This is post #2 in the Leafs Euro-draft series.
It will about why, if the Leafs want faster and more skilled teams, they HAVE to massively increase their draft take from... Europe. And after that, we’re gonna hit:
- How the Leafs have done in Europe.
- How and why they draft in Europe as they do.
- What works, what doesn’t and what can be changed.
- And along the way, drop a piece in on Russia & Sweden.
Come on. Let’s go.
Most new wave of hockey thinking believes the game is moving in a high-speed, high-skill direction. People debate how much size you need - but even if you’re big, high-speed, high-skill is an absolute requirement going forward.
Most of these hockey people also think the #1 way to build a high-speed, high-skill team is... by picking high-speed, high-skill kids in the draft.
This doesn’t necessarily mean tanking. Just that you need to use your 1st and 2nd round picks to draft high-skill kids. And in fact, you should probably use your late round picks - which are long shots anyway - for drafting potential home runs. That is, high-risk/high-return kids. And in the middle rounds, well...
You get the picture.
Now, why not just sign high-skill free agents, or trade for them instead?
Well, if you let other teams draft the skill guys ahead of you, and then try to trade for those guys or buy them in as free agents:
1. You’ll never even get a sniff of the top talent. Straight-up, teams lock down their best guys. And then try to trade you the ones who have talent... but also some huge personal problem or a gaping hole in their game. Like, they’ve never actually seen their own side of center, or at least, not sober.
2. And if you try to buy your skill players in through free agency, you’ll end up paying full market price. Or more. Because you often end up in a bidding war against idiots, and have to overpay. And in a cap-constrained league, this means you’re losing ground.
But if you draft a high-skill kid yourself, and they force their way into the line-up, you win 3 different ways. Let’s imagine that this next Fall that Nylander proves himself ready for the NHL, and can step into the #2C slot. Which - for this example - means Kadri moves up to be 1C. Here are the benefits:
1st. IT FREES UP AN ASSET TO TRADE. If the skill kid (Nylander) fills the #2 center slot, we suddenly have an extra center, available for trade. Maybe we trade our existing 1C, or maybe he falls back and fills the #3 spot. But one way or another, an established asset becomes available for trade.
2nd. IT GIVES US EXTRA CAP SPACE. When a young skill kid makes the roster, they get paid very little in those early years. So we free up $1-$3 million a year. And that money can be used to trade for, or gain as free agents, complementary pieces. Like PK guys. Shutdown D-men. etc.
3rd. IT RAISES THE VALUE OF OTHER ASSETS. If the skill kid makes the roster, their improved play will tend to lift the performances of their line-mates. To take a best case example, a Crosby or McDavid will inflate the stats of any average-level vet dropped on their line. Which then means... you can trade that veteran asset worth for more than they were worth before.
So your team gains 3 ways by drafting in high-skill talent - versus buying them in off the open market. Oh yeah. Plus... if the kid forced their way into the role by how they played... then they’ll likely perform better than their replacement in the first place. So. 4 kinds of benefit.
We’ve all seen this at work in other fields, other industries. Your organization either finds its way into these virtuous circles, where you make a gain and that feeds a second gain which feeds a third gain. Or you’re stuck in a vicious cycle, where one thing fails and then that pulls down a second thing and that makes a third thing completely seize up, and so on and so on. Until you’re the fucking Leafs and have missed the playoffs for an entire decade.
And sure, some people think we should draft to find cheap, replacement-level 3rd and 4th liners. But look. Even a team as badly-managed as the Leafs has just shown that you can walk into the open market and buy in guys like Winnik and Santorelli and Raymond and MacArthur, and not break the bank, and get perfectly acceptable performance.
But they’ve also shown that you cannot walk into the open market and pick up a 1C or a 1D. i.e. It’s tough to buy top-end talent.
And if the Leafs are genuinely oriented toward long-term growth, and have a secret ambition to become the Manchester United of hockey (ugh), then they need to think of it this way:
If you draft and develop a 4th liner - as opposed to buying them in - you might save $500,000 to $1,000,000 a year. And sure, that’s great. Doesn’t help you become ManU.
Now. Think how much you’ll save by drafting just ONE shit-hot, high-talent kid who can score. A kid you get to pay peanuts to - except they’re replacing a top-end free-agent who’d otherwise cost $5 or $6 or $7 million a year.
Plus... think of all the excitement and sweaters being sold. How many millions a year is that?
Plus.... think of all the buzz and the media and suddenly the reporters say you’re worth watching again, and... yeah. Millions more.
Drafting just one high-end talent is easily worth tens of millions of dollars to a team.
Tens of millions.
Don’t believe me? imagine we just signed a 23 year old Vladimir Tarasenko. Imagine how unbelievably, incredibly excited fans would be. Because, the kid is electric, right? Imagine all the fans building rosters and pencilling him in for 40 goals next year. And all the talk of "Can he hit 50?" and "Is this the new Ovechkin?" And hockey’s fun again, right?
Now. Imagine 23 year old Brad Ross makes the team instead. Gritty kid, in-your-face, tough and nasty. Imagine all the fans pencilling him in for 5 goals, maybe 20 points. And all the excited talk of whether he can fully replace... Zach Sill.
Ok. ‘Nuff of that. Drafting high talent kids wins.
Let’s go to Europe.
Where We May/May Not Be Considered North American Scum.
Ok. If you want the high-speed, high-skill team we talked about... and you want to draft high-skill, high-talent kids... then... you have to draft from Europe.
Stop whining, here’s why:
A lot of old guard hockey types think you should avoid European players. And look. I’m an Anglo-Scottish Leaf fan from the 60’s, I grew up 1 of 16 boys on a farm, and when I played hockey, I hit and hit and hit, and then dropped the gloves and hit some more, and I played mean defensive hockey, and I actually believe grit and courage and team-work are an essential part of winning the Cup.
I get all that.
But. And no matter how many times guys like Don Cherry say so... being stupid is not something to be proud of.
Scotland... was not built on stupid.
In fact, historically, the Scots have valued education more than almost any other nation.
Nor were Ireland’s great writers and artists stupid.
And the English, God love ‘em, have had some pretty good schools, some quality inventors and some pretty solid writers. And when I say good, what I actually mean is, "Better than anyone else in the world."
And look. Even the Welsh are not that stupid. Short, obviously. Badly-dressed, without question. And speakers of an incomprehensible fucking language. But.. you know. Some of them must have have some faint spark of intelligence. Surely.
And the thing with the Scots and the Brits, is that they’re not big on high-flying theories, so much as on actually learning how to make things work. They’re an empirical people. They like facts.
No blowhard bullshit that sounds nice on TV.
Now. What this means is that if you love hockey, and you love winning hockey, you need to look at the facts. Don’t just repeat some TV shit said by some guy who’s proud to be Stupid.
Here are some facts that helped me. And I’m gonna suggest you look at them too.
1st. Go on over to Hockey Reference, and pull up the page listing the Top 100 NHL forwards, for points scored, over the last 20 years.
Ok ok, here’s the link. Press it.
Europeans. A lot of them. And a shit-load of talented ones.
Now, if you can’t sort out who’s who, then just hit the goddamn column titled "Nationality," and it’ll sort it for you. Now count ‘em up. Seriously.
Count the goddamn Europeans. Now....
MARK IT DOWN.
Because, that’s right, 40% of the Top Scorers of our time are from Europe.
And I knew it was substantial, but damned if I knew it was THAT.
And of the Top 25 guys? 12 of them. Almost 1/2.
And ok, sure, fine, give that Don Cherry-Running-The-Ice-Dogs idea a go - where you don’t draft any Europeans. Test that out. Helluva strategy, that. Don’t tap into 40% of your high-end talent pool. It’s like trying to coach while only dressing 12 guys a game, you know, 40% fewer.
Let me know how that works for ya, ok?
Oh wait. We’ve already seen how it did. Real world. Empirical results. Cherry tried it with his Ice Dogs. For 4 years. And I admit, he did win 27 games.
Out of 272.
Somebody might want to ask that man, next time he goes off on Europeans, how well that Draft No European thing worked out for him.
27 Wins. 17 Ties. 228 Losses.
Facts are facts. And I’m sorry if Don Cherry never had a Scottish Aunt to cuff him side of the head when he was a kid, and tell him not to make shit up all the time, and not to insult people when he had no call to, and maybe even teach the poor bastard to read.
But here’s the deal.
When those old English scientists and Scottish inventors and Irish educators would find a big fact like this, they wouldn’t just bitterly, resentfully, belatedly agree to it and then try to go back to normal. They knew that if you actually wanted to make it in this world, you had to get the fuck out AHEAD of trains this size. Not stand in the goddamn tracks and maybe reluctantly decide at the last minute you should probably jump out of the way, then lay there for ten years or so and eventually dust yourself off and then maybe try to figure out how to catch the goddamn thing.
You. Get. Out. In. Front.
Even In Jersey They Understand, This Train Is Leaving, It's Rollin' Down The Track & Ain't No Turning Back.
And to do that, you have to start by flipping your mind over. Right over. Here. Try this:
Say it loud, and say it proud - Jaromir Jagr is a goddamn hockey genius.
And Teemu? Now THAT is a top-shelf world-class all-time goddamn hockey talent.
That’s just to get you started. To help set a mood. And now, I want you to keep going down that list at Hockey Reference, and read the names.
Like Ovie. I love old-time hockey, and my Dad, born 1920, which counts as Old Timey, loved it too. And I’ll tell you. He had not one single goddamn complaint about Alex Ovechkin and how he played the game. Ovie hits like a goddamn truck, he skates like 8-legged hell, and when the game is on the line, that crazy Russian is giving it ever ounce that he has.
And sure, some of you wanna cry about how sometimes Ovie lays back a bit during the regular season, but lemme tell you. These frigging seasons the owners have designed today run over 100 games a year. When back in the Day, the Original Six, even though they only played 60 or 70 and then maybe just 10-12 in the playoffs, every player understood that maybe some nights, late January or February so, you just... dialled it down a notch.
Alex Ovechkin is Original-style, Old-Time Hockey, make no mistake.
And, sure, as you go down the list, you run into the occasional Alfie, and he sucks shit and all of Europe needs a beating for spawning that bastard. But on the other hand, the Swedes also sent us Mats Sundin, who was 6 foot 5 and classy and got 1300 career points and he got ‘em without any linemates that weren’t screwing the pooch.
And besides, PING! says fuck you Alfie.
Or how about Datsyuk and Forsberg? Seriously. Tell me how excited you woulda been if we’d had Peter Goddamn Forsberg in a Leafs uniform.
You get the point.
And I know, there’s a little part deep down inside you that’s listened to Don for 20 years, and that part still kinda wonders whether all these Europeans really know how to play defensive hockey. I mean, don’t most of ‘em spend a lot of time just cycling up around centre ice, looking for a break-away and a bit of glory?
Well... here. Click this goddamn link.
Don and his crew believe in Plus-Minus and all that, so maybe it’s worth noting who holds the Top 7 positions in Plus/Minus these past 20 years.
And 10 of the top 12.
- Peter Forsberg. Who ran a Plus every year for 12 straight years.
- And the "one-dimensional" Jaromir Jagr. 12 straight years.
- 13 years for the Sedins. And sure, I hate them - they’re Canucks. Still... 13.
- 10 straight for Datsyuk and 13 for Federov in Detroit.
Ok. Let’s wrap up one last thing, then move along to look at how the Leafs have done.
Cherry’s got this schtick he does about how you don’t need "those kinda guys" - he means Europeans - to win Cups. He says all you need is grit, and sacrifice, and Good Ole Canadian boys.
And he’s right. You do need grit and sacrifice. And Canadians. But you know what else you need? Well... the facts say...
You need Europeans. You just do. And in particular, you need high-end, World-O-Talent Europeans who’re also tough as nails. Take this year.
- Tampa’s got Kucherov and Palat and Flippula up front. Plus Hedman and Stralman and Nesterov. That’s 7 of their 9 top scorers. And of yeah. Their 4 European D-men? They’re the ones running the big Pluses.
- And the Hawks? Hossa’s got two game-winners. Teravainen’s got another. Kruger too. Plus, then there’s Hjalmarsson. 26 minutes a night on Defence. Plus Oduya and 4 other Europeans.
- And in the previous round? Anaheim had Jacob Silvferberg with 18 playoff points, and Vatanen and Lindholm with 21 points between them on D, and Rakell and some others. And the Rangers don’t get a sniff without Lundqvist, Hagelin and Fast.
Europeans - playing a critical role on every single one of the Final Four teams.
And in previous years? Well, let’s get Scottish, and check the goddamn facts, ok?
2013. Marian Hossa out-scored Toews in Chicago’s last Cup run. Sounds clutchy.
2011. Big Bad Boston had David Krejci, a Czech, as leading scorer. And that Chara kid.
2010. Pittsburgh had that Evgeni Malkin with the most playoff points when they won.
2008. Detroit’s Top 5 scorers were, in order, Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Franzen, Kronwall and Hudler. Then 4 of the next 5 all European too.
2007. Anaheim had Teemu.
Ok. There’s one central idea to take away from this post.
If you want speed and skill and the ability to score... and you believe the best route to get that is through the draft... then you need to draft a heap of European kids.
Because 40% of the NHL’s Top Scorers over the last 20 years have been from Europe.
And, no - former Leafs management group - that cannot be achieved by giving your European scouting group A SINGLE 7TH ROUND PICK EVERY YEAR.
How about try something wild, like...
Using 40% of our 1st rounders... And 40% of our 2nd rounders... And 40% of your 3rd rounders... And so on.
Take Action. Use Your Brain.
Next up, we’re gonna look at how the the Leafs have actually drafted in Europe, lo, these past decades. You know, by looking at the actual, real-world, empirical results, and not simply relying on reputation.
And then, we’re gonna throw up the hood on the old Leaf draft dragster, and see what makes it tick. We’re gonna identify exactly which factors the Leafs are using to make their European selections.
Because, it’ll turn out, the factors the Leafs use for their European drafting are surprisingly easy to identify. And when you string them together in a nice little logical chain, you can actually reproduce the list of which Europeans will be on the Leaf Christmas list for draft consideration each year, and which they’ll reject.
Including this year’s 2015 draft crop. Which I’ll lay out, sorted into Teemu’s and Alfie’s.
Here’s a teaser, to keep you occupied til the tomorrow’s post on How The Leafs Won Europe. A list of the Top 75 European forward draft picks ever, ranked by points... and the surprise sighting of the 1st Leaf.