While I was watching the Leafs' 2016 post-Auston Matthews draft picks being announced, I had trouble rationalizing them. Here's why I struggled:
1) The Leafs were picking too many over-aged players for my comfort level, early in the draft. Taking a one or two in later rounds probably wouldn't have made me blink, but this was different.
2) There were still some very highly touted players available that the Leafs chose not to select, and it seemed to be in favour of over-agers
3) A fixation on size appeared to be an important factor in choosing several of the players, and I shouldn't have to explain how stupid that would be.
These concerns were partially allayed, but also partly exacerbated, by several attempted explanations.
Arguments/theories that made me feel worse about the picks:
1) The Leafs are trying to re-stock the Marlies more quickly. A few people suggested that the Leafs wanted their youngsters to get used to winning, even with the minor league teams. To me, this seemed like a flimsy reason to draft players. I wanted the Leafs to draft the best players in the 2016 draft, and basing decisions on some intangible theory about the psychology of winning seemed like a bad basis for doing so.
2) But the Leafs need some size! This directly contradicts my best player available philosophy in that it's likely the Leafs passed on some skill and since these players aren't likely to find their way into the lineup for years, it doesn't seem like a good strategy to I'm not size averse by any means, but the Keaton Middleton selection has a distinct odour to it.
3) The drafted players are unlikely to have ceilings that are as high as younger draft-eligible players, but they come with a greater chance of at least making the NHL. Players with lower ceilings but NHL floors are a dime a dozen - if you need them, just sign one at a cost of zero assets. Instead, why not take the (admittedly tiny) chance that you could find a superstar?
Now, on a related note, the idea that an extra year to watch a kid to see how they develop gives a scout more information to go on makes sense. But while on one hand, it's possible the team is simply drafting late bloomers, it seems silly to choose kids who don't follow the most common developmental curve and hope they're different. That is, if you're looking at a long shot of finding a superstar, why not take the kid who is taking the most common path to get there?
But here's where things start to turn around for me: maybe assuming that overaged players have lower ceilings is a bunk idea to begin with.
Arguments/theories that made me feel better about the picks:
1) Overaged players can still be the best available prospects. By now, most of us have already read the fascinating article by Zac Urback about overaged players being an area of market inefficiency for the NHL. It doesn't really help us determine whether overaged players have lower ceilings, but it does in fact suggest that they have higher floors. And if Adam Brooks could actually produce at a 0.56 ppg pace, I think we'd all be thrilled with him relative to his being selected in the 4th round. So although the article doesn't go so far as to guess, it appears based on their case studies that there are still productive players going as over-agers.
There was another study posted at MLHS about the potential increase in reliability of overaged picks, though apparently, there remain some questions about the validity of the data. We'll take a wait-and-see approach on that one.
2) If a player is undrafted but produces points in their D+1 year like any other drafted player in their actual D+1, why wouldn't they be just as good? OK, so this point doesn't apply uniformly to the Leafs' overaged picks, but it does apply to most of them.
Yegor Korshkov: Sure, he was playing in a men's league as a teenager, and yes, he was playing further down on the roster than he likely will next season, but his production doesn't scream "yeah, I'm over-aged for the NHL draft, but look how good I am". I think at best, we can read his scouting reports, believe with a reasonable degree of certainty that he's got at least some skill, but while his D+1 production probably isn't very helpful as a predictive tool at this point, neither is the fact that it's happening in the KHL.
Adam Brooks: This guy was almost a point per game in his draft year and then all but doubled his point totals this past season. If he was drafted in the 4th round last year, few of us would have batted an eye, and we'd almost definitely all be excited about his big D+1 year. This pick looks great.
[Edit: As was pointed out in the comments below, Brooks is 20, making his production a year late, but at least it's still increasing in a promising way.]
Vladimir Bobylev: This one puzzles me a little, in that Bobylev's D+1 (or, in his case, his draft year) scoring isn't great, either. In fact, you don't have to look too far in order to see another overage player with a better stat line in Manuel Wiederer, who was taken by San Jose just a few picks later. Don't get too hung up on Bobylev vs. Wiederer. The point is that there were other guys available with better production still available. Yes, yes, the box score stats are only one component of draft strategy, but they're still an important one. The mitigating factor with the Bobylev pick is that it came in the 5th round, and so it's not a big gamble. Remember though, that the 5th round is where the Leafs found Dmytro Timashov last season.
Jack Walker: This guy produced very well in what should have been his draft year, but he also took a good step forward this past season. On the surface at least, he looks like he would have been a good pick last year, and this year he looks just as good, if not better. Score.
1) Overall, I feel pretty good about this draft. Heck, it started with the Leafs getting Auston Matthews, so it's already miles better than almost any other draft in the team's history.
2) Out of 4 overaged players, two of them (Brooks and Walker) look like great pickups, one (Korshkov) is a bit of a question mark, and the last (Bobylev) looks like a bit of a weak pick, albeit a 5th round one.
Given the talent that was available when the Leafs went to pick 31st overall (Alex Debrincat being the obvious example) and Korshkov's lower central scouting ranking, I think that this is a bit more of a risk. It's not as though the Leafs took a total dud though, as many scouts seem to think his hands and playmaking look pretty good.
3) The Keaton Middleton pick is a bit unnerving. It's unnerving because of what it may imply about the Leafs' team-building strategy. Are we going to be subjected another "shut down defenceman" signing in a year or two? Will we be welcoming the next Garnet Exelby to Toronto? Because this pick suggests that at least one person in the organization wants size at any expense, and since Middleton is highly unlikely to make the team (at any point), that size may have to come from a UFA.
I get that the Leafs' front office is a group of very intelligent men. But if learning about advanced stats has taught me one thing, it's that sometimes intelligent people still have crippling blind spots that prevent them from suceeding. This is no time to panic, but let's keep an eye on the team's search for size.
4) Apart from the Middleton pick, the Leafs drafted skilled players again. So overall, that's still a good sign.
The rebuild rolls on.