It was a relatively quiet weekend around the league, and the Toronto Maple Leafs were no exception.
After a trade down that many expected to happen, the organization added nine new players to the fold, including a trade down in the first round and a late trade to add a pick.
This was Kyle Dubas’ first draft officially in charge and it was a typical Dubas draft at that. It emphasized skill and hockey IQ over anything else, but there were some other interesting underlying themes worth unpacking and exploring. Alec and Declan did a great job putting together profiles on each pick as they happened, and you can find those here:
- Rasmus Sandin
- Sean Durzi
- Semyon Der-Arguchintsev
- Riley Stotts
- Mac Hollowell
- Filip Kral
- Pontus Holmberg
- Zachary Bouthillier
- Semyon Kizimov
There was a continued trend — since Dubas was originally hired — of drafting from the CHL. Of the 36 picks taken in that time, 22 are from the CHL and 13 of those are from the OHL specifically. It is also the third straight draft in which the Leafs have drafted a goalie. Let’s take a look at some other trends.
Every team will draft players of different ages — it’s unavoidable. The Leafs, though, seem to have a bit of a different view to this. Their top two picks of the 2018 draft are both eligible to play in the AHL next season – and to be clear this isn’t limited to Sandin; a lot of people (myself included) believe Durzi can play in the AHL next season.
Last year, the Leafs had their recent top pick, Timothy Liljegren, spend the season in the AHL and a few years before that William Nylander did the same thing. Other recent draft picks like Travis Dermott, Adam Brooks, Jeremy Bracco, Carl Grundstrom and even the traded-for Kasperi Kapanen have made their way to the Marlies and have improved through developing in the system.
Unlike the NFL and NBA drafts, teams don’t draft players straight to their team. The draft presents an opportunity to acquire young talent that clubs can then cultivate into an NHL player (hopefully). When talking about the draft, Dubas loosely mentioned this, noting, “We want to pick the best guys available, bring them in here, and develop them into NHLers.”
The Marlies are known as the 32nd NHL team based on their money and resources. It would make sense for the organization to want to get prospects on the team as soon as possible – the player is then directly under the supervision of their coaching staff and is working with their trainers, nutritionists, in their NHL level facilities, etc. Would you rather have your top prospects in the junior leagues an arm’s length away or developing right in Toronto with you and your heavily-funded farm team? There were a few other older players the Leafs drafted that are older and AHL candidates sooner than later – Mac Hollowell and Pontus Holmberg.
I wouldn’t sit here and suggest that the Leafs are putting a premium on finding prospects that can go right to the AHL, but all things being equal, it’s an added bonus.
Ideally, players play the entire season and you can evaluate based on an even playing field, but when your first pick is 25th overall (at least heading into the draft), you are generally not facing ideal situations when it comes to the prospects available.
Rasmus Sandin had the second highest points per game (0.88) among rookie defensemen since 2009-10. The reason he didn’t play the full season is because he started the year in the SHL; had he played the entire season to the point pace he showed, he would have had 60 points, which would have ranked him fifth in the league among defensemen. It’s possible that would have been a bit more eye-popping and pushed him up the draft board higher had he been around to do that.
The player that was fifth in overall points by a defenseman in the OHL? Another Leafs draft pick – Mac Hollowell.
There were a few other interesting notes when it comes to games played and the draft choices. Semyon Der-Arguchintsev (SDA), who was the youngest player in the draft, finished the season with 21 points in his last 17 games. Any Malcolm Gladwell reader will tell you about the hours of repetition it takes to excel in any given field and SDA’s development suggest he could be in line for a breakout in his third OHL season next year. Years ago, the Leafs drafted Josh Leivo in part because his scoring spiked in January for the rest of the season.
And then there is Riley Stotts, who started the year on a stacked Swift Current Broncos team (they had the second most points in the league), and had three points in 22 games there. He then got traded to the Calgary Hitmen and put up 41 points in 47 games on his new team. The Broncos had three players, all older than Stotts, who put up over 100 points, so there’s shame in not being able to crack the top of that lineup.
Last season, Timothy Liljegren fell in apart to getting mono and missing a good chunk of the season. There seems to be an inefficiency here in drafting players that miss time for reasons other than being injury prone.
There is a lot of focus on the point production of the Leafs draft picks, and rightfully so, but one bias that many in the analytics point to when it comes to the draft is the insistence on drafting out of the North American Junior leagues (particularly the CHL) late in drafts.
CHL hockey is the most heavily scouted junior hockey in the world for a number of reasons, including the elite talent in the league and the convenience, considering NHL teams are in North America as well. The top prospects tend to get selected in the first 100 picks or so, yet teams continue to drafting from this league to the very end – usually settling for fourth liners or big, raw players with upside. To this end, the Leafs first six selections all came from the CHL.
But when it comes to the end of the draft, many in the analytics community believe you’re better off gambling on a player from a less heavily scouted league.
Two of the three last Leafs picks were:
- A Swede from the third Swedish league
- A Russian from the Russian Junior league
The other pick was a goalie, which pretty well anyone will tell you is a complete shot in the dark. Heck, even when goalies get to the NHL, it is a complete guessing game unlike any other.
- Two draft picks attended the Leafs development camp last summer – Sean Durzi and Mac Hollowell. Moving forward it will be important to keep a better eye on who is invited and how they are progressing. A few of their invites were drafted by other teams – Connor Dewar went in the 3rd round to Minnesota, and Vladislav Yeryomenko was drafted in the 5th round by Nashville as well.
- They had a player at the camp last year in Kristian Pospisil, who ended up playing for the organization’s ECHL team and got in a few games for the Marlies as well.
- Taro Hirose is another player who went to camp last year and plays for Michigan State. He almost doubled his point totals this past season from 24 to 42 and actually led the team in scoring. Alec Rauhauser was there as well and led Bowling Green in scoring as a defenceman with 39 points in 41 games. Might be worth keeping an eye on moving forward.
- Thought it was noteworthy that Filip Kral was a healthy scratch for two of Spokane’s playoff games in their first round loss – he was named their rookie of the year.
- Even though Dubas was a part of the group and not the decision maker in drafting Dermott and Liljegren, with the selections of Sandin and Durzi, there is a clear “type” the Leafs have – skilled, puck mover, mobile, puck carrier. They clearly want defencemen that are active in attacking with the puck and good puck handlers, and they are emphasizing it through the draft. Kyle Dubas discussed Sandin prior to the draft and noted, “[he] plays defense the way I like it to be played – very, very good with the puck, skates very well. In the playoffs for the Soo, he took his game physically to another level and showed a great level of competitiveness in addition to his skillset.” There are a few defencemen drafted the last few years that it would probably be fair to say don’t fit the mould, and there was probably a difference of opinion in doing that.
- Saw Sean Durzi play a bit when he was a Mississauga Rebel in the GTHL. He was a late round pick that grew about three inches after being drafted. I was surprised he wasn’t drafted in his draft year, as he had 36 points in 60 games and nine in 17 playoff games that year. His game took a significant step forward this season, without question, but that’s a good enough season production wise to get drafted. He was always skilled. Conversely, Mac Hollowell is undersized at 5’9 and had 23 points in 63 games playing down the line-up in his draft year. That one makes much more sense as to why he wasn’t drafted.
- In the last Leafs trade down in the first round, they moved from #24 to #29 and #61 and then they subsequently moved from #29 for #34 and #68. Player-wise, that means Travis Konecny for Travis Dermott, Jeremy Bracco and Martins Dzierkals. It is still far too early to tell the results of all that movement, but Konecny managed to establish himself as a top-6 forward with a 24-goal season and Dermott took steps to securing a full-time roster spot for next season (and possibly a quick ascension up to a top 4 role on the Leafs defense). While Bracco and Dzierkals still have time, both have a long way to go to become regular NHLers. Now we’ll have a second trade down to compare to.
- The player that was selected at the Leafs original draft slot of 25, Dominik Bokk, was highly regarded, although publications were divided on him (HockeyProspect had him at 33, Future Considerations had him at 33). Then, of course, there was Joe Veleno, who the Leafs passed on twice, even though many thought he would go inside the top 20. Obviously, none of us know how this is going to play out, but the optics of trading down and selecting a player from your former junior club, and then drafting another kid from your former club that is undersized and went undrafted the first go around, are not the greatest.
- I do wonder if the Leafs really wanted Ryan Merkley. They have junior hockey connections to him through Wes Clark and his production is off the charts, character concerns aside. Plus, he’s a right-handed defenceman, which is hard to find. Some thought he was going to fall to the second round and that would have made sense for a trade down, but I think this was a read-the-draft situation and the Leafs were not going to trade up, so it is what it is.
- In back-to-back years, the Leafs drafted undersized defencemen with first round picks. I was curious to see what the precedent is there in the league, so I took a look: Last year, there were exactly 200 defenders that played at least 40 games, and 55 of them were 6’0 or shorter. In the playoffs, there were 111 defenders that got into at least one game, and 32 of them were 6’0 or shorter. I know that not caring about size is in vogue, but it is still more difficult when you are on the smaller side.
- I watched a bunch of tape on Rasmus Sandin, and on the power play, he was playing along the half-wall quite a bit instead of quarterbacking at the top. I don’t think it’s a big deal and I don’t think he’s unable to quarterback at top; it’s just something to keep in mind. He loves that backdoor cross ice-pass going down the wall. He’s also really active joining the rush and pinching down in the zone.
- Sean Durzi, conversely, does quarterback the power play and has a nice seeing-eye shot. It’s kind of similar to Morgan Rielly’s in that it’s not a bomb but he figures out ways to get it through and catch goalies off guard.
- Riley Stotts broke out after getting traded – if you’re looking for another reason to be optimistic about his talent, he was the 10th overall pick in the WHL bantam draft. A full season at the top of the depth chart will be a big opportunity to prove himself as a high-end talent.
- One saying Lou Lamoriello has been famous for is – if you have time, use it. I have noticed that kind of language coming from Dubas since being hired, particularly whenever he is asked about William Nylander’s contract.