Crumbling Leafs, Part II: Underestimating the Power of Home-Grown Talent

There is no exact science to being successful in the NHL draft because you’re drafting 18 and 19 year-old kids who haven’t fully developed their talents.  You’re picking based on potential and projections.  Some teams have had successful track records over the years and some have not.  Toronto, at least in the last decade and a half, has not taken the world by storm when it comes to the draft.  Removing the last four drafts, because players need a few years to reach their potential, the Leafs have proven to be unsuccessful in grabbing talent to build a club around.  Examining picks over a ten year span between 1999 and 2008, here is a comparison of Toronto’s first round picks compared to that of their perennial rival the Ottawa Senators:

Toronto Maple Leafs (1st-Round Draft Picks between 1999 – 2008)

1999 – Luca Cereda                            (24th overall)

2000 – Brad Boyes                              (24th overall)

2001 – Carlo Colaiacovo                     (17th overall)

2002 – Alexander Steen                       (24th overall)

2003 – No pick in the 1st-round

2004 – No pick in the 1st-round

2005 – Tukka Rask                              (21st overall)

2006 – Jiri Tlusty                                  (13th overall)

2007 – No pick in the 1st-round

2008 – Luke Schenn                            (5th overall)

Ottawa Senators (1st-Round Draft Picks between 1999 – 2008)

1999 – Martin Havlat                           (26th overall)

2000 – Anton Volchenkov                    (21st overall)

2001 – Jason Spezza                            (2nd overall)

2002 – Jakub Klepis                            (16th overall)

2003 – Patrick Eaves                           (29th overall)

2004 – Andrei Meszaros                      (23rd overall)

2005 – Brian Lee                                 (9th overall)

2006 – Nick Foligno                            (28th overall)

2007 – Jim O’Brien                              (29th overall)

2008 – Erik Karlsson                           (15th overall)

In the same stretch of 10 years, the Leafs made 80 selections in the NHL Entry Draft.  Of the 80 selections that the Leafs made, only five players remain with the organization.  Those players are current starter James Reimer, Nikolai Kulamin, Matt Frattin, Carl Gunnarsson, and Korbinian Holzer.  Building the organization through the draft clearly has not been Toronto’s focus, meaning that their model for success has revolved around trading picks and prospects in order to secure proven talent.

Looking at the past five Stanley Cup champions, all had a nucleus of home-grown talent.  Last year the Los Angeles Kings triumphed on the back of gutsy performances by captain Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar along with stellar goaltending from Jonathan Quick.  All former Kings draft picks.  In 2011, the Boston Bruins rode the back of Tim Thomas who has played his entire NHL career with the Bruins and relied heavily upon Bruins picks such as Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron.  In 2010, the Chicago Blackhawks won the cup with a core of nearly all home-grown talent, led by Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook among many others.  In 2009, the Pittsburgh Penguins avenged a 2008 finals loss to the Detroit Red Wings in the able hands of a home-grown nucleus of Sidney Crosby, Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, Rob Scuderi and Max Talbot.  In 2008, it was Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Niklas Lidstrom, all Detroit picks paving the way to glory.

Nearly every NHL franchise today is led by at least two or three players that they originally selected and developed.  From Steven Stamkos to the Sedin twins, NHL teams from east to west have a face to base their entire marketing campaigns around.  This gives the fans a feeling of parenthood and ownership with regards to their franchise.  Fans in Pittsburgh will remember July 30th, 2005 right along with the births of their first born children.  This was the eventful day when the Penguins selected baby-faced 17 year-old phenom Sidney Crosby and ultimately saved the franchise from bankruptcy.  “Sid the Kid” became Pittsburgh’s next prodigal son.  Since that day, Crosby has been what Pittsburgh Penguin hockey is all about.

It isn’t always the first overall picks or even first-rounders that end up becoming the faces of the franchise either.  In Manhattan, when you enter Madison Square Garden, you are entering the house of “King Henrik”.  The Rangers made Henrik Lundqvist the 205th overall selection in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft.  After winning the 2012 Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender, it is clear that the Rangers will be one of the favorites coming out of the Eastern Conference for years to come.

Franchise players like Ryan Miller, the 138th selection by the Buffalo Sabres in the 1999 draft, Shea Weber, taken 49th overall in 2003 by Nashville, and Detroit icons Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, taken 171st in 1998 and 210th in 1999 respectively, prove that you can find superstars in any round of the draft in any given year.  This theory exposes a need to emphasize scouting talent and player development, something the Leafs have failed to make a priority over the last two decades.  Given the fact that the Leafs are one of the only NHL teams not to have a “AA” affiliate team in either the ECHL or CHL, it seems that player development continues to remain a matter of insignificance.

I shouldn’t say the Leafs haven’t made any strides to improve their organizational depth entirely.  In recent years, Brian Burke made several moves to bolster the Leafs prospect crop.  On March 31st, 2009, the Leafs signed Christian Hanson, a strapping free-agent out of the University of Notre Dame, to a two-year contract.  The move came as a heralded step forward for the organization and a promise of a bright young future in Leafs Nation.  Over the next two seasons, Hanson was shuttled back and forth between the NHL and the AHL and never really made his mark.  He played in a grand total of 42 games fo the Leafs over parts of three seasons and amassed a whopping 9 points before signing with the Washington Capitals before the 2011-12 season.

Burke kept with his preference for large-bodied skaters, a strategy that he claims secured Anaheim it’s first Stanley Cup victory in 2007, by acquiring former first-rounder Joe Colborne via the Tomas Kaberle trade.  In addition he added bohemoths Keith Aulie, Cody Franson, David Steckel, and Carter Ashton in a span of two years dating back to 2010.  Since then, Joe Colborne has yet to secure a spot in Toronto and has struggled mightily in stretches down in the American League.  Keith Aulie was traded in a deal to acquire Carter Ashton who has yet to crack the Leafs lineup and has a startling 16 points in 42 games for the Marlies.  Cody Franson has proved to be a steady contributor on Toronto’s depth pairings and David Steckel has provided some depth, getting minutes on Toronto’s 4th line.  None, however, of the aforementioned group has shown any signs of being an impact player that the Leafs desparetly need to emerge.

The biggest criticism of Brian Burke’s reign in Toronto came from a move he made back on September 18th, 2009 where Burke flipped Toronto’s first and second-round picks in the 2010 draft along with their top pick in 2011 to secure dynamic scorer Phil Kessel.  Eventually, the draft picks translated into Tyler Seguin, Jared Knight and Dougie Hamilton.  Both Seguin and Hamilton have proven to be solid contributors this year for the Bruins and of course the Bruins went on to win the cup in 2011.

I really didn’t mind this deal and still don’t for the Leafs. I mean, sure Seguin is turning out to be a great player and Dougie Hamilton looks to have a very bright future ahead of him, but Toronto desparately needed a guy who could provide excitement and flair.  Since the trade, Kessel has been healthy and has posted consecutive seasons of 30, 32 and 37 goals, and he’s still only 25 years-old.  He’s been consistent and effective despite not having much talent to play alongside.  And in the end, Boston could have selected players that didn’t live up to the hype, like so has happened so many times in the past.

The next major move that Burke orchaestrated was a January 31st, 2010 deal that brought current captain Dion Phaneuf to Hogtown.  Phaneuf’s career was in a bit of a tailspin at the time of the trade and fans and media were quick to criticize the move.  Despite posting respectable numbers, as far as league defenseman standards are concerned, over the next two seasons, Phaneuf has been a constant target for scrutiny.

Now in Phaneuf’s defense, he shouldn’t take it to heart, considering Leaf fans and the Toronto media have always jumped at the chance to chastize former headliner Leaf defencemen over the years such as Larry Murphy, Mathieu Schneider, Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle.  It really doesn’t seem to matter who is quarterbacking the Leafs powerplay in the eyes of fans and media.  McCabe shot the puck too much and didn’t pass enough.  Kaberle passed off too much and didn’t shoot enough.  Defensemen in Toronto just can’t seem to catch a break.

Jamie McKinven
Author / Blogger at glassandout.com
Jamie McKinven, author of “So You Want Your Kid to Play Pro Hockey?” and “Tales from the Bus Leagues,” is a former professional hockey player who played in the NCAA, ECHL, CHL and Europe.

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