"The draft is not the time to play it safe; it’s the time to swing for the fences."
I think SkinnyFish summed up a lot of the disappointment many fans around here felt after the first day of the draft. After about two months of very little Leafs news, combined with seeing other teams make big #1C acquisitions, expectations ran high that Burke would, if not move up, at least land a couple prospects with high-end upside for us all to dream on.
Instead, Burke traded the 39th pick and drafted Tyler Biggs and Stuart Percy. Both are well-regarded prospects, but the knock on both seems to be the lack of star-level upside. "Safe" was the word thrown around a lot last night. It's way too early to evaluate the picks themselves, but we can evaluate the strategy behind them. How do these picks make sense for an organization that at the NHL and prospect level has lots of nice pieces, but very little elite talent?
My first reaction to the picks was also disappointment, as I'd hoped the Leafs would take higher-upside players like Matt Puempel or Scott Mayfield. But after some thought, I think I understand the approach taken by Burke and his team. And I think it makes sense.
This year's draft crop was marked by a dearth of high-end, high-impact players available, although observers believed it to be reasonably deep. Therefore, any team picking late in the first round had a very, very small chance (smaller even than usual) of picking up a major difference maker, a player who can anchor a top line or top defence pairing.
The choice facing Burke was to take the players with some high-end skill but also major question marks that caused them to drop to the end of the first (Puempel's skating and effort, for example, or Grimaldi's size) or to take players with a lower ceiling but a better chance of reaching it. He chose the latter.
In a cap league, it is critical to have players out-performing their salaries in order to build a strong team. Without top-5 picks, the Leafs are not going to have elite talent playing on entry-level or RFA deals. Patrick Kane or Jonathan Toews are not walking through that door, unless the team gets very lucky with a draft pick or two. So Burke seems to be going the other way. The focus has been acquiring young elite talent like Phaneuf or Kessel that already have a decent contract attached.
Drafting players like McKegg, Ross, Biggs, and Percy is an attempt to have the strength in depth that elite teams do, without having to spend too much money on guys to be nothing more than good solid NHLers (a problem the Canadiens and Flames have been wrestling with to various degrees). If Biggs and Percy can be above average or very good top-nine forwards or second-pair D on a cheap contract, that's a big plus for a team that needs to add elite talent through UFA or trades.
Finally, the strategy does not entirely dispense with upside. McKegg last year, and Biggs, Percy, Leivo, and Nilsson this year are all players that are quite young for their draft year and competition levels, and came on significantly in the second half and playoffs of their seasons. Burke and his team clearly think players like this offer more significant room for growth than some older players who may have put up bigger numbers. It certainly seemed to work with Greg McKegg.
Obviously, it will be a few years before we know whether the players the Leafs took this year were good picks. Evaluating the strategy, the Leafs may not have hit a home run this week, but perhaps they've strung a few doubles together.