Suboptimal Asset Management: Reflecting On the Maple Leafs Draft

By Tom Hunter (@PuckDontLie)

Here’s the thing about the 2016 Entry Draft for the Toronto Maple Leafs. No matter what happened during rounds 2-7, it was going to be a success.

Drafting Auston Matthews first overall is an A+ pick and ensure the Leafs couldn’t have a failed at draft. The team selected the best prospect and finally found the franchise centerman they’ve needed since the departure of Hall of Famer Mats Sundin.

The Leafs won – they got the best player and a sure fire cornerstone for a team that is working on the second half of their rebuild. The issue, however, is that while the 2016 draft will be looked back on fondly – as the Auston Matthews draft – it really looks like the team missed a golden opportunity to maximize the value of their assets.

The Leafs had spent the last year accumulating picks. Trading away players and prospects to set themselves apart in terms of assets held going into draft weekend. That said, for an organization that is praised for their work with advanced analytics – and one that preaches asset maximization – it really feels as though the Leafs front office failed to do exactly that.

Sure, we don’t know what will come of this draft class beyond Matthews. Maybe Yegor Korshkov turns into a very good NHLer, JD Greenway might become a solid bottom-4 defender and sure, Adam Brooks could prove doubters wrong and make an impact on the Leafs one day – but that’s not really the point.

Should any of the picks pan out that’s great – the fact is we simply don’t know what will come of them yet – but asset maximization simply doesn’t seem to have been utilized by the front office this time around.

If you truly feel your scouts are the smartest in the business and you believe the best prospect available is one that everyone else has ranked 20 slots lower, maybe you’ve found an inefficiency in the market. The problem is, identifying market inefficiencies can only be impactful if you maximize the value of it. Use the fact that you’ve ‘outsmarted’ everyone else to your advantage and grab an extra pick to move down from 31 to 40.

Fundamentally, risk-based asset management means collecting relevant information based on the importance of an asset to the organization and using this information to make responsible decisions that will, in turn, create the greatest value.

In hockey terms, the main aspect of data collection is the scouting. Watch as much hockey and track/accumulate as much data as you possibly can to create your draft board – though this isn’t where you stop. In the NHL, organizations are intertwined. There are relationships that allow teams to work together and collect data from each other. Beyond the scouting, it is advantageous to attempt to get a read on players from another team’s perspective.

Columbus had a trade fall apart for the third overall pick on the draft floor Friday. The trade failed thanks to Edmonton knowing the Blue Jackets would pass on Jesse Puljujarvi if forced to make the pick. On draft day, the teams seem to have a very strong grasp on how teams value certain players.

When you draft a player that no other team has ranked in the top-50 at 31st overall or when you draft a defender that most scouts have ranked around 100 at 72- that simply isn’t maximizing the value of your picks. It is creating more risk for yourself than necessary.

From what I saw over the weekend, the Leaf fans that I know and trust were less upset about the draft and more confused. During the 2015 draft, the organization seemed to focus on maximizing the value of their picks. They’d trade down, pick falling players and generally try to eliminate as much risk as possible.

In 2016, the team seemed to do the exact opposite. They were reaching for players in a way that we hadn’t seen before. Of course, when I say ‘reaching’ I may be opening a can of worms. Not all scouting groups are created equal, and each team is going to have a different view on a player than the other 29. When I use the word ‘reaching’ I mean in terms of a general consensus from the scouting world about where the player should have been drafted.

I have no problem if a scouting staff identifies a player that they want to target. The issue comes when the team drafts the player much higher than necessary. That’s poor asset management. If you want to draft Yegor Korshkov – by all means do it – I just have a hard time believing there was no possibility to trade down and draft him somewhere between 31 and where the next team had him on their board.

That might sound a little hypocritical coming from me since I’m the one who advocate the Leafs being aggressive and trading up instead of down at the draft. When I said aggressive, I meant trading up for a player you identified as less risky. Not over-drafting a player you like later in the draft.

The Leafs spent this year’s draft selecting players that tend to project more as lower-end NHL players if they maximize their potential. Even the picks people loved – Carl Grundstrom in particular – are players that project as more easily replaceable bottom-6/bottom pair players. That’s a stark contrast from a year ago when the team was drafting guys that have a rare top-end skill potential like Jeremy Bracco and Dmytro Timashov.

When you are watching your team draft, it’s always the hope that they’ll select the best player available at each pick as opposed to drafting for need. Now I’m not suggesting the Leafs didn’t select players that they felt were the best on the board at every pick, I’m simply saying that it appears very few – if any – other teams felt the same way about said players.

It appears that one of two things happened with the Leafs this past weekend at the draft. Either they truly did outsmart everyone by finding market inefficiencies – in which case they failed to maximize their advantage – or they simply had a poor draft based on selecting players for organizational need.

I tend to believe it’s a little of both. The NHL draft is a gamble – if anyone tells you they know how the picks will pan out, they’re either lying to you or they have a pretty impressive time machine. We don’t know what will come of this year’s draft class. We just know that based on the 2015 draft, what came from this weekend was confusing to a fan base that is used to doing nothing but praising their front office.

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