, it's enough to want to make you cry! A 5th 1st round draft pick and no 2nd round means mediocrity for a long long long time.

  8. Hi Michael,

    Interesting question.

    Player development has undergone significant changes over the years leading up to the present day system. Back in the day, teams signed young teenagers and nurtured them through their junior and minor league systems. Once signed the player was wed to his team for his entire career unless traded. The bulk of scouting time for the Original Six teams was spent evaluating very young Canadian talent. Montreal had the unfair advantage of a Quebec monopoly while the Leafs and the other four teams bird dogged the rest of Canada. During this period the Leafs were very good, for the most part, at evaluating and developing talent.

    Expansion, free agency, the WHA and Harold Ballard changed everything. The priority of developing players gave way to maximizing profits. Ballard did not invest heavily on scouting and development. Although the Leafs developed many fine players in the 70's and 80's several of the best were disposed of if deemed too expensive.

    The 15 odd post Ballard years saw the Leafs able to outspend most other teams. Some development occurred but in many cases draft choices were expendable when an aging veteran became available.

    The salary cap changed the dynamics again and the Leafs have been slow to adapt. Draft choices and young talent were traded away by Ferguson, Fletcher and Burke. It has been difficult to see any semblance of a development plan.

    I hope that Brendan Shanahan changes this. I would fervently hope that we have seen the last of over priced free agents and veterans with fading skills being signed to long term contracts. The Leafs have some decent young forward talent (Holland, D'Amigo,, McKegg, Abbott, Leivo, Broll, Carrick, Ashton and Gauthier to name a few). Surely, they can craft at least third and fourth lines out of this talent. They also have good young defensive talent (Finn, Percy, Granberg and MacWilliam) who are NHL ready or close to ready. If the Leafs are really committed to development, we will see some of these players on the roster next fall.

    At the present time the Leafs have only 5 homegrown players on their roster listed on their official websight. It would be refreshing to see that number at least doubled next season.

    1. Good to hear from you, Pete Cam. I agree, there should be enough young talent already in the system to populate our third and fourth lines and a couple of our defense spots. If any of them emerges as better than serviceable, that would be almost a bonus.

  9. Jim writes:

    "Back to the drafting of players. How is it even possible that the Leafs never stumble into a player that ends up being better than advertised? They never find a hidden gem, never do they get a player who is decent at 18 and a world beater at 24."

    I think we might a have a few of these in the pipeline. Leivo was taken in the third round and projects to be a 2nd line winger at the peak of his career. He just scored 23 goals in his rookie season in the AHL. Granberg was takenin the 5th round and projects to be a 2nd pairing defenseman. Sam Carrick was taken in the 5th round and has a very good two way game, +17 in his first year in the AHL. He could become a very good third line center.

    One to watch this year is Tom Nilsson. Tons of international competition, rookie of the year candidate in the Swedish league. Taken in the 4th round, he should play for the Marlies this year.

    In general, I think the Leafs are gettting better and I can olny think of one name to justify that belief: Tuuka Rask.

    Rask won the Vezina last night. The Leafs have not traded away such a blue chip prospect since that Rask trade. At least now we keep them long enough to see them play in the AHL and better gauge what they might become.

    1. At least Nonis seems committed to not moving the kids. Thanks DP.

  10. The Leafs have a strength and conditioning coach and a skating coach (Barb Underhill) who seem to work together on developing players with deficiencies. Barb has made significant contributions with many skating strides on the Leafs/Marlies rosters (McKegg and Ashton spring to mind) and I think the players taking advantage of these resources (and others like the shot release and accuracy machine), are the young players I would be watching (or planning to trade) based upon their willingness to improve in every area of their game.

    The same goes for the Vets... despite playing an instrument for 45 years, I still take advantage of insights gleaned from other vantage points, so I find it hard to believe that veterans can't continue to develop (or hone) their skills. I would hope someone like the Captain is leading by example in these respects.

    I recall Reimer working on his skating (crossovers and backwards, not to mention speed to the bench for penalties, etc.)... this is another reason I like this player (leading by example).

    There appear to be resources available for development and I would hope that we are keeping the guys who have skill and are improving it (Rielly strikes me as having this mindset and is not likely to 'settle in' any time soon). Such players and others who really have to work at it (and DO) are the kind I like to have around inspiring everyone to aspire to such a work ethic.

    It is as much 'on the players' as the management (and I hope management has their eyes peeled for ANYTHING that might with player development that is not already in the mix). To my eyes, it would appear we've made strides in this regard in the past few years (much better than days of yore), but I hope the whole 'culture' strives for excellence in every area of the game, character, skill, diligence and commitment.

    Spott seems to have success with our young players (and I had anticipated a bit of a drop-off when Eakins left), I can only hope Randy is willing to see the value of development at the NHL level (despite it not being a 'development league'). If he can treat it as honing, crafting, and pruning the players on his bench, perhaps our level of honour, commitment and 'identity' would emerge (perhaps he's doing this, but there don't seem to be many reports of that for us to see).

    1. There is no question the Leafs have the resources in place that can be part of helping a player, InTimeFor62. And in recent years they've had coaches (Eakins, Spott) who seem to do a good job of developing that talent on the farm.

      I agree, no player should be beyond getting better. Ultimately, the NHL coach is a huge part of that development curve.

  11. I read that only 12% of players drafted in the 3rd and later rounds actually make the NHL. They say it varies but generally 63% if 1st round and 25% of 2nd round players make it. The Leafs for years have been trading away their 1st and 2nd round picks which could be the main reason the Leafs seem to have a poor record developing players as they are usually starting with a player that has a 12% chance of making it.. They just didn't have decent picks to get good players to develop rather than not being able to develop them.

    So historically the Leafs have traded away picks hoping for a quick fix. Trading picks may make sense for a contender needing a final piece for a run at the Cup but never makes sense for a non-contender where all you are really doing is hurting your chance for a lottery pick where picking a Mario Lemieux can totally change a teams fortunes for ten or more years.

    I think Brian Burke really wanted to win and he went for the quick fix as well with Kessel which didn't work but he also had a bigger plan to rebuild the team's farm system by keeping young prospects. We still really don't know how well that plan has worked out but with all of the prospects that are supposed to be NHL ready things do look promising. It takes five years or longer to develop most players so it is not surprising that there have been no real results so far but this is the year we should get a better idea. It could be all talk and no results the same as always or there could actually be some good players that are ready. The results the Marlies have had would indicate that they have some pretty good players that are being developed and want to make it to the NHL. I have some pretty high hopes and I still think the Leafs are close to being a contender if they aren't already. I'm just worried that five years of development could go down the drain if they decide to look for the short term quick fix which has never worked. I've waited 47 years so I can wait a few more if that is what it takes.

    1. I wasn't aware of those stats regarding success rates beyond the first two rounds of the draft, Alton, but that makes sense. You raise a good point- if you aren't in a position to draft in the first two rounds, your chances for success lessen.

  12. Hi Michael,

    I like to point to the Maple Leaf Hangout #2 where Gus said something about Jake Gardiner that fits very well in our discussion. (it is after minute 35)

    What I find exremely stunning about the stats Alton mentioned is that only 63% (that is only a bit more than half of the 30 players picked in the first round) of the first round make it.
    If you don't pick well and develop your picks well it doesn't matter where you fail.

    1. Just to clarify making it in the NHL was defined as a career player playing 200 or more NHL games.