Even if you whole-heartedly buy into the “take the best player available” theory when it comes to draft strategy, I think the odds are low the Leafs will be drafting a defenceman with their fifth overall draft selection in the 2012 Entry Draft in Pittsburgh. Say you truly believe organizational needs do not shape a draft team’s particular assessment of “the best player available.” I still can’t see Everett’s Ryan Murray getting past the Oilers or Islanders. I also don’t think the Leafs would pass on the offensive talent available in the top five and draft Matthew Dumba or Morgan Riely. It doesn’t make sense from an organizational needs standpoint – not with Jake Gardiner’s emergence this season – nor from a best-available-player perspective.
Working with that assumption, a good place to start when it comes to analyzing what the Leafs need most with their fifth overall pick is by taking a look at the young forwards already in the system.
Top Six Potential – Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne, Greg McKegg, Matt Frattin, Tyler Biggs
Checking line potential – Tyler Biggs, Brad Ross, Jerry D’Amigo, Carter Ashton, further down the line: Josh Leivo, Sam Carrick
Fourth line potential – Jamie Devane, David Broll, Greg Scott
You could substitute some names with other prospects you may like, but the big picture remains generally the same.
You could debate the semantics of this list in terms of who might be capable of stepping in further up the roster (particularly with second/third line tweeners like Biggs or Frattin), and whether or not every good team in the league truly has six “top six” players in the truest sense of the phrase. That’s not the point. The point is to breakdown the Leafs‘ prospect depth up front based on talent level and player type, not based on what line they might find themselves on at some point in the future. It seems obvious future depth should not be an issue, but up-and-coming high end skill may be.
There will be more than a few of you willing (perhaps, dare I say, eager) to take me on in a debate about whether or not Kadri has first line potential, given more time to develop. I hope you’re right, but for me a 50-60 point winger is about “all” I have seen evidence for so far. Kadri has elite puck skills but less than great size, speed and hockey sense. Just my two cents, and I’d be happy to be proven wrong. For the record, a good second line winger is not a bad “get” with a seventh overall pick.
The good news is that this should assure the Leafs have plenty of quality depth and role players emerging on entry level contracts down the line. Leafs fans are familiar with the dangers of finding your bottom six players via unrestricted free agency; they tend to get overvalued and overpaid on the open market as we throw around phrases like “good in the dressing room” to justify lower roster overcommitments during the mania of early July. It’s more rare than you think for a team to let an actual quality checking line player walk. In this sense, while some criticize the first round selection of Biggs on the basis that he may top out on a checking line or as a physical component in the top six, a player has understatedly good value if they thrive in that role. This is likely why Anthony said he would take a “good checking liner” over a “decent top six player” in his question-and-answer blog.
It only makes sense for there to be a lack of high-ceiling offensive skill within the Leafs system. In 2007, the Leafs had no first round pick due to the Vesa Toskala trade (cue the laugh track). In 2008, Cliff Fletcher used the fifth overall pick on defenceman Luke Schenn. In 2009, Boyd Devereaux bumped the Leafs down a few spots with a hat trick in the season finale (cue the laugh track), dropping them to seventh, where they drafted Kadri. In 2010 and ’11, while Burke managed to add two late first round picks in 2011, a top two and a top ten pick respectively were moved to bring in a present and future elite offensive talent in Phil Kessel.
Adding an exciting offensive talent with a high ceiling, particularly at center where the Leafs have solid depth but could use an injection of pizzazz, would really start to round out the Leafs’ prospect ranks. From there, they can look into adding some more mobility to the back end in the lower rounds.
If Brian Burke, Dave Morrison and the draft team see things the same way I do, this draft could shape up perfectly to fit the need. Steering clear of a player like Radek Faksa, and jumping at the chance to draft one of centers Mikhail Grigorenko or Alex Galchenyuk should one be around at five, strikes me as an absolute no brainer.
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