When Things go Wrong at the Draft who’s to Blame?

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It’s that time of year again, the NHL Amateur Draft. Let’s reflect on what has gone wrong in the past with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The draft, as we know it today, first took place in 1969. Since then, the percentage of players drafted and playing at least 1 game in the NHL is 43.8%. The Leafs, with a rating of 43.6%, fall in line with the NHL average. You might be surprised to know that John Ferguson Jr., who took considerable heat as Leaf GM, had a drafting record of 53.5%. His peers had a league average of 44.2%.

Ken Dryden had the worst drafting record, using this metric, with a reading of 25.5%. If the Leaf drafting success/failures are in line with the rest of the league, why have they failed so much? Variables to consider might be the impact of the owner, the coaches, the scouts, the media, the players, the fans, and the GM himself. They all come into play at some point. Let’s keep in mind that protecting his own job can weigh on a GM’s decision. When selecting at the draft, do you take the best player available or what’s best for the team?

The 1975 Amateur Draft saw the Leafs use their 1st 3 picks to select centers: Don Ashby, Doug Jarvis and Bruce Boudreau. They had depth at center already with the 1970 1st round pick Darryl Sittler, the 1972 1st pick George Ferguson and the 1974 1st pick Jack Valiquette. Stan Weir and Pat Boutette were also listed at center. Clearly the Leaf mandate was to build depth down the middle. The 1975 crop came with prolific scoring records out of Jr. Hockey. Had the scouts done their jobs? Surely out of this group, 2 could compliment Sittler and Weir as the 3-4 centers.

Doug Jarvis was immediately traded to Montreal. He went on to become the NHL ironman playing 964 games in succession. His role on a powerful Montreal team became ‘the’ 3rd line checker. Had he remained with the Leafs under a different and more demanding role, would Jarvis enjoy the same successes? Don Ashby had an up -and -down role and was eventually moved to Colorado. Boudreau was one of the most gifted scorers to ever come out of Jr. Hockey, but he couldn’t stick either. In Boudreau’s case, he did produce but it was usually on the 4th line. The question then arises: what would he have done with top 6 wingers? The coach decides who plays with whom. However, you have to wonder how much risk the coach wants to take with an unproven player. This, while benefitting the organization, might cost the coach his job in the long run.

Ed Chadwick, at the 1977 Amateur Draft, was in a heated argument with fellow scouts at the Islander table. Deciding whom to take with their pick, the discussion was about a kid from the Quebec league. Chadwick argued that the kid scored goals and that this was what the Islanders needed. The pushback was does he do anything else? With the clock ticking, coach Al Arbor finally leaned in and said that he didn’t care who they selected, but if they didn’t take Mike Bossy, he’d sell them all.

Toronto management sided with coach John Brophy at the 1987 draft. Brophy wanted toughness, and defenseman Luke Richardson fit the bill. The scouts to man wanted a kid from Western Canada named Joe Sakic. Let’s take it a step further. If the Leafs had taken Sakic as the scouts wanted, what success if any would Sakic have accomplished with the Leafs? Further, 7 years later would Toronto make the trade with Quebec to acquire one of the greatest Leafs of all time by the name of Mats Sundin.
The cliché “good to be lucky and lucky to be good” sure applies to the draft. A lot has to fall into place for most teams to have any success. What a GM does after the draft is what makes or breaks a team. The draft is essential to build a foundation. That however is only the beginning.

This is a subject that has been debated ad nauseam. Over the next few weeks we will look at the role of these different variables, and their role in the building and running of a team.