2012, Hockey, Sports, The Campaign to Fire Brian Burke

The Campaign to Fire Brian Burke: the 2012 NHL Draft

There are basically two approaches to drafting that GMs can take: drafting by need and drafting by talent. Let’s think about both briefly before looking at what the Leafs did this year.

Drafting by Need:

The advantage of drafting by need is obvious: you fill holes on your team in the hopes of moving closer to the championship.

The disadvantages, on the other hand, are legion:

  • In basketball, most 1st and even 2nd round picks go straight into the NBA. So drafting by need makes at least some sense.
  • In baseball, it takes years for most players to make the MLB, so in order to draft by need in baseball, you actually have to draft by what your system needs, and not by what your team needs.
  • Hockey is somewhere in the middle. The first couple picks often, though not always, make it to the NHL immediately, but virtually nobody else does until at least a year later.

So NHL teams can draft by need, but they must be the perceived needs of a few years down the road or, like in baseball, the needs of their system.

Aside from identifying what the needs of your system are, or what the needs of a future roster you have never seen are, the biggest problem with drafting by need is that it is very easy to go “off the board”; to draft someone that very few other people believe is talented enough to pick that high. This is especially true with teams with very high picks.

A while ago the Canadiens shocked everyone by drafting Carey Price 5th overall. They drafted by need though they claimed they drafted by the best player available. They took a wild guess and they lucked out. But that is rarely the case, especially with goalies. If Price hadn’t worked out, the Habs might be killing themselves about not taking Kopitar – who was allowed to fall out of the top ten because of hockey xenophobia – or another player ranked higher than Price.

So the GM faces two big problems:

  • How to identify the team’s needs of the future and
  • What to do if you have the #10 pick, you need a goalie, and the #7-#13 rated players are all skaters. This is of course why some teams trade away their highest picks, because they want to draft by need, despite the perils of it.

Drafting the Best Player Available

The other approach is to draft by talent, or to attempt to draft the best player available.

The obvious advantage of this is that you get the best player available. If you already have a million centres and he’s a centre, it’s actually fairly easy to solve that problem: a trade. In the NBA, it is – or at least was, before the lockout – easier to draft by need not just because it is easier to identify needs but because it is harder to trade players. Having to match salaries meant that for trades to get approved it was often more sensible to draft by need and avoid having to figure out trades, than to draft the best player available and move him afterwards. So when the Timberwolves drafted multiple point guards in the first round a few years back, most analysts went crazy because the Timberwolves were clearly not drafting by need.

That of course brings us to the biggest problem of drafting by talent: how the hell do you figure out who the best player available actually is?

At this point the history of sports, there is almost too much information. Aside from the central and international scouting rankings, and the unofficial NHL scout rankings accumulated by TSN and the like, there are seemingly hundreds if not thousands of mock drafts out there. And every single one of them is different. This problem is slightly more glaring in a sport like basketball, where you can read two mock drafts and see a player ranked #2 and #11 (think Tristan Thompson, last year) but it still exists in hockey.

The important thing to remember for the fan is that NHL teams also have a board, which may be determined by need, or talent, or some combination of both, and for whatever reason – more on that in a minute – it almost always fails to coincide exactly with what the various scouting polls say.

The Detroit Red Wings had very few high picks for a very long time and yet managed to find tons of diamond-in-the-rough players that powered them to multiple championships and numerous conference finals. It makes sense for a fan to trust Detroit’s scouts because of their track record of success. If Detroit has a player at #43 and everyone else has a player at #60, there is at least some reason for the Detroit fan to believe that Detroit may be more right about this guy being the 43rd best player than everyone else. (Provided Detroit has the same scouting team as they did when they found Lidstrom, Datsyuk, Zetterberg, etc.)

This is not true of a team like the Leafs, who have bungled a number of relatively high picks and who have only pulled a ‘Detroit’ once in the last couple decades (Kaberle). Though the scouting staff has been overhauled, it hasn’t yet resulted in anything too astounding. So I would personally think that – in the case of the example above – if the Leafs have a player ranked 43rd and everyone else has him ranked 60th, it makes sense to think everyone else, and not the Leafs, are right, simply because of track record.

I bring all this up because some kind of tool has to be used to determine the best player available. For many people that is consensus, for some people its “gut instinct” or something like that. Which of course brings us to what the Maple Leafs did this year, and do at least somewhat every year that Brian Burke has been in charge: go with their gut. And, as we have all seen by the fact that the Leafs are in the top 5 of the draft again, not so long after being there a few years ago, it has worked out so very well.

The Leafs’ Picks in the 2012 Draft

It is impossible to evaluate drafts immediately. You should wait five years before you really assess a team’s draft year. What I mean to do is evaluate the method the Leafs use, as opposed to the players they picked up. But I need to mention the players to do that.1st Round (1 pick):

#5 overall: Morgan Rielly, D, Moose Jaw, 3G, 15A for 18P in 18 games, +6

  • NHL Central Scouting: #5
  • ISS: #7
  • Hockey News: #6
  • Button: #3
  • TSN: #8

So the verdict is clearly out on Rielly – though it’s a draft, so that’s always true – as some saw him as a top 10 and others as a top 5. Burke publicly stated that he had him ranked #1.

We live in an age of “crowd sourcing” where the “wisdom of crowds” is supposed to be more valuable than any one person’s. Obviously, this is true to some extent, or on certain subjects, but we should not forget the opposite, “the madness of crowds”. (Funnily enough I am reading Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds at the moment.) Both can be true. At times, the popular opinion is more correct than even the expert’s and at times the popular opinion is more wrong than any expert could be.

For scouting, it’s a little different. As the scouts are experts, and hardly just fans. Scouting polls should be taken somewhat seriously, as these people have been doing these jobs for a long time. On the other hand, the scouts have been wrong before (Daigle, Stefan for examples) and all of them have their different attitudes on how to evaluate talent. At the end of the day, there is no way that I know of to fully determine what rating system to trust (Though Hollinger’s draft rater does a very good job for offensive talent in basketball.)

So that is basically a really long way of asking the question, who is right? Burke’s gut? Button’s gut? The scouts?

In defence of Burke a number of people continually bring up the Sedins – though five years ago people brought them up as a criticism of Burke – and Pronger. But this is the same man who also traded three picks for Phil Kessel, and who claimed John Mitchell was “untouchable,” a little while before putting him on waivers.

Burke’s gut is wrong just as much as anyone else’s. And that’s why businesses are run better by consensus, and by at least consulting “the wisdom of the crowd” rather than by gut instinct. Gut instinct yields successes and failures in a completely unpredictable manner. Some people are lucky – Gladwell has a great story about a trader but I can’t remember – more than others.

But this is clearly Burke’s gut at work here, since rating this guy #1 overall does not fit in with the consensus opinion. And personally I don’t have an iota of trust for Burke’s gut, for two reasons:

  1. the philosophical reason that I mentioned above – gut-instinct choices are inherently problematic and extraordinarily risky within business
  2. and because my personal experience of Burke’s gut as a Leafs fan has not been pleasant – the Leafs, after all, were not supposed to be drafting 5th overall this summer, because according to Burke’s gut they were a playoff team.

And so I must say that this pick is more than a little alarming, given that at least 3 sources have Rielly rated lower and given his injury history. (In basketball, if not in hockey, it’s a cardinal rule – more honoured in the breach, perhaps – that you don’t draft perennially injured players with top picks, no matter what their upside.)

And that’s just the “best player available” half of the critique. The other half is the “drafting by need” critique. The Leafs needs could be best summed up as

  1. Goalies
  2. #1 Centre
  3. Everything else (more depth at forward, cheaper and more effective D, etc)

Now obviously most teams will not and should not draft a goalie with the #5 (when that works, it is pure luck). But many ratings had a centre available at the #5 spot (mind you, one with injury problems). So it’s alarming to me that the Leafs seem to have chosen both not the best player available and and not the most appropriate player. Until I see otherwise, I have to view this as a mistake.

[Editor’s Note: This take has not aged well. 7 years later, Rielly is

  • 2nd in Games Played
  • 11th in Goals
  • 1st in Assists
  • 3rd in Points
  • 8th last in Plus/Minus
  • 6th in Point Shares (includes 3 goalies)

in his draft class.]

2nd Round (1 pick):

#35 overall: Matt Finn, D, Guelph, 10G, 38A for 48P in 61 games, -13

  • NHL Central Scouting: #16
  • ISS: #18
  • Hockey News: #18
  • Button: #9
  • TSN: #21

The same cannot be said for the Leafs’ second pick, Matt Finn, who looks to be an absolute steal at 35. If the scouts are right – and, as we already discussed, who knows if they are or aren’t – then the Leafs got a top 20 talent in the second round. Not watching the draft, I have no idea how he fell so far, but good on Burke and the Leafs for taking the best player available, regardless of their needs in goal and at centre. A very fundamentally sound decision.

[Editor’s Note: This take has also aged poorly.]

3rd and 4th Rounds (No picks):

This is where many smarter run teams sometimes get their talent. Alas.

5th-7th Rounds (4 picks):

#126 overall: Dominic Toninato, C, USHL

  • NHL CS: #149

Went way off the board with this one. How can anyone support these decisions with Burke’s talent-evaluating track record?

#156 overall: Connor Brown, RW, Erie, 25G, 28A for 53P in 68 games, -72

NHL CS: 110

Based solely on Central Scouting’s ranking – and who can know if that is right – an absolute steal at this position. One hopes the otherworldly minus is because he was on a terrible team.

#157 overall: Ryan Rupert, C, London, 17G, 31A for 48P in 63 games, +10

  • Not in NHL CS’ top 200 North American Skaters

Literally went off the board with this one. Impossible to judge the choice, but obviously the method is suspect.

#209 overall: Viktor Loov, D, Sodertalje

  • Not in NHL CS’ top 200 European Skaters

Again, off the board (which at 209 is hardly crazy). Completely depends on quality (cough, cough) of Leafs’ European scouting.

Of course the Leafs’ have rarely had any success at this late in the draft, and so all this is probably moot.

Summary

My overall feeling is one of disappointment, with the Leafs seemingly going by Burke’s gut yet again, to grab a player who may or may not be the 5th best player in the draft, but who many did not see as the 5th best player in the draft. My hope is obviously that Rielly turns out as at least the fifth best player in the draft, but we shall see. On the other hand, the second round pick is one of the strongest they have made in a long time, or so it seems.

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