The Leafs drafted two big powerhouses out of the Western Hockey League this year: Adam Brooks and Jack Walker, taken at 92 and 152 overall. Both of these players are unusual picks, and both of them will be fascinating to watch as they progress towards pro hockey.
First their startling similarities
They're both 5'11", and their weights are listed at three pounds apart at 176 and 179.
One's from Winnipeg and the other a suburb of Minneapolis, and while those two places are not even in the same country, they're virtually indistinguishable to the eastern-biased eye.
They both were born in 1996, and by the time this next season starts, they'll both be 20, so they're still eligible to play in the WHL or any other Canadian junior league for another year but they both could play in the AHL as well.
They both had breakout years, Walker potting twice as many goals as his previous year and Brooks (more than) twice as many assists.
They were both big parts of their teams' success: Walker finished third on his team in goals, assists and points, and Brooks was first on his in all three.
They both had great playoffs, leading their teams in post-season points.
Now the differences
Walker is sometimes a defenceman and sometimes a winger. Brooks is a centre. Brooks is better. But then Walker has that D to F and back again thing going on.
About that positional confusion
Walker was a defenceman when he signed to the Victoria Royals in 2012 at the age of 16. The team had a glut of young defencemen and the coach felt he wasn't going to get any ice time there. They talked him into trying to play as a forward, and he enjoyed some success at that.
He wanted to play as a defenceman however, and his coach let him move back, but when some injuries thinned his forward ranks, he called Walker back up front. And then things get strange.
In an interview with Maple Leafs Hot Stove done post-draft, the coach Dave Lowry said this about the current season:
I said I would let him go back to playing the position that he really wanted, which was defence, and when we got healthy we’d move him back. I later explained to him that I had lied to him and that I felt he would be – if he wanted to go back and play D on our team – a five, six or a seven and may not be in our lineup every night. It was that or he could go up to forward, where he would play in the top six and play on the powerplay. Any smart guy, that’s what they want. As soon as we made that decision, everything was forward. That was where he was going to play. He really elevated his game.
On the one hand, the coach seemed to have done what was best for him in a seemingly underhanded way; on the other, Walker seems to have been very tenaciously set on being a defenceman.
The time line on this is:
- 2012-2013 - began as a defender
- Somewhere in that season he moved to forward
- 2013-2014 - played as a forward
- 2014-2015 - began the season at defence per his request
- Somewhere in that season he moved back up again
Last summer, he attended the Minnesota Wild development camp as an invitee, and that cemented his status as a forward prospect who used to be a defenceman.
His best year of hockey happened last year, with the decision firmly made and his status clear. He played on a line with that other Leafs' 2016 draft pick Vladimir Bobylev and Tyler Soy, a player who was drafted this year by the Anaheim Ducks in the sixth round.
All of this makes it hard to look at his past performance and find a lot of flow to his development or meaning in the numbers. But he sure did score a lot for his team last year.
Walker in action; he's 9 in black and Bobylev is 23:
Brooks' career is a clear straight line in comparison
He's a centre, the kind of guy that moves steadily up the lineup, takes a leadership role and steps up in the playoffs while taking the WHL scoring title as a bonus. He's the cliché Canadian junior hockey story.
So why wasn't he drafted last year?
The answer is likely his size. The Western Canadian teams tend to get scouted by the Western Conference of the NHL, and there's more "size matters" clubs there than there is the east. At least that's the conventional wisdom. Some teams like Chicago, Nashville, Arizona and Calgary are bucking that trend.
Brooks was invited to the New York Rangers rookie camp in September, so he's had one small taste of NHL hockey.
Brooks in action this past season; he's 77 in blue:
What is their future?
Will the twin towers of offensive power top out as NHL players, or is this a future hot third line for the Marlies?
We will find out together, but history says the latter option is more likely. History also says the former isn't impossible.
Both players will be at the Leafs' development camp beginning today in Niagara Falls, and they are both CHL draftees, so the Leafs have two years to decide if they want to sign them or not.