By Tom Hunter (@PuckDontLie)
There has been a growing discussion among fans and onlookers of the NHL draft that when a team trades down they are “maximizing” their assets by providing themselves with more chances to find a great player in the draft. While that may be true in many instances when looking at draft pick ‘value’, the fact remains that every team has to look at their individual situation and assess how they want to handle their draft strategy. Last year the Toronto Maple Leafs needed to rebuild a depleted farm system, and for the most part they did that. By trading down a few times, the team acquired enough picks for Mark Hunter to pick a wide array of players to fill out the organization’s depth chart. If last year was about rebuilding a prospect pool by purchasing as many lottery tickets as possible, the circumstances surrounding this year’s draft feel significantly different.
Last year was Mark Hunter’s first draft as the Director of Player Personnel for the Toronto Maple Leafs and his task was to reshape a prospect pool that had been barren of depth for a long time. Looking back almost a year later, that is exactly what he did. By trading back a few times, the team was able to make a number of later round picks that look like they could pay big dividends down the road. Andrew Nielsen as a 3rd rounder may have figured something out that will allow him to take his game to the level necessary for the NHL. Martins Dzierkals three picks later could be a decent pro one day. Not to mention the absolute steal of the ultra-talented Dmytro Timashov with the 125th pick. Nine players in all, forwards and defense, Major Junior and Europe, Hunter selected players that have made a very respectable depth chart for the coming years.
That brings us to this year, Hunter doesn’t have a whole lot of work to with his first pick. The Leafs are selecting Auston Matthews and don’t let any narratives you hear convince you otherwise. Lucky for him (and us), as it stands now, the Leafs will be drafting four more times in the top-61. Depending on how they handle the compensation owed to Detroit and New Jersey for hiring Mike Babcock and Lou Lamoriello, the Leafs will enter the draft with 12 picks in total, and that is where things get interesting. Do we really expect the Leafs to leave the draft in Buffalo having selected 12 more players for the organization? I sure don’t.
The Argument For Trading Up
Last year when the Leafs “Belichick’d” the draft they were rebuilding a system, this year they should be looking to provide quality, not quantity. Now let me first say that I understand the argument behind trading down, drafting 18-year olds is a crap shoot and in theory the more picks you make, the more likely you are to hit on one. That said, looking back at just one year ago to the 2015 draft, the teams had the best first rounds look to be the New York Islanders and the Philadelphia Flyers (discounting the Oilers who bungled their draft up yet still win because of McDavid). The Islanders and Flyers both left the first day of the draft, with not one but two prospects that shot to the top of their farm system, and they did so by being aggressive. Having already selected the prospect some called the best defender in the draft in Ivan Provorov, the Flyers saw a prospect thy liked and traded up to get him.
To PHI: 24 overall
To TOR: 29 + 61 overall
The Flyers saw the 15th ranked prospect (per Bob McKenzie’s consensus list) drop to the mid-20s and took the opportunity to pounce. The spent the 61st pick to move up five spaces and draft Travis Konecny, who went on to have an incredible season in the OHL and is ranked as the 29th best prospect in all of hockey by TSN. You could argue that the trade made sense for the Leafs as they turned those picks into Travis Dermott, Jeremy Bracco and Dziekals, but the fact is that the Flyers got the highest quality prospect in the deal. By trading up the Flyers were able to draft a dynamic forward that is far closer to the NHL than any of the three Leafs prospects that came out of the trade, and that fits into their system very well.
Previous to the Flyers trading up to grab Konecny, the Islanders made a move that technically wasn’t ‘trading up’ but fits into my premise of being aggressive.
To NYI: 15 + 33 overall
To EDM: Griffin Reinhart
Aside from this being another in a long list of terrible moves by the Edmonton Oilers, it also shows that Garth Snow was willing to be aggressive when he saw a guy he coveted falling down the draft board. Snow traded up to 15 to draft Mathew Barzal who before a freak off-ice knee injury was rated as a top-5 prospect in his draft class. Barzal went on to almost win a spot in the Islanders opening day lineup as an 18-year old and is widely regarded as a steal that should be a big part of the Islanders starting next season.
Here are just a few more notable examples of teams trading up in the first round and benefitting greatly as a result:
4th overall (Joni Pitkanen) for Ruslan Fedotenko + 34th (Tobias Stephan) + 52nd (Dan Sprang)
1st overall (Rick Nash) for 3rd overall (Jay Bouwmeester) and the right to swap 2003 1sts
1st overall (M-A Fleury) + 73rd (Dan Carcillo) for 3rd (Nathan Horton) + 55th (Stefan Meyer)
4th overall (Andrew Ladd) for 8th Alexandre Picard + 59th (Kyle Wharton)
16th overall (Vladimir Tarasenko) for David Rundblad
14th overall (Zemgus Girgensons) for 21st (Mark Jankowski) + 42nd (Patrick Sieloff)
The point of all this is that the growing theory among some that ‘trading down is always the better option’ simply isn’t true. When the situation dictates that you trade up, it can work out very well and I believe the Leafs are in that situation this year. If someone that the scouting staff has ranked in the top-10 starts to slip to the late-teens, I would hope they try to package whatever necessary to move up and get their man. If 25th and 31st get you up to 19th for a guy the team covets, I don’t see why that is a bad thing.
Selecting Riskier Prospects
Trading up is not the only way to be aggressive during the draft. I also subscribe to the idea that since the Leafs already get an ‘A’ draft grade regardless of what they do after selecting Matthews, they can afford to take more risk with the later picks. Drafting guys that are high-risk/high-reward is a good way for the Leafs to try to maximize the large number of picks they have. The perfect example is Sean Day. He began the season expected to be drafted in the top half of the first round. Through off-ice issues and sub-par play, he’s dropped all the way out of the top-100 for many scouts. The thing about Day is that he has all the talent in the world to be a force on an NHL blueline. Day has suffered from a terrible situation in Mississauga, Jeff Boyd is not the best head coach in the world (to put it mildly) and he and Day had a very tumultuous relationship. Given his talent and the proper coaching, Day has the potential to be everything you want from a top-4 defender and if he’s still around at the 61st pick, I’d hope the Leafs would jump all over him.
Day is just one example, every year there are players that are selected lower than their talent would dictate because of a perceived risk. With the number of picks the Leafs have to play with this year, being a little risky could end up paying huge dividends down the road.
Why Be Overly Aggressive?
Because the Leafs can afford to be. When the Shanahan rebuild started, we knew everything would have to be knocked down and we’d be starting from scratch. As of today, the Maple Leafs front office knows they have Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander to build around. That is a foundation that most teams would be jealous of and one that has the organization poised to emerge from the Burke/Nonis ashes. With your foundation set, you can now go out and take more risks hoping to hit a home run. With the quantity of high-level prospects that have come out of last year’s draft, the focus this year should be on quality. Twelve new prospects isn’t necessary, but if Hunter can get his hands on another top 12-18 pick and the Leafs finish Friday night with Matthews and another blue-chip prospect, it will have been a successful draft regardless of what else happens. Sure the Leafs don’t have the best prospect system in the league, and sure the law of probabilities suggests that having as many picks as possible is the best way to strike gold. That said, this is a team that has proven to its fan base that they know what they’re doing and if we truly believe in Hunter and his scouting staff, we can be willing to accept that they are able to identify the talent worth taking a risk on. If nothing else this year’s draft will likely be the most exciting ever for Leafs fans, my hope is that they make it a little more thrilling by taking the risk necessary to succeed.