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Photo Credit: Matthew OHaren / USA TODAY Sports

Should the Leafs or Marlies look into the unsigned draft picks of other teams?

Yesterday evening, the Toronto Maple Leafs walked away from three of their previous draft picks in Nikita Korostelev, Fabrice Herzog, and Stephen Desrocher. Reception is mixed; most had given up on Herzog ever coming back to North America, but many on “Team Skill” would’ve loved to have kept Korostelev, many on “Team Size” would’ve loved to have kept Desrocher, and everyone on “Team Hoard” would’ve preferred to keep both of them. After all, you’d prefer to not lose prospects for nothing in return, right?

In a previous post, I explained why I felt walking away from them (and soon to be college free agent Dominic Toninato) made sense. In short, it’s tough to commit to the fringe of your pool when you’re continuously pushing the 50-contract limit and have to worry about managing ice time in developmental leagues.

But it did get me thinking; there are 30 other players on this list. Are any of them worth pursuing? So I took a look.

What I did for skaters, just to give us a baseline, was extremely rudimentary. I used NHLe to see how they produced in their various leagues. The reasoning behind that is simple; whether you come to the NHL to be a sniper, playmaker, shutdown defenceman, or enforcer, you typically have to be dominant on your way up to keep climbing up the latter. A guy who can’t produce at a development or lower-tier European level is going to be lost in the big leagues no matter what style he plays.

It also gave me an opportunity to test our very own Ian Tulloch’s revised NHLe formula from the other day. While I don’t have the math background to appreciate the nuances of what he’s doing here, there was a bit of hockey logic that had you raise eyebrows about the current equivalencies. Things like…

  • How was Sweden’s second-tier (Allsvenskan) more valuable than the first? Was it secretly a tougher league, or was there something else to it? Maybe SHL teams loaning their top prospects downward at younger ages to get them ice time? Maybe NHL teams yanking their players out of bad club situations once they caught fire?
  • Why was Liiga ranked so dramatically low? The standard method got a nice bump this year thanks to Patrik Laine and Sebastian Aho’s comfortable transitions, but why was it ranked to be equal to the OHL prior?
  • Moreover, why was Liiga’s version of major junior ranked even higher than its highest level?

With that all in mind, I was excited to play with Ian’s translations in a practical environment, to see if they made things make more sense in some cases. With all of that said, here are the centres, wingers, and defencemen, with their convertible ages filled in:

Some things jump out at me here. Firstly, well, most of these prospects are… not very good. Their draft years often weren’t that crazy, to begin with, and most have stagnated or look to be underwhelming for players who are closer to their athletic prime than they are to their draft year.

It’s not hard to see patterns in these walked away from guys either. Six of nine centres are right-handed, and two of the ones that are lefties are over 6’2. Clearly, some teams took gambles on absolute long shots in hopes of finding that prototypical bottom line centre that everyone loses their mind over (I’d throw stones, but the Leafs drafted Frederik Gauthier in the first round, and as much as I like him, they probably shouldn’t do similar again). Almost every defenceman on the list is at least 6’2, none have heights in the fives. Size be damned, how did Riley Bruce get drafte-

Burkie!

Another thing? Well, Toronto may have given up two of the best prospects available here. Korostelev had the second best Age 19 season of the bunch and is one of the more consistent scorers, and Desrocher has steadily improved to eclipse many of his peers here.

On one hand, it’s a testament to the depth of Toronto’s system that they dropped some of the best players on the scrap heap into the pile. On the other hand.. it’s still a scrap heap. We’re talking about players who weren’t interesting enough to have been traded to other teams for conditional picks ahead of the window, and will either hit free agency or re-enter the draft in hopes of finding a second home.

Given that a lot of these players are either total longshots or comfortably chilling in Europe, I don’t particularly have a lot of interest in drafting the ones that are going to re-enter. On the other hand, shoring up the Marlies/Solar Bears with some AHL deals to players who don’t get selected might be interesting.

With that in mind, Giorgio Estephan would be the clear and obvious first look here. He’s not very big, but he’s the ever-so-beloved right handed centre and he had a pretty solid Draft+2 year with Lethbridge of the WHL, scoring 35 goals and adding 54 assists in 68 regular season games, then adding 24 points in 18 games in the playoffs. He’s already had six games of AHL experience courtesy of an ATO signed at the end of the 2015/16 season, and has a goal to his credit from that tryout. Estephan was originally drafted 152nd overall by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2015 draft. His junior coach had good things to say about him at the start of the season:

“Absolutely, I think he’s going to play in the NHL,” Lethbridge coach Brent Kisio said. “I think he’s going to be a good player in the NHL. I think he can be a top-six guy that’s a real reliable guy.”

“He’s been working real hard at improving his first couple steps,” he said. “I think he’s getting faster every day. He’s a real solid two-way guy who can play both ends of the ice.”

Estephan utilizes his quick shot by playing “a heavier game” and creating space for himself, Kisio said.

“Anything basically top of the circles down he has a chance to score,” he said.

(via Buffalo Hockey Beat)

Glenn Gawdin and Matteo Gennaro (do NHL GM’s hate the letter G?) are also options down the middle. Gawdin, a 2015 St. Louis Blues 4th rounder, is also a right-handed centre who scored at over a point per game rate as captain of the Swift Current Broncos, while Gennaro, a Winnipeg 7th rounder, saw the biggest improvement of this list this year, scoring 43 goals and 80 points in 69 games, leading the Calgary Hitmen in scoring by 24 points.

“I think it’s a lot of different things,” said Gennaro to Jets Nation in January about his breakout year. “I’m leaned on a lot more as a 19-year-old guy. I’m getting a ton of opportunity here, but I’m a veteran guy and each year you learn more and more about yourself and the game and what type things you gotta do to be successful and where you got to go on the ice. You’re just seeing me play confident right now and try to help the team out.”

On the defensive side of things, there really much to look at. Besides the idea of bringing back Desrocher (which, if he wasn’t yet another leftie, would be a discussion I’d have plenty of time for), my theoretical go-to would be former Canucks Draft pick Carl Neill, who developed a cult following on Canucks Army for his long junior career playing for the Carl Neills.

Ryan Biech had this to say about Neill’s long-term hopes last month:

The 6’1″, 200 lbs defenceman has played fairly well for the Islanders, posting 23 points in 31 games. He ended the season 2nd in points amongst defenceman. From first glance, the stats would suggest  Neill is worthy of a contract.

I explored that topic in January and came to the conclusion that Neill had shown enough offence flair over his QMJHL career to be worth the gamble. I did, however, mention the weakness in his game was his skating and defensive awareness.

At the time, I didn’t harp on his deficiencies enough as I wanted to highlight the positives of the draft class. But the concern about his skating abilities is valid. Suggesting that he may struggle to keep up at the AHL level is a fair conclusion.

While he’s put up the points, Neill would have to be a heck of a Barb Underhill prodigy to keep up with a Marlies team that likes to play with pace. Maybe that’s a risk you can take on an AHL deal, sending him down to Orlando if things don’t work out. After all, if he gets up to speed, he’s an offensively talented right-handed defenceman, and the Marlies are even more barren in that regard than the Leafs are.

Though, that dream is one that isn’t worth attempting to have, at least for now. Neill is going back to school; he’ll study at and play for Concordia University next season.

Between the pipes, I wouldn’t bother at all. Three of the four goalies (Miroslav Svoboda, Evan Smith, and Fredrik Bergvik) have struggled in any stints in major junior or their country’s top leagues, and while Janne Juvonen has done okay in Liiga as a starter, he hasn’t done well enough to offer him a contract that would give him the incentive to cross the ocean, nor does he have the physical frame (6’1, 183 lbs) to think they can add an extra technical layer to his game to make him that much better.

At the end of the day, this was a fun exercise in testing out the updated NHLe machine and learning a bit about some new players, but I think most of these players were walked away from for a reason. A team with a shallower prospect pool than the Leafs would probably find good value in grabbing Toronto’s pair and throwing them into the AHL, and I’d certainly be happy with Estephan fighting for a Marlies centre spot and trying to work his way up, but I’m not in a position where I feel heavily emotional about anyone on this list just yet.

  • Gary Empey

    Why are some folks always so hard on center Frederik Gauthier drafted 20th in the 20 1st round.
    We only have to look at our recent past to know that drafting a center like Nazem Kadri 5th, it took him almost 3 years in the AHL to finally hold down a regular center job in the NHL.
    Drafting a center like William Nylander, 8th, it took him 2 years in the AHL to finally hold down a wingers job in the NHL and it likely will be another year before he finally gets his preferred spot at center.

    Yet center Frederik Gauthier drafted all the way down at 20th, is constantly criticized as a bad pick. He has now only played 2 years in the AHL. His is coach Keefe just stated:
    “He’s been playing as good of hockey as I’ve seen. With how he’s been skating and the extra speed that he’s been bringing for us, it’s really established him as our top center.”
    We have a huge opening for a young fourth line center that can win faceoffs and add a little offence so we can become a true Cup contender. The “Goat” is on track earn that position.

    This brings us to our 17th pick this year. What should our expectations be. If we draft a center should we expect him to be almost (but not quite) as good as Matthews? If we draft a defenceman should we expect him to become a top pairing D-man anytime soon or anytime at all?

    At 17 is it not more reasonable to expect whomever we draft, to spend 2 or 3 years in the AHL before they become an NHL regular.

    • Gary Empey

      I failed to mention that the jerk who took out Gauthier’s knee was Tampa Bay’s prospect Jake Dotchin. The same guy who took out Kapanen’s knee, and tried his best to take out Matthews knee this year.

    • Kanuunankuula

      You’ve nailed it on the head yourself. “We have a huge opening for a young fourth line center that can win faceoffs and add a little offence so we can become a true Cup contender. The “Goat” is on track earn that position.”. You don’t draft 4th line centers in the 1st round. They’re readily available in later rounds or in FA. It’s an utter waste to draft him the 1st round. There you should be aiming for a top 6 forward or a top 4 D-man. Freddy the goat was an overly safe pick, he wasn’t going to be much worse, but he’s not going to be a top 6 forward. Instead of him, you could have had: Burakovsky (2 picks later), Shea Theodore (4 picks later), Dano (6 picks later). And that’s just in the 1st round (playoff leading goalscorer Jake Guentzel at 77). Hindsight 20-20, but that pick was considered garbage back then too.

      As Kadri, there’s a fairly solid argument to be had for coaching having a negative effect on his NHL career. You notice he’s flourished under Babcock. Nylander was in the A for 37 + 5 playoff games in 2014/15, 38 + 14 in 15/16. So not really “two years”. And he was not really kept down for 16 because of his merits, he was way too good for that league 2015-16.

      He was also picked 21st, no 20th.

      • Gary Empey

        Re- Nylander….He is not playing center in the NHL for the Leafs yet either.
        As you mentioned players who were drafted after Gauthier what about some who were draft before him.
        11th Samuel Morin 1 NHL game so far. 0 goals
        15th Ryan Pulock 16 NHL 16 NHL games. 2 goals.
        10 Kerby Rychel 37 NHL games. 2 goals.

        • Stan Smith

          I’m with you on this one Gary. 1 in 4 players drafted in the area of the draft that Gauthier was, never make it to the NHL. It’s wasy to go back and cherry pick players who have were picked later, and went on to exceed expectations , but for every one of them there are a lot who faired worse.

          I think the goat is destined to be the Leafs 4th line centre of the Leafs, and will have a long NHL career. It might be delayed a bit with his injury, or if the Leafs re-sign Brian Boyle, a player everyone seems to want the Leafs to sign. Oh. did anyone happen to notice that Boyle is a 4th line centre that was drafted in the first round?

      • Gary Empey

        I agree. That is the way it used to be. How hard and fast is the “look for a star player with every pick” rule. I have noticed Hunter’s team seems to use a different method for evaluating players than most of the rest. With Babcock’s format of a checker, playmaker, shooter on each line, is there not some value in drafting an natural checker, as opposed to drafting a shooter and attempting to turn him into a checker on the 4th line. A lot of us who have been watching hockey for years have noticed when it comes to making the Stanley Cup finals or even the conference finals, the top lines for each team are often evenly matched. It is the lesser lights who seem to tip the balance and become minor stars themselves. I say why not actually go out and look for those type of players at some point. This years question is 17th too early to look. I suspect Cal Foote will spend 15 solid years in the NHL as a bottom pairing or second pairing defence man. Should we take a long-shot chance on drafting a top pairing defenceman at 17 instead. There certainly is argument for going either way.