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Why did the Leafs draft Keaton Middleton?

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Let's try to explain the oddest Leafs pick in the draft.

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The Leafs had an unexpected second day at the 2016 draft, as detailed extensively here on PPP.  They picked ten times, and they picked surprising Russians, overlooked overagers, and goalies with punworthy names.  And at 101st overall, they selected Keaton Middleton.

Middleton is the one 2016 Leafs pick no one seems to understand — or worse, people fear they do understand him, as evidence of the Leafs slipping into retrograde thinking.  Let's look at him.

The Basics

Keaton Middleton is an Edmonton-born, left-shooting defender who plays for the OHL's Saginaw Spirit, a team perhaps most famous for when Stephen Colbert fans named their secondary mascot "Steagle Colbeagle the Eagle." Middleton turned eighteen this past February, and oh my God he's fucking enormous!

Listed by hockeydb as 6'6" and 233 lbs. (EP says 6'5"), Middleton is bigger than you and most of the people you know.  Considering his age, it's entirely possible he could still get bigger, which is wild to contemplate.  Less encouraging are Keaton's numbers in a production sense.

In 66 games for the Spirit this season, he produced one (1) goal and six (6) assists for a total of seven (7) points, which was actually a step down from the previous year's nine points in 61 games.  While Middleton's role is clearly that of a defensive defenceman, extremely low point totals can be evidence of inability to engage with the play at a high level.  If you're keeping up, you ought to be able to pick up a certain number of points simply by virtue of being alive.

While Middleton  takes penalties — 66 PIMs this year, or exactly one minute per game played — he doesn't take that many, ranking 34th in PIM/G among OHL d-men who played at least ten games; plus, 20 of those minutes were fighting majors (I pity the kid who fights Middleton, at least without a slingshot).  Considering our boy K was playing pretty hard minutes on a regular basis for the Spirit, this is decent, and suggests he at least isn't spending inordinate amounts of time in the box on stick fouls as he tries to avoid getting turnstiled.

To be fair, the team whose blueline Middleton anchored did him no favours, which probably justifies cutting him a little slack on his terrible offence.  The Saginaw Spirit were a bad team by the end of this year, finishing tenth in the OHL's Western Conference, ahead of only the imploding Flint Firebirds and whatever the hell is wrong with the Guelph Storm. Middleton was tagged with a -24 for the year, but neither we nor the Leafs ought to blame him much for that; one, because it's +/-, and two, because everyone who played for Saginaw this season was bad at it.  Exactly one player finished as a positive.  Congratulations to 2014 San Jose Sharks draft pick Dylan Sadowy on his +1.

Interestingly, the Spirit were doing reasonably well in the first half of the season, then fell off a cliff Randy Carlyle-style by losing eight games in a row.  The Spirit fired their coach, Greg Gilbert; Gilbert's replacement, Moe Mantha, led the team to a 4-7-2 mark over their final 13 games.  (I would like to note that Moe Mantha sounds like a badass Star Wars name.)

As with Saginaw generally, Middleton had a rough end to the season; this January prospect report credits his (moderately) improved offensive production and +/-, while describing Middleton as increasingly mobile.

At any rate, you get the picture.  He was tagged as this year's Coke machine, a hulking defender with no mobility who succeeds in junior by playing the Hal Gill role and gets picked based on the 1970s-era aphorism that "you can't teach size."  What do the scouts say?

From Hockey Prospect's Black Book:

Middleton has huge size and a massive frame, which can make him tough to get around. He has a pretty good stick and loves the physical stuff in his own zone. His balance and skating need improvement, but they have come miles since his Minor Midget season. Keaton's puck play has also come along over the past couple years, he is often able to make the smart simple pass up ice. He still makes a fair amount of puck mistakes and can get stripped, but he has shown consistent improvement in this area. He is a relentless competitor along the wall and wins a ton of battles through his size, strength and a relative comfort in these types of situations. Middleton played top minutes 5 on 5 and on the penalty kill, and secondary minutes on the power play. He's relentless in the slot area, making life difficult for forwards and has the reach to take away passes shorthanded. He's not an over the top fighter, but he has good toughness and isn't afraid to drop the gloves when necessary.

From the January prospect report, mentioned above:

While Middleton isn’t routinely ranked as a top prospect for the 2016 NHL draft, there’s no shortage of appealing assets to the hulking defensemen’s game. For instance Middleton boasts impressive mobility for a player of his stature, along with a lengthy and powerful stride that allows him to generate deceptively good speed and cover a large amount of ice in a small amount of time. While his puck skills aren’t elite, Middleton shows deceptively good vision and an ability to make a strong an accurate first pass. A player who shows poise and patience in possession, Middleton makes strong decisions in possession, rarely forcing plays as he keeps his game simple and takes whats given to him.

From Platinum Seat Ghosts' crowdsourced draft analyses:

Perhaps the most heartening thing about Middleton is that his skating is perceived by some people as improving.  If it continues to do so, there's hope to be had.  On the other hand, it's still clearly an issue; he's producing points at a very low level.  His improvement in skating and mobility is the key, and whatever chance Middleton has of working out will live or die with that.

So where was Middleton expected to be drafted?

While mock drafts are always a bit random after the first two rounds or so, this one from NHL Draft Site had him 77th. Different writers from The Hockey Writers had him 111th and 189th,  though one mock earlier in the year had him as high as 55th, suggesting how Saginaw's second-half collapse damaged his stock.  Hockey Prospect's Black Book had him 83rd, and as seen above, the PSG crowd rankings put him 121st. On the other hand, both Future Considerations and McKeen's Hockey didn't have him ranked in their top 211 at all. Still, while you don't have to be wild about the thinking behind the pick, Middleton went about where he was expected to go--if you expected that he was going.

We Can't Size Teaching

It's worth stepping back here for a second.  The Leafs took K-Mids midway through the fourth round.  No matter who they took here, it was going to be a longshot that the kid ever turned into an NHLer.  We knew that before, and we know that now.  A fourth-round pick that doesn't work is a lottery ticket where you don't win the lottery.  It's expected.

The problem here is that aside from the opaque interviews offered by Mark Hunter and company, the only evidence we get of the Leafs' drafting strategy is the draft picks they make.  It is conventional wisdom on PPP that you should use your later picks to shoot for the moon.  You can always find more depth through trade or free agency, this thinking goes, but it is hard to find elite players.  If you can get even one elite player through a late-round gem (Pavel Datsyuk is usually the popular example), it can be an enormous boost to your franchise for a decade or beyond.  If a guy's best-case scenario is Roman Polak, you're wasting your ammunition.  This is the "ceilings vs. floors" argument, and you can find it being made and countered and counter-countered throughout the hockey Internet.  (For example, look at the masthead's internal discussions on Saturday.)  The fear the Middleton pick engenders is that we just took a guy without much floor and no ceiling.

Middleton's floor is a minor league soft drink dispenser.  His most likely result is not that much higher, because he's a fourth round pick and that's how they tend to go.  But if everything goes perfectly, where does he end up?

Developmentally, the best case for Middleton is him making great strides in making great strides.  (Sorry.)  If he manages to bring his mobility up to snuff, we have a rangy, bull-strong defender who can cover a huge section of the defensive zone.  You might argue that the odds are very strongly against him doing this, and they are.

Is there any precedent for an offensively-limited big defenceman being able to contribute usefully in the NHL at a later date?  Sure.  Zdeno Chara put up 22 points in 49 games as an enormous WHL defender in his draft +1 year.  That's obviously a higher rate than Middleton, but he was also a year older when he was drafted, meaning that WHL season is two seasons ahead of Keaton's most recent OHL year.  Hal Gill, the eternal standard for big, slow defenders, had 3 points in 31 games for Providence College in his D + 1.  Is it improbable Middleton ever comes within miles of either player?  Very!  But it's not inconceivable; at least, it's not that much more inconceivable than the evergreen "Datsyuk and Zetterberg!" line that gets trotted out every draft.

While size is also easy to overvalue, it's not nothing.  37% of the defencemen who played at least 20 games this season were 6'3" or taller, while 50% of them produced 15 or fewer points.  There is a place, even in today's NHL, for big defence-first defencemen.  It's true that Middleton produces too little offensively to expect it's likely he's going to jump into this group.  But in these categories are a number of useful players--including present and former Leaf heroes Carl Gunnarson and Martin Marincin, both of whom meet both stipulations.  Again, this is not to overstate Middleton's chances of joining this group one day, which are small.  It's to say his role still exists in a useful fashion in the big leagues.  He isn't Jamie Devane.

So there's a role for Middleton-type players -- if they develop successfully. Can we know anything about Middleton's chances of doing that?  The DEV tool for comparables, which weights primary points per game very heavily, predictably gives Middleton no chance of going anywhere, and gives his best-case comparable as Keith Aulie.  While DEV is hard on players who don't score, that doesn't change the fact that Keaton doesn't and that it's a problem.  Players who do not score much in their draft year rarely go far.  But we should expect his chances of success to be fairly low, because he's a fourth-rounder.  If his chances were respectable, he ought to have gone higher.

Could the Leafs know more about Middleton's potential development path than we do?  It would be hard for them not to, considering the extremely limited OHL stats that are publicly available.  The Leafs track the OHL very closely, and whatever they're looking at, it's inevitably much more detailed than what we're looking at.  Whether they've seen something of genuine value, I don't know, but that they've seen something they think is valuable, I strongly suspect.  Middleton and fellow large man Nicolas Mattinen were the only OHL picks the Leafs made of the eleven they had available this year; they certainly weren't defaulting to Ontario, despite the Hunter family's familiarity with the league.  It's also possible that Middleton's time in the Team Canada system helped bring him to the Leafs' attention.

But: the Leafs must be assuming some improvement in Keaton's skating and mobility.  The more evidence they have, from whatever scouting and analytics they possess, that Keaton can make significant gains in that area, the higher his ceiling is.  If the Leafs have seen enough in that regard just to show an increased chance, Middleton is no longer a Coke machine: he's something far more interesting.  Like a Dr. Pepper machine.

In trying to understand what the Leafs were thinking with Middleton, the best answer I can find is as follows: the Middleton pick isn't so much saying that you can't teach size as that Middleton has shown a chance that you can teach him skating.  If the Leafs can, Middleton will have a higher ceiling than anyone would think from his history.

And if not, well, it was only a fourth-rounder anyway.