The Leafs have signed yet another US College star. As much as I appreciate this new direction, the odds of success are significantly lower than the draft. I understand the Leafs must take this approach as, for some reason, they don’t appear to have any draft picks…well, any first rounders.
My concern is that the Leafs are going to be a playoff team by the year they do finally have a first round draft pick. They will then re-enter that cycle of mediocrity-to-above-average-back-to-mediocrity hockey that they have played for most of their cup-less drought.
The problem for the Leafs has been twofold in the past: bad scouts and few if any first round picks. Some teams endure without first round picks (the Wings, the Devils, the Avs for a time) but they are the exception, not the rule. Other teams have average scouts, not amazing scouts, and have to have the odd high pick to infuse new star talent, otherwise they are permanently bad. (Some teams’ scouting is so atrocious as to ensure that even high picks don’t elevate them out of their stupors.)
The Leafs, as a playoff team, have traditionally either traded away their first rounders, as they weren’t bad enough a team to have high picks, or drafted poorly when they have retained these picks. Other teams have managed to hold on to their picks, while making good trades (or they acquired new picks in their stead) or they have managed to find players in the 20s that have turned into serviceable players or even stars.
Starting with five years ago (as I believe that is a fair time to see whether or not a player is an NHLer), here are the Leafs’ first rounders for the last 25 years:
Alex Steen, 24th (having a career year with the Blues, could have had Cam Ward)
Carlo Colaicovo, 17th (perpetually injured, could have had Colby Armstrong)
Brad Boyes, 24th (inconsistent career for other teams, could have had Justin Williams)
Luca Cereda, 24th (playing in Europe, could have had Martin Havlat)
Nik Antropov, 10th (having a career year with Atlanta, could have had Alex Tanguay, Martin Skoula, Robyn Regehr, Simon Gagne, Scott Gomez)
Jeff Ware, 15th (21 NHL games, could have had Petr Sykora)
Eric Fichaud, 16th (played a couple seasons, could have had Wayne Primeau, so it was a weak first round that year)
Kenny Jonsson, 12th (traded to reacquire Wendel Clark, could have had Saku Koivu, Todd Bertuzzi); Landon Wilson, 19th (119 career points)
Brandon Convery, 8th (72 games played, could have had Sergei Gonchar); Grant Marshall, 23rd
Drake Berehowsky, 10th (could have had Keith Tkachuk, Bryan Smolinski)
Scott Thornton, 3rd (285 total points, could have had Bill Guerin, Stu Barnes, Mike Sillinger, Bobby Holik); Rob Pearson, 12th (110 total points, could have had Olaf Kolzig); Steve Bancroft, 21st (6 games played)
Scott Pearson, 6th (98 total points, could have had Teemu Selanne, Jeremy Roenick, Rod Brind’Amour, Martin Gelinas)
Luke Richardson, 7th (could have had Joe Sakic, Stephan Quintal, Andrew Cassels)
Vincent Damphousse, 6th (best player available)
Wendel Clark, 1st (comparable stats to those drafted below him)
That is one piss-poor track record. My concern is that things won’t change because Burke a) seems to underrate the draft and b) aims to make this team just good enough to make the playoffs by the time they again have a first rounder. Yuck.