Better Red than Dead in the Water

Better Red than Dead in the Water

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Photo: Getty Images

With the Toronto Maple Leafs set to select fifth overall at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft on June 22, most Ontarians seem to be impatiently pining for an all-world talent to fall into GM Brian Burke’s lap.

Speculation will run rampant up until the moment just before Burke steps to the podium, when he caustically taunts a rival GM about his pending selection, ruining the reveal.  But is there something we should know about Burke that he’s not telling us?

I back-tested the last seven drafts that Burke has participated in – three with Toronto, four with Anaheim – going back to 2005.  In those seven drafts, Burke selected a total of 52 players.  Only eight of them, or 15.9 percent, are European-born or European-trained (all others are North American).

Upon closer inspection, the eight draftees came from four countries: five Swedes and one apiece from Germany, Finland and Norway.  Of those eight, only one was selected before the fourth round of the draft (Sondre Olden was selected in the third round, 78th overall).

Notably absent from that collection of nations are hockey powers Russia, Slovakia, Switzerland and the Czech Republic.

For a sense of perspective, Burke selected 15 players, 28.8 percent of the total, from either the collegiate ranks or who were college-bound on draft day.  Three were first round picks (Tyler Biggs, Jake Gardiner and Mark Mitera).  While that speaks volumes about the number of quality hockey prospects stuck taking Intro to Psychology in-between games, it also shows the closed-borders blueprint that dictates Burke’s drafting philosophy.

Is Burke, the noted humanitarian, displaying xenophobic tendencies as it pertains to drafting players?  While he’s never explicitly stated it, these numbers certainly bear it out.  And it should be alarming to any hockey fan that their management core is favouring a player as much on nationality as they might on overall talent.

Of course, all of that recent history will be decried by some as irrelevant given Burke’s famous drafting of Daniel and Henrik Sedin second and third overall in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft as GM of the Vancouver Canucks.

However, given the overall dearth of talent in that draft year (Tim Connolly is the sixth leading scorer from ’99, Nik Hagman 10th) and synergistic nature of the twins’ skill sets, Burke’s selection of two European players in the first round is more the exception to the rule than a solid counter-argument.

In other words, the Sedins’ selection was a stroke of luck, tempered by a stroke of genius.  And it came entirely out of the blue.  With a possible once-in-a-lifetime chance at acquiring two franchise forwards with unfathomable chemistry, Burke begged, borrowed and stole the resources to make it happen.  And no NHL team has had consecutive top-5 picks since.

So what does it mean for June 22?

It means that dreams of Nail Yakupov, Filip Forsberg, Mikhail Grigorenko or Radek Faksa could remain just that.  The top ten of this year’s draft could see as many seven European-born or trained forwards selected, with a handful of North American defenders to round out the list.

This is the fourth top-ten draft pick that the Leafs have had in the last four years, but only the second one Burke has held onto.  This is an opportunity to add a player with a high offensive ceiling, but it seems likely that the player with the highest offensive ceiling at the Leafs‘ draft position will originate from outside of North America.  In particular, centermen Grigorenko (Rus.), Faksa (Cze.) and Russian-American Alex Galchenyuk could be a boon to a franchise that has searched for a number 1 pivot since Mats Sundin left.

If they end up available and Burke passes over them, I would have serious, legitimate doubts about his ability to continue helming this struggling team. Surely, Burke and his draft team have to know this: The Leafs need more high ceiling talent in the system and it’s likely, based on the way the draft class is shaping up, it will have to come from outside of North America.

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