As we approach the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, the Toronto Maple Leafs fan base has its sights set on the Liljegrens, Brannstroms, Footes and Hagues of the draft class — a pick for the defence position. But does Mark Hunter’s draft history tell us anything about what the Leafs might do with their first-round pick?

While much of the chatter in Toronto has focused on the trade market for defencemen, there are a number of other intriguing storylines to keep an eye on for the draft this weekend.

On Day 2, will we see the Leafs continue, to some extent, with their overage strategy from the 2016 draft? Will they stick at #17 or would they consider trading down for more picks, like in 2015? Or, having drafted such a large quantity of players in the last three years (25 draft selections, tied for most in the NHL), would they consider expending a pick or two to move up if the right player is available or dropping?

Last but not least: Are the Leafs taking a defenceman or a forward in the first round?

There will be more than a little disappointment among significant factions of the Toronto fan base if the Leafs didn’t walk away from Day 1 with an exciting new 18-year-old defenceman in hand, which leads into a discussion about the merits of ‘Best Player Available.’

Is it a hard and fast rule that should always apply, no matter the circumstances? What if the fans want a defenceman really badly, or at a minimum, a center? Surely the Leafs won’t take winger, with so much depth already at the position?

High enough up in the draft, the answer is always, “yes, BPA applies.” It’s possible that two players high in the draft are a virtual tie in the collective eyes of scouts and management, in which case positional need could serve as tiebreaker, but it rarely plays out that way in reality.

Drafting in the middle of the first round, the Leafs will, in all likelihood, draft a player who is at least a year or two away from pushing for an NHL job. Needs change and it’s impossible to predict the Leafs’ future depth chart situation a couple years from now (As Lou Lamoriello likes to repeat, “We have a 10-year plan that changes every day”). It’s always possible to trade from a position of strength to address a need, and not so easy to turn a bust or replacement-level player into something useful (Schenn for JVR aside). Therefore, pick the best player available.

We have all the evidence we need to suggest the parity between rounds becomes more pronounced and the separation between players trails off as the draft progresses. Among countless other studies, the statistical basis for this assertion was laid out after the Leafs traded down from selection #24 (and again from #29) to pick up extra draft picks and draft both a defenceman in Travis Dermott and a highly-skilled winger Jeremy Bracco (with other parts involved), leaving a falling Travis Konecny for the Philadelphia Flyers to snatch up.

Draft value chart depicting the Leafs’ trade down in 2015

All sorts of considerations start factoring into the decisions as the draft progresses. Among them are the makeup of the organization’s prospect cupboard/positional need, player type, or a unique insight into the player (an unknown injury or illness, an unfair coach, or some other mitigating factor that affected him negatively) that the scouts feel no other team has. Last June, Hunter spoke about adding some size to the Leafs’ mix of prospects, for example.

But it’s obvious in listening to Hunter speak that Best Player Available is the credo he adheres to at the top of the draft.

“You can’t get away from who the best player available is. If a player in Sweden is the best player available and he’s better than a kid from the London Knights, we have to draft what’s best and who is the best and who has the most potential. Hopefully, if we look at it and an Ontario kid is just the same, you’re going to lean towards more the Ontario kid. You’ve got to look at it both ways. You’ve got to take the best player available. If it’s even, then you start looking at all the intangibles. You’ve got to look for the best player out there. In years past, [four] teams passed on Jagr. That was a mistake.”

– Mark Hunter, October, 2014

It’s also evident in the picks Hunter has made in the first round of drafts as the head scout of the Leafs and the GM of the London Knights over the past 16 years.

Mark Hunter's Draft History - First Round - 2000-2016

DraftPlayerPositionOA  
2016Auston MatthewsF1
2015Mitch MarnerF4
2014Max JonesF18
2013Mitch MarnerF19
2012Liam HerbstG22
2011Bo HorvatF9
2010Chris TierneyF19
2009Scott HarringtonD19
2008Christian ThomasF13
2007Michael ZadorG20
2006Philip McRaeF20
2005Corey SyvretD20
2004Steven FerryD20
2003Tom ManninoD10
2002Dave BollandF8
2001Corey PerryF5
2000Rick NashF4

In his last nine drafts as Knights GM (2006-2014), Hunter selected just the one defenceman. He selected Mitch Marner (again) in his first year as the Leafs’ head scout, and last year was the Auston Matthews layup, meaning Hunter’s teams have selected one defenceman in the last 11 drafts. Over the 17 drafts in total, Hunter’s selected 11 forwards, four defencemen and two goalies. None of the four defencemen drafted by Hunter in the first round went on to play a full NHL season.

At forward, there is a litany of NHLers on the list, including several that went on to become first-round selections and, in some cases, future impact players in the NHL: Jones, Nash, Perry, Horvat, Marner. We can throw in Bolland, too, who went 32nd overall to Chicago in 2004.

Hunter has certainly taken more kicks at the can when it comes to picking forwards, and perhaps he’s found a lot of success with them because of his strict BPA strategy. It’s possible he’s also partial to forwards or has a better eye for identifying the best ones, being a former forward himself.

That’s Mike Babcock’s theory:

“I bug Hunts all the time. He was a right winger. He loves good right wingers. I like center and D, though. We got to get that changed over time. I have no idea why he finds a good right winger all the time. No idea.”

The rumour kicking around at the 2015 draft was that Babcock was partial to defenceman Noah Hanifin at pick number four that year (Babcock, as he’s said before, gets just one vote at the table). We’ll need another couple of years to properly decide if the Leafs made the right decision, but there aren’t many Leafs fans eager to swap Marner for Hanifin today. As Babcock admitted himself, he “had no clue [Marner] would be this good.” Marner is a winger, but he looks like he’s the calibre of winger (i.e. elite) capable of driving a line.

Does all of this mean that the Leafs are taking a forward over a defenceman tonight? Not at all. All sorts of things are possible, including trading up to get a defenceman who is the ‘BPA’, the right one falling or being available to the Leafs at their current spot, or the Leafs trading down and taking one later in the order.

Does it mean that, if Mark Hunter believes the best player sitting at pick #17 is a forward (even a winger), he’ll take him, organizational needs be damned? We have lots of evidence that he would.