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Recent Maple Leaf “misses” at draft time mirror those of most teams over time

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.

Heck, I remember back in 1969 (and for years thereafter, the story was told so many times) how the Leafs—and other teams—were hammered for “missing” Bobby Clarke, the Flin Flon, Manitoba junior star in the draft.  Clarke (right) was small, had diabetes and most scouts (we didn’t have today’s medical technology, obviously) likely didn’t figure he would last long in the NHL.   Who could have forecast that Clarke had so much determination that he would become a superstar, an all-time “leader”, a player who willed himself and his team to perennial success—and two Stanley Cups?  Were all those teams wrong in bypassing him?  (I think the Flyers took him in the second round; I’d have to look it up.)  Maybe.  But who really expected what Clarke became?  Heck, the Flyers would likely have taken him in the first round (if they were so certain he would become a star) just in case some other “smart” GM also wanted to gamble on Clarke first.

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.


  1. Kadri is proving the fruits of the Leafs labours now. Tavares,Hedman,Duchene,Kane,Ekman-Larsson,Glennie,Cowen and Paajarvi-Svensson were the other top picks. Other than Tavares(and the Jury is still out on him-he is not exactly a Mats Sundin type C) would you rather have any of the above in the lineup right now instead of Kadri? Despite what Don Cherry says,it looks like Toronto handled Kadri exactly right.

  2. I see your point, Sean, though I look at how the Leafs handled Kadri somewhat differently. I could walk through the litany of fits and starts, but regular readers here know my position. Suffice to say that I did not like the yo-yo Kadri was on the last two years.

    I was always in favour of Kadri spending substantial time in the minors. A full season two years ago would have been ideal. Last year as well, if necessary. It was the Leafs who kept calling him up when they, in the next breath, would then say he "wasn't ready" (and needed to get bigger, stronger, faster, not turn the puck over, etc.). He may be succeeding in spite of what the organizatiom did, though I will credit Eakins with having a positive influence.

    The truth is he is not playing that differently than he was when he was here before. A better all-around game? Perhaps. But he still tries to "Lone Ranger" rushes, over-handles the puck and creates a lot of give-aways. I say that not as criticism, simply that that is how he plays. He is an offensive player and that's fine.

    I like Kadri as a player but I'm not ready to pronounce selecting him a great thing. We'll see in the years ahead how he - and the rest of that draft - turns out. Thanks Sean.

  3. Michael,

    I think the distinction between the Leafs and the Red Wings is that they have drafted a Datsyuk and a Zetterberg, and a Franzen, and Lidstrom, and Kronwall. Only Kronwall was a first round pick, 29th overall. The guys they take chances on periodically turn into the stars of the game. The players the Leafs take chances on are never heard from again. Even the Leafs first round picks from the past ten years, are average NHL'ers, not a star to be found. The fact that other teams don't always hit home runs at the entry draft, should not be our excuse for draft day futility. And yes, I do agree, that development is at least as important as who you draft. The development of Leafs players is nothing to brag about either, in the last 30 years. This is the frustration of being a Leafs fan. No matter who they draft at what time, the result it seems, remains the same. The only late round success was Kaberle. Before we start talking about him. Don't, he is my least favourite Leaf player.

  4. I am going to give a different take on this.

    The Leafs actually hit home runs in the draft in 2006 and 2007. These were Detroit style drafts...meaning NHLers in the later rounds.

    Starting with ’06, in the first round the Leafs took Juri Tlusty. Nilokali Kulemin was 44th overall. James Reimer, 99th overall. Korbinian Holzer 111th Viktor Stahlberg, 161th. Leo Komarov, 180th.

    The following year forward Matt Frattin was the second pick, 99th overall and defenceman Carl Gunnarsson was 189th overall.

    We are starting to see some of the results of these picks but imagine if we kept more of our picks.

    PS Jamie Devane had a goal and was plus 1 for the Marlies tonight while Connoly was pointless and -3.

    Maybe Devane will turn out ok. I don't think Colton Orr or Mike Brown gets that goal.

    In 3 game Devane is tied with Brad Ross after 19 games. Perhaps a good draft choice in Devane, only time will tell.

  5. Check out what else Devane does:

    Talk about intimidating the opponent.

    The Marlies stage a comeback to tie 4-4, but lose late in the game.

  6. While the draft is often referred to as a 'crapshoot', is it possible that the Leafs crapshooters can roll snake eyes so regularly? In the past 25 years every other franchise in the league has drafted a player who has turned into something special (i.e. a 40 goal scorer, a Vezina-winning goalie, an all-star defenceman, a perennial Canadian Olympic team candidate). The Leafs don't have a lot to show for those 25 years, and on top of that they have had the opportunity to draft quite high. Is it just bad luck? Is the Leaf development process poor? Or are the crapshooters just ending up with 'crap'.

  7. Yes, the Wings are sort of held up as the beacon, though they have had their share of misses, too, I guess. I won't argue we have made brilliant choices in the last 10 years with the opportunities we had. (I thought, at the time and for where we drafted, players like Steen and Colaiacovo and Ian White along with Harrisson/Wellwood/Stajan were nice picks. All went on to pretty solid NHL careers. But now I'm going back 10 plus years...)

    I'm not sure, Jim, how many late-round successes we have really had. Kabby, yes, for sure. But I;m trying to think beyond that. Thanks Jim.

  8. DP- '06 is when Ferguson was in charge, correct? Definitely some useful picks there. And I agree with your comments about Frattin and Gunner, too, especially given when they were selected.

    Komarov at 180 might turn out nicely, though the jury is still out with regard to how effective he will be in the long term. He and Frattin are not kids, so we should expect them to be well along their development curve.

  9. If we're talking 25 years, Anon, I'd have to go back and check and see when we have drafted "high". I'm trying to remember, have we been in the 'top 3' at any point? (We have been in the top five/top ten the past few years, for sure...) That's often were you get your franchise players, of course, though not always, I realize.

    I know in the late 1990s and early 2000s the team was strong and they were generally drafting later in the first round, and they still managed to find some helpful players, as I mention in one of my responses above.

    One of the questions is how have we done in the second round, and third rounds, where solid NHL'ers so often emerge? Have we had results there? DP points out some nice pieces picked up in the Ferguson years, for example.

    Thanks Anon.

  10. I should start by saying that I took Doug Gilmour in my hockey pool in his rookie year. When asked “who the hell is Doug Gilmour?” I simply replied “he is going to be great”. Had I even seen Gilmour play junior hockey – not a shift! I said the same thing about Bobby Clarke. I somehow just knew. On the other side of the ledger, whenever a Leaf GM makes a monumentally stupid trade, like the Tukka Rask deal or the Tom Kurvers or Kessel one, I get a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. I somehow sense impending disaster. Now, anyone looking closely at Andrew Raycroft’s numbers prior to that fateful trade and not dazed by the glare of a Calder would have seen a player who briefly over performed and was almost certainly on his way to the minors or waivers. Certainly not a player you give up an elite prospect for. It would have been an easy “rational” decision not to be hosed by Boston.

    However, what about that feeling in the pit of the stomach – the visceral knowledge? Here is my point – personnel and scouting decisions are based on rational evaluation criteria and the scouts are getting very good at it. However, what makes truly great scouting and talent evaluation, the Datsyuk, the Lindstrom and on and on down the list, has a lot to do with intuition and a feeling that a young player somehow generates, that gut feeling about future success. It would be interesting to hear what successful scouts have to say about this. Sure, they have their charts, tests and graphs and numbers, but I wonder if it really boils down to a feeling, an intuition, which some scouts have in spades and others do not. I do not really believe that it’s a matter of throwing dice and God does the rest. To a great extent, I think that Cups are won and lost on draft floors and through fax machines at the League Office and the best decision makers know their gut.

    Does that make the Amazing Kreskin a better manager than Brian Burke? Maybe, but here is what troubles me about Leaf GMs and the Hall of Shame of Idiotic Trades they have built over the years. In Toronto, the kitchen is very hot and unlike Montreal, the history is wobbly. Leaf managers are simply under too much pressure to access intuitive knowledge. Often, when they try it has to do with saving their own skin or fortifying their egos, not building a legacy. It is simply not a quiet place where you can access deeper, intuitive knowledge and make the right long-term decision for the club. So what do we get? Far too often I have to reach for the Tums. However, in a collective sense of Leaf fans in general, most recently, I would say a trip to the cleaners on the arm of Peter Chiarelli.

    1. In a tremendous post, your most important point might have been the pressure Leaf GM's feel, which may impact their willingness to utilize, as you suggest, their own "intuitive knowledge". Short-term pressures rule the day, though Nonis (and even his predecessor) will say they were also building for the future. We'll see.

      Can we at least say, when it comes to Boston, that we "won" the Kaberle deal? I loved Kabby in his tenure here, though he frustrated me greatly. But we did deal him at the right time, though I don't like how he was treated here in his final years. The Bruins did win a Cup with him, but he played a far less important role than they expected when they got him. (Just trying to find a silver lining in our dealings with Boston. Many will still say they are happy to have Kessel, regardless of what we ended up giving up...)

      Thanks Bobby C. Really well said, as always.

  11. It's always easy to use hindsight long after a draft to grade selections, some of which can haunt a team for years. I usually first think of the Rangers passing over Mike Bossy twice to pick Lucien Deblois and Ron Duguay, only to watch him torch the league from across town for the next decade. Of course, the Leafs passed on him twice too that year, as did the Canadiens, who maybe should have had a more up-close look at a young man who was lighting up the Quebec League. I suppose we all have examples like that to point at.

    I took a moment to review the Leafs' draft classes since the early 90s on, and yes we certainly had some lean draft years. It seemed it was a lot easier to steal an unknown European back in the day too (Berezin, Markov, Kaberle). I wasn't ambitious enough to look at the rest of the league's picks to make a comparison, I'll admit. But my perception is that the best drafting teams these days are the teams that still find the late round gems. I'm talking mostly about the Red Wings here.

    As far as the 1st or 2nd rounders who fail to pan out, I won't go too far in blaming the Leafs' scouting or GMs, as long as the picks were for the most part in line with Central Scouting projections. I can't say that I've seen the Leafs go too far off the board in that area, taking a longshot when a so-called can't miss prospect was staring them in the face.

    Football and basketball seem to have more ready made prospects in their drafts, maybe because most players have had at least a few years of college and are older. With exceptions such as gymnastics and figure skating, most sports are late-development. With notable exceptions, most players are not nearly fully developed at 18. So yes it is certainly a crapshoot.

  12. The Bossy example is a very good one, Pete. And yes, a lot of teams "missed" the emerging star of the Quebec League. As for the Rangers, Deblois and Duguay had long and productive NHL careers. Bossy, though, was a superstar on a great team.

    The Leafs did rather well with the three European players you mentioned. Those were examples of good scouting work and also giving players the opportunity to succeed.

    It's not easy (and that's partly what I was getting at in today's column) to draft 18 year-olds and project what they will become. The Leafs have missed a lot- and so has everyone else, it seems. Thanks Pete.

  13. Good stuff Michael. I have done a bag load of statistical analysis on first round draft choices and the truth is once you are past the top two forwards it is a crap shoot and no one team has a track record of consistently winning at those crap shoots. This why I believe the Kessel trade was not a bad one. It was finishing second last that was bad.

    Building through the draft is hit and miss. For example, for all the accolades Bryan Murray has received here in Ottawa, after six years he still has not drafted a 20 goal scorer. Yes perhaps some are on their way but there is no 20 goal scorer on their roster that Murray has drafted. Six years into it and this is a guy with a well earned reputation.

    Building exclusively thorough the NHL draft is a bit of a rube's game unless Lady Luck strikes you twice with the same bolt of lightening and you get the two best players of the generation (see Penguins,Pittsburgh). Time, luck, trades and free agents are all required ingredients.

    The simple fact is the NHL drafts 18 year olds.They are drafting boys, not men. By definition the is going to be very hit and miss.

  14. Your reference to Murray is apt in my view, Bmaximus. I honestly felt he should have been fired two years ago, but now he's a conquering hero. (The Sens sure do have a gullible owner...Murray hired and fired all those coaches and it was always their fault, not his.) The fair assessment of him, as it is with most GM's, is probably somewhere in between, eh?

    Quick aside: my "critique" of the Kessel trade has always been not that I had a problem acquiring a young sniper. Not at all. Simply that the GM at the time, who was supposed to be one of the best in the business and great at "evaluating", saw his team at the time as much better than it was- and turned out to be. That leads us to your comment about the problem being that they finished second to last!)

    When you're projecting kids at that age, you're going to miss more often than not. The teams that get lucky (and let's be honest, it's often luck, too, as you note above) benefit.

    But I'm with you, and I think I said much the same in this post- at the end of the day, you need to not only draft pretty well but trades and free-agent signings are part and parcel of "building". And it's been this way forever, in a sense.

    Really good stuff. Thanks for chiming in, Bmaximus.

  15. Tim Thomas to NYI for a conditional 2nd-rounder in 2014 or 2015.

    If we were going to grab a veteran goalie that was perhaps the trade too.

  16. Islanders do some interesting things, DP. They have a quirky history with goalies, going back to LuongoDiPietro, eh?

  17. I will not say the draft is a crapshoot. But the thing is there's so much more to it than "look, this guy had a hall of fame career, and X number of teams passed on him because they were stupid"

    Before I get into it, I will say sometimes we forget that this team had some success in the early and mid 1990s and early 2000s with later-round picks. Borschevsky, Berezin, Markov, Kaberle, Mironov, Hendrickson, Ian White, Ponikarovsky, Stralman... all 4th round or later. Not superstars like Zetterberg or that type, but serviceable guys, even if they played most of their career in Toronto.

    But, the draft itself is such a combination of things, and I don't say that to excuse the Leafs. They have not done as good a job as some other teams.

    First off, remember that over 200 players are drafted every year. I don't know (someone must have done the work) but with only 700 NHL jobs available, how many can reasonably expected to have significant (say 400 games or more) careers in the NHL? And of those, how many will be stars? If most of the first round 'makes it' as decent NHLers, that's probably a reasonable number right?

    Secondly, I think we have to remember that the science of drafting, if we can call it that, is not a perfect science. Teams draft on so varied requirements... positional needs, versus best player available. And what determines that? A scout or GM likes player X because he comes from Canadian Junior versus US College, or he's 205 pounds, or he is the son of a former NHL player. On draft day, you would hope they are choosing correctly, that the player they take is indeed the best fit and best player available.

    But thirdly, what happens afterwards? Players develop in so many different ways. Sure, a Stamkos steps right in to the NHL, and he plays great and he has some insulation with Lacavalier and St Louis etc. But doesn't that fly in the face of the Detroit model? Aren't they better if they go back to junior and then AHL?

    How about injuries... or a change in coach or GM that changes the team's philosophy? Maybe that draft pick from 2 years ago now does not fit the organization's needs. Suddenly, he's a bust because the team trades him away.

    In that case, I think that's been the Leafs' true failing. In doing my Draft Schmaft series at THW, I look at some of those 1st round picks...
    McKechnie, Sittler, McDonald, Turnbull, Boschman, John Anderson, Nylund, Courtnall, Iafrate, Clark, Damphousse, Richardson, Antropov, Boyes...
    a couple of Hall of Famers, a couple of very decent frontline NHL players who played 1000 games or more, a couple of guys who probably would have been very good if not for injuries which curtailed careers.

    Of course there have been the bad trades, and the really poor selections like Convery and Ware. But look through any team's draft history and you'll see those too.

    As I said, the Leafs have made mistakes, bad ones even. But they are certainly not alone.

  18. Fully agree, Mark. It's always easy to play Monday Morning Quarterback after the fact. And there are so many little things that go into why certain selections do or don't make it "big".

    I guess there are elements of skill, gut instinct and crapshoot in these things. The Leafs have had their share of highlights- and lowlights. And as I said in my piece, and we agree, they are not alone!

    Thanks for visiting, Mark.