When Brendan Shanahan cleaned house and began building his management team in 2015, there was a clear connection to the OHL.
Kyle Dubas was the first big hire, coming from Sault St. Marie, followed by Mark Hunter from the London Knights. Since then, the organization has also added D.J Smith from the Oshawa Generals and Jim Paliafito from the Saginaw Spirit, while Hunter brought Lindsay Hofford along with him from the Knights.
So it should come as no surprise that, of the 27 players the Leafs have drafted over the last three years, nine (or one-third) have been taken out of the OHL. This year was no different, as Toronto selected three of seven players from the OHL and another player from the Ontario high school circuit (they would be just as familiar with him as many Leafs management personnel are connected to the minor hockey scene in Toronto).
The Don Cherry argument aside of getting players from Toronto to play for the Leafs, if there is one league you would want to be an expert on, it would be the OHL. Before the draft, the OHL sent out an article showing just how dominant the league has been:
“The Ontario Hockey League is the number one supplier of talent to the National Hockey League with 2,277 players selected in the NHL Draft from 1969 through 2016 representing just over 21% of all players.
Since 1975, a total of 310 OHL players have been selected in the first round of the NHL Draft representing over 29% of all players and includes 16 first overall picks.”
The 2017 draft was no different, as the OHL once again led all leagues in the number of players selected at 42 (or 19%), with the WHL coming in at second with 33.
Overall, it has been a relatively uneventful few weeks for the Leafs at one of the busiest times on the hockey calendar.
They lost Brendan Leipsic to the expansion draft, as expected. He would have been in tough to make the current roster (he might have even been put on waivers in the fall) due to all the spots already filled, but he has improved steadily in the last few years and has the potential to be a productive top-nine forward still. Nobody likes to lose players with upside for free, even if it is not a crippling loss by any means.
At the draft, Toronto showed up, made their picks, and went home. There were trade rumours, of course, but there were not many player trades throughout the weekend on the whole and the one defenceman of relevance that did move – Travis Hamonic – went for a price Toronto was probably not willing to play. The need for a defenceman is clear, but as Elliotte Friedman reported — referencing Anaheim in particular — teams are asking for Connor Brown, and that is not a price Toronto could stomach. Prices like Brown and the high picks bounty it cost the Calgary Flames to acquire Hamonic are the reason why Mike Babcock pointed out on NHL network that teams need to draft and develop their own defencemen.
All of that said, Toronto still had a reasonably productive weekend, drafting seven players (four defencemen) including first rounder Timothy Liljegren, who was a bit of a surprise faller that fits the Leafs needs very well. Alec and Declan put together great profiles of all the Leafs picks with the help of the 2017 NHL Draft Blackbook, so if you want to read about each player’s game, I would highly recommend reading through that. Below, I will be going through some additional details and thoughts on the 2017 draft class.
At the beginning of the year, Liljegren was being touted as a blue-chip prospect. Let’s take a look at some of the preseason rankings and comments:
Timothy Liljegren Pre-Season NHL Draft Rankings
|TSN||2||The Swede is the undisputed top defenceman in this draft and, at this point, it's not even close. Liljegren is the only prospect other than Patrick who got 10 votes from the 10 scouts as a top-10 pick.|
|ISS||2||ISS ranked Timothy Liljegren at #2 owns elite defensive skills and is an excellent skater.|
|NHL Central Scouting||Top 5 projected||Liljegren had two goals in his first two games for Rogle but is out indefinitely because of an illness. The right-handed shot enters the season as a projected top-five draft pick.|
|Sportsnet||2||Top blueliner available. Remarkable and tireless skater with outstanding mobility and range. Can QB your power play with confidence. Sees the ice and all of his options really quickly. Liljegren has a legit shot at grabbing the No. 1 ranking this season.|
At this point, most Leafs fans are probably familiar with the Liljegren story – he started off well, got mono, missed two months, didn’t make the world junior team, and bounced around the Swedish hockey system. While I wouldn’t say he flat out struggled, he wasn’t spectacular, either.
Defencemen tumbling in the draft happens every few years, and that might have something to do with the position. It is difficult to evaluate; there isn’t a points-production crutch for evaluators to lean on like there is with forwards, and a lot of the things defencemen do aren’t easily tracked (good gap, blocking a passing lane, etc.). Some recent droppers that come to mind:
NHL Defencemen - Draft Tumblers
|2016||Jakob Chychurn||Made NHL first year, current top four and projected top pairing defenceman.|
|2014||Anthony DeAngelo||Fell primarily due to attitude issues and has already been traded twice. Has been solid in the NHL and has a spot to lose.|
|2010||Cam Fowler||First pairing defencemen, negotiating a long-term extension.|
|2008||Michael Del Zotto||Up and down career but has generally been a second pairing guy.|
In the last 10 draft classes, including Liljegren in 2017, that’s five notable defencemen that fell. All have become NHLers to varying degrees. In Liljegren’s particular case, he saw a noticeable drop in his production while playing on the J20 team, which we can reasonably attribute to mono (he had two goals in two games before getting mono and played 17 fewer games in that league this year):
Timothy Liljegren Points-Per-Game by Age/League
|16||Rogle BK J20||0.76|
|Sweden U18 (all)||0.58|
|17||Rogle BK J20||0.58|
|Sweden U18 (all)||0.59|
At pick #17, all things considered, you are not going to get much better value than this. The fact that Liljegren fills a big need for the organization (right-handed defenceman) is just gravy.
The Rasananen selection has received some mix reviews, but you can see why the Leafs are intrigued and why the pick makes some sense. Rasananen was ranked between 42 and 68 according to five of the prominent ranking services. He was a top-four defenceman (Hunter said he played on Kingston’s top-pairing) on the best defensive team in the Eastern Conference and was second in points among rookie defencemen in the OHL.
If there was one quote over the weekend from Leafs management that stood out to me, it was Hunter describing Rasananen: “He’s a little inconsistent because his legs don’t carry that big body around.” You can see, in terms of upside, why the Leafs like him – he’s 6’7, played a big role on a good team, was productive relative to his peers, and he’s right handed.
One of the biggest assets the Leafs have at their disposal is a massive budget for player development. They have a huge development staff, their AHL team has NHL-quality facilities, and everything happens right in the city for them to keep an eye. These are advantages every other team in the league would kill for.
Draft picks like William Nylander and Connor Brown have developed through the AHL, Leipsic progressed steadily through the AHL, Travis Dermott, Andrew Nielsen and Dmytro Timashov are now in that process, and the Leafs are about to introduce more picks into the fold. I think the Leafs are very confident in their resources and ability to develop players in their system. That isn’t the only reason they drafted Rasananen – he was productive and successful last season – but when they get a player that projects well, they’re confident they can develop from there.
Overall, the NHL draft is a crapshoot, but goaltending, in particular, is whatever is worse than a crapshoot. Without going into a full-scale research paper (because this would be worthy of a lengthy research paper), I saw the pick and wondered something: Can goalies on bad teams, resulting in bad numbers, become good goalies? Scott posted a .895 save percentage and 3.69 goals against average. There’s no getting around that — it’s bad. But he stands 6’3, is growing into his body (listed at under 175 pounds), and the evaluations on him say he has strong technique.
In Matt Murray’s draft year, he recorded a .876 save percentage and 4.08 goals against average on a pretty mediocre Sault Ste. Marie team. He turned out alright. That draft also had a few other goalies with poor numbers in their draft year who you’ve probably never heard of – Francois Tremblay, Mark Patterson, and Daniel Altschuller (he actually still has a chance to become an NHL goalie), to name a few.
To be sure, Murray is more the exception than the rule as I looked through the 2011 and 2010 drafts and couldn’t find any goalie with poor numbers that became legitimate NHLers.
You can make an argument, numbers aside, that seeing a lot of shots and playing time benefits a goalie’s development – a Malcolm Gladwell 10,000-hour theory, if you will.
Hunter pointed out one thing in particular that Kara does well: driving the net. The Leafs seem to be making a habit of this in recent years — Yegor Korshkov and Carl Grundstrom from the last draft — with two-way, net-driving wingers. Kara is listed at 6’2, 190 pounds and he is 19 years old. It is quite similar to the Korshkov pick from the size/age perspective.
I would not say the Leafs are ‘only’ trying to bulk up – Liljegren is short, so is Miro Aaltonen and Calle Rosen – but Babcock mentioned last year that the team needed to bulk up. Management brought in Matt Martin last July 1, traded for Brian Boyle at the deadline, and also acquired Kerby Rychel last June. Their last two drafts indicate that they are looking for some big, two-way wingers that drive the net hard to complement their skill.
When we look at the current NHL roster, that is the type of game Leo Komarov, Zach Hyman and Nikita Soshnikov play – all favourites of the coaching staff – on the wing. Babcock likes the digger role on each of his lines. Whether Kara makes it to the NHL or not, stylistically, there is a theme here.
This is a player the Leafs are very familiar with as Leafs scout Lindsay Hofford coached against him in the GTHL and Gordeev is friends with his son. His draft-year production is underwhelming (13 points in 62 games), but he was a top-four defenceman for an organization that managed to start turning their fortunes around after an awful 2015-16 season.
I watched Gordeev play quite a bit in minor midget and the evaluations on him then more or less read the same as they do now. Once or twice a game he’d make an incredible play with his combination of size and skill, but his decision-making with the puck has always been questionable (Alec interviewed his Head Coach, who basically said they got him away from this type of game last season – there’s a reason for that). He was a defenceman back then, but after he was drafted, he bounced around between forward and defense (I don’t know for sure, but I’d bet the aforementioned decision-making question marks played a part in that; plus, he’s really skilled).
Of the three defencemen ahead of him on their depth chart last season, two were over-agers, so there is a clear path for Gordeev to take on a top-pairing role with prime power play time. At 6’6, he is growing into his body and still developing big time after jumping around between forward and defence, but he is going to need to put up a marked improvement production-wise next year to announce himself as a legitimate prospect.
There has been some talk lately of a shift in philosophy between the draft that Kyle Dubas oversaw in 2015 and the two since Hunter took over. A lot of it has been blown out of proportion, but if there is one pick that stands out as indicative of a philosophical change, this would probably be it. McGregor was 12th on his team in scoring with 27 points in 65 games and was basically a third line, penalty kill, character guy (he has an ‘A’ on his chest – which is impressive). It is a stark contrast to the Leafs drafting players like Dmytro Timashov and Nikita Korostelev, who had notable flaws to their game aesthetically but were extremely productive.
There is also something to be said about this being another OHL pick that management would have been familiar with since his minor hockey days. Hunter made a note that they thought McGregor would be better in 2017-18; when you look into his background, he was a high OHL draft pick (second round) who had a promising rookie season and failed to meet expectations in his draft year. More than anything, they are banking on that extra database of information they have on him. Five years from now, it will be fascinating to look back on these drafts and assess how the Leafs fared selecting players out of the OHL.
I was really interested in this pick because O’Connell is travelling an unconventional development path. The Ontario private school prep league is an intriguing option for players — the kids are on the ice all the time (all of those teams have a rink they practice on pretty much every day) and they travel around to play the other teams in the league/the States. It is not junior hockey calibre, but the league also isn’t a meat market.
O’Connell was drafted in the eighth round of the OHL and decided to go the college route instead. To put that in perspective, OHL teams would reasonably expect to pick up a player in that round, so it wasn’t exactly a shot in the dark at that point (it’s a 15-round draft). Being from Ottawa, O’Connell still had to make a big move to the GTA after being drafted (he presumably moved to Aurora).
In essence, he is a smart kid forging a unique path to his hockey development while covering his bases school-wise. I don’t know if that means he will be a good player, but this is a really interesting route for players in the GTA to consider and I wonder if it starts to catch on.
From the perspective of the Leafs’ draft, because this kid is going to go play junior and go to D1, they bought themselves a lot of time to make a decision on whether to sign him to an ELC. That is important — we saw the Leafs lose some young players this year because they just didn’t have the contract space. Having a few players in the organization taking the long road, thus buying time for a franchise that has been hoarding picks lately, has its benefits.