There’s nothing like draft weekend to prime the hockey world for free agency.
It was an up and down weekend for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but hopefully it is a draft class we can look back on with a smile one day. It certainly started with a bang for Leafs fans.
Here are some notes and thoughts on the weekend that was:
When a team drafts outside of the top few selections, they’re mining through a pool of players with at least one perceived flaw or deficiency, otherwise these players would have been at the top of the order.
For the Leafs, they drafted a player who is the nearly unanimous “most skilled guy in the draft” with their eighth overall pick. There are questions on his defensive play, his size, and apparently his attitude (he seems outspoken, candid and confident — which usually rubs scouts the wrong way — but it is laughable to hold that against an 18-year-old kid who hasn’t done anything outwardly wrong).
— Thomas Roost (@thomasroost) June 29, 2014
By all accounts, the Leafs were going to get a good prospect at eight unless they completely went off the board. Whether it was William Nylander, Nick Ritchie or Nikolaj Ehlers, there would have been something to be excited about. Where the intrigue in this pick lies, however, is in the development of the player.
Because Nylander played in Europe and his contract is now terminated, he is able to come to Toronto to play for either the Toronto Marlies or Leafs right away. The Red Wings did this same thing with Tomas Tatar.
The Leafs and many other scouts have noted that Nylander already has NHL speed, hands, and a good shot (in the U18s, he walked over the blue line and ripped a wrister by the Canadian goalie with ease from the top of the circle). TSN listed him at 5’11.5 and 173 pounds. That isn’t big, but having played against men before and with a full summer of training ahead, he should be able to handle playing pro hockey in North America. He did very well in the combine:
William Nylander Combine Results
|Pro Agility: Left||2nd|
|Pro Agility: Right||2nd|
|Average Power Output|
|Peak Power Output|
Nylander did not have a great start to his draft season and that saw him take a tumble as a top prospect, but he turned that around with a strong second half and proceeded to crush the U18s. This follows a trend of the Leafs drafting more than a few players after strong U18 tournaments: Frederik Gauthier, Carter Verhaeghe, Jerry D’Amigo and Tyler Biggs, to name a few.
But the fact that Nylander is AHL eligible is where the intrigue lies for me. This means he can go down and be coached by Steve Spott on a successful Marlies team, where he’ll learn the pro game in North America and the nuances of playing center. He played both center and wing last season, but with this avenue available the Leafs — if they so choose — they can take their time and guide him through playing center properly, hopefully resulting in the 1C end product this team has been lacking. They don’t have to send him to an outside team and have his role and ice time lie in the hands of another coach in an inferior league, and he’ll still be developing on a solid track playing in the AHL. And don’t forget Spott has coached and developed some pretty good players in Kitchener, namely Jeff Skinner, Gabriel Landeskog and Ryan Murphy, to name a few. There won’t be a big decision to send him between the NHL or OHL for the Toronto media to go crazy over during the preseason, either, which is frankly the route a lot of these top prospects should be going immediately.
Since Dave Morrison has taken over the drafting, the Leafs have had a lot of success with selections out of Sweden with their Head European Scout, Thommie Bergman, mining a steady stream of NHL capable picks, primarily in later rounds:
Maple Leafs Draft Selections out of Sweden
With a top 10 pick, we can only hope to bring in a high-end talent and Nylander appears to be one of, if not the most, talented of the group. They got him at eighth overall, and they get to develop him however they want. It is up to management and the Leafs development staff to groom this kid properly now.
Swapping Carl Gunnarsson+ for Roman Polak
“We traded Brendan Morrison because we had Scott Gomez coming… It wasn’t that we didn’t like Morrison; it’s just that we just felt that we needed a certain type of player… We didn’t re-sign Bobby Carpenter, because we felt John Madden was ready from the minors… We brought Colin White up for 10 games, and he showed he could play, but he wasn’t going to play [regularly] because we had Lyle Odelein… I had to keep Whitey playing, so we sent him to the minors. He sat right there and I said, ‘Listen, you could stay, but until we make room, I can’t have you not playing here [in New Jersey].’ We traded Lyle Odelein about 15 games later, and White never left… So those [moves] are all part of what you have in your mind and what your plan is that nobody else knows. Remember, the unknown –what you know—is the most dangerous. You’ve got to be careful because everybody wants to be privy to you.”
-Lou Lamoriello, in Behind The Moves
When the Leafs traded Carl Gunnarsson in a package for Roman Polak, the context of the above quote is essentially what it amounted to. They want to push Jake Gardiner and hopefully Morgan Rielly (Dave Nonis basically said they are hopeful he can continue improving and play more, not take a step back) up the roster to fill more prominent roles, and they are short on right-handed defensemen. In one move, they feel they have cleared the way for the kids to move up while also acquiring an NHLer for a position of need on their depth chart.
Jake Gardiner was asked to play on the right side last season; not only did he noticeably struggle and look uncomfortable, but he admitted that he didn’t like it. The Leafs closed out the season with rookie Morgan Rielly playing on his offside down the entire stretch. Although he was comfortable there and played well — which should not be a surprise considering he played both sides in the WHL — this move suggests the Leafs only did it out of necessity rather than wanting to play Rielly on his right side. Claude Loiselle noted that zone exits are easier on a defenceman’s proper side, and although that could be tricky to quantify, there is common sense in that. When a defenceman takes a D-to-D pass on his offside, he has to rotate his body in an almost-90-degree fashion and take the puck behind him before turning up ice and moving the puck. On his strong side, the puck comes to the defenceman in front of his body and he can immediately pass the puck up ice.
When it comes to Polak specifically, he helps to fill out the bottom of their defense, and unlike previous players who have filled the role of the big, physical defenceman under Carlyle (Fraser, O’Byrne, Holzer), he’s a bonafide NHLer. Polak has played 449 total NHL games and is only 28 years old, so he’s been around but he is not past his prime. That said, his average ice time has decreased steadily over each of the last six seasons, although interestingly enough his ice time has spiked up in the playoffs for the Blues every season he has participated in them. He only started 46% of his draws in the offensive zone and didn’t have good possession numbers on a strong cycling team, but in a limited role he can hold his own, relatively speaking.
Polak was fourth on the Blues this past season in average shorthanded ice time per game playing 2:17/game, while Gunnarsson, interestingly enough, actually led the Leafs with 2:56/game. That is not an even swap, which is interesting given management talked about role players needing to fill roles like this in order to not heap so much responsibility on the top D. Polak did play behind Olympians on the top unit — that is nothing to sneeze at or disregard, and maybe he will play more in Toronto — but they are gambling on a leap of faith here if they’re counting on it.
All of this really goes to tell us that the Leafs did not acquire a top four defenseman to help their defense, but they did bring in a player who could bring some stability to the bottom pairing and make a contribution. He can play on the second penalty killing unit, he can pair with Morgan Rielly on what could be a very nice third pairing, and he could bring some physical elements that were missing last season. In 2013-14, the Leafs goalies and crease were open season for opponents. Bernier got ran more than a few times, as did Reimer, and it was a sore point for everyone to watch. Management has felt, and been vocal, about missing what Fraser, Komarov, Orr and McLaren brought. With this move, they have beefed up their team a little bit but thankfully in the form of a player who can skate and take a regular shift.
The sticking point of the deal, however, is that Carl Gunnarsson, a 4th round pick and some retained money went the other way. St. Louis has already said that Carl Gunnarsson figures to play in their top four alongside Kevin Shattenkirk, and he might even see time with Alex Pietrangelo.
On Gunnarsson’s hip:
“We got his medical information,” Armstrong said. “He got the surgery done in Nashville and our medical doctors not only talked to the training staff, but also the doctor that did the surgery. We were very comfortable that he’ll be ready at the start of the season.”
So, essentially, the Leafs traded a player who is lined up to be a top-4 on a Cup contender for a third-pairing defenseman, and had to throw in a draft pick, plus keep money.
When Scott Gordon had his interview with James Mirtle, he noted that Carlyle believes the Leafs can’t even ponder trading Gardiner until he has played at least 300 NHL games. Gunnarsson has played 311. They must feel comfortable that they know what Gunnarsson is and are fine with trading him.
Polak is going to struggle if he is tasked with handling heavy top 4 minutes, but he should be a solid addition if he is on the third pairing with Morgan Rielly. With the expected push up of Gardiner, perhaps the Leafs could come out ahead here seeing as Gardiner is better than Gunnarsson and Polak could be an improvement over some of the defencemen the Leafs have been running on their bottom pairing over the years. The bookends of the Leafs defense could be set with:
Right-handed defencemen are at a premium — only 110 out of 304 defensemen (36%) who played at a least a game last season were righties — which is why I assume the Leafs felt they needed to pay extra. But, the assets the Leafs had to give up (and retaining salary is an asset because a team can only do it three times per season) leave a bad aftertaste because the talent being exchanged is not equal. Last summer, Nonis traded Frattin coming off surgery, and he was slated to (and did) start in the Kings’ top 6. He was traded before the season ended and healthy scratched by Columbus. Maybe the Leafs know something about Gunnarsson’s health that we don’t, but the trade leaves a little something (although not earth-shattering or franchise changing) to be desired.
On Trading Picks
“I’ve seen GMs – the guys that have done this don’t last—trade picks and really infuriate their staff. I wouldn’t do that to our staff. I just wouldn’t trade away picks unless it was too important not to.”
-Craig Patrick, in Behind The Moves
Another draft, another draft day deal taking picks away from the scouting staff. In the last three years, the Maple Leafs have not drafted in the following rounds:
Maple Leafs Traded Picks 2012-2014
|2014||2nd, traded one of two 4ths|
This story line continues to get lost on the Leafs, but they are consistently putting their scouting staff behind the eight ball and expecting good results. Despite that, they are producing.
Since 2006, Leafs draft picks have played in a total of 2,537 NHL games. That's 5th highest in the league.
— Justin Fisher (@thejustinfisher) June 23, 2014
Leafs draft picks since 2006 have scored a combined 869 points in the NHL. That's 10th most in the league.
— Justin Fisher (@thejustinfisher) June 23, 2014
Who knows if the Leafs would have found NHLers with those picks (nobody can prove that), but this has been an above-average scouting staff under Morrison and they regularly hit the draft table missing picks in key rounds.
I contacted a few scouts in regards to the American players drafted by the Maple Leafs on day two. A special thanks to Andrew and Dan for their time in helping us to get to know these players. You can follow and/or contact these two at @WeissFC and @ShraderD.
“I’ve seen him a number of times the last few years, and the progression, especially since Christmas, has been remarkable. He’s got a rangy build, so as a 16 year old you could see some of things he’s capable of but simply lacked the strength. Things like using his body in puck protection along the walls and finishing his checks; the intent was there but he lacked the oomph to really make it work. Overall, he thinks the game well and has a strong shot. After Christmas, he took a big step as if something clicked; all of the things he had been trying to do were now working and he was effective everywhere on the ice from a physical standpoint.
With the uptick in his play, he gained confidence and it really empowered him; he stuck his nose in every dirty area and scrum and had swagger, man. I know a good handful of teams were hot to trot for him come April.
Moving forward he likely projects as a 15-20 goal guy, maybe more (25ish possibly); his offensive skillset isn’t high end but still above average. His strength will be his play along the walls and in a cycle type game. The speed will come with strength and maturity, but he’s not going to be a threat off the rush. So, there’s some flexibility there where he can play a grinding type of game and be effective if the scoring doesn’t come fully. He’s that sort of new age “middle-6″ type of forward who can slide up and down lines and still play his kind of game.
I think Plymouth has his OHL rights, but I think Ohio State is the best developmental route; power forward types typically take a little longer to come along, and it’s ideal with the practice/training-oriented structure.
I liked him quite a bit and he was a big time riser for Redline late on.”
“J.J. Piccinich has always been highly regarded amongst the 1996-birth-year class in the United States being tendered by Youngstown during his junior draft year. In viewings last season, Piccinich showed promise but was buried at times in the depth chart on a good Phantoms team. This year quite the opposite occurred as he played on a line all season with St. Louis second round pick Max Letunov and projected 2015 first round pick Kyle Connor. While he got off to what I thought was a bit of a bad start, he would really pick up his play as the season went along. Future Considerations’ 81st believe Piccinich fell a bit on Saturday.
Piccinich has a good wrist-shot and finds ways to get to scoring areas despite not being overwhelming in size. Overall, he showed a very sound hockey IQ in all areas of the ice, but particularly in the offensive zone with the puck. He works hard and is not afraid to get his nose dirty to gain puck possession or make plays without the puck. Even with playing on the best line offensively in the USHL, his offensive game was inconsistent at times this season. He does show good defensive skills and also the potential to kill penalties if needed at the next level. His skating, while not a huge weakness, still does need work as the rest of his game continues to round out. I am not sold that he will be a point getter at the next level, but I think he is going to a good spot at Boston University to further develop this aspect of his game. At the very least, he could pan out to be a solid bottom six energy player who can kill penalties.”
Unfortunately, the scout of contact for Nolan Vesey is out on duty, but I was still able to dig up some tweets on him and found a great old article. Of note:
My ultra-sleeper for New England is Nolan Vesey- Jimmy's younger brother. Playing in D1 public circuit @ Austin Prep, but putting up numbers
— Kirk Luedeke (@kluedeke29) January 18, 2013
Nolan Vesey- fresh off national USA junior championship- is getting notice from multiple D1 programs. Austin Prep standout is a goal scorer
— Kirk Luedeke (@kluedeke29) April 13, 2013
Congrats to the New Englanders taken today- another deep year & great group of guys to cover. Even 2 sleepers taken- Nolan Vesey, Cam Darcy
— Kirk Luedeke (@kluedeke29) June 28, 2014
Vesey’s father played for the Bruins and his brother was a third round pick of the Predators in 2012. Coming out of high school, Nolan went undrafted last season before putting up 66 points in 48 games in his first year in the USPHL, which led his team by a wide margin (second highest scorer had 47 points).
At 6’1, 185 pounds, this is not a small player, but despite leading his Austin Prep Cougars to their first-ever Super 8 championship game at the TD Garden. He was named Catholic Central League Large MVP after leading his team in goals and assists (22-18-40).
After losing in the Super 8 final, the USA Hockey national championship run in Pittsburgh was perfect timing. Nolan tallied as the River Rats defeated defending national champion Shattuck-St. Mary’s in the semifinals. On April 7, the River Rats tied the St. Louis Jr. Blues with eight seconds left before winning the national crown in overtime.
“That’s at the top of my list,” Nolan said of his hockey experiences. “It was the biggest stage I’ve played on. To win it was awesome.”
- Hockey Journal
This was a decent weekend for the Maple Leafs. They left the draft with one of the most skilled guys in it, and took a bunch of homerun swings throughout the rest of the rounds, it seems. It was interesting to see the Leafs draft some older players in Valiev and Vesey, as they made a habit of drafting a few younger kids lately such as Josh Leivo and Carter Verhaeghe. The Gunnarsson trade left something to be desired value wise, but hopefully Polak can solidify the dynamic of the defense a little better in terms of the structure.
Onto free agency we go.