Drafting is hard.
When you aren't constantly winning lotteries you need top scouts on the road all year long gathering information about draft eligible players from the moment they step into the junior leagues. The first round pick is the most important a team has; unless you're the Red Wings, when it's the 7th round pick. While the top rated prospects are taken with the first few selections, any first round pick will usually lead to a roster player down the line.
In 1989 the Maple Leafs held three first round picks. The third selection overall was their own pick. The Leafs had traded goaltender Ken Wregget to the Philadelphia Flyers for two more first round picks; 12th overall (Flyers), and 21st overall (Calgary).
Heading into the draft with three first round selections you would expect The Leafs scouting staff to be working overtime scouring the junior leagues, colleges, Europe, and everywhere they could for the best prospects.
Instead they went to a Belleville Bulls game and took the rest of the year off.
In 1989 the Ontario Hockey League's Belleville Bulls were not a superstar team, finishing with a 27-35-4 record. Since there were only seven teams in their conference they still made the playoffs, but had to play top ranked Peterborough in the first round. The Bulls were handily defeated in five games.
The Maple Leafs scouting staff must have seen something in this team because they spent all three of their first round picks on them.
(All numbers are Jr years leading up to the draft)
Pick One: Third Overall: Scott Thornton - 121GP - 39G / 53A - 72Pts - 157PM
After being drafted Scott Thornton would play 47 games of the 89/90 season with Belleville and score 49 points. In 90/91 he played three games with Belleville (3pts), five with the AHL's New Market Saints (1pt), and 33 with the Toronto Maple Leafs (4pts). Before the 91/92 season began Thronton was traded to the Edmonton Oilers along with with Vincent Damphousse, Peter Ing, and Luke Richardson in exchange for Grant Fuhr, Glenn Anderson and Craig Berube.
Who could the Leafs have picked?
Stu Barnes was picked fourth overall, but he played in the WHL, and the Leafs scouts didn't appear to go further west than Minnesota in 1989. Barnes would rack up 597 points in 1136 NHL games.
Bill Guerin went 5th overall; drafted by the New Jersey Devils. He won the cup with the Devils in '95, and then again in 2009 with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Guerin was named MVP of the 2002 All-Star game and was elected to the US Hockey Hall of Fame in 2013. Guerin scored 859 points in 1263 NHL games with the Devils, Oilers, Bruins, Stars, Blues, Sharks, Islanders, and Penguins.
Bobby Holik was taken 10th overall by the Hartford Whalers. He only played two seasons with the Whalers before being traded to New Jersey where he won two Stanley Cups (1995 and 2000). Holik played 1314 NHL games, scoring 747 points, with the Whalers, Devils, Rangers, and Thrashers.
Pick Two: 12th overall: Rob Pearson - 8GP - 8G / 12A - 20Pts - 51PM
Post-draft, Pearson would play two additional seasons in the OHL with Belleville and Oshawa. He also played 30 AHL games before joining the Maple Leafs in 1992. At the 1994 NHL Draft Pearson was traded, along with the Leafs first round pick, to Washington in exchange for Washington's first round pick, and Mike Ridley. Washington wanted to move up from 16th overall to 10th.
Pearson played in 269 NHL games with the Maple Leafs, Capitals, and Blues before leaving the NHL for the International League, and then Germany. He coached in the CIS with the OUIT Ridgebacks in 2006.
Mike Ridley scored 37 points in the 48 game NHL season in 1995 for the Maple Leafs. He was traded to Vancouver for Sergio Momesso in the summer. Momesso played 54 games for the Leafs, scoring eight points, before being traded to the Rangers for Wayne Presley in February 1996. Presley played 19 games and scored 4 points. He was released that summer.
Who could the Leafs have picked?
Future Maple Leaf Olaf Kolzig was taken 19th overall by the Washington Capitals. He became one of their star players and was the starting goalie for 15 years. Kolzig took the Capitals all the way to 1998 cup finals. He won the Vezina in 2000, and was named first team all-star that same year. Kolzig won the DEL championship in the 2005 lockout season, and was awarded the King Clancy trophy in 2006 for his charity work, founding "Athletes Against Autism".
Kolzig was also named one of the greatest Capitals in the franchise history by its fans. Kolzig signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2008 as a free agent, but only appeared in 8 games. While injured he was traded to the Maple Leafs but he never made the roster for a game.
His final NHL stats would be 719GP - .906sv% - 2.71GAA - 35SO
Pick Three: 21st Overall: Steve Bancroft - 122GP - 8G / 38A - 46Pts - 141PM
I believe the technical term here is "bust". Bancroft played one more year in Belleville, scoring 43 points in 53 games, then joined the Leafs farm team in Newmarket for 9 games (three points) before being traded to the Bruins for Rob Cimetta, at which point he was moved to their AHL affiliate, the Maine Mariners. Boston traded him to Chicago for an 11th round pick. Bancroft played one game for the Blackhawks. Bancroft would see five more NHL games with the San Jose Sharks, but spent the majority of his career in the AHL/IHL.
Rob Cimetta played 49 games for the Leafs, scoring 13 points over two seasons, before being released as a free agent.
Who could the Leafs have picked?
Taken 22nd overall, the first choice in round 2, by the Quebec Nordiques, was Adam Foote. Foote would play almost 14 years for the Nordiques/Avalanche franchise, and win two Stanley Cups (96/01). Foote played two and a half seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets before returning to the Avalanche for three and a half more seasons before retiring. In total he played 1154 NHL games, scoring 308 points. In international play he was a defenceman for Team Canada in the 2002 Olympic Games, and was a part of the team that won Canada's first Olympic gold medal in 50 years. Foote also won gold at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey. His #52 jersey was retired by the Avalanche in 2013.
Would it have been better if they picked 1st overall?
Winning one extra game over Quebec would let the Nordiques pick first overall and they would make NHL history by selecting Mats Sundin as the first Swede to go #1.
That worked out very well in the Leafs favour a few years down the road, and by drafting Thornton they actually helped onto the core with which to surround Sundin later on:
Thornton would be traded for Fuhr, Anderson, and Berube as mentioned above.
Fuhr would go to Buffalo for Dave Andreychuk, Daren Puppa and Buffalo's 1st round choice (Kenny Jonsson) in 1993 Entry Draft.
Andreychuk would go to the Devils for Marek Posmyk who would go to Tampa for Darcy Tucker.
Jonsson would go to the Islanders, bringing back Wendel Clark, Mathieu Schneider and DJ Smith. Clark would be let go, but Schneider would get traded to the Rangers for Alexander Karpovtsev, who would be sent to Chicago for Bryan McCabe.
Craig Berube would be sent to Calgary in the Doug Gilmour trade.
So, I guess they did alright with that 3rd overall pick, eventually.
Could they have done better?
Uh, yes? Did you read who they passed on with the other picks?
There have been lots of bad drafts, but 1989 sticks out. Not really for who was missed -- there were no generational superstars after the third pick -- but because they used three first round picks on one team. Not even a stacked team! A barely into the playoffs sub-.500 record team.
They may as well have gone the route of the Lightning after they joined the league and simply had someone watching Centre Ice to scout games.
The 1989 draft wasn't huge, but the Leafs did whiff on a couple guys. They focused too hard on one team, and that's why it showed their scouting department was a pile of Belleville Bullshit.