Apparently everybody’s gone sad because Brendan Shanahan’s Leafs aren’t making the decisions we’d like to see.
You know, the Leafs went and picked all those older kids at the draft [and hardly any Canadians at all].
And they trade for that Danish goalie from Anaheim. And then sign him for 5 years?
What the hell kind of strategy is that, the fans are asking.
Isn’t this just a return to the days of picking ’em big and old and dumb, like with Randy and Nonis?
Thing is, we had a number of articles last year laying out the core of Shanahan’s strategy. Which was that Shanahan was applying what he’d learned from the place where he had the most hockey success. A place which — like it or hate it, and face it, we hate it — has been one of the most successful NHL teams for 20+ years now.
You remember. We talked about how “puck possession” hockey — Russian-style — got reintroduced into the NHL there by Scotty Bowman. And then how Scotty brought together the Russian 5 — plus Shanny — and got them playing fast, puck-control, tightly-disciplined hockey? And then how they won a batch of Cups with it? And gave Shanahan by far the most success of his career?
We talked about how — if you looked at the Leaf rebuild through this lens — it helped explain why we picked so many skill kids, so many Europeans, and in particular so many Russians.
We even went through Shanahan’s life, to show that he wasn’t kidding about this stuff. This is no fad. In fact, he believes it.
But you know what? When you apply that theory — that lens — to Shanahan’s moves this Summer, the truth is… there’s not much that is surprising.
And almost nothing in those moves to make us Leafs fans go Bloo Bloo Blue.
Let’s take a look at how this Summer lines up with our research from last year.
Unsurprising Surprise #1: The Leafs picked 4 more Europeans in this draft, on top of 7 in the previous two drafts.
Which, for those keeping score, means that there’s 11 Europeans versus 7 Canadians since Shanahan arrived.
And all I can say is… get used to it. Shanahan has a great deal of confidence in the ability of European kids to play puck possession hockey. Plus, he thinks the rest of the NHL undervalues European picks.
So he’s going to keep doing this, until something changes.
To me, this looks like a great move.
Unsurprising Surprise #2: Of those European kids, 3 were Russians.
Based on all the research last year, I think we knew this was coming. Shanny’s had a thing about Russian talent since Fetisov landed in New Jersey, and it was only reinforced by the Wings success with the Russian 5.
As long as he thinks the league has a blind spot around Russia, he has a comparative advantage. He’s trying to sneak in and steal some Ruskie talent.
Another good move.
Unsurprising Surprise #3: Oh my God, the Bloo Bloo’ing I heard this Summer around the Leafs taking these over-age kids.
Now, it wasn’t like people had a great deal of analytical or empirical evidence to back up their idea that we should pick 18 year olds, as it turns out.
In fact, we know that European kids and European leagues aren’t wired to produce “peak product” at that age. Which means that you’re likely to find some European gems turning up after age 18.
Now, guess who else understood that, and before us?
Right. Leaf super-scout Thommie Bergman.
Which is how he managed to gather such an extraordinary list of talent for the Leafs as over-agers, such as: Nik Kulemin, Leo Komarov, Anton Stralman, Carl Gunnarsson and Viktor Stalberg, and more recently Rinat Valiev and Viktor Loov. Plus Nikita Soshnikov and Nikita Zaitsev, of course, who were never drafted at all. And before that, the older names, such as Danny Markov, Fredrik Modin, Sergey Berezin, Nikolai Borschevsky and Boris Mironov.
Oh wait, guess who else understood that European talent often doesn’t show itself until after the age of 18?
I’ll bet you can guess. Let’s play, “What do the following names have in common?”
- Nik Lidstrom
- Sergei Fedorov
- Vladimir Konstantinov
- Pavel Datsyuk
- Tomas Holmstrom
- Johan Franzen
- Nik Kronwall
- Gustav Nyquist
- Alexey Marchenko [Detroit rookie defenceman]
- Mattias Janmark [15 goals as a rookie for Dallas this year]
That’s right, folks. The majority of Detroit’s amazing European talent haul has come from over-age picks. Year over year, they quietly pick the talent from Europe’s overagers.
Only now Shanny and the Leafs have joined in.
And it’s another good move.
Unsurprising Surprise #4: The Leafs picked a whole bunch of big kids. Weirdest of all, perhaps, were the big wingers from Europe.
Like, 4 of them:
- Korshkov – 6’ 4” and 180. Willing to fight, his Dad is huge.
- Grundstrom – 6’ 0” and 195. The most “Canadian” Swede.
- Bobylev – 6’ 2” and 205. Led his WHL team in fights.
- Chebykin – 6’ 3” and 210. The biggest of the 4.
Which — seen through conventional eyes — is a weird set of picks, right? All 4 big, 3 of them over-age, and 3 Russian.
Except we shouldn’t have been surprised.
Yes, NHL teams have long-underestimated the talent of smaller players, which is why analytically-minded fans celebrated when teams like Shanahan’s Leafs began to pick smaller players like Mitch Marner, Jeremy Bracco, Dmytro Timashov and William Nylander.
The mistake some of these fans appear to have made, however, is to assume that managers like Shanahan believed that high-end talent could only come in small packages.
In this draft, Shanahan proved that he absolutely did not have such a view of the world. He picked big, and some viewed that as a betrayal.
But if you look at it as Shanahan simply trying to build a Detroit-style puck possession team, the picks make more sense.
Because while those Detroit teams often had a highly-skilled core, they were often anything but small.
Sure, Stevie Y and Igor Larionov were small. But players like Nik Lidstrom and Sergei Fedorov — perhaps the two most highly-skilled players in town — were both 6’ 1”. Not tiny. Fetisov was one of the strongest men in hockey, and Konstantinov was known as “The Impaler” for his hitting.
And here’s the wider view: Those puck possession Wings teams that Bowman and company built, while they often had a core of smaller talent, always had a large number of players who were both highly-skilled… and big.
Detroit’s Wingers, in particular, were often beasts. Led by, guess who, the premier power winger of the last 30 years, a guy named Brendan Shanahan. 6’ 3” and 220 and racked up over 2400 penalty minutes. No shrinking violet.
But look who the Wings added to that. Two of their most famous Wingers — both drafted out of Europe, both as over-agers — were Tomas Holmstrom and Johan Franzen.
“Homer” Holmstrom wasn’t drafted until he was 21, and wasn’t even in the Top 20 scorers of Sweden’s 2nd best league when he was taken. Nonetheless, he came in as a rookie the same year Shanahan landed in Detroit, so they came up together.
Shanahan remembers that Holmstrom simply knew how to be impossible to get away from the net. He wore extra padding just to take the extra punishment, and scored half of his NHL goals on the powerplay.
After him came Johan “The Mule” Franzen, who stood 6’ 3” and carried 230 pounds. Undrafted until age 24, he wasn’t in the SHL’s Top 20 scorers either. It took him until he was 28 before he really played much valuable hockey for Detroit. But he too knew how to live in front of the net, and he was a monster in the playoffs.
So when Shanahan thinks of “European wingers,” he doesn’t just think of some speedy little guy who weighs 165 pounds but can’t take a hit.
He thinks of Tomas Holmstrom.
Or, if you wanted to name his nearest equivalent in this year’s draft… Carl Grundstrom, who the Leafs took at #57.
And the over-age, over-sized Russians? All 3 big, all 3 tough, all 3 have good hands and can score.
And if we can come up with another Mule, another Homer? Then Shanny’s miles ahead.
Sidenote: Look, if you somehow equate skill as equalling being small, or equate European with being small, you need to stop. I don’t care whether you’re into analytics, or into Don Cherry — it’s stupid.
Think of it this way – three of the greatest players of the NHL’s last 25 years have been Jaromir Jagr, Alex Ovechkin and Mats Sundin.
And Jagr is actually a huge man. One of the largest forwards in the league, at 6’ 3” and 230 pounds. Yet incredibly skilled.
Alex Ovechkin is even bigger. At 6’ 3” and 240 pounds. Also kind of skilled.
And Mats Sundin? The big Leaf Captain was 6’ 5” and 230 pounds. Almost always the biggest player on the ice.
There are others. Kopitar is 6’ 3” and 225 pounds, Tarasenko is 220 pounds.
Skill does not equal small.
Small does not equal European.
All Shanny did this year was to draft some big, over-age European wingers, just as Detroit has done for 20 years. And yet people Bloo Bloo’ed about their betrayal.
Unsurprising Surprise #5: We picked and signed some big defencemen who don’t score very well.
You know, like Keaton Middleton and… yeah, that other guy.
The Big Czech.
Okay, you know the drill. Go over to Hockey Reference, select Detroit defencemen for the last 20 years, and see what you see.
Yup, Lidstrom could sure as hell score. As could Larry Murphy and Brian Rafalski. Nik Kronwall, too. Chris Chelios had slowed down a lot by the time he got to Detroit, but he and Fetisov and Konstaninov could score a bit.
But just look down the list after those big names. And what you’ll see are a raft of big-bodied, often European defencemen who really don’t score much:
- Jonathan Ericsson — 6’ 4” and he never got over 15 points. But >500 Wings games.
- Jiri Fischer — 6’ 5” and about 10 points a year. Was a 1st round Detroit pick.
- Andreas Lilja — 6’ 3”. Couldn’t score.
- Jakub Kindl — 6’ 3”. Same thing.
- And now, Alexey Marchenko. Same.
In other words, Detroit’s heavy puck-possession teams had a load of guys that were Just. Like. Roman. Polak.
Now, I’m not saying this is a good thing, or even that it’s Detroit’s preferred pattern. In fact, I suspect they’d prefer to have more guys like Konstantinov and Kronwall in the line-up, who could hit and score, even if they couldn’t get another Lidstrom.
But the fact is, these big Euro guys and their North American equivalents [like Brendan Smith, Brad Stuart, Aaron Ward and Bob Rouse] seem to play some kind of useful role in a Detroit-style system.
Maybe they shouldn’t. Maybe all our defencemen should be smaller, more mobile, more run ’n gun. I don’t know. Maybe full-on puck possession is going to work like that. And Mike Babcock has certainly hinted that he can’t yet unfurl the kinds of systems he’d ultimately like to use.
All I’m saying is that the best explanation for why the Leafs picked who they picked, and signed who they signed… is that Brendan Shanahan is shaping his new Leafs along the lines of those puck possession Detroit teams.
And you know what is a really BAD explanation for how this team is being constructed?
That it’s being built by managers “who think like Randy and Nonis and Burkie.”
And you know another really BAD explanation for how the Leafs are being constructed?
That it’s being built by “little nerdy guys with glasses who rely solely on analytics.”
These theories explain very few of the Leaf management team’s actions to date. So can we stop trying to shove the reality of the new Leafs into these old jars?
Yup, the Leafs picked Europeans this Summer. And Russians. And older kids. And some big guys.
But does that equal Bloo Bloo Blue?
I don’t think so. To me, it just looks like Shanny and co. are building something different. And no, I’m not 100% sure I’ll like it. But right now, on the whole, I still give it a pretty firm…
Go Leafs Go!