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Mark Hunter’s large adult sons

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The Leafs keep drafting big defencemen. Is it smart? Is it working?

2015 NHL Draft - Rounds 2-7 Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The Toronto Maple Leafs have now conducted three drafts under the scouting guidance of Assistant General Manager Mark Hunter: 2015, 2016, and 2017. While it’s still too early to form a final judgment on most of these picks, they’ve selected twenty-seven players over that time span. These players will hopefully form the base for years of Leaf success.

Further, we now have a pretty large sample of the scouting work of the Leaf front office under Hunter. Obviously the decisions are not exclusively his, and the Leafs gained a new general manager between the 2015 and 2016 drafts, which has an impact. But he’s by all accounts the scouting guy. So we can begin to get a feel for what he’s looking for.

Most controversially, he seems to be looking for the tallest defence group known to man. Of those twenty-seven Leaf picks, Toronto has taken eleven defencemen. Of those eleven, seven are listed as at least 6’3”: Andrew Nielsen, Stephen Desrocher, J.D. Greenway, Keaton Middleton, Nicolas Maatinen, Eemeli Rasanen, and Fedor Gordeev.

I think it’s fair to say that some of these picks have been the most controversial in Hunter’s tenure. More than once I’ve seen the Middleton and Maatinen selections characterized as “lighting draft picks on fire”—in other words, that these players showed so little beyond height that their chances of being NHL contributors are effectively zero. Progressive-minded fans tend to think old-school hockey thinkers overvalue size to a fault, and when their team picks a big player who seems to have obvious flaws—poor skating, or meagre point production—well, they get upset.

Are these fans right? Is Hunter following an outdated and flawed strategy?

Do Guys Like These Ever Work Out?

I think most people would agree that there are effective defensive defencemen in the NHL who are not particularly high-scoring. Josh Manson, Chris Tanev, and Niklas Hjalmarsson stand out as three examples (Manson and Hjalmarsson are 6’3”, if you’re wondering, while Tanev is 6’0”.) All of these guys rate as quality defensive players, both in the eyes of coaches and in the eyes of advanced stats. None of them has ever cleared 26 points in an NHL season.

But the issue isn’t whether you can be a good defenceman without scoring in the NHL. It’s whether you can become one without having scored anywhere. Former PPP writer clrkaitken characterized the argument this way, although it’s popular in analytic circles (Clark is attributing the point here to Garret Hohl and Ryan Biech):

“They brought up a very valid point that the guys that become the "shut-down" defencemen at the NHL level generally scored at a reasonably high level in junior (exceptions usually result from draft-age defenders playing in senior professional leagues in Europe). The overall point is that generally, the longer you can hold off that decrease in production from a defenceman as they progress to higher levels the more likely their eventual projection as an NHL defender.”

As the italicized “generally” implies, there are exceptions to this. But it’s a good rule: players who produce points are often showing a capacity to keep up with the play in lower hockey. A player who produces no points in junior may be doing well at his level, but he’s a limited threat to surpass it.

Having said that, though, there’s also the question of when you’re drafting your defensive defencemen. Guys with impressive point production often go earlier in the draft (unless they’re undersized.) If you’re trying to find quality defensive defencemen who were drafted in the fourth round or later, you come across names like Manson, Jake Muzzin, Marc Methot, Kyle Quincey, Colin Miller, and Ben Hutton.

All of these players were playing in Canadian leagues in their draft years, but they were either in Junior A or were producing poorly to unimpressively in Major Junior. I defer to the pros that ultimately point production should get very heavy weight in determining this stuff, but if you’re looking for late-pick value, it at least doesn’t seem out of the question to look among low-point players for defensive defencemen—and this is without expecting them to be developmental outliers like Colton Parayko or Zdeno Chara. Some junior defensive d-men do make it as NHL defensive d-men.

Beyond that, well, size still helps. Of the 229 defencemen to play 20 or more games in the NHL this year, 84 (36.6%) were 6’3” or taller. The league still values size and defensively responsible players. Even if we’ve discarded the bias against small, speedy wingers and puck-movers, that doesn’t negate the advantage of strength and reach.

The Price In Picks

The Leafs aren’t using their first-rounders on these kids; all of the seven have been drafted sometime between the late second and the early sixth rounds. Players picked in that range do not typically become NHL prospects—not even late seconds like Rasanen. Using Scott Cullen’s draft pick value, over those seven picks, you would expect about one-and-a-half players who could reach 100 NHL GP. (Bet now on who you think the half-player is.)

It’s worth keeping that in mind that we’re not exactly paying a ransom here. If Nielsen and Rasanen (to pick two) make it as any kind of regular NHL defencemen, the Leafs have actually gotten above-average value out of the picks they used on the Large Adult Sons—even if Desrocher, Greenway, Middleton, Maatinen, and Gordeev all bust. Two hits would validate this strategy. Wasting picks is never good, and the Leafs should be trying to draft the best players they can. But we also have to be realistic about the chance of success: late picks are not probable to make the NHL, whether they’re mountainous d-men or zippy little wingers. Keep that in mind.

The Large Adult Sons

Let’s start with the obvious: it’s too early to say in most of these cases whether this pick has succeeded. None of the seven have played an NHL game yet, and that’s fine given their ages. Most of them haven’t even played pro hockey yet. There’s one player who looks close to a hit, and one who’s by definition already a miss. Beyond that, there’s at least a chance—maybe a small one in some cases, but a chance—of an NHL player. Note: I have relied on Hockey DB's height and weight listings; some of these vary from site to site.

Andrew Nielsen, 6’3”, 207 lbs.

Draft year scoring: 7G, 17A, 24P in 59 GP for the WHL’s Lethbridge Hurricanes

Nielsen may be the most promising of the big boys. After seemingly being an underwhelming third-round pick in 2015, Nielsen developed an impressive offensive game in junior and it has since translated to the AHL, where Nielsen racked up goals at age 20 (14G, 25A, 39P in 74 GP.) His skating and defence still need work to make the next leap, but with a cannon of a shot and impressive power, Nielsen clearly had more than his OHL boxcars showed. That’s a credit to the Leafs’ scouting.

Stephen Desrocher, 6’4”, 206 lbs.

Draft year scoring: 10G, 13A, 23P in 66 GP for the OHL’s Oshawa Generals

And, unfortunately, Desrocher is our definitive miss. Desrocher matured nicely as an overage junior and his most recent work leading the Kingston Frontenacs made some wonder if the Leafs might offer him a last-minute ELC. But they didn’t, and so the Leafs did not get a professional game played out of their 2015 6th. More’s the pity.

J.D. Greenway, 6’4”, 205 lbs.

Draft year scoring: 5G, 23A, 28P in 64 GP for the U.S. Development Program’s U-18s

Greenway’s mobility and non-negligble offence stand out as a contrast to slower players of his type, and perhaps that’s why this pick didn’t get the same criticism fellow 2016 picks Middleton and Maatinen did. Greenway has thus far shown both talent and extreme rawness in his college career, and the only stat he’s piled up is PIMs. But no one’s in a huge hurry to rush Greenway’s development; he’s very much TBD.

Keaton Middleton, 6’5”, 235 lbs.

Draft year scoring: 1G, 6A, 7P in 66 GP for the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit

Middleton, the poor guy, has become the poster boy for drafting size over skill. He’s actually had a relatively good year, increasing his point totals from very bad to merely low (18 points) and putting up positive goal differentials, while leading Saginaw on the ice. The Projection Project had him at a 13% chance of making the NHL based on his draft comparables—which is low, but which would also be a little higher than typical for his fourth-round draft position. Skepticism of Middleton is merited, but you can find a do-you-believe-in-miracles case for him.

Nicolas Mattinen, 6’5”, 215 lbs.

Draft year scoring: 4G, 6A, 10P in 38 GP for the OHL’s London Knights

Mattinen seems pretty much hopeless, given his struggles to stay in a regular role in London this year. I’m sorry. It’s tempting to wonder if Mark Hunter was doing a solid for a nice kid in his old organization with this pick.

Eemeli Rasanen, 6’7”, 203 lbs.

Draft year scoring: 6G, 33A, 39P in 66 GP for the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs

Rasanen stands out from the pack as being both the highest-drafted (59th) and the most point-productive in his draft year (mostly on the powerplay.) He’s also the biggest of these many big players, a towering 6’7”, and at the same time, his skating is by most accounts terrible. Rasanen, even more than the other players on this list, is a big (heh) bet that he can improve his mobility and footwork. Because if he can, look out.

Fedor Gordeev, 6’6”, 211 lbs.

Draft year scoring: 3G, 10A, 13P in 62 GP for the OHL's Flint Firebirds

Fedor Gordeev is a heartwarming hometown story; he apparently cried with emotion when he was drafted by Toronto. His coach speaks very favourably of his physical tools and of him generally—though that’s true of many prospects. It’s also not totally clear whether he’s going to stay as a defenceman; he only recently moved to the job. Most of all, it’s damn hard not to root for the kid, and at this point it’s too early to bet against him more than you would a typical fifth-rounder.

Should We Worry?

I think the logic of drafting big defencemen with later picks is more defensible than some do; mostly, because we’re comparing relative likelihoods between prospects that are all unlikely to succeed. More than anything, there’s a big knowledge gap between me and the Leafs’ FO, and I have some respect for that. They know more things about these players than I do, and while that doesn’t mean I trust them absolutely, it means most of these picks get the benefit of the doubt from me.

Does that mean all of this is good and reassuring? Well, not quite. Drafting a big defender is one thing. But drafting this many of them—nearly a third of the Leafs’ picks after the first round—seems like a fixation. It’s as if the Leafs think big defenders are the major need in their system, and that seems more troubling. If the Leafs are seeing these players as the best options, then we at least know there’s a potential path forward for them. But if the Leafs are consciously passing up value even they see—not just what Hockey DB makes it look like, but their own scouting—that would be worrying. In short: I’m not worried this is drafting for size so much as that it’s drafting for need.

Ultimately, I haven’t seen enough to really fear about what this picks mean. Going forward? We’re going to see what these sons can do.