So, the Leafs picked eleven prospects up in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft this past weekend. While Auston Matthews at 1st overall was a gimme, the prevailing opinion with respect to the team's later round picks was largely negative.
Personally, I think it was a decent draft.
[/record scratches] wait, what?
Don't get me wrong. I didn't agree with every single pick the Leafs made. I too felt going off the board at #31 with guys like Alex DeBrincat and Tyler Benson available made little sense to me. Picking Keaton Middleton in the fourth round seemed, to say the least, odd, but it is the fourth round. Guys drafted in that neighbourhood have roughly a one-in-five chance of just playing 100 NHL games. It is a crapshoot.
But there was a clear trend in what the Leafs were trying to do: in the later rounds they selected several players who were: (a) overage; (b) oversized; or, (c) some combination of the two. It seemed like the Leafs were trying to do something, but no one is really sure what. That, however, does not necessarily mean their plan was bad. It simply means we don't know what their plan is, or what information they are using to rely on it. It might work; it might not.
In the meantime, I have a couple of theories to ponder that might temper some of the pessimism about this draft.
(1) The Leafs drafted with AHL development in mind
It was just last year that Kyle Dubas said he wants to treat the AHL (and to a lesser extent, ECHL) like minor league baseball. Rather than bringing in a large group of veterans to win Calder Cups, the plan was to stock the roster with a cohort of young prospects that you could progressively graduate to the next level. The evidence of this transition was apparent this past season; the Marlies, with only a couple veterans in Rich Clune, Mark Arcobello, and Andrew Campbell, iced the AHL's youngest team. Reports out of the ECHL affiliate in Orlando were that team management sacrificed wins by sending the best (and most deserving) players to the AHL when the Marlies needed a player.
The thinking here is that, as the Marlies go, so go the future Leafs. If your plan is to build tomorrow's NHL team around today's AHL team, the Marlies give you a glimpse into what your future needs might require. Here's the thing about the Marlies that you are probably going to hate to hear: they were an extremely skilled and speedy team. They had talent up the wazoo. They also were a smaller, younger team that got pushed around a bit. They faced some tough tests in the playoffs against Albany and Hershey.
This is not to say "HURR DURR SIZE IS EVERYTHING" or that the Leafs need "MOAR GRIT AND SANDPAPER." It is merely an observation of the Marlies' performance this past season, and a rationale as to why what was far and away the best team in the AHL regular season did not walk away with the Calder Cup (sidebar: you may also blame their performance on their goaltending which, especially against Hershey, was subpar. I agree. They also drafted a goalie! You just walked into my trap! I'm ever so clever!).
So, why does this matter for the Leafs? Because, again, the long-term vision of this team is to graduate its AHL prospects into the NHL. If there is a weakness in the AHL system, it should be addressed because logically speaking, it may not go away when these same prospects make the NHL. As far the junior ranks go, the Leafs drafted (rightly) for undersized skill in 2015, so if it's an area of weakness now, the only way you could address it is through the draft.
JP had this to say about the Marlies theory yesterday:
If that is indeed the reasoning via-a-vis the Marlies, then I do agree that it is not the strongest. There could, however, be a case made for the Leafs playing the long game that starts in the AHL. If the management team has identified weaknesses with Leafs prospects at the AHL level, they may be hoping for pieces to complement that group by the time they reach the NHL. If they can parlay late round picks into cheap, complementary depth players that can pick up the slack in whatever areas the nucleus may be lacking, it's a good bet to hedge. Any time in the cap world you can pay young homegrown talent entry-level money to do the same job as competently as you'd pay an established veteran millions to do, it is a benefit to your roster.
Middleton and perhaps Korchkov aside, it's not as if the Leafs drafted Coke machines, either. Carl Grundstrom, JD Greenway, Adam Brooks, Vladimir Bobylev, and Jack Walker are all very decent offensively. It's not as if the Leafs sacrificed skill at the altar of size. They apparently had in mind people who fit the prototype of offering both, and went with them. The plan is likely to put these players in the AHL, see if they can gel with the Marlies, and see what sticks NHL-wise.
Perhaps the Leafs were wrong to focus on size. Perhaps they identified a weakness in their pipeline and used the later rounds of the draft to correct that deficiency. If that is the case, the later rounds, where bona fide NHLers are scarce, are probably a good place to make that gamble. Think of it this way: if you need size and skill on the Leafs down the road, would you rather develop a guy in-house or pay a UFA to do the same job? In the short-term, would you rather beef up the Marlies with 19-20 year old draftees, or veterans? The latter would go against the grain of what Dubas has planned for the Marlies.
(2) Exploiting inefficiencies
Thanks to Moneyball, the verbiage of "exploiting market inefficiencies" gets thrown around a lot, but perhaps there is something here. If your first argument is that on the surface, it does not seem that way, well...that's the point. The first rule of a "market inefficiency" is that in order to exploit it, you need to be ahead of the curve. If everyone is aware of it, it's no longer a market inefficiency; it's just the market. Possession metrics were at one time a market inefficiency, but their mainstream use and acceptance have changed that. Depth guys with solid underlying numbers, such as Michael Frolik in Calgary, are getting sizable paydays. It's only an inefficiency if it isn't widely known, particularly within NHL front offices.
There is no real conventional thought about overage (i.e. 19-20 year old) players' performance in the draft, but there is certainly some analysis that shows that when it comes to using later round picks on overage prospects, they may be more successful than their 18-year old counterparts. There probably hasn't been a whole pile of statistical analysis conducted on the subject, but perhaps the front office saw players that were passed up for age, and thought they'd be a value add.
Consider the case of Bobylev. In his draft year (2014-15), he put up 9 points in 52 games with the Vancouver Giants. In 2015-16, he had 67 points in 72 games with the Victoria Royals. It is obvious why he went undrafted in 2015: not many teams are going to take a flyer on a guy that couldn't manage double digit points at 18.
So what changed? A better team and better linemates. Bobylev originally played for the last place Giants (27-41-4, 58 points), and was given limited ice time by coach Claude Noel. In Victoria, he played for the WHL's best team in the regular season (50-16-6, 106 points), and was entrusted with top-line minutes by one of the best CHL coaches in Dave Lowry. This of course begs the question: was Bobylev better because he flourished in a better situation? Or was he a passenger of the success of a team, his linemates, and its coaching? The answer may not be apparent right now, but it might be worth the gamble of a 5th round pick.
The same may be true for Adam Brooks, the 3rd round pick that was underwhelming at 18, but nearly a point-per-game in his D+1 Year, and put up a 1.67 PPG clip in his D+2 year. Or Jack Walker, who yo-yoed between defense and forward before putting up 84 points in 2015-16.
The Leafs may have been seeking to exploit a market inefficiency in overage players. They might not. It might succeed. It might fail. While it's going to be a while before we figure it out, there could be something to this plan.
The simple answer to how the Leafs performed at the draft should simply be "AUSTON MATTHEWS BABY! WOOO!" With respect to the later rounds, it should be that we simply do not know. All of the later picks are still a few years away from being able to gauge whether the Leafs walked away with some legitimate NHL talent.
Nonetheless, the default answer shouldn't be as simple as "the Leafs did badly because I don't understand their methodology and they didn't draft players I wanted them to draft." Yes, we should not blindly appeal to authority, but did we stop to consider that maybe it is a good thing that we don't understand the decisions made by Leafs management sometimes? Perhaps they made some bad decisions, but perhaps they also did their due diligence and came up with analysis that we do not know. To simply conclude that it is bad because it evades conventional logic- and to blame it all on Lou Lamoriello when the same group running the draft remained intact- is short-sighted.
The easiest conclusion to draw is the Leafs had something up their sleeve. These are my best guesses as to what, and why. I don't know if it'll work, but I'll let the process play itself out.