From the possible moment the Toronto Maple Leafs draft Auston Matthews first overall, the team’s fans might hope to start partying like it’s 1981.
Leafs Draft: Party Like it’s 1981
That year, the Leafs used their first pick to choose defenceman Jim Benning sixth overall. Not a bad pick; Benning went on to have a nine-year NHL career.
One might lament, though, passing on goaltender Grant Fuhr, who went just two spots later. Or Al MacInnis, who went 15th, or Chris Chelios at 40. The Leafs could certainly have used a Hall of Fame goalie or blueliner. But if ifs and buts were foresight and luck, everyone would have a merry Entry Draft.
1981 by the Numbers
A bit of fun can be had, though, by applying the Leafs 2016 draft positions to the 1981 draft order.
For this year’s draft, the Leafs picks are currently slated as 1, 31, 56, 61, 71, 91, 100, 121, 151, 178, and 181.
It just so happens that the 1981 draft, more than any other year, yielded the best prospects in those slots.
Below are the players whose 1981 draft position coincides with the Leafs current selection positions in 2016. Asterisks indicate players of the calibre similar to those Leafs Director of Player Personnel Mark Hunter will be hoping to draft.
It is indicative of the expectations in Toronto that many fans might well be expecting more of Matthews than Hawerchuk was able to deliver for the Winnipeg Jets. If the two players end up being quite comparable, however, those same fans should be pleased. Hawerchuk was a franchise player in the ‘Peg, and a feature of a certain Gretzky-to-Lemieux Canada Cup highlight, though Canadian fans will respectfully wish Matthews limited luck in international matchups against Canada.
The Thin Blue Line
Even as the Leafs most promising defencemen Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner might soon be reinforced by the likes of Stuart Percy and Connor Carrick, it’s still a very young blue line. Stephane Robidas’ veteran presence notwithstanding, they’d either like to look to add a more established asset or, as is the current fashion, let patience reign. The lone defenceman from the 1981 picks is woefully inadequate to top up the soon-to-be-depleted ranks of the Toronto Marlies, let alone contribute at the NHL level. The eight forwards on the list, however, coupled with the organization’s wealth of prospects at that position, enable GM Lou Lamoriello to trade for blue line depth. The only wrinkle is that he’ll have to beat the similarly-ailing Edmonton Oilers to the punch.
A Glut of Goalies
Now obviously using four of 11 Leafs draft picks to bring goaltenders into the system would be a bit much. Or would it? The Leafs have essentially turned a pick (30th overall; excluded from the list above) into goalie Frederik Andersen, acquired by trade from Anaheim. Anderson’s career thus far doesn’t look dissimilar to that of Vernon’s; Leafs fans would be well pleased to see that continue. Vernon was an integral part of two Cup victories, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1997 with Detroit. As has been the case with many netminders, Vernon took several years to find a regular NHL gig. It took him five years to finally stick with Calgary, at which point he promptly posted 12 playoff wins in a run to the Cup final. Three years later, he was lifting Lord Stanley over his head. Leafs fans would take that, right?
Tank Nation Rides Again?
Leafs fans may not have the stomach for any further comparison; the 1981-82 Leafs posted a dreadful 20-44 record, missing the playoffs for the first time in eight years. They sent long-time Leafs Darryl Sittler and Ian Turnbull packing. They wouldn’t make the playoffs again until the following year.
So there you have it; all the answers to the Leafs draft can be found in 1981.