5
Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton / USA TODAY SPORTS

What if the Leafs let Don Cherry draft their first round picks?

Everybody’s favourite 83-year-old hockey broadcaster went on another one of his overtly nationalistic rants today, this time using Twitter to get his message out there. For all you kids out there, Don Cherry really loves his Canadian boys, and he really wanted you to know that today:

MVP of the Stanley Cup was a Canadian, two top goalies (Fleury, Murray) in the playoffs were Canadian, MVP of the season was a Canadian, scoring champ was a Canadian, most goals a Canadian, most assists Canadian, Ted Lindsay award Canadian, best defenceman Canadian, I could go on but we all know we are the best. I’ve got to admit though after reading, listening and watching the draft I would never have guessed we’re the best. We just love those foreigners. First round 11 Canadians were picked. Strange, Toronto coach Mike Babcock says guys from Ontario play harder in Toronto and that is so true because of family and friends watching but yet 4 of the 5 first Leafs picks never mind born in Ontario, they were born in another country. Of the 7 Canadian teams only Ottawa drafted a Canadian in the first round.

Now, we know that this line of thinking is outdated garbage of the most obvious degree, but that got me to an idea: what if the Leafs were to let Don make the picks for them? So I made him the Director of Amateur Scouting at the start of the cap era. Here are the rules.

  • Don Cherry personally selects all first round selections for the Toronto Maple Leafs. We may come back to this later and cover the rest, but for now, those stay the same.
  • Don Cherry picks for position. While a lot of modern draft analysts will tell you that best player available is the way to go, we know that the general market doesn’t work that way, with teams instead filling their need for today by drafting players for four years from now. If the Leafs picked a forward, he’ll pick a forward. If they picked a defenceman, he’ll pick a defenceman.
  • Don Cherry will, as such, have two teams: one that drafts the next available Canadian position player, and one that drafts the next available Ontario player in the same general position. If it the Leafs picked “the right guy”, this will not change.

Let’s see how Don did!

2006

Player Pick Team GP G A PTS PIM
Jiri Tlusty 13 Toronto 446 89 88 177 126
Chris Stewart 18 Canada 598 150 155 305 702
Chris Stewart 18 Ontario 598 150 155 305 702

Just to preface this a bit: Toronto actually planned on taking an Ontarian at this pick. Their target was Winnipeg Jets forward Bryan Little, who ended up being grossly better than both of these two and was picked one spot higher by the Atlanta Thrashers, who I guess were biased against Georgians. Tlusty was supposed to be a high-upside pick, but that didn’t translate in his time in Toronto and he was traded by the Leafs three years later. He now plays in Europe. Stewart looked like a top-end power forward for a bit, but has since become more of a role player.

The Verdict: Don gets a running start. I take Tlusty over Stewart, and I think Stewart’s play style gives him a bit more rope in the Burke regime.

2008

Player Pick Team GP G A PTS PIM
Luke Schenn 5 Toronto 644 29 104 136 494
Luke Schenn 5 Canada 644 29 104 136 494
Michael Del Zotto 20 Ontario 484 47 142 189 202

I remember the hype for Luke “The Human Eraser” Schenn. He was supposed to revive old school, open ice, defensive hockey. He’d shut down the toughest of competition, and make teams fear crossing into Toronto’s blue line. The Leafs traded up to get him, put him in lineup full-time in his Draft+1, and played him for four years before sending him to Philadelphia.

Ironically, taking Del Zotto at 20 would’ve been closer to a Sham Sharron move than a Don Cherry, as one of the OHL’s top scoring defencemen for his age. Alas, the Stouffville native took a little longer to establish himself, and hasn’t played as many games but has a good chance of leapfrogging Schenn by the end of his career.

Verdict: It’s a tossup. Canadian Cherry doesn’t get the Leafs out of picking Schenn far too early, but Ontarian Cherry does. Then again, Toronto got back James van Riemsdyk for him, Which is probably better than having Del Zotto all along. In a twist of fate, the best idea here would’ve been to draft the next European defenceman available; then you’d have Erik Karlsson, even if you didn’t trade up!

2009

Player Pick Team GP G A PTS PIM
Nazem Kadri 7 Toronto 408 113 145 258 302
Nazem Kadri 7 Canada 408 113 145 258 302
Nazem Kadri 7 Ontario 408 113 145 258 302

Everybody is on the same page for this one. Brian Burke tried to trade up for John Tavares (which would’ve also been a universal choice), but failed to make it happen, unwilling to give up the aforementioned Luke Schenn in a trade-up package. There are worse outcomes, though; Kadri has, through a long-winded journey, become a core member of the Leafs as a very respectable two-way forward that can burn you in any zone.

Don, coincidentally, was one of Kadri’s biggest backers, calling out the Leafs on many occasions for not giving him a fair shake as he developed. And, of course, there’s this:

Verdict: Everybody wins.

2011, Pt. 1

Player Pick Team GP G A PTS PIM
Stuart Percy 25 Toronto 12 0 3 3 2
Stuart Percy 25 Canada 12 0 3 3 2
Stuart Percy 25 Ontario 12 0 3 3 2

Everybody agrees once again. Percy seemed like a good pick at the time, as a steady, two-way defenceman. Despite it not working out, it’s hard to mock this pick now; concussions and other injuries derailed his career. Presently, he’s playing for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.

Verdict: I feel bad for Stu. Head injuries are a drag.

2011, Pt. 2

Player Pick Team GP G A PTS PIM
Tyler Biggs 22 Toronto 0 0 0 0 0
Matt Puempel 24 Canada 79 10 5 15 28
Matt Puempel 24 Ontario 79 10 5 15 28

Anytime you trade up to draft somebody in the first round and they’re projected to be a bottom-six forward, you’ve messed up. The warning signs were there for Biggs every step of the way, and Brian Burke and his staff disregarded them. Biggs scored 32 points the ECHL this year, and has just a 0.14 points per game in the American Hockey League since turning pro. Puempel has turned himself into a bit of a role player in the big leagues, and might still have some NHL time left in him. At the very least, he had a full season’s worth of top-end hockey over the years.

Verdict: I mean, I guess you have to go with Puempel here, but I wouldn’t consider somebody who has been out-produced at even strength by Matt Martin over the past few years to be worth much of a victory lap. Toronto could’ve also just stuck to 30th and 39th, picking Rickard Rakell and John Gibson, but that’s a different story altogether.

2012

Player Pick Team GP G A PTS PIM
Morgan Rielly 5 Toronto 312 25 94 119 75
Morgan Rielly 5 Canada 312 25 94 119 75
Slater Koekkoek 10 Ontario 41 0 5 5 12

Burke took a swing here on a player that missed most of his draft year due to injury and it worked out. Rielly has been a stabilizing force on the Leafs blue line over the course of his career, and drafting him made it easier to pull off the previously-mentioned Schenn for JVR trade. Canadian Don still takes Mo. Real life Don probably does too, especially given that his dad’s a Leafs fan, but Ontarian Don takes Tampa defenceman Slater Koekkoek, who hasn’t done much of anything to this day.

Verdict: Leafs did just fine here. Heck, it was one of the best possible picks even with hindsight.

2013

Player Pick Team GP G A PTS PIM
Frederik Gauthier 21 Toronto 28 2 2 4 23
Frederik Gauthier 21 Canada 28 2 2 4 23
Jason Dickinson 29 Ontario 11 3 0 3 0

Gauthier is similar to Biggs, in the sense that “elite fourth line centre” should’ve been the warning sign to get the heck out. Alas, Gauthier has yet to do much, though he had improved his skating over the past year, gotten into some games with the Leafs, and began to look like one of the Marlies’ top forwards until Jake Dotchin drilled him into the boards and severely injured him. Dickenson played his first legit NHL stint as well this year, scoring two goals in ten games.

Verdict: Likely a wash of two poor options, but Freddy the Goat is Freddy the Goat, so we’ll keep him. Andre Burakovsky (picked 23) would’ve been nice though.

2014

Player Pick Team GP G A PTS PIM
William Nylander 8 Toronto 103 28 46 74 36
William Nylander 8 Canada 103 28 46 74 36
Nick Ritchie 10 Ontario 110 16 16 32 99

Cherrry was very vocally angry here about the Leafs not taking Ritchie, believing him to be the power forward the team needed. Instead, they picked up a highly skilled Swede (who will actually get picked by Canadian Don since he was born in Calgary) who finished 6th in Calder Trophy voting behind two of his own teammates and appears to be a legitimate star forward at 20.

Verdict: Ritchie is better than some of the other “next big powerforward thing” comparables attached to him (Jake Virtanen or Lawson Crouse, for example), but Nylander is Nylander. Leafs did the right thing, again.

2015

Player Pick Team GP G A PTS PIM
Mitch Marner 4 Toronto 77 19 42 61 38
Mitch Marner 4 Canada 77 19 42 61 38
Mitch Marner 4 Ontario 77 19 42 61 38

Ironically, the robo-nationalist Dons are more willing to pick the local boy than real Don was:

Cherry liked Marner but thought that the Leafs had too many small players, a problem that could’ve been avoided had they taken Ritchie over Nylander.

Verdict: Everybody wins, but in reality, the Leafs win more.

2016

Player Pick Team GP G A PTS PIM
Auston Matthews 1 Toronto 82 40 29 69 14
Pierre-Luc Dubois 3 Canada 0 0 0 0 0
Michael McLeod 12 Ontario 0 0 0 0 0

Auston Matthews is has a legitimate chance to be the single greatest Toronto Maple Leafs player of all time, barring catastrophe. Pierre-Luc Dubois might had a disappointing year after a sudden rise, while McLeod was good on a very good Mississauga Steelheads roster but doesn’t

Verdict: lol

2017 / Closing Thoughts

Player Pick Team GP G A PTS PIM
Timothy Liljegren 17 Toronto
Pierre-Olivier Joseph 23 Canada
Connor Timmins 32 Ontario

While it’s a little early to say for sure that the Leafs made the right pick here, our Nation Network wide rankings, which use a bevy of qualitative data to supplement traditional scouting reports, had Joseph ranked 55th, Timmins ranked 39th, and Liljegren ranked 6th.

Personally, I like those odds a lot. Liljegren gives the Leafs the best chance at succeeding in the long run by being the best player available at the time they selected him, while checking off all the requirements they needed out of a player. That’s all the reason in the world to pick him, even without geography.

Sure, there are great Canadian players out there, and Canada wins a lot of international best-on-best tournaments. But that’s not because of what shapes and colours are on our flag, but rather the fact that there are so many of us playing the game that the competition is there, the resources are there, and the opportunities are there.

But it’s a game for everyone, no matter who they are or where they’re from. Teams should be built for quality and opportunities should be given to potential. The sooner we all stop treating a passport as more valuable than skating ability, Hockey IQ, stickwork, and the like, the better.

Besides, the system clearly doesn’t work that well. The Donald S model used here gets the Leafs a better first round pick once out of ten tries, makes them worse a couple of times, and doesn’t even give them a significantly better solution when they end up drafting busts. So, to paraphrase Josh Donaldson, we like our team, Cherry.