Leafs: Draft-day Game of Leapfrog?

Leaf fans have a tendency to get kind of excited at certain times of the year. During the pre-season, all eyes are on the young upstarts to see who will stand out and possibly crack the roster. Then, when reality rears its ugly head and it appears that the pimple-faced puck prodigy not yet old enough to buy himself a drink will need some time on the farm, the disappointment creeps in. By the third week of November, it's all about the Burke-imposed December 9th 'Christmas trade freeze', stirring the wild imaginations of armchair GM's across Leaf Nation, and subsequently passing with no significant change. The disappointment mounts. Then the focus shifts to the trade deadline, in hopes of a blockbuster deal for that missing link that will solve the Leafs' woes once and for all. The season ends in bitter disappointment, and when the healing begins, Leaf fans look for some scrap of hope in the post-mortem media scrums, where Burke illuminates the positives, then pledges to work diligently toward procuring something of substance over the off-season.

Bouyed by the anticipation that the summer will be spent acquiring the missing pieces to the puzzle through the draft, then free agency, and finally via the trade route, we scour the internet and the newsstands for 'intel' on top prospects in the draft, free agents (both unrestricted and restricted), and players thought to be either disenchanted with their present teams, or too expensive for them to remain, then carefully construct our own master plan. Such plans almost always include moving a number of Leaf picks and/or prospects showing the most promise for either someone else's prospects and picks, or a player or two we are convinced Burke can/will persuade team 'B' to part with. Hell, we'll even eat some cap space to make it work, just like Burke would. Said strategy then gets presented on any of a number of internet forums, usually to be mauled within minutes of posting by fellow Leaf fans, and, if the cyber-hockey exec in question has the stones to post in team 'B's' forum, he can most assuredly expect to be mocked, e-flogged, and asked to leave as quickly as possible. Sound familiar to you? Who are you kidding...if you haven't done it yourself, you've certainly read enough examples of the scenario described above, if you are at all in the habit of perusing fan forums.

With the draft fast approaching, chat groups and social network sites are rife with fantasy-pool type mock proposals ranging from downright ludicrous to somewhat logical, but unlikely. Those who once advocated the notion of 'tanking' look for Brian Burke to re-create a Sedin-type miracle and get himself into the top 5 in the the draft to atone for that 2nd overall pick that he so recklessly thumbed his nose at in favour of a kid named Kessel. The assumption being that top 5 picks are all game-changers. Ironically enough, the Kessel kid went in the top 5. Go figure...

Truth be told, not all draft classes are created equal. And not all game-changers are top 5 picks either. Ryan Getzlaf went 19th in '03, after Eric Fehr, and Corey Perry, the guy who scored the most goals last year, went 28th in the same year, right after Jeff Tambellini. By comparison, Zherdev went 4th, and Parise went 17th. Ryan Kesler, who some consider the most complete player in the game today, went 23rd that year. Who'da thought, right? While the temptation may be to assume every one chosen in the top 5 automatically equates to 'franchise' talent, it's important to keep in mind that quality players are found all throughout the draft. The 2011 23rd overall could prove to be infinitely more valuable than the 4th. Or not. It's all a crapshoot...

It is ultimately far more important to any franchise to develop a number of quality assets over time with a good junior programme, than to become infatuated with a top pick, which may or may not produce that dominant player every team wants. Trading away 'projects' with the potential to be good NHL'ers for unknowns based on a number in the draft is sorta nutty, IMHO. All the “Kadri, Kulemin, three-firsts-and-Boston's-second-for-second-overall” chatter clearly demonstrates the irrational fixation with numbers. What's really baffling is the disparity between scouts and prognosticators as to who the top 5 will even be on any given year. Who honestly saw Cam Fowler dropping to 12th? And who's to say Fowler at 12th doesn't ultimately prove to be a better defenseman than Bogosian at 3rd?

Moving up in the draft to within 15th sounds great to me. Because it won't cost the farm to do it, and unless you can guaran-damn-tee me that Landeskog, Couturier, Huberdeau or Strome will be significantly better than McNeill, Oleksiak, or Armia PLUS whatever Burke must surrender to get within striking range of those guys, I'm not buying it. If Burke decides to sit and stay at 25th and 29th, I'm cool with that, too. Jenner, Jurco or Pumpel could all be quality assets in the not-too-distant future as well...

I won't belabour the issue further. You get the point. While there are players and assets I would certainly see the logic in leveraging in what may appear to be a lateral move, if the need to address a hole in the talent pool outweighs the value (read: present need) of a particular asset, I say have at it, Burkie, but leap-frogging in the draft solely for the sport of it won't solve a thing. “My ego isn't so big that I have to draft in the top 5 every year”, Burke said recently, on the matter. And if he was to attempt to clamour his way into the top 5, especially in a decidedly underwhelming draft class, it would be an expensive vanity project, and nothing more. While I'm no Burke apologist, he is a proven winner, and he knows how to engineer a top team. He's done it in Vancouver, and in Anaheim. He's doing it now in Toronto, the place where the stakes are perhaps highest. While it remains to be seen how close he comes to replicating his past success, the franchise is in far better shape now than it was pre-Burke, and he's not close to being finished. Not by a long shot...