Nobody knows how the Leafs did at the draft, and that’s okay

“If they can open the day off with Debrincat, Abramov, Sokolov, and Golyshev, I’ll be ecstatic.” Shows what I know, I guess. The Toronto Maple Leafs threw off a lot of people at the draft on Saturday not automatically grabbing the most naturally skilled point generator at every corner and even went off the board on a few occasions. Truthfully, I don’t know how I feel about the net result yet.

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I mean, it’s hard to be upset when you’re talking about a draft where you walk away with Auston Matthews. Even if the Leafs traded away their remaining eleven picks for a roster player at the start of the morning, it would be hard to say that they didn’t come out on top with a franchise centre like him in tow. He’s quick, offensively driven, defensively present, and the king of the smart decision. Leafs fans are still shocked that a teenager of this calibre is going to be in the system. After decades of close calls, I don’t blame them.

But it gets a little weird after that. Everybody expected the Leafs to be one of “those teams” that would pick off every sleeper from the blogosphere’s lists, but bit by bit, it became evident that wouldn’t be the case.

“With the 31st overall pick, Yegor Korshkov.”

Alright, that’s not what I expected, but I’m willing to listen. He’s big. The played regular minutes on a good KHL team as a teenager (a rare feat), and his rate production has him pegged as a pretty good NHL bottom sixer already (~1.3 NHLe60 all situations, likely to be mostly 5v5). He went undrafted last year, but now the Leafs are going to take him with the highest second rounder? Weird. I’m sure there’s a good reason for this one, no need for concern.

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“With the 57th overall pick, Carl Grundstrom.”

Huh. Abramov’s still there, but sure, I at least expected Grundstrom to be talked about here. Once again, he’s played quality hockey in the SHL, with men. He wasn’t putting up the same numbers that William Nylander did at the same age with the very same MODO Hockey, but he was contributing. After the draft was done, Mark Hunter compared him to Brendan Gallagher, which is interesting considering Grundstrom is an even bigger body. We’re in “peculiar pick” territory, but not in silly season yet.

Then the big three goalies (Hart, Parsons, and Gustavsson) fall off the board. You assume the Leafs will stay quiet until the later rounds. But in comes Joseph Woll, their youngest pick of the day with the bulk of his experience coming from the US National Development Program. That’s weird, but hey, he’s heading to college. Ten picks later, JD Greenway.gets drafted from the same program, as a big-bodied defenceman. That’s Toronto’s third skater and the fourth player that’s at least 6’2 in their first five picks.

They get to 92. This is the pick where I want Golyshev at because I don’t think he falls to 101. In comes Adam Brooks, a player who, like Golyshev, had been passed over twice, but had his coming out party in the WHL rather than the KHL. Golyshev goes to the Islanders three picks later. I’m obviously heartbroken, having published the first detailed English profile on him back in February after having already watched him for four months. “This isn’t very Leafy,” I start to think. Social media has some similar thoughts, but much sharper and more to the point. Some believe that Lou Lamoriello has taken the draft room. 

“With the 101st overall pick, Keaton Middleton.”

That’s where the masses break. A huge, low-scoring OHL defenceman two years away from being under a point per game in minor midget, with a career highlight of fighting Logan Stanley. It looked like a Burke or a Nonis pick, not one driven by “sharper eyes” or “big data”. Hunter said after that saw a future for him if he could make quicker puck decisions. By that point, though, everybody’s decision was that this draft was a rare misstep.

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It didn’t matter who the Leafs picked from there; the uncertainty lingered more. Especially as one of stat’s twitter’s favourite sleepers, Dmitry Sokolov, continued to fall. He became the measuring stick as to when the “analytics-inclined” teams would snap back into reality. Which, given that other savvy clubs were skipping on him too, may not have been the fairest of sticks.

Out came Vladimir Bobylyov at 122. Another overager. Thirty picks later, they picked his teammate in Jack Walker, 19 as well. Collars were tugged. People were confused. Had the Leafs lost the plot? They closed out with two 18-year-olds, both with big frames; 6’4 Nicolas Mattinen at 179, and 6’3 Nikolai Chebykin at 182. That was that; the Leafs’ day was done, all sorts of analytics darlings were still available with more than a couple dozen picks to go, and a few players that the numbers disagreed with ended up in the pocket of the Leafs.

The Toronto Maple Leafs. The team advertised as being at the forefront of the modernization of the NHL front office. How could they ignore what they preach?

That’s where you need to give yourself some pause.

One can sit around and say “this is the Leafs’ first draft with Lamoriello, he screwed them over” and point to how what they did as proof that the team chose to go with ignorance as their strategy. But much like it’s Lou’s first rodeo, it’s a lot of people’s second time at it. It’s Mark Hunter’s second go. It’s Kyle Dubas’ second go. It’s his research and development team’s second go. They’re armed with a new set of scouts this time, and a year of experience and additional knowledge. There’s more preparation from the younger, rawer, and supposedly more creative side of the war room.

The result? A new approach that we didn’t expect. It leaves you asking questions. Questions like..

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  • This group is bigger than the last. By a fair margin. We’ve historically overvalued size, but have the team found something about size utilization that realigns that value scale? Or is it just coincidence?
  • Toronto’s first five picks of the draft were Europeans and players headed to college. Major junior doesn’t become a focus until the later rounds. Are the Leafs, who have added prospect-age players at machine gun pace, trying to put off signing entry-level contracts right now? The team is pretty close to the 50-contract limit, after all. 
  • For players like Adam Brooks and Jack Walker: The Leafs have two years to sign them to ELCs, and both of them are pro graduation age. Could the Leafs organization maybe think there’s value in signing them to AHL/ECHL deals for their first year, signing an ELC after, getting a feel for what type of players they are? 
  • Could this direction towards pro readiness imply that the Leafs feel that getting players in front of tougher competition as soon as they’re in NHL control might be more crucial to the development process than we once thought? Nine of these players will likely be in the AHL, NCAA, SHL, KHL, or NHL next year. 
  • Did the team perhaps target players with flaws that they believe they can fix? Players fall in rankings because of weaknesses in their skillset, but what if the team has isolated them and believe that the likes of Darryl Belfry, Barb Underhill, and Mike Ellis can fix them? Brian Daccord was essential in the process of picking Woll; does he see something his technique that can be passed along to Steve Briere eventually to take the kid to the next level? A problem is just a hurdle one you know you can stop it; do these guys think they’ve identified natural jumps?
  • Mike Babcock is a good enough coach that we can reasonably expect him not to get fired in the next seven years. Systems typically evolve, but don’t get drastically overhauled, and even the youngest player of this draft haul (Woll) will be 24 when the clock starts ticking on Babcock’s contract. Have the Leafs perhaps gone after players that have traits that would fit under his (and Sheldon Keefe’s similar) system? This would help them succeed quicker, would help focus development, and for those who won’t stay in the system for the entire ride, makes a pump-and-dump a little more efficient.
  • If it’s about numbers, are we looking at the right stats? Maybe the Leafs have run the data more than we have and found a greater correlation to success in statistics the community aren’t valuing. Maybe their tracking at certain levels is better than what we’ve got access to. Maybe it’s all snake oil, or they’ve been taking the wrong things into consideration.

The thing is, questions are good. We talk about “trusting in the Shanaplan” all the time, but trust should never be blind. It’s good to encourage an on-toes environment where the pressure to brainstorm and further ideas continuously exists. Pats on the back create complacency if you don’t slightly raise the bar along the way.

But it works the other way too. This group has received constant praise from their assembly because they have a reputation for educated critical thinking. Is it really likely that they’ve taken a sudden 180-degree turn and put the fate of the roster in the hands of a few quick live viewing or two? I find it more reasonable to assume that when you give a group of knowledgeable people near-unlimited resources, you’ll get a method more intricate than what the hobbyists have. It’s very likely there’s a model at play here; if the team went full safe old schooler, for example, there’s no way in hell that they’d be drafting multiple overagers, even in a draft class without much first-year depth.

Is this more complex method a better one? I don’t know yet. You don’t know yet. They don’t know yet. That’s the beauty of the Entry Draft; if we knew, we’d probably make it a two round event and send everybody else on planes to various European Countries. Each season, over two hundred players put on a jersey in hopes that they’ll be able to wear it in a real game someday. There are only 760 regular roster spots available for players that typically come from as many as 20 years worth of draft classes. The process is more than chance, and progress is being made on tilting the percentages, but the odds of anybody at day two being “for real” are usually against them. Maybe Toronto has found a way to minimize that. I don’t know. Some people think they did great; much more believe that they whiffed, but the polarizing opinions make you realize something interesting happened yesterday.

I don’t know, and that’s fine. No matter what, they have Auston Matthews and several years of other pre-loaded prospects in the hopper. They could’ve drafted an inanimate carbon rod for every pick after 1 and still had one of the best prospect pools in hockey. Instead, they drafted a group of guys that don’t look anything like the eyeball list or the excel list. We have no way of telling for sure yet if that’s a good or bad thing, but we will in due time, and finding out will probably teach us a little bit more about an optimal draft strategy. In a situation like “maximizing your longshots”, this is a time not to ask “WHY?!”, but “why?”. 

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It’s a time to question authority, but by brainstorming and putting your theories to the test. Maybe there’s a motive. Or maybe Keaton Middleton is just a bad pick. Who knows. I sure as hell don’t. We have a lot of time to find out, though.

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  • apollo678

    After watching the last few years of Shanahan’s leadership (and more years of watching the Hunters’ operate in London) I am much more inclined to believe that they know what they are doing. They have learned all that there is to learn about every prospect. They have projected how each piece will fit in their multi-year shanaplan.
    When we go off the board I think its great…I want our team to have the “inside goods”. I would think that if you knew how to analyze prospects properly then your knowledge would be worth millions of dollars – why would you want that knowledge in the public domain?

  • FlareKnight

    Although I’ll take the teams word for it, this draft is again significantly less “pretty” than last years. I hope this works out for obvious reasons, but I could honestly see us looking back at this years draft and saying “oh what a missed opportunity with player x or goalie y.”

    Then again, I’m just a guy behind a computer screen, and these guys do this for a living, so i’d imagine they have a clue of what their doing.

  • FlareKnight

    Certainly nothing wrong with speculating. Good to question and debate on things. Although after that period, I’m kind of just willing to trust that Hunter and company have a plan in there. There are a lot of plausible theories, just tough when you don’t have any of the data or discussions they clearly used when putting together this draft list.

    A lot of picks no one expects is kind of interesting in that sense. There are always good picks that slip through the draft entirely or fall so far you wonder what anyone was thinking. The Leafs clearly decided to forget about consensus past the first pick and do their thing. What that thing is….I don’t know.

    Maybe it’s targeting a weakness they see in how we evaluate players who slip through the draft. Maybe they felt we needed more size to balance out the prospect pool. Maybe they see more skill in these guys than anyone else has seen. Who knows.

    I find it tough to be too critical since I’ve barely seen any of these guys. Will see where they are in a year, and maybe the good or bad in their decisions will be clearer then.

    At the very least…..we got Matthews! That’s a win enough for me before we see how the rest pan out.

  • apollo678

    I do think that since we had the number 1 pick (almost guaranteed to have a significant career) that gave us license to aggressively swing for the fences.

    • TGT23

      That’s actually what I was thinking.

      I remember hearing once that teams hope to draft an impact player and an NHL regular in every draft. I’m sure that’s oversimplifying things, but let’s say it’s true.

      Factor in how successful the 2015 draft was; Marner could very well be an impact player, while Bracco, Timashov, Dermott, and Nielsen all look to be potential NHL regulars.

      Which means combined, in two drafts, this management group has drafted two potential impact players and four potential NHL regulars.

      That’s pretty darn good.

      And that’s completely disregarding the rest of the 2015 picks and all the 2016 picks outside of Matthews.

      That means they still have 14 lottery tickets that could still become something of value from the 2015 and 2016 drafts.

      I like those odds. Even if they were swinging for the fences in 2016. Why not?

      • apollo678

        Right after the draft last year, nobody would have pretended that “Bracco, Timashov, Dermott, and Nielsen all look to be potential NHL regulars”.

        All these four players had standout draft+1 seasons but were totally unknown prior to the 2015 draft.

        So I suppose we’d better wait to see if Middleton slays the OHL next season, before judging this crop.

        • TGT23

          Exactly my point.

          We don’t know these guys, and based on this regime’s previous draft, clearly they know something we don’t. They’ve had a successful draft in 2015, and the 2016 draft is basically a win on Matthew’s alone. In two drafts we appear to have 6 players that could have some kind of impact for the club in the NHL. And that’s completely disregarding 14 other picks, 10 of which from this draft.

          I like the odds that one or two from this draft become something. This time next year we could easily be talking about how exciting some of these players are going into 2017.

          We don’t know. But, again, I like the odds.

  • apollo678

    I love this draft and don’t understand the negativity. The leafs added valuable big bodied players to protect their kids like Marner and Nylander. These are the type of players you need on a team to create space for the skilled players and offload pressure from the fast skaters like Gardiner and Rielly.

    Mark my words, Middleton is the steal of the draft and projects to be drop in replacement for Kronwall. Mattinen is also another gem in the draft who is right handed version of Kronwall. Had we just picked these two players (and Matthews) I would be ecstatic.

    • Jeremy Ian

      That’s a good piece. Worth reading to explain the chronic inefficiency. He even singles out Brooks as a good example of the problem. And why the Leafs may have landed a couple of serious prospects overlooked by decision-making biases.

  • JB#1

    This is my first post since the draft as I wanted to take some time to ponder things before saying anything.

    What’s the old saying? “If you don’t say anything, no one can be certain you’re stupid.”

    Couple of points.

    1. We drafted Matthews. For those that want us to “win” the draft (what exactly does that mean anyway?), we WON based on just that pick.

    2. There seems to be a consistent thread throughout the Leafs’ picks in the 2nd to 7th rounds – size and a certain amount of toughness. By picking this thread up, it is easier to perhaps trace it back to its’ roots. The comment Babcock made last season about the Leafs being pushed around a little too much and that being addressed ASAP. Well, the picks in this draft are an attempt to address that.

    3. I think the Leafs picked a bunch of over-agers with the idea of sync’ing their development with the younger, skilled players taken in last year’s draft. The hope being that they will percolate and be ready around the same time thus providing the muscle needed to protect the likes of Nylander, Marner, and the other smaller skilled players working their way up thru the Leafs system.

    4. As it is way too early to pass judgment on any of the Hunter led drafts, I am willing to be patient and give him and his team the benefit of the doubt. I like the fact they are going against-the-grain, as following along with the rest of the herd is never going to get you to the front of the pack. Take a calculated risk, as that’s the only thing which might help you get ahead of the crowd.

    5. The Leafs might be thinking that the idea of signing free-agent players every year to fill a hole or two might not be a viable long-term strategy. Better to be graduating those kind of players from within, sort of like how the Black Hawks do things.

    As many others have pointed out, only time will tell how the Leafs have done with last year’s draft and this year’s draft in picking players who graduate to the NHL, so let’s all enjoy the ride while we wait for the Leafs to rise up the ladder into contention for the Cup.

  • Dr.Awesome

    I am going trust the “Shanaplan” and a crew of experienced hockey execs/scouts over a bunch of people on twitter/blogs who think they know everything. We’ll see how this turns out in 4-5 years till then…. WE GOT MATTHEWS GO LEAFS GO

  • apollo678

    the Vancouver guys ran the names of the top scorers in Junior into a computer, and basically everyone of them ended up the top scorers in the NHL. In other words, the computer used the simplest formula, and blew away all the scouts in success rate. In other words, I came to the conclusion that scouts are like art critics; if they pointed out the obvious, why hire them? They have no choice but to disagree with us plebeians. If the Leafs did like me, and just picked the best players at the WJC and U18, the entire system would collapse. Centers = 1. 6’2 Matthews, 31. 5’11 Asplund, 101 5’11 Gregor, 152. 6’0 Rasanen, 179. 6’1 Somppi, 182. 6’0 Wahlgren,// D-men = 57. 6’6 Niemelainen, 72. 6’4 Greenway, 92. 6’2 Moverare, 122. 6’2 Rykov,
    62. Goalie = Woll …. These players outperformed were only out-performed (points, goals, FO%, +/- at World’s) by the top-ten players in the draft !!!!

  • Gary Empey

    For me this draft went just like last years. I had all my best mock drafts in front of me ready to go.

    After picking Marner, I had to hit the internet for every player the Leafs chose.

    The two biggest questions I notice most of us here have, are our 31st pick and our 101st pick.

    On our 31st pick. What are our expectations. We acquired a 6’4” player who can skate and is very competitive. What’s not to like there? Most of those guys are long gone in the first round.

    Any debate over our 101st pick is really surprising.

    Let’s be honest. Is it possible for any team to blow the 101st overall pick?

    It is not as if Keaton Middleton brings absolutely nothing to the table. He is considered one of the toughest, if not the toughest players in the draft. He is not a dirty player. He sticks up for his teammates. Wherever league he ends up playing, anyone considering taking a cheap shot when he is on the ice, would be advised to think about it, unless they enjoy using icepacks on their face

    “You toucha my mates I breaka you face.”

  • silentbob

    Maybe they just wanted to add some size to the prospect pool…..

    and remember, on average a good drafting team will get roughly 1.5 players out of every draft.

  • Kanuunankuula

    I hate that people are saying that since we got AM, we ‘Won’ the draft. That’s not how you win it. That’s how you become Edmonton. You have hit it in the later rounds. Top picks are easy.