The Toronto Maple Leafs‘ first draft under the watchul eye of Brian Burke displayed a stark change in the team’s draft philosophy. The scouting staff searched for the type of players and attributes that would be able to fit into the mold of a tough, physical checking style of game that the Leafs hope to play several years down the road. As a result, we saw a lot more emphasis placed on size and toughness than skill and speed. Not surprisingly, all of Toronto’s seven selections were from the North American ranks, four of them from the Ontario Hockey League and three from American hockey programs.
1st round – 7th overall – F Nazem Kadri: London Knights, OHL
It took a little while for me to digest this selection, but after setting aside the hype built up for Canadian defender Cowen and Swedish winger Paajarvi-Svensson, I can honestly say I really like this pick. There is little doubt that Kadri is an extremely talented offensive player with a ton of potential and projection. His regular season stats were comparable to those of Brampton’s Matt Duchene and Nazem is the kid who was the Knights’ best player during their playoff run this season, recording 21 points in 14 games played. Yes, on a team that included John Tavares. Kadri is an explosive offensive player with the ability to draw defenders toward him and beat them one-on-one. He has great playmaking abiliy and plays the game with the vision and hockey sense reminiscent of a Sam Gagner.
You take 6’0 frame and you add the word skill, and the usual knock is going to be soft and lazy. Not the case here. Kadri has been often commended for his outstanding work ethic, character and well-rounded game. He is described by Leafs scouting director Dave Morrison as a very competitive player who will drive through checks and plays with an edge. Red Line spoke highly of Kadri’s ability to bring a little nastiness to his game and is at his best when he plays the role of an agitator to get under the skin of his opponents. The knock on Kadri has always been his consistency. Essentially, what the Leafs are doing here with their selection, is they’re hoping to see a lot more of the OHL playoff version of Nazem Kadri: a player who absolutely dominated every shift, created energy every time he was on the ice, and whose potential rivals just about anybody in his draft class. Morrison and the scouting staff went for skill and projection, and that 14 game outburst late in the year showed them a glimpse of the sky high potential Kadri possesses.
Pick Grade: 4.5/5
2nd round – 50th overall – F Kenny Ryan: USA U-18
Burke dips into the familiar well of American talent that is the USNTDP for this selection, grabbing two-way forward Kenny Ryan. Mckeen’s and USA Hockey have Ryan pegged as an absolute workhorse on the ice who is strong in high traffic areas, contributes defensively, and has the ability to chip in a few goals. He’s not much of a puckhandler and prefers to play without the puck, as he’s more of a shooter than a playmaker. He’s an average skater, but possesses good offensive instincts and will score his fair share of goals at the NHL level because he knows how to get to the right place at the right time. A style of game similar to Dallas’ Jere Lehtinen or Toronto’s Niklas Hagman. Ryan will join Leaf prospect Jimmy Hayes at Boston College next year, so it’ll be interesting to see what kind of chemistry they can create. Using a late 2nd round gamble on a 1st round talent like Richard Panik (52nd overall to Tampa) might have had the potential to yield a higher reward, but I understand the direction and reasoning behind this pick.
Pick Grade: 4/5
2nd round – 58th overall – D Jesse Blacker: Windsor Spitfires, OHL
Looking to shore up the team’s defensive depth, Toronto looked to Jesse Blacker, a defensive defenseman from the Memorial Cup champions. The best word to describe Blacker is “solid” as he seems to do everything well, but doesn’t really offer any standout qualities. He makes short, quick passes, plays a strong positional game, has good size, and does not shy away from the physical game. It will be interesting to see how he develops next season with a larger role, and Mckeen’s suggests that there’s a little more offensive potential under the surface. Not a whole lot of projection here, but you can’t gamble on every pick and this seems like a safe bet for a useful NHL career. If they were feeling a little more adventurous, Tomas Tatar (60th overall to Detroit) and Ben Hanowski (63rd overall to Pittsburgh) were a couple high upside selections that I would have strongly conisdered at this spot.
Pick Grade: 4/5
3rd round – 68th overall – Jamie Devane: Plymouth Whalers, OHL
This pick caught everybody, including all the major scouting agencies, completely off guard. The NHL employees at the draft didn’t even have a name plate ready for the draft board, so they had to go and quickly make one up. It’s not often you see an unranked player go early into the 3rd round. Devane is a huge kid with a nasty attitude and a very good fighter. When you’re one of the worst defensive teams in the league, with terrible goaltending depth, this is not the time to take a 4th line scrapper when the top ranked North American goaltender, Matthew Hackett (77th overall to Minnesota) is still on the board. Devane scored an underwhelming 17 points in 64 games played this season, albeit in his rookie season, so here’s hoping he steps it up next season. This is the worst pick of the draft thus far.
Pick Grade: 1/5
5th round – 128th overall – D Eric Knodel: Philadelphia Jr.
This is the second of Toronto’s back-to-back off the board reaches. This one is a slightly more interesting gamble, as a 6’6 defenseman with some intriguing raw skills and a bit of offensive potential. Mckeen’s describes him as a “friendly giant”, which is probably not the compliment you want as a hockey player. This is a project pick, and one that will take several years before we see any glimmer of NHL potential. The later rounds are indeed for gambles and project picks, but there were a couple with better value who went just a few picks after the Leafs made this selection. Dallas nabbed powerforward Tomas Vincour at #129, and then Edmonton capped off an oustanding draft haul with QMJHL phenom Olivier Roy at #133. Roy’s got a ton of potential, and like Team Canada’s Gold medallist and Memorial Cup MVP Dustin Tokarski who also fell to the 5th round, he’s going to go out and make everyone else regret passing on him for 4 rounds.
Pick Grade: 3/5
6th round – 158th overall – F Jerry D’Amigo: USA U-18
This was an excellent selection by the Leafs this late in the draft, and was probably their best value pick as D’Amigo was slated to go somewhere in the 2nd or 3rd round on most draft boards. He made a lasting impression on most teams with an outstanding World U-18 tournament, where he was Team USA’s best player and leading scorer. He’s a little undersized, but is very strong on the puck, skates well, and has excellent goal scoring instincts. He’s a hard working forechecker whose style of play has been compared to that of Leaf prospect Dale Mitchell. One of the top names on my board still available at this selection.
Pick Grade: 5/5
7th round – 188th overall – D Barron Smith: Peterborough Petes, OHL
Back to the OHL ranks for another huge bodied project defenseman with modest stats. Smith has spent the last 3 years playing on 3 different teams, and amassing a grand total of 7 points over that span. He is the son of former NHLer Steve Smith and is described as a stay-at-home defender with limited mobility and “very limited upside”. This is a pure gamble on a raw project with a big body. At this point in the draft, it’s a crapshoot at best, so there’s nothing wrong with that strategy. It might’ve been interesting to throw Swedish scout Thomas Bergmann a bone here to see if he could dig up another late round European gem for the Leafs. A couple of high upside players who fell a bit include Finnish defenseman Tommi Kivisto and Swedish bruisder Anton Myllari. Both would have been intriguing gambles as players with high reward and very little risk this late in the draft.
Pick Grade: 3/5
The Final Verdict: 24.5/35 = B-
Overall, I really like the Leafs first three selections in this year’s draft, and would’ve prefered they used a few more of their mid-late picks on some of the high upside players that were falling down draft boards. You can’t teach skill, but you can work on other aspects of the game such as two-way play, strength or skating ability. That’s the kind of strategy that has landed the Leafs players like Tlusty, Didomenico, Hayes, Stefanovich, Mitchell, and Stralman in past years. Nothing has indicated to me in Burke’s past draft record that he has had consistent success with his draft philosophy’s emphasis on size, toughness and North American pedigree. My general draft philosophy is this: unless you have a track record of being very successful with off the board picks and you’re confident that you know more than everyone else (see Ken Holland), stick to the consensus draft rankings. With that said, I am willing to put the past aside and now that these 7 new players have put on Leaf jerseys, I will move forward with optimism and hope for the best.
Always a pleasure,