Where Is The Skill?

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On April 11, 2014 the Toronto Maple Leafs hired Brendan Shanahan as the Toronto Maple Leafs President and associate governor, officially signaling the end of the Brian Burke/Dave Nonis truculence era. Within a few months Shanahan announced that young executive Kyle Dubas would be joining the organization as an Assistant General Manager to Dave Nonis, who was still part of the organization but was in effect a dead man walking. Shanahan spoke glowingly about Dubas and said their initial meeting lasted over nine hours where Dubas sold Shanahan on a vision for the hockey team that he hoped would alter its destiny going forward. An emphasis on speed and skill would be part of the structure of the team and for its strategies in drafting and acquiring players. It has now been seven years since these events and passing judgment over every detail of events is a large task. Instead this post will take a look at some of the drafting record of the organization since Shanahan’s hiring. The focus will be on the 2nd rounds and later because the first round picks are generally fairly safe and predictable, although mistakes have been known to be made. It’s in the later rounds where the scouting staff and GM’s earn their salary for the most part.

At the 2014 NHL Entry Draft the Leaf table was manned by Kyle Dubas, Brendan Shanahan, a glum looking Dave Nonis, and chief amateur scout Dave Morrison. The Leafs drafted in the 8th spot that year in the first round and took William Nylander. The Leafs did not have a 2nd round pick that year as Nonis had traded it to Anaheim for Peter Holland. In round 3, the Leafs took Rinat Valiev at pick #68, passing over Brayden Point who was picked at #79 by Tampa. Nowhere in Valiev’s hockey biography are the words ‘speed’ and ‘skill’ used descriptively. Valiev has 12 NHL games on his resume, 10 for the Leafs and 2 with the Montreal Canadiens, where he was traded for Kirby Reichel. Neither Valiev nor Rychel are listed as being attached to any professional teams at this point in time.  In round 4, the Leafs took JJ Piccinich with the 103rd pick, passing over future NHL players in Devon Toews, Kaapo Kahkonen, Viktor Arvidsson and Danton Heinen. Piccinich has played zero NHL games, is no longer with the organization and plays in the ECHL with Orlando. In round 5 the Leafs picked Dakota Joshua, passing over Oskar Lindblom and Anders Bjork. Joshua has 12 NHL games on his resume, all with the St. Louis Blues who acquired him from the Leafs for future considerations which I believe was a 7th round pick. In round 6 they picked Nolan Vesey, zero NHL games played and with their final pick they threw Thommie Bergman a pick and he came through again as they selected Pierre Engvall 188th overall.  Engvall at least has shown he’s an NHL player, albeit 3rd or 4th line material, but for a 7th round pick that’s completely acceptable. So out of 6 picks in that draft they managed to secure two NHL players that are still on the current roster. Not bad, but the other four were awful picks and certainly not in line with the team’s new emphasis on speed and skill. They were probably reliant on draft reports prepared by Morrison during the truculence days.

After another truly forgettable season on the ice the Leafs entered the 2015 draft with the 4th overall pick, narrowly losing out on Connor McDavid on the draft lottery. After some internal debate with Mike Babcock, the Leafs took Mitch Marner with the pick. The Leafs were also in possession of another first round pick that year, obtained by Nonis in the Cody Franson deal with Nashville. As the Leaf pick came closer to being chosen it looked like Travis Konecny could be there for the Leafs, he would have been a great addition and certainly fit their speed and skill mantra. Instead, Dubas dealt the pick to Philadelphia for their 29th pick and and a 2nd round pick. Flyers GM Ron Hextall sprinted to the stage and quickly grabbed Konecny.  Dubas then took the 29th pick and dealt himself completely out of the first round and traded it to Columbus for a 2nd and a 3rd. Dubas confidently winked into the cameras as the trades were announced, signally a confidence that he knew what he was doing. With the 4th pick in the 2nd round Dubas/Hunter selected Travis Dermott, passing over Sebastian Aho who Carolina took with the next pick. The Leafs had a massive hole at center at both the NHL level and the developmental level but chose Dermott instead. Dermott is a serviceable NHL defenceman, more suited to a 6-8 role. Speed and skill are not attributes I would attach to his game. With the last pick in the 2nd round they selected Jeremy Bracco. Bracco had a briefly successful AHL career, won the scoring championship and was part of a Calder Cup team. “Bracco and a 2nd “was probably mentioned in more trade rumours than in recent memory. Quickly he fell out of favour with the organization and left under mysterious circumstances and zero NHL games played to this point. In round 3 they selected Andrew Nielsen, again not speed and skill material, and Martins Dzierkals, passing up on Anthony Cirelli who was taken a few picks after Dzierkals by Tampa. Nielsen and Dzierkals have zero NHL games played and both were traded away by the organization in contract dumps. Jesper Lindgren (zero NHL games), Dmytro Timashov (45 NHL games), Stephen Desrocher (0 NHL games) and Nikita Korostelev (0 NHL games) rounded out that draft. So, instead of having Travis Konecny, Dubas and Hunter traded down for Travis Dermott, Jeremy Bracco and Martins Dzierkals, a resounding loss.

The losses piled up and Team Tank was created. The Leafs plunged further in the standings but hope was on the horizon as the Leafs parlayed that truly awful season into winning the 2016 draft lottery and Auston Matthews was the consensus first overall pick. Dubas was armed with draft picks from selling off assets to facilitate the tank and the Leafs entered the draft with 11 picks. Surely the system would get a decent haul of prospects to re-load and develop. The Leafs entered the 2nd round with the first pick and chose Egor Korshkov, a player passed over in the 2015 draft. Dubas and Hunter passed over skilled players such as Jordan Kyrou(C), Alex DeBrincat (W) and Carter Hart (G) despite needs at all those positions. With an additional 2nd round pick they chose Carl Grundstrom. Carl is a good prospect, since traded to the LA Kings, but like Korshkov, speed and skill are not his primary assets. Joseph Woll (0 NHL GP), J.D Greenaway (0 NHL GP), Adam Brooks (18 NHL GP), Keaton Middleton (3 NHL GP), Vladimir Bobylev (0 NHL GP), Jack Walker (0 NHL GP), Nicolas Mattinen (0 NHL GP) and Nikolai Chebykin (0 NHL GP) rounded out that draft. Only Matthews, Woll and Brooks remain with the organization. Woll is a question mark , based on his AHL play to date he is a longshot to ever be an NHL regular. Brooks is a 4th-5th line NHL player at best, certainly not in the speed and skill mode. Aside from Matthews, this was hardly a draft a team that low on prospects could be proud of and especially after coming off such a painful season where hope was high that the cupboards would be re-stocked.

In 2017, the Leaf fortunes improved on the ice with an impressive playoff appearance vs. Washington. They entered the draft with pick #17 and took Timothy Liljegren who had fallen in the rankings. The jury is still out on Liljegren as he is still young and defencemen take some additional time to develop. However it appears he will be a depth defenceman at best, likely in a 6,7.8 role not unlike Travis Dermott. The remaining players selected of that draft have year to produce a single NHL game.

Since it has now been four seasons since the Liljegren draft it is fair to assess the progress of the ‘speed and skill’ emphasis sold to Shanahan by Dubas. Aside from the first round selections virtually none of the remaining selections have developed into anything that could help the NHL team, or even the Marlies. At this point in the Dubas era you would think the system would be full of prospects looking to crack the NHL roster but are unable to because the team is so deep. Good organizations parlay these kinds of riches into future draft picks or use them as currency to pick up veteran players to help out the NHL team. Instead, Dubas has been forced to use his future draft picks as currency because his prospect base is so depleted or non-existent. He has also been forced to dumpster dive in the NHL reject pile and search the Euro leagues for diamonds in the rough because his draft choices have been so poor. It’s too early to judge the years 2018 and forward as these players are still young, but if the trend is anything like the past trend, and Dubas is a believer in trend analysis, then the future does not look bright in the least. As of this writing he has 6 draft picks remaining to use over the next two drafts and the team continues to struggle with expectations. Dubas has often stated that he can always use skill to obtain grit and leadership, but the question remains…where is the skill? The Leafs have the financial might of MLSE behind them and no expense should be spared in hiring the best scouts to evaluate talent. Yet we see budget teams like Carolina far exceed the results of Dubas and company in both drafting and development. When Brian Burke was fired one of the reasons given was they were no further ahead after four years of Burke than they were presently. The Leafs may have improved in the regular season standings since the Shanaplan was enacted, but the failures in post-season supersede any regular season accomplishments. The drafting record is abysmal to say the least. They lack a legitimate goaltending prospect, center prospects remain a dark hole as does the wing position. Sandin and Liljegren should make the NHL roster, but after them the list drops off drastically. One question of the many that should be asked at the ownership level of Brendan Shanahan is “Where is the skill?”