With the potential that the 2020 NHL Draft may be coming sooner rather than later, it’s time to get fully on board with the draft hype, as we may finally have some kind of hockey content that doesn’t involve re-watching old hockey games.
One of my favourite parts about drafts is looking back on them several years later, and seeing how good or bad some teams did every year, as well as some of the busts in the early rounds and hidden gems found in later rounds.
So, I’m going to do just that with Draft Flashbacks. This series will take a look at each individual draft and re-examine every pick the Leafs made, and see who was the best pick available with the hindsight of seeing what kind of player they’ve turned into. And to finish it off, I’ll do a what if scenario based on the best possible drafts the Leafs could’ve had.
I’m kicking off the series with the 2016 draft, mostly because the 2017-19 drafts are still too recent to make any serious evaluations yet. Honestly, I’m cutting it pretty close with the 2016 draft, but 22 is around the age where we start to get a good grasp on if a prospect truly has what it takes to be an NHL player. There are obviously exceptions, but this usually the norm for NHL player aging curves.
Now, onto the first pick.
Round 1: 1st overall
Who the Leafs picked: Auston Matthews
Best player available (within 20 picks): Auston Matthews
Best player available (overall): Auston Matthews
Remember the debate of Matthews vs. Laine? Those were the days. But, there was no doubt that the Leafs should’ve picked Matthews first overall, and there still shouldn’t be any doubt. Matthews has not only lived up to the hype, but leaped far beyond it, becoming one of the biggest names in the game. No one has scored more goals or points in the 2016 draft than Matthews, and only Matthew Tkachuk and Patrik Laine have him beat for games played (and that’s mostly due to injuries). Matthews is not only the best player in this draft, but arguably one of the best players in the game right now, and is only 22, making him the easy pick (still) for first overall.
Round 2: 31st overall
Who the Leafs picked: Egor Korshkov
Best player available (within 20 picks): Alex DeBrincat (Chicago, 39th overall)
Best player available (overall): Alex DeBrincat
I remember being really excited going into the second day of the 2016 draft. The Leafs had the first pick in the second round, and Alex DeBrincat was right there for the taking, and we could’ve left with two of the best scorers in this draft.
But alas, that wasn’t what happened. Mark Hunter and crew went with Egor Korshkov, and DeBrincat went eight picks later to none other than the Chicago freaking Blackhawks. This isn’t an insult to Egor Korshkov, he’s developing into a fine player in the AHL with lots of potential to be an effective NHL player (and hey, he’s one of only nine players to ever play in the NHL that can currently brag about scoring at a goal per game pace). But, DeBrincat was the obvious pick even then, and it hasn’t looked any better for the Leafs, or the other eight teams that round to pass on him.
If DeBrincat doesn’t suit your fancy, there’s also Samuel Girard, Carter Hart, or Ryan Lindgren all within the next 20 picks, with Filip Hronek just outside that. Lots of good players who already have an NHL impact.
Round 2: 57th overall
Who the Leafs picked: Carl Grundstrom
Best player available (within 20 picks): Adam Fox (Calgary, 66th overall)
Best player available (overall): Adam Fox
I’d say this isn’t a pick that I’m as mad about, because out of all the weird picks the Leafs made at the 2016 draft, Grundstrom was probably the best of them, and as a result, was part of the deal that brought in Jake Muzzin for us. That said, we might not even need to make that trade in the first place if we have Adam Fox in the system, and then we also still have Sean Durzi and the first round pick from that draft… so many variables to consider! Overall, Adam Fox would be really good to have, but Grundstrom wasn’t a terrible pick either. And we could’ve even had both…
Round 3: 62nd overall
Who the Leafs picked: Joseph Woll
Best player available (within 20 picks): Adam Fox
Best player available (overall): Adam Fox
The verdict is still out on Woll, as he had a good college career and even was the starting goalie for the USA’s 2018 World Juniors team that won bronze. He didn’t have the greatest rookie season in the AHL, but goalies take time to adjust to the pro level. He’s still a project, but it’s hard to get a good read on a goalie who’s not even 22 yet.
That said, Adam Fox wouldn’t have been too bad either.
Round 3: 72nd overall
Who the Leafs picked: J.D. Greenway
Best player available (within 20 picks): Joey Anderson (New Jersey, 73rd overall)
Best player available (overall): Victor Mete (Montreal, 100th overall)
This is where it starts to get a little bit dicier, as a lot of the players taken in the later rounds still haven’t fully developed, and sometimes the best players available aren’t necessarily good at the NHL level, but are still the only choice because they’ve played.
Enter Joey Anderson, who has only 52 games under his belt, and is rocking a 45.68% 5v5 CF% and a 47.79% 5v5 xGF%, but is the only player taken in this range that has had any impact, even if it’s a negative one. But, it’s still better than Greenway, who hasn’t done much of anything up to this point.
There is Victor Mete, but we’ll have another chance at him.
Round 4: 92nd overall
Who the Leafs picked: Adam Brooks
Best player available (within 20 picks): Victor Mete
Best player available (overall): Victor Mete
Like Grundstrom, Brooks is a pick that has actually done alright. He had a great draft year and post-draft year with the Regina Pats, and has been great in the AHL, and even got a shot in the NHL this year, with three assists in seven games.
But, he’s not Victor Mete, who’s turned into a solid defenseman for the Montreal Canadiens, something we could certainly use on our blueline (even if he’s a left shot).
Round 4: 101st overall
Who the Leafs picked: Keaton Middleton
Best player available (within 20 picks): Connor Bunnaman (Philadelphia, 109th overall)
Best player available (overall): Jesper Bratt (New Jersey, 162nd overall)
Now we’re starting to get to the “Coke machine” picks, as one look at Keaton Middleton’s stats, and you can see why he was picked: his 6’5″, 230 pound frame. He didn’t get anywhere with the Leafs, and they didn’t even sign him to entry level deal. He did get one though, signing with the Sharks in 2018.
As for the Bunnaman pick, it’s the case of not that many great pickings available in that range, and of the few that have cracked the NHL, he looked the best out of them.
Round 5: 122nd overall
Who the Leafs picked: Vladimir Bobylev
Best player available (within 20 picks): Max Lajoie (Ottawa, 133rd overall)
Best player available (overall): Jesper Bratt
Honestly, I couldn’t tell you much about Bobylev except that he was one of the many overagers the Leafs went for in this draft that didn’t age well. At the very least, Lajoie was a decent NHL defenseman on a terrible Sens team last year, although he hasn’t cracked the lineup this year.
Round 6: 152nd overall
Who the Leafs picked: Jack Walker
Best player available (within 20 picks): Jesper Bratt
Best player available (overall): Jesper Bratt
Not kidding, this is the first time I think I’ve ever heard of Jack Walker. He was pretty good in the WHL, but hasn’t done much at the pro level, at best being okay in the ECHL. You may have been wondering why I haven’t talked about Bratt yet, and that’s because I was saving him for this pick when he was actually in a reasonable range. He’s ended up being a solid bottom six forward on a rebuilding Devils team, good for 30-35 points a season so far. Not bad depth to have, even on a team with a surplus of wingers like the Leafs.
Round 6: 179th overall & Round 7: 182nd overall
Who the Leafs picked: Nicolas Mattinen & Nikolai Chebykin
Best player available (within 20 picks): Calvin Thurkauf (Columbus, 185th overall)
Best player available (overall): Calvin Thurkauf
I grouped these last two picks together since they were only three picks apart, and neither have amounted to anything either. Same goes for the rest of the crop, as the only players available that have any NHL games are Thurkauf and Joachim Blichfield. Nothing to boil blood over.
1st – Auston Matthews
31st – Alex DeBrincat
57th – Carl Grundstrom or Dylan Gambrell
62nd – Adam Fox
72nd – Joey Anderson
92nd – Victor Mete
101st – Connor Bunnaman
122nd – Max Lajoie
152nd – Jesper Bratt
179th – Calvin Thurkauf
182nd – Joachim Blichfield
In terms of how this would impact anyone on the current roster, the only way it would is if you take Gambrell in the toss-up between him and Grundstrom, which would result in the Muzzin trade, aside from the obvious cap implications that would come with having DeBrincat in the top six as well. Perhaps the Tyson Barrie trade doesn’t happen if Fox is seen as a replacement. Otherwise, the 2019-20 roster stays intact, but does have some new additions.
Using Charting Hockey’s WAR Lineup Creator, this would be the ideal lineup with these new draft picks, while also making some players expendable, most notably Andreas Johnsson, who can easily be replaced by Pierre Engvall, Kyle Clifford, or Jason Spezza on that fourth line. Also, our defense improves drastically, as we are looking at Justin Holl and Cody Ceci in the press box with this lineup. It’s certainly an improvement on the current team, mostly with the added depth on defense and the additions of DeBrincat and Bratt on the left wing.
The Leafs got the best player in the draft, so that alone should be a win for them. They also hit on another pick with Grundstrom, who has some solid potential with the Los Angeles Kings. Korshkov, Brooks, and Woll all have some potential to crack the NHL, but time is running out for them. Otherwise, all the picks amounted to nothing in a draft where we had 11.
But, we also had a chance to draft some really good players, as we let the likes of DeBrincat, Girard, Hart, and in later picks Fox, Mete, and Bratt fall through. It’s easy to say in hindsight, but it’s still there, especially when all we have to show for it on our roster right now is Matthews.