Early Draft Speculation

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    In a season geared more towards the June entry draft than an April playoff berth, and with the World Junior Championships, the annual showcase of young hockey talent, stealing the hockey headlines as of late – at least in Canada, – it’s hard not to start dwelling on the possibilities available for the Maple Leafs when June rolls around. There are perhaps more imminent Leaf matters at hand in the form of the changes Brian Burke is expected to execute in the nearer few months, but I think I speak on behalf of all of Leaf Nation when I say last June, the time at which the Leafs welcomed Luke Schenn to the organization, was one of the most exciting and promising moments for the fanbase in recent times. This June will hopefully bring about similar jubilation and promise as Burke adds at least one more prized first-round pick to the fold of the re-building Maple Leafs.

    The debate as to which position Burke should look to bolster with his first-rounder this summer is preliminarily underway over at Pension Plan Puppets, as Chemmy attempts to delude us into thinking we don’t need the second-coming (John Tavares) and that the pint-sized Ryan Ellis will shore up our defensive woes ;). Kidding aside, in what appears to be a very deeply talented draft pool, there is definitely a disparity among fans as to which player’s just-the-thing for the Leafs‘ future. After his transcendent performances for Canada thus far, Tavares in most books has gained a leg up on big Swedish blue-liner Victor Hedman for the right to be the projected 2009 number one/New York Islanders draft pick. It seems that the Leafs, while bad, are not bad enough to compete for the top two draft picks, unless pre-game soccer warm-ups continue to suspiciously take their toll. The choice between the consensus top two ’09 prospects appears to be the imbroglio of some other team’s brass. But Burke will nonetheless have a tough decision of his own to make: identifying which of the remaining, talented potential draftees is best suited to help lead this team to the distant promise land. Fortunately, he definitely won’t have a dearth of options to choose from.

    In addition to the position debate, there’s another preamble that must be set before considering potential draft candidates. Is Burke only willing to draft players that fit his required characteristics of “pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence?” Additionally, is Burke xenophobic?

    Burke has been quick to extinguish the notion that he’s anti-European, challenging those of the opinion that he’s a xenophobe to examine his draft record and prove it. One that argues in favour of Burke in this respect would be quick to point out that he worked concertedly to acquire the Blackhawks’ pick in order to procure both Daniel and Henrik Sedin, twins of Swedish nationality, back in 1999. Studying it a bit further, Burke has presided over a total of seven drafts in his career as a general manager, selecting 41 North Americans and 21 Europeans in those drafts. That stat alone would seem to affirm Burke’s counterargument, as 21/62 is proportional to the number of Europeans currently skating in the NHL (29%). But, apart from the Sedin twins in ’99, Burke’s never drafted a European in the first round of an entry draft. Additionally, in his three seasons in Anaheim, Burke had, on average, an 18% European roster. There’s certainly something to be said about the fact that Burke left the Ducks with but two Europeans on the active roster (not including back-up ‘tender Jonas Hiller), one of which plays a very North American brand of game in Samuel Pahlsson. That said, we’ve seen in both his selection of the Sedins and his taking to Teemu Selanne that Burke does have a recognition of the value of a highly-skilled player, whether he’s North American or not. On the whole, though, I’d deem it likely that Burke will opt for a North American with a physical edge to his game, particularly if he rightly identifies a need for some added physicality on this Leafs team if they’re to fit his mandated profile of “pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence.”

    Onto the position debate. On paper, this doesn’t take much deliberation: Burke needs to import top-line forwards, ASAP. But statistical trends of offense and defense belie that postulation. The Leafs, now without Sundin (who many, including myself, thought breathed most of the offense into this team directly and indirectly), are ninth overall in the goals-per-game category and tenth in power-play success. It’s defense that seems the main shortcoming for the Leafs, as the Buds sit 29th in both goals-against-per-game and penalty killing efficiency. This is the same trend as last year despite the aforementioned loss of the Leafs’ best offensive contributor and the addition of some own-zone help in the form of Jeff Finger, Luke Schenn and Jonas Frogren. But we’ve yet to see this current group play in front of consistently solid goaltending or anything even close, and based on what we’ve seen so far, that has had much more to do with this club’s defensive woes than the play of the defenseman themselves. Looking forward, Luke Schenn will only grow to be a stronger defensive force and his role will continue to expand, Wilson’s defensive system will continue to take root and, hopefully, a true number one goaltender will emerge be it Justin Pogge or a Burke acquisition. Undoubtedly, an additional defensive defenseman is needed within the system but should be an option Burke looks at with a pick in the subsequent rounds (or if he manages to acquire a late-first).

    For the purposes of this exercise, let’s assume the Leafs sit 6th overall at the end of the season. Add up all of the above considerations, and the first name that comes to mind is Saskatchewan native Brayden Schenn, a centerman that has Brian Burke written all over him. He’s the complete package; a player that can do just about everything well, ala Mike Richards. He may not have the scoring knack of the other forwards in the top end of his draft class, but has finished efficiently by grinding the net and picking up re-bounds. Additionally, he supplements his skill with a belligerent trait, known to be an able body-checker and fighter. Like his older brother Luke, he’s got leadership moxie and size. Schenn exploded onto the WHL scene as a rookie, recording 71 points (28-43) in 66 games played. Schenn’s stock has fallen a little bit in his sophomore season, however, as he’s not really improved on his first-year numbers. He hasn’t quite competed statistically with the likes of Matt Duchene, Evander Kane, Nazem Kadri and Jordan Schroeder. Nonetheless, I think Schenn remains a very possible pick at 6th overall. Scouts look at a lot more than just stats, and Schenn offers plenty of intangibles that don’t show on the scoresheet (even though his numbers are still quite good). He’s a sure-fire NHLer and would be a key piece of the Western hockey-style system Burke and Wilson are attempting to usher in. Similarly, Evander Kane, a wizard with the puck, has a physical dimension to his game that may attract Burke.

    May I make a case for Jordan Schroeder. He’s by no means physically intimidating, but most scouts will probably agree that he’s the pleasant surprise of the WJC tournament. He oozes offensive ability – owning a lethal release – and has amazing wheels. He’s also a three-zone player who brings it every shift. His size is a bit of an obstacle, but in every other respect he fits the profile of a Wilson and Burke system.

    It would get even more interesting if the Leafs were to drop into the three-four range. Magnus Svensson-Paajarvi has the makings of a Markus Naslund type based on what I’ve seen at the WJC, with perhaps a bit more of a physical edge, but he doesn’t have an accomplished defensive game. Would Burke make his first first-round European selection since the Sedins if he were to have a shot at Paajarvi? His weak defensive game definitely gives me my doubts. Canadian Matt Duchene, while not an overly physical player either, is a more accomplished defensive player with similar offensive upside, and would probably win out.

    I’m interested to know your guys’ thoughts.

    ***

    Alex Tran will check in tomorrow with Volume 2 of the Prospect Tracker.

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