“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.
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.
“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.
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..
- 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?”.
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.