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Under the radar signings—and building assets, as Burke has—can lead to hidden gem discoveries

One of the things that Brian Burke has done well in his tenure as GM in Toronto is to build the pool of assets within the Maple Leaf player development system.  Undrafted Europeans like Gustavsson (and now Owuya), free-agent American college players like Bozak, former high-profile signees like Brunstromm—it all builds overall organizational depth.

As importantly, you never know when you might hit a home run—or at least a double, when you don't necessarily expect to.

As much as Burke has pleased Leaf supporters with the acquisition of two first-round draft picks this coming summer, fans are maybe even more excited that he has been acquiring former first-rounders—players  who are further along the development curve than, say, the typical 18 year-old draftee.  You just have the sense, as a fan, that someone like Gardiner or Colborne are further along their development curve- and that's a good thing.

Now, we all understand that there is no guarantee that all (or any) of the aforementioned players or picks will become stellar performers with the blue and white for years to come.  But the more assets you have, it strikes me that the odds are some will stick, and one or two might become difference-makers one day.

Look at what Boyce did this past season.  Just a few years ago, at the age of 23, he signed a minor-league deal with the AHL Marlies.  I believe he was a John Ferguson Jr. signing, but he was undrafted after playing for St. Mike’s in the OHL.  Boyce then played Canadian university hockey.

Who expected him, really, to ever play with the Maple Leafs?

But he has, through a lot of work and obvious dedication, become a contributor with the big club.  So you never know who may become an impact player, or a solid contributing role-player.

One modern-day example of “you just never know”, in fact one of the better examples in recent times, might be the career of current Red Wing forward Daniel Cleary.  The Newfoundland native was a high-scoring junior star, and as a result, was drafted by the Blackhawks in the first round in 1997.

He struggled with Chicago before moving on to Edmonton and Phoenix where he rarely played to expectations.  When it looked as though his once promising career was likely over, he managed a try-out with the Red Wings and re-made himself.  Now 32, over the past six seasons he has become an increasingly important member of the Wings.  No longer an offensive force, his all-around game helped the Wings win a Cup, and almost a second, in his time with the club.

My point is that when you acquire enough interesting assets (Brunstromm perhaps a case in point), you just might end up with that hidden gem—someone who has been missed, passed over, a guy who is a late-bloomer or a player who is determined to bounce back and prove people wrong, like Cleary.

So while Burke has the same cap constraints as every other GM, and no more roster space than anyone else, he is certainly creating increased competition for spots on the Leaf roster, which is already having a trickle-down impact on the AHL Marlies.  It's hard now just to earn a job with the farm team.

Two years from now the hope is it will be that much harder to stick with the big club.


  1. As someone said of the Capitals last night, they had 11 1st round picks in the line-up in the loss. But, I am happy that Burke seems to have an almost witch-like capacity to locate and acquire 1st rounders- odds are higher they will turn into real NHLer's.

  2. I disagree with the sentiment that Dan Cleary is no longer an offensive force. In his 7 seasons in Detroit he's posted 6 consecutive seasons of with better than 0.5 points per game. They are as follows:

    0.56, 0.67, 0.54, 0.53, and this past year 0.68 ppg.

    0.68 ppg pro-rates to a 56 point season. He also scored 26 goals in only 68 games (which translates to 0.38 ppg, or a pro-rated 31 goal season).

    Scoring like that would have made him one of the top 4 forward scorers for Detroit for a number of years now. He's obviously still an offensive force. That kind of makes him more valuable than the likes of Darryl Boyce.

    Also, part of the reason he wasn't productive in Edmonton and Phoenix was a lack of ice time. He has gotten far more in Detroit than he ever did in either of those other two cities. I think such an impact is very worthy of mention.

  3. SBurtch, thanks for the post. My intent indeed was to compliment Cleary. When he signed with the Wings, was a kind of 'under-the-radar' signing, as I recall. He has been a fine player for years. He and Boyce have had different careers, for sure. The point was simply that GM's can find needles in the proverbial hay stack. Some will have a huge impact, like Cleary, others a more modest one, like Boyce.

  4. Fair enough,

    I guess I just have a hard time thinking of a 1st round draft pick that put up numbers like Cleary did in junior as a proverbial "needle in the haystack".

    I don't really think we should be surprised if Colborne and Gardiner develop into decent players.

    Boyce coming in as an undrafted free agent is a significant addition, I just don't know that the comparison makes a lot of sense to me.

  5. As I recall, Cleary had to ask the Wings for a try-out, so even though he was a former high-scoring junior and first-round pick, his career was all but over. He re-dedicated himself and became, with Detroit, a complete player, and I give him all kinds of credit for that. But the reality was that he was an afterthought at that point in his career, available to anyone, and only Detroit showed modest interest. He had to prove himself all over again, without the benefit of a guaranteed long-term contract.

    He got ice time in Detroit because he earned it, which he didn't in his earlier NHL stops.

    So while the comparison to Boyce may not on the surface seem to make sense, my point is simply that "hidden gems" and under-the-radar success stories can come from all kinds of different situations- former high-picks thrown on the hockey trash heap, like Cleary, or guys who were never drafted and played Canadian University hockey, like Boyce and Joel Ward in Nashville.

    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

  6. I wonder if Brunnstrom will get resigned.

  7. Leaf in Habland...Good point. I wonder if Brunnstrom will be offered a new deal, too. I was using him as one of the examples of "you never know"- he might have been a great no-risk signing, if not, no cap effect and no real loss. Thanks for writing.