McKenzie: ‘Leafs will take the best player available’ at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft

Diehard Toronto Maple Leafs fans – those unfortunate, sad souls – have been waiting for the club to procure a bona fide, big bodied, first-line centre ever since Mats Sundin left town nearly a decade ago.

Though dreams of landing Connor McDavid continue to dance in the heads of Leafs fans (and surely Maple Leafs management as well), McDavid’s Erie Otters teammate Dylan Strome could fit the bill. The six-foot-three centreman, one of the safest picks in recent history based on his tantalizing combination of size and production, might also be available in the likely event that the Maple Leafs do not win the NHL draft lottery and end up selecting fourth. 

Will the Leafs look to take Strome based on his size and position? TSN’s Bob McKenzie isn’t necessarily convinced.

Let’s wade into it after the jump.

“I think the Leafs will take the best player available,” McKenzie said during an appearance on TSN 1050 radio on Tuesday evening. “It’s a cliche, but I think it’s a sound strategy because they need everything.

McKenzie continued by breaking down the top-end talent in this upcoming draft class, and exploring some of the evaluative issues that the Maple Leafs are likely to be facing when it comes time to make their pick on the draft floor in late June:

Everybody knows that Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel (are going) 1-2. Noah Hanifin is probably the consensus number three, but I’m sure there’s probably some teams out there that might opt for Dylan Strome or Mitch Marner instead.

Marner is a winger, but he might also be a centre. Now he’s not big – he’s not the big centre, Dylan Strome is 6-foot-3 – but Marner played wing in Junior hockey, he played centre as a minor hockey player… He’s a small right winger, but he’s not that small.. If the comparisons to Patrick Kane have any credence whatsoever and there may be some then you can play him at centre or play him on the wing. 

Whether you draft a guy as a winger and play him as a centre or visa versa, I don’t think the Toronto Maple Leafs are going to sit there and say ‘well we have to take Dylan Strome because we lack a big centre and he’s the best big centre on the board beyond the top two guys…’

So in McKenzie’s informed opinion the Maple Leafs will take whomever they feel to be the best player available, whether that’s the prototypical big bodied centre in Dylan Strome, or a talented defenseman like Hanifin, or an undersized offensive dynamo like Marner. 

For the sake of fairness and clarity, McKenzie admitted that he doesn’t have an inside lane in handicapping which of these prospects the Maple Leafs prefer.

“I don’t presume to know what the Maple Leafs would do other than what everybody knows,” McKenzie said. “Mark Hunter knows Mitch Marner intimately, and knows Dylan Strome as well – I mean you can’t be a general manager in the OHL as long as Mark Hunter was, looking at these kids in their minor hockey years, without knowing them both – but obviously there’s extra knowledge on Marner. So I think if the Leafs are picking in the top-five and they end up with one of Hanifin, Strome or Marner then you can’t go wrong.” 

When asked to directly address how big of a drop off in talent there is from Eichel and McDavid to the likes of Hanifin, Marner, and Strome, McKenzie made an interesting point. It’s a point that perhaps hasn’t been made often enough: that in another year if Marner and Strome were the top prospect forwards available at the draft, this class would still be considered to boast an extremely strong top end. 

“It’s a very good crop,” McKenzie said. “If there were no Connor McDavid and no Jack Eichel, I think people would still be excited by Dylan Strome, Noah Hanifin and Mitch Marner as the top-three in the draft. But you’ve got two special players… 

“So I guess there’s a drop off from two to the rest of the group,” McKenzie continued, “but they’re all really good players and all really good prospects. So if you’re picking three, four, five in this draft, I think you’re doing really well.”

This is a topic that, in my view, is worth exploring further. What Strome and Marner are doing at the moment is borderline historic. Even as the level of competition in major junior is improving, both Marner and Strome are absolutely demolishing the scoring rates posted over the past decade by a handful of current NHL superstars. 
In fact they’re the highest scoring OHL players since Patrick Kane and Sam Gagner set Ontario on fire while playing on a line with Sergei Kostitsyn with the London Knights back in 2006. I reached out to my pal Rhys Jessop, an ace prospect analyst and the manager of CanucksArmy.com, and asked him for historical context on how Marner and Strome have performed this season. 

Rhys got back to me with a list of the highest scoring first-time OHL draft eligible players from the past decade, broken down by points per game. Suffice it to say that this draft class is completely insane:

Going back a decade here’s a list of the 15 highest scoring first time OHL draft eligible players (points per game): 

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 1.16.55 PM

That’s… Yeah, completely insane company that Marner and Strome are keeping. 

Obviously the outlier season is Gagner’s and we should spend a bit of time discussing it because obviously Gagner benefitted enormously from playing with Kane. Strome and Marner have similarly played with absurdly talented teammates this season (McDavid and Domi respectively), so is there any concern that their point totals are somewhat inflated?

Obviously the answer to that question is: yes, but the truly relevant question to ask here is: “by how much?”

With Strome we thankfully have the ability to look at how he performed in the 21 games that McDavid missed due to injury, illness and as a result of World Junior championship duty. His points per game rate did fall off during that span, but he still managed 35 points in those 21 contests – a 1.66 points per rate that would still rank him in and around Tyler Seguin. In other words, even without Mcdavid, Strome is a super-elite prosepct.

We have a smaller sample of games in which Marner played without Domi, but it’s a promising sign that his scoring rate remained incredible when Domi was competing at the World Juniors. Domi missed nine games while representing his country, and in those nine games Marner managed an astounding 25 points (or a 2.77 points per game rate). It’s also a promising sign that, unlike with Gagner and Kane, Marner’s scoring outpaced Domi’s all season. There’s little indication that he was just a passenger or a beneficiary of the top-rated Arizona Coyotes prospect…

If the Leafs are intent on drafting the best player available as McKenzie suspects, then at least they’ll be fortunate enough be selecting a ridiculously good player one way or another. It’s a decent consolation prize for enduring a completely miserable season.

As for the possibility that the club would select Hanifin over Strome or Marner, the reports on the young American-born defender are glowing. If you believe he’s a Drew Doughty caliber two-way player, then by all means. Personally I’d have to be entirely convinced of that fact if I were going to be passing on either Strome or Marner.

  • Craig Button compared Strome to Kopitar,
    Marner to Kane,
    Hannafin to Doughty,
    Eichel to Getzlaf,
    and we won’t get into Mcdavid and his self comparison…

    Personally I would take strome (if we pick at 4), but there is literally no way for them to screw this up, right?

  • Jeremy Ian

    Old Bob has been covering the hockey beat so long that he can remember the leafs winning Stanley cups. So I respect his knowledge of the game and the players. I’m leaning to actually implementing the old Burkie blue print of building from the goalie out and thus Hanafin should be seriously considered. Imagine the leafs having two future solid defencemen, you would have to go back to the Salming and Turnbull era to remember the last time the buds were in this enviable position.

  • STAN

    Everyone seems resigned to the Leafs getting either Strome, Hanafin or Marner.

    I say Shanahan needs to make his mark, ala Brian Burke getting the Sedins, by getting two of them via trade.

    If you REALLY want to start a strong, viable rebuild then it’s imperative that you ship out established talent (Kessel, Phaneuf, Gardiner) and their remaining $115M total salaries for REAL hope.

    We shouldn’t have to fantasize about Strome and Hanafin being integral parts of the Leafs new core. It should be expected.

  • STAN

    Everyone seems resigned to the Leafs getting either Strome, Hanafin or Marner.

    I say Shanahan needs to make his mark, ala Brian Burke getting the Sedins, by getting two of them via trade.

    If you REALLY want to start a strong, viable rebuild then it’s imperative that you ship out established talent (Kessel, Phaneuf, Gardiner) and their remaining $115M total salaries for REAL hope.

    We shouldn’t have to fantasize about Strome and Hanafin being integral parts of the Leafs new core. It should be expected.

  • Meathead25

    the leafs really did pick the right year to absolutely nose dive into hell’s crater even if it was accidental. bravo! their mediocrity finally rewards them and the fans. thank god!