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In which Brendan Shanahan listens to his Leaf gut

So, Don Cherry trashed Brendan Shanahan after the 2014 draft, saying:

“Brendan, I know you’re watching, President or whatever you are… You know how many Canadians the Leafs drafted this year? Zero… So who did they pick? They picked that little guy. We won’t say who. Then they sent him back to Sweden, to save his life…They pass on a guy, Nick Ritchie, 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, 100 minutes in penalties… What they need are big, tough wingers. They don’t need a little, wee forward… They’ve made the playoffs once in fourteen years and they draft U.S. college guys and a Swinn and a Fede… That’s why the Leafs are like they are & will be for a long time.”

Now, Don’s right. The Leafs have drafted poorly over the years.

Where Don’s wrong is in his advice.

Because it’s advice like Don’s that has wrecked the Leafs drafts for years.

Time to look at how Shanahan [and Hunter] have changed the Leafs drafting.

***

Imagine when Brendan Shanahan arrived in Toronto in 2014. The draft was coming in just ten weeks. Now, imagine that he took just five minutes, to look for himself at the Leafs’ draft strategy in recent years and its results. Here’s what he’d have seen.

The Leafs top two draft picks for each of the last few years:

Maple Leafs First Two Draft Selections - 2007 to 2013

NameYearNationality
Freddie Gauthier2013Canadian
Carter Verhaeghe2013Canadian
Morgan Rielly2012Canadian
Matt Finn2012Canadian
Tyler Biggs2011American
Stuart Percy2011Canadian
Brad Ross2010Canadian
Greg McKegg2010Canadian
Nazem Kadri2009Canadian
Kenny Ryan2009American
Luke Schenn2008Canadian
Jimmy Hayes2008American
Dale Mitchell2007Canadian
Matt Frattin2007Canadian

Now, two things would jump right out at Shanahan from those results:

1st. That’s right, all you kids out there! Of their 14 top picks, the Leafs actually picked 11 Canadians, 3 Americans… and 0 Europeans. That’s right. No top picks used for Europeans at all. For seven years straight.

Which means the Leafs draft strategy for their top picks took 11 of 14 from Canada, and lots and lots of big-bodied and gritty kids – a perfect fit with Don’s views.

2nd. Only problem? The strategy was crap. I’m sure it looked nice on paper and all, and it’s the kind of strategy that sure sounds great when you shout it over the radio or down at the tavern. You know how it goes:

  • WE DON’T NEED ANY MORE TEENY TINY LEAFS!
  • hellz noooo. we hate little guys. also: they suck.
  • WE NEED SOME GREAT BIG TOUGH WINGERS INSTEAD.
  • hellz yeah. big. and tough too! ones that’ll fight!!
  • RIGHT! KNUCKLE-CHUCK! BUT GRITTY TOO.
  • grit – damn straight grit. old-time grit! gritty like a bear!!
  • GRITTY… BUT DIRTY TOO! DIRTY AS CAT LITTER!!
  • dude. you’re cut off.

See how great those conversations sound?

I know. Because I’ve had them. Heck, I have those conversations with myself. And at least twice a game, every game, I wish the Leafs had drafted twenty Colton Orrs, and I could send them all out onto the ice at once, to crush, pound and disembowel whatever Hab, Canuck, Bruin or FLiER!!1 player is particularly irritating to me at that moment.

The only problem with that draft strategy is that the Leafs keep on trying it, and it keeps on failing. Because, sure, it was great and all when Colton and Lazer Frazer McLaren chased all those little Habs around that one time. But the decade as a whole?

Toronto Maple Leafs vs Montreal Canadiens
Photo: Getty Images, NHLI

Pretty dismal.

But here’s a thing. What we think about how the Leafs drafted and what Brendan Shanahan thinks are two different thinks.

Because Brendan Shanahan’s perspective might well be a bit different. After all, he was a big player – just like Don and the Leafs always wanted. 6 foot 3, in fact. A winger, too. Ended up with over 100 NHL fights, and more than 2000 penalty minutes.

He’s even local. A Toronto boy.

In fact, of every Toronto born and bred player who ever played in the NHL, where in the all-time Top 10 Goal Scorers do you think Brendan Shanahan ranks?

Well, I’m not gonna make you wait to read it down at the bottom or anything like that, cause I always hated having to wait for stupid answers to stupid quiz questions, but I have to disguise the answer, somehow, sojustletmesaythatshanahanranksfirstalltime.

But if anyone would be well-placed to judge the results of the Leafs [and Don’s] draft strategy, then Brendan Shanahan would be a pretty fair judge, right?

Ok. But what do you think he thought of those Leafs draft results?

He would see: Morgan Rielly [great pick], Kadri [damn good pick] and Hayes [late-bloomer, pretty good pick.] And Gauthier and Percy still with an NHL shot.

But Luke Schenn at #5? And trading two high picks to get Tyler Biggs? Wow, that’s bad. And picking Brad Ross and Kenny Ryan? Great screaming handmaidens of Hell, what was that about?

That’s not good.

And he’d also see that the Leafs two best picks — Rielly and Kadri — actually went against any strategy of picking big-bodied, truculent kids.

Rielly in particular. He’s a great pick. But not because he’s big for a defenceman, or a hitter. In fact, he’s not a fighter — at all. From Bantam up through Junior and into the NHL, Rielly never had a season with more than 21 penalty minutes.

In his first two full NHL seasons, Morgan Rielly rang up the fewest penalty minutes of any NHL defenceman, ever [who played over 130 games.]

And this season? Zero penalty minutes so far.

Shanahan would also have noticed that the Leafs best picks — and Morgan Rielly was a brilliant pick — came when they broke with that whole “Big Tough Guy” strategy.

So it’s no surprise that even without much time to think about it, Shanahan decided to come up with a new draft strategy for the Leafs.

Fortunately, Shanahan had his own deep, and very successful, well of experience to draw upon. Including personal success like scoring 1300+ NHL points. Team success like winning three Cups, and playing alongside an incredible number of Hall of Famers, Norris and Hart and Smythe and Selke and Vezina winners.

Even more important, however, is that Brendan Shanahan got to watch Scotty Bowman and Kenny Holland, up close, for 10 years.

2014_06_27_NHL Draft_Day I_008_Holland_Babcock_Shanahan_slide

**

So – with even just a few minutes research in hand – imagine how Shanahan must have seen things going into the 2014 draft.

  • He has the #8 pick.
  • He knows exactly what he wants for the Leafs – high-end skill kids.
  • And he knows the Leafs old scouting system and draft management team has gone skunky.

So who does that leave to direct the 2014 draft?

Because, remember, Mark Hunter wasn’t there for the 2014 draft. Nor was Kyle Dubas.

Which means when you look back at the 2014 Leaf draft, you’re looking at… Brendan Shanahan.

Any judgment calls were based on Shanahan’s own personal sense of where the Leafs needed to go.

Shanny’s Leaf gut, as it were.

Which he then used… to pick the Swedish kid, William Nylander.

William Nylander - Christian Bonin / TSGphoto.com
William Nylander Photo: Christian Bonin / TSGphoto.com

Boom.

And for his 2nd pick, Shanny took the Russian Defenceman, Rinat Valiev. Ahead of six other Canadian defencemen picked in that round alone. Think about that. He even let Thommie Bergman pick a big winger late, Pierre Engvall, from Sweden.

But that whole big brawling thing? Gone.

In fact, no Canadians.

Which – to me, in poker terms – is an interesting tell. When Shanny was operating on short-notice, and firing mostly from his Leaf gut, he picked more Europeans than the Leafs under Burke ever had.

There is no “must automatically pick a big Canadian kid” rule in play anymore.

That’s why Don freaked out.

Now, Shanahan is never gonna come right out and have a fight with him, because Don buys mud by the barrel and flings it like a three-handed monkey on a bad drunk.

At least, I hope it’s mud.

Shanahan is just going to do things his own way, drawing upon his own experience.

But instead of all of us being stuck in the kind of “Hype & Gripe” argument that Don and some of the more vocal hockey talk media love [like Ritchie versus Nylander]… why don’t we do something more relevant? Like take a look at the strategies used by the one drafting system Shanny knows really well? The one that is also very likely the NHL’s best these past 25 years.

Let’s go to Motown.

***

Wherein: The Leafs go 0 for 75

We’ve already seen how Detroit, after adopting the puck possession style, had to change how they drafted. They needed more high-skill, puck control players – and that meant more kids from Russia and Europe.

Their logic was simple. Historically, the puck possession style of play and the skills required to succeed at it were more intensively taught, practiced and performed in Russia and Europe. So Detroit expanded their scouting over there. And the results? Over these last 20 years?

Detroit drafted 77 Europeans versus 57 Canadians.

The reverse of a team like the Leafs.

Sure, Detroit will still happily select a top-end North American like Dylan Larkin when they’re available. But the Wings draft success has been built off of what everybody calls their tremendous “late round drafting.”

Which was really a way of saying that “Detroit used their late round picks to select highly-skilled, but undervalued, Europeans.”

Like… Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Nyquist, Filppula, Tatar, and Pulkkinen.

I’ve got no problem with the Leafs moving in that direction, and starting to target more high-skill kids from Europe. In fact, I think it’s great news. Why?

Well, because a whopping 40% of the NHL’s 100 top-scoring forwards of the last 20 years have come from Europe and Russia.

Here are the top ones, just for reference.

Screen Shot 2015-11-17 at 4.11.46 PM

Look, the ugly fact is that the Leafs didn’t actually draft ANY of those Top 40%. When we got guys like Sundin, we had to trade real assets for them.

Okay, well.… wait. Let me ask you this question first: Do you actually want to see the full damage from the Leafs’ 40 year stumble through Europe?

What? You do? Oh. Of course you do! You’re a Leafs fan. So at this point, pain means nothing!

Silver Bullet Fact: Of the NHL’s 75 highest-scoring Forwards drafted out of Europe over the last 40 years, the Leafs have drafted precisely 0.

Top 75 European Players

EUROPEAN FORWARDS   
1"Ole Mullet Haid" Jagr - 1990Pitt1802
2Teeeeeeemuuuu - 1988Winn1457
3Jarri Kurri - 1980Edm1398
4Mats Sundin - 1989Que1349
5Peter StastnyQue1239
6Sergei Fedorov - 1989Det1179
7That Rat-F*ck Alfredsson - 1994Snes1157
8Marian Hossa - 1997Ott1056
9Alex Mogilny - 1988Buff1032
10Alexei Kovalev - 1991NYR1029
11Patrik Elias - 1994NJ1017
12Sedin 1 - 1999Van915
13Ovie - 2004Wash895
14Peter Bondra - 1990Wash892
15Peter Forsberg - 1991Phil885
16Sedin 2 - 1999Van881
17Pavel Datsyuk - 1998Det869
18Markus Naslund - 1991Pitt869
19Tomas Sandstrom - 1982NYR857
20Slava Kozlov - 1990Det853
21Sako Koivu - 1993Mtl832
22Alex Steen's Old Man - 1979Winn817
23Kovie - 2001Atl816
24Milan Hejduk - 1994Que805
25Henrik Zetterberg - 1999Det786
26Alexei Yashin - 1992Ott781
27Pavel Bure - 1989Van779
28Pavol Demitra - 1993Ott768
29Vinny Prospal - 1993Phil765
30Marian Gaborik - 2000Minn751
31Olli Jokinen - 1997LA750
32Bobby Holik - 1989Hart747
33Miroslav Satan - 1993Edm735
34Alexei Zhamnov - 1990Winn719
35Martin Straka - 1992Pitt717
36Peter Nedved - 1990Van717
37Ziggy Palffy - 1991NYI713
38Robert Lang - 1990LA703
39Evgeni Malkin - 2004Pitt702
40Kent Nilsson - 1976Atl686
41Willie Nylander's Pa - 1991Hart679
42Jozef Stumpel - 1991Bos677
43Ulf Dahlen - 1985NYR655
44Igor Larionov - 1985Van644
45Anton Stastny - 1979Que636
46Papa Smurf Naslund - 1979Mtl634
47Esa Tikkanen - 1983Edm630
48Robert Reichel - 1989Cgy630
49Martin Rucinsky - 1991Edm612
50Anze Kopitar - 2005LA610
51Thomas Vanek - 2003Buff608
52Michal Pivonka - 1984Wash599
53Dmitri Kristich - 1988Wash597
54Thomas Gradin - 1976Chi593
55Martin Havlat - 1999Ott593
56Radek Dvorak - 1995Fla590
57Patrik Sundstrom - 1980Van588
58Dainius Zubrus - 1996Phil584
59Petr Klima - 1983Det573
60Nik Backstrom - 2006Wash572
61Sergei Samsonov - 1997Bos571
62Bengt-Ake Gustafsson - 1978Wash555
63Martin Erat - 1999Nash545
64Viktor Kozlov - 1993SJ537
65Tomas Holmstrom - 1994Det530
66Radim Vrbata - 1999Colo527
67Ales Hemsky - 2001Edm526
68Jere Lehtinen - 1992Minn514
69Alexander Semin - 2002Wash513
70Valeri Kamensky - 1988Que501
71Mikko Koivu - 2001Minn500
72Tomas Plekanec - 2001Mon499
73Radek Bonk - 1994Ott497
74Marco Sturm - 1996SJ487
75Michal Handzus - 1995STL483
76Nik Antropov - 1998Tor465

That’s right.

0 for 75.

The Leafs have literally never [by which I mean, “literally” and “never”] drafted a young, top-end European Forward scoring talent. Neither Russian, Swedish, Finnish, Czech or Slovakian.

Which is why any Leafs or media hockey talk type who actually argues that the Leafs are wasting too many top draft picks on high-scoring, little Europeans… is just batty.

And not “batty” in a good, Jose Bautista, home-run-trot kinda way.

More like “batty” in a Jose Canseco, ‘roid rage kinda way.

Which is why I think it’s such good news that Shanahan came in, and changed the Leafs strategy, from Year One, to draft more heavily from that European and Russian talent pool. Even better, to target high-end talent — not grinders, not bottom pairings, not bottom six.

Okay, maybe you just plain don’t want Europeans on the Leafs roster. But let’s be clear that there’s a cost to holding to this kind of strategy.

For instance, we’ve all heard how Don Cherry himself tried that hard core “No Europeans” strategy on his OHL Ice Dogs.

And only won 27 games out of 272.

That’s real world evidence, and it’s worth paying attention to, but some will say, “it’s just the OHL.” So how about we do a simple, practical, Toronto vs. Detroit draft comparison? Below are two rosters.

Each is made up of 25 years worth of draft picks:

  1. The Blue one [naturally] on the right [naturally] follows Don and the Leafs’ strategy. It’s 100% made up of first round picks, each kid from Canada and the US. Each pick shown is an actual Leaf pick. So nothing made up or fictional here.
  2. The Orange list is Detroit’s. Only it has no first round picks; just second round or later. But all are from Europe and Russia, and, again, each pick was a real pick.

Now the Leaf roster, which is made up entirely of first round picks, should win this by a mile, right?

You tell me which drafting strategy you like.

Drafting: Detroit vs Toronto

DETROIT  TORONTO 
NICK LIDSTROM53MORGAN RIELLY5
SERGEI FEDOROV74NAZEM KADRI7
PAVEL DATSYUK171BRAD BOYES24
HENRIK ZETTERBERG210GRANT MARSHALL23
V'MIR KONSTANTINOV221SCOTT THORNTON3
SLAVA KOZLOV45DRAKE BEREHOWSKY10
TOMAS HOLMSTROM257CARLO COLAIACOVO17
GUSTAV NYQUIST121STUART PERCY25
TEEMU PULKKINEN111LUKE SCHENN5
TOMAS TATAR60ROB PEARSON12
VALTTERI FILPPULA95LANDON WILSON19
TOMAS FLEISCHMANN63BRANDON CONVERY8
JIRI HUDLER58JEFF WARE15
JOHAN FRANZEN97STEVE BANCROFT21
PETR MRAZEK141ERIC FICHAUD16
TOMAS JURCO35TYLER BIGGS22
MATTIAS JANMARK79FREDERIK GAUTHIER21

 

That single chart spells out – in as brutal a manner as I can imagine – the central difference between us and Detroit over the last 25 years.

Detroit’s draft picks produced, while ours plopped.

And that is a hard fact.

There isn’t a hockey fan alive who wouldn’t prefer to coach, or watch, the team in the orange list. Seriously, even with Rielly and Kadri, I couldn’t watch that team in the right list.

Here’s another fact. When the Leafs actually did use their first round picks on Europeans, they’ve done way better. Kenny Jonsson. Alex Steen. Tuukka Rask. Nik Antropov. Jiri Tlusty [and Luca Cereda – lost to a heart ailment]. Okay, I was never a big fan of either Antropov or Tlusty, but just compare those results to our results in the list on the right above.

Our best draft in 20 years? 2006. The year the Leafs went heavily into Europe, and got Tlusty [meh], but also Komarov and Kulemin and Stalberg [and Reimer!].

So the Leafs haven’t even been able to read the evidence of their own draft results.

Now add Shanahan back in. For him, there’s nothing theoretical about those lists. He was there, as a player in the dressing room, to welcome and then play alongside Pavel Datsyuk and Zetterberg, Holmstrom, Kronwall, Franzen, Hudler, and the rest.

Which is why he set aside all the blah-blah-blah from Toronto’s hockey media, and changed our draft strategy even before he’d hired any new staff.

***

Wherein I want my MHL

Now, just before we jump to the 2015 draft and Mark Hunter’s arrival, there’s one more piece of Shanahan’s draft strategy to pry loose [beyond the fact that he wants and needs high-skill kids, and isn’t afraid to draft smaller anymore].

Shanahan’s strategy also takes advantage of the fact that a lot of NHL executives continue – even today – to undervalue European and Russian talent.

Sure, each team has their reasons. They prefer bang/crash hockey players, or they’re worried about the “Russian factor,” or they say they don’t have the money to scout there.

But if you’re Brendan Shanahan, you don’t give a rat’s why teams stay away. All you know is that as long as other teams continue to under scout, under draft or undervalue the high-skill European and Russian kids, that’s great news for you.

Because as long as other teams undervalue European and Russian high-skill kids, you can get better ones, with later picks, than you otherwise would.

Amplifying this is the fact that a top-end skill kid playing in North America likely gets scouted 10 times more than in Europe, and 100 times more than a Russian kid. Because our kids get scouted by NHL teams, independent scouting agencies, the media, bloggers, fans, you name it. And their every move is taped, YouTubed, gif’ed [hard “g”] or vined.

Compare that to all the Russian Junior [MHL] games you’ve seen recently.

None, right?

Of course, some parts of Europe are becoming better-scouted. For instance, more Swedes were drafted per capita than kids from Ontario last year.

But Russia isn’t well-scouted. The MHL isn’t. Russia has 14 times the population of Sweden, and still wins more World Championships, but has fewer kids picked.

That tilt away from Russia is why top-end talent Vladimir Tarasenko fell to #16, Evgeny Kuznetsov to #26, Nikita Kucherov to #58, and Artemi Panarin was available as a low-cost Free Agent.

So Brendan Shanahan will be spending more time looking for his kids where the other teams aren’t. In Europe, and in particular, Russia and the surrounding region.

Shanahan-Larionov

Of course, the Leafs will face other competitors besides Detroit when it comes to capturing that talent. Old team-mate Stevie Yzerman has been building Tampa Bay up on similar lines of speed, skill and Europeans. And he’s gotten plenty of them, on the cheap — Kucherov and Nesterov were late picks from Russian Jr., Ondrej Palat came at #208, and Sustr was an undrafted free agent.

The opportunities won’t come entirely for free to Shanahan, but every time the Leafs pick up another undervalued European player – through the draft, waivers, free agency or a trade – the rebuild accelerates.

This European drafting thing of Shanahan’s?

It’s not a bug. It’s a feature.

**

Okay. Fast-forward to this year’s draft.

With Shanahan having hired Mark Hunter and so many OHL guys to help out, we all figured that every pick was gonna be from within 90 miles of Toronto.

Well, hello everybody being wrong [me included].

Because this time with Mark Hunter fully on-board, Shanahan’s Leafs went out and basically filled their chariots with high-end young European talent, picking up four more, including two amazing young puck-handlers:

The surprise third Round Latvian pick Martins Dzierkals [out of precisely that less-scouted Russian Junior league, the MHL].

And Dmytro Timashov, who wasn’t spied this past year in the Q, but the previous year, 2014. When Shanahan and Thommie Bergman were watching his teammate, some guy named “Nylander.”

Both Dzierkals and Timashov are smaller players, but both look like strong late round picks. Certainly as good as Detroit made.

But in total, over the 2014 and 2015 drafts, Brendan Shanahan took seven Europeans, and just four Canadians.

European vs Canadian Picks

 Europe   Canada  
2015Martins DzierkalsLatvia2015Mitch MarnerOHL2015
Jesper LindgrenSwedenTravis DermottOHL
Dmytro TimashovUkraine-SweAndrew NielsenW
Nikita KorostelevRussiaStephen DesrocherOHL
2014William NylanderCan-Swe2014Nonen/a2014
Rinat ValievTatarstan
Pierre EngvallSweden

It’s not an accident, folks.

It’s part of the plan. The Shana-plan.

Now, DON’T get me wrong.

Shanahan’s top drafting territory is still Canada, and he’s aiming to get skilled Canadian kids any way he can.

But, as we saw, it’s damned tough sledding trying to find any truly high-end North American talent that 29 other teams haven’t already scouted to death.

Teams aren’t giving up first round picks for free anymore.

When you see a super-talented Canadian kid, they cost you a top round pick.

Nonetheless, when Shanahan can get an astonishing, world-class puck-handling talent like a Mitch Marner – from Ontario – he’s going to take it. Like he said:

“When there’s only one potato left on the plate, my fork’s already in it.”

The job of Mark Hunter and the other Canadian scouts is to scout Canada to such a depth, and with such penetration, that they can come up talent that 29 other teams are underrating, undervaluing. In Year One, with Dermott and Nielsen — who’ve looked great — they appear to have done really well.

But the days where a kid like a Schenn or a Biggs or a Gauthier had an automatic advantage, just because they were bigger, or from North America?

Those days are done. Done like dinner, as the Tiger used to say.

With Shanahan and Babcock’s focus on picking kids who’ll be talented at puck possession — and as long as Europe and Russia continue to be less well-scouted — you’d be smart to place a good-sized side bet on the Leafs drafting more Russians, Swedes and assorted other Europeans than they have been. A lot more.

Swinns and Fedes, Don. Swinns and Fedes.

Better get used to ‘em.

**

Oh yeah. A quick word to Don, Don Cherry.

It’s true that Nick Ritchie could end up being better than William Nylander. That could happen. It’s hard for anyone to say. But last year, skinny Willie Nylander somehow out-scored Nick Ritchie 10 to 1 at the WJC. Then, the poor little Swede mustered up enough courage to come over to the AHL, and did very well there, too. He even put on 20 pounds. Of muscle. Again this year, he’s running at least as well as Ritchie—and at a position more important than wing.

So how about a new, slightly more humble, fairer Coach’s Commentary this Fall. Like…

“WAY TO GO, WILLIE BOY!!! TWO THUMBS UP!!!”
Read the rest of the series here:

  1. Brendan Shanahan gets “puck possessed” – Part I
  2. Reversing the curse – Part II
  3. Shanny listens to his Leaf gut – Part III
  4. Nylander, Kapanen and Shanny’s Fancy Foreign Friends – Part IV
  5. Shanahan and Soshnikov – The Kid Who’s Scared of Nothing – Part V
  6. Nikita Zaitsev: Part of the new Maple Leaf Russian 5? Part VI
  7. Brendan Shanahan: He’s Changed – Part VII