In the past few months, Leafs fans have discussed every possible permutation of trades involving the Leafs pick. I've long been a proponent of the following (very general) draft strategy:
1. In the top 10, stand pat
2. Outside the top 10, trade down and accumulate more picks, unless someone you really like has slipped
Of course, this is a generic strategy, that can't be applied to every situation. I certainly wouldn't have traded down from 17, because I REALLY like Kyle Connor. But on average, this is a strategy that works. Draft value decays exponentially, as has been shown here by (first) Chemmy.
Another draft value chart by Michael Schuckers shows the same thing. Essentially, this means that while the top picks are insanely valuable, the marginal difference between picks decreases as we head deeper into the draft. As such, the mathematics of the situation dictate that trading back is a good idea. You're likely not to give up too much value by trading down, but in return, you pick up brand new picks later on in the draft, all of which have non-zero value. This strategy also admits something important; it's impossible to predict winners consistently. This is a strategy that requires some level of humility to execute. It's easy to think that you and you alone are capable of finding diamonds in the rough wherever you pick. Trading down implicitly admits that there is a high degree of uncertainty in picking outside the top 10, and recognizes that at this point in the draft, quantity of picks are more important than the quality of picks.
Notably, this is something that Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots often does. He's taken heat for trading out of positions where a player might help the Patriots right now, for a chance at two players who might help the Patriots down the road. This method is detailed quite robustly by Bill Barnwell at Grantland (link).
When the Leafs first traded back from 24 (for 29 and 61), a lot of us here at PPP were championing for any of Travis Konecny, Nick Merkley, Oliver Kylington, Jeremy Roy, or Daniel Sprong. Beyond these guys, I personally would've been happy with Anthony Beauvillier, Jeremy Bracco, or Jansen Harkins.
All would have fit into the Leafs new draft philosophy of skill first, second, and third. Obviously, the risk you run of trading back is that some or all of the players you want are gone by the time you get another bite at the apple. Of the players mentioned, only Beauvillier and Konecny came off the board between 24 and 29. With Merkley going at 30, the Leafs still are guaranteed a shot at Kylington, Roy, Sprong, Bracco, or Harkins at 34.
For their trouble in moving back to 34 from 24, they picked up the 61st and 68th picks, while still having a lot of the options most deemed desirable at their original selection. Lets take a quick look at each of the above players, and make a quick case for why they should be drafted at 34.
Oliver Kylington - Defenseman | Färjestad / AIK (SHL / Allsvenskan)
McKenzie's Rank: 24
Kylington is all upside. A player who was in the top tier of Swedish hockey in his D-1 year, the fact that he's even playing against men is impressive. Scouts drool over his skating and offensive instincts, but have dinged him for his decision-making at times. He was a former top 10 prospect in this years draft, but has slipped due to a combination of injuries, poor play at a bad time, and worries that he's an 'all tool, no toolbox' type of player. As far as I'm concerned, if you can draft a player who scouts have compared to Erik Karlsson at 34, you take him.
Jeremy Roy - Defenseman | Sherbrooke Phoenix (QMJHL)
McKenzie's Rank: 29
Jeremy Roy watched two other QMJHL defencemen get drafted ahead of him in Thomas Chabot and Jakub Zboril (both of the St. John Sea Dogs), but it could be argued that Roy is the best of the bunch. He's described as a gifted two-way defenceman, who makes up for his average size (6'0") with his brain, positioning himself beautifully both offensively and defensively, and always remaining aware of everyone else on the ice. More excitingly, he's a great offensive player too. He led QMJHL draft eligible defenders in points per game (0.93), and did the same for his age group in his D-1 year. While a lot of his offense was on the power play, that is fairly typical for defensemen. He's a player I really like, and I'd be more than happy to take him at 34.
Jansen Harkins - Center | Prince George Cougars (WHL)
McKenzie's Rank: 30
Kylington is the home run swing, while Harkins is the line-drive double. A player who's primarily known for his all-around play, Harkins nonetheless possess some skill and offensive instincts, scoring 79 points in 70 games for a poor Prince George team. He was asked to do it all for the Cougars, and played in all situations. Our draft guru Scott Wheeler profiled him here. While Harkins is not the fastest out of the blocks, he possessed good top-end speed, quick hands, and a strong sense for where to be and how to keep the puck. He possesses middle-six upside, and could potentially be the 2/3C of the future for the Leafs, if everything breaks right.
Daniel Sprong - Winger | Charlottetown Islanders (QMJHL)
McKenzie's Rank: 33
Daniel Sprong has a top 5 name in this draft, and arguably, top 5 skill to boot. He's just a dynamic and fun player to watch. He's another player that Scott profiled (link), and he fits the archetype of what you want in a late 1st / 2nd round selection. He has skill, and lots of it. Despite playing on a relatively poor team, Sprong had 88 points in 68 games, and when you watch him play, his creativity, puck skills, and audacity are on full display. So, whats the catch? There's worries that he's a 'selfish player' (he had 49 assists - and recall, he was on a bad team), and his defensive game and commitment has been questioned repeatedly. For what it's worth, he was outscored on the ice, even relative to his team, and he probably IS bad defensively. The question then becomes, how do you weigh that versus his potential first line skill?
Jeremy Bracco - Center/Winger | US National Development Team (USDP)
McKenzie's Rank: 53
Jeremy Bracco is a bit off the board, according to McKenzie, but he has offensive talent that might justify an early second round pick. Let's get the negatives out of the way first. He's very small. Eliteprospects has him listed as 5' 10", 165 lb. The Leafs aren't the team to fetishize size anymore, but at that point, he's on the very low end of height and weight, and it matters in terms of projecting him forward when everyone else will be bigger and stronger. That said, it certainly hasn't stopped him yet. He scored 94 points in 65 games with the US National Development Team (outpacing first round pick Colin White, quite handily), and scored 13 points in 7 games at the U18 World Championships. He's committed to play for Boston College next year (sorry Chemmy), so if drafted by the Leafs, we'll get to see how he performs at a level playing against older, bigger, and stronger players. His skill is incredibly tantalizing though.
So there you have it. 5 guys the Leafs might target at 34, and the theory underpinning their strategy of trading back from 24. In this case, it seems to have worked, in the sense that players we (as fans) would be happy to take at 24 are still available at 34, and the Leafs picked up extra assets for their trouble.
Whether it works out or not, the process is sound, and that's what matters. In a way, I'm more positive about this pick than when the Leafs picked Mitch Marner at 4. Marner was an obvious selection - any team with a brain would have stood pat and taken either him or Hanifin. I'm delighted that the Leafs, and more specifically, Kyle Dubas (who seemed to be handling the negotiations), had the poise to trade back, knowing the guy they like may not be there waiting for them but that the odds are in their favour. It's a sign that for the first time in a long time, we know what we're doing.
You can catch the draft starting at 10 a.m. on Saturday, June 27th. NHL Network has the TV in the US, while Sportsnet will carry it in Canada. If you don't have either, follow along with SB Nation's live draft tracker!