It has been a whirlwind offseason in Leafs land yet again, with too much activity to cram into one article.
With that in mind, I am separating my offseason analysis series into three sections: The Draft, The Trade, and Free Agency, which will be last as it is still ongoing.
Part One: The Draft
Successful drafting and developing is the lifeblood of every North American professional sports league, and it is one of the hardest avenues to consistently produce results from.
In the NHL, a good draft produces two solid NHLers. In Behind The Moves, former Sabres GM Darcy Regier shared his data regarding the draft and player output:
The NHL Amateur Draft produces, on average, 54 players [who play at least 80 NHL games in their career] a year –1.8 per team—I think. So your challenge as a GM is how can you get that to three or four?
It is virtually impossible to routinely “beat the draft,” so when you are drafting in the top five you have to take advantage of that opportunity and flip the tables. Drafting and developing is a long process, but it is the best way to turn your fortunes around and set your team up for future success, especially in a league where free agency is largely limited to secondary players now.
For the Leafs, the 2015 draft was all about playing the odds.
Mitch Marner was the predictable choice and the Leafs brass did not disappoint. The 5’11 center/winger is undeniably skilled. He finished second in OHL scoring behind Dylan Strome, but actually came out ahead in overall points per game compared to the big center, who went third overall. You can argue that Marner would have been a strong candidate, or even a likely candidate, to have been drafted first overall in the 2011, 2012 and 2014 drafts; he was that productive, and just happens to be part of a generational draft class.
We discussed this earlier in the year, but the Leafs have profiles on Marner in their possession since he was a Bantam due to their OHL ties and the hiring of former Knights director of scouting Lindsay Hofford, who coached him in minor hockey. It is not unfair to say that there probably isn’t another team in the NHL that knew Marner as well as the Leafs did; some say you don’t truly know a player until you coach him — the Leafs did that at two separate levels with Marner. In some ways, that makes it the safest pick for them. There will be no surprises when it comes to the talented forward; they know him inside and out. They’ve seen his development take place in front of their eyes for years on end already.
Of all things Leafs management said over draft weekend, the money line was really President Brendan Shanahan saying, “If Mitch is back in London, I know the owner… He’ll develop in a manner we agree with.” Compare that to the next pick, Noah Hanifin, who Carolina couldn’t have went up to the podium faster to draft if they tried — Hanifin is a college player, where the Leafs’ ties don’t run nearly as deep.
Ultimately, Marner will be judged against every single player picked after him because that’s the Toronto market for you, but how he stacks up against Hanifin, and maybe Ivan Provorov, will be the only legitimate piece of intrigue as these were the two remaining players who were consensus top five picks. Anything else is hindsight.
Marner has tall parents and his height to weight ratio — being 5’11 and weighing roughly 160 pounds — suggests to some that he still has room to grow. Mark Hunter also noted he believes he has enough skill and versatility to play center. As a player who played the position growing up, received regular penalty killing minutes, and is obviously skilled, he’s going to get his chance to prove his worth there with Max Domi leaving London this year. As Shanahan said, they have connections to London, and can oversee his development.
A right-handed center filling out in a frame anywhere between 5’11 and 6’1 compared to a 6’3 left handed defenseman is a much more interesting debate than a 5’11 winger compared to that same 6’3 defenseman. So, the Leafs are taking a gamble, as there is nothing easier to find than a small, skilled winger (the Leafs just traded one for pennies on the dollar; more on that later), and nothing more difficult to acquire than a potential franchise defenseman (they essentially never get traded).
But, if you’re Leafs management and you know everything they do — and have this prospect playing on a team that is literally run by your brother — then this pick was their version of playing it safe, in a good way. Drafting is only 50% of the battle here. Now comes the tougher part — developing.
The Rest of the Draft Class
Including Mitch Marner, five of the nine Leafs draft picks had OHL connections. Four of the picks were directly from the OHL, while Jeremy Bracco was drafted by the Kitchener Rangers, even if he did play in the USHL. Every OHL team would have had scouting reports on him in the battle to recruit the talented Bracco over to the league. Further, Dmytro Timashov was an import draft pick to the CHL, while Martins Dzierkals was recently drafted there, too; that does not mean the Leafs brass had previous scouting reports on these players for sure, but it is probable they were on the radar of at least one of the Leafs conglomerate of former OHL members. The team also employees Russian scout Nikolai Ladygin.
The outlier OHL picks are all easily explained, too. One of the only scouts the Leafs actually retained this year was Western Canada scout Garth Malarchuk — whom I interviewed a few summers ago — helping to explain the Andrew Nielsen selection. That is the second year in a row Toronto has drafted a big defenseman from the WHL (Rinat Valiev in 2014).
Jesper Lindgren represents the Leafs typical Swedish selection courtesy of scout Thommie Bergman.
If the connections are clear, the strategy was even clearer: Trade down, add picks, and increase your odds in the crap shoot that is the NHL entry draft. The more kicks at the proverbial can, the better. The team went into the draft with eight picks, came out with nine, a young defenseman (I wrote about that here), and eleven picks next year. The groundwork was originally laid at the trade deadline, as Toronto eventually turned Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli into Brendan Leipsic, Travis Dermott, Jeremy Bracco, and Martins Dzierkals.
Nobody in sports subscribes to the trade down method more effectively and more often than Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots. Data indicates (linked below) that the NFL draft is largely a guessing game, and that is in a league where you are largely drafting matured – at least into their bodies— 22-24 year olds in hopes of them stepping right onto your roster. There isn’t even a development team/staff buffering them between college and the NFL out of the gates. So, if that league is a crap shoot, imagine the NHL, where you are drafting 18 year olds who you might not even hear from for 3-5 years in terms of seriously contending for a spot on your NHL roster. This goes back to the earlier point from Darcy Regier, where you have a good draft if you’re picking two players who play over 80 games — so maybe 2/7-9 picks hit, or 22-28 percent.
Bill Barnwell over at Grantland explored Belichick’s draft exploits. While I don’t want to run the risk of turning this into a football article, there are a few key quotes to pull out here that are relevant:
“Bill Belichick is smart, but sometimes he succeeds just by aiding other teams’ efforts to be stupid.” I’ve said that about Belichick a few times now, and while I wasn’t aware of his scientific credentials at the time, he’s pretty good at exploiting the mistakes that awful football organizations tend to make…
Perhaps the most common characteristic of bad organizations is that they make a habit of giving away draft picks to trade up and acquire a player with an earlier selection. It’s almost always a strong sign that they simply don’t understand the game at hand. The evidence suggests the NFL draft is most likely a crapshoot, so even if your team’s draft board has a first-round grade on a player left in the middle of the second round, chances are that the rest of the league is right and you’re wrong. Teams do trade up and succeed, of course, in the same way that a drunk blackjack player hits on 16 against a five and wins sometimes, but it’s not an optimal strategy.”
The Leafs strategy was simple, and we’re going to explore it by the numbers right now:
Draft productive players, regardless of size or the knocks against them (effort, consistency, etc.), and then develop.
It is unlikely all of these picks pan out, but if even one productive later round pick blossoms, you’ve found a free wallet and are laughing all the way to the bank.
For the second summer in a row, the Leafs are proving you can sign cheap, productive NHLers to small contracts with virtually zero risk to fill out the bottom portion of your roster. I wouldn’t go so far to say that drafting grinders of this sort is completely pointless, but by and large there is little point. Most GMs can pick up the phone and acquire a third or fourth liner, or bottom pairing defenseman, within hours for a small price. The draft should largely be reserved for homerun swings and creating assets.
Here is a list of the Leafs picks:
The key number here is AAPPG, which stands for age adjusted points per game. You can learn more about it here. In a nutshell, draft ages vary drastically, and a player eight months younger than another should not be expected to score on the same curve as his fellow older draft class members. This formula was written about and applied (though not created) in theory by now current Leafs front office member Cam Charron. I included it for non-CHL players, but the formula is meant strictly for CHL players, so let’s see what happens when we cut it down to that:
For forwards and defensemen, that is the exact order they drafted them. Throughout weekend interviews, management members referenced age points, and that will look to be a focus of this group moving forward — acquiring young players that are still producing.
Years ago, Mike Gillis cited Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” in his drafting theories (readers digest version—You need to spend 10,000 hours on your craft to do well in it), but he applied it in the opposite direction. He was drafting players that were 19 and 20; reason being that they were closer to the NHL, as they had put their development time in.
Player age and hockey recently became a hot mainstream topic as a result of Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers.” In his book, Gladwell discussed the “relative-age effect,” which dictates that players born in the early parts of the year tend to accrue a compounding developmental advantage over younger players born that same calendar year.
Basically, when you’re six years old, being 6.8 years old and being 6.2 years old can make a pretty big difference in terms of your physical development, reaction time, etc. As a result the more physically developed kids, who are naturally seen as “the best” – get the most on-ice opportunities and the most attention from their coaches. Hypothetically, these players will continue to more highly regarded as they move up into more difficult levels of hockey. Gladwell theorized that this is partly why so many “elite” hockey players are born in January and February.”
In that same article you will find references to Pettapiece and Charron analyzing age relative to draft position and production. While, for example, Dmytro Timashov’s point totals are impressive at face value, it is important to note that he was the second oldest player the Leafs drafted (Desrocher is 19), and his height/weight ratio (5’10 and 180+ pounds already) suggests he’s likely done growing and firmly below the league average in height, so he has a tough road ahead.
Dave Morrison made note of their focus on numbers in an interview with TSN prior to the draft, saying:
“I think there’s a greater emphasis on numbers. It’s not to say we didn’t use numbers in the past, but not to this extent. We now have a new department of sports science here that I think is a lot more all-encompassing than what we’ve had in the past, too. And that’s not to say that we weren’t doing good things in the past with that, but I just think that it’s being expanded. There’s just going to be a lot more information on that side of things that perhaps we didn’t have before. Some of these things are new so that’s why it’s an exciting time that way, that if we can find out more things that may help us make better decisions and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Most people see numbers and think counting stats, or maybe something a little harder to find in minor leagues like quality of competition, zone starts, and possession, but age will be just as important as any other number to this management group.
The biggest number of all, though, is continually increasing the number of lottery tickets in hopes of cashing in.