Nikita Kucherov was taken with the 58th overall pick of the 2011 National Hockey League draft. 57 other players were deemed better prospects. It’s laughable when looking back at it in hindsight. Fans of Ontario’s franchises might want to cry. The Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs had multiple cracks at him and passed. Such is the precarious nature of any professional draft. Generational prospects like Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Mario Lemieux, and Sidney Crosby are slam-dunk picks that are tough to botch. However, championship organizations in any professional sport stand out above all others in one key area. They find “gems” late in the draft and develop them into key contributors. However, the Leafs player development has been underwhelming and is a reason for their recent playoff failures.
Leafs Player Development Leaves Them Lacking
Look at the roster of any champion and you are likely to find many examples of late-round contributors. Kucherov is not the only one on the roster of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Key contributors Brayden Point, Alex Killorn, and Anthony Cirelli were all third-round draft picks. Ondrej Palat was taken in the seventh round. Fourth-round pick Ross Colton was a twenty-goal scorer this year.
Yes, Andrei Vasilevskiy was a first-round pick. It is rare for goalies to be taken this early. When you pick a goalie here, you better not miss. The Lightning didn’t. High draft picks Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman have also been key cogs to their long-term success. But they don’t become multiple-time champs without their successful late-round picks and proper player development. The Leafs, on the other hand, boast few late-round successes. This makes it difficult to supplement their roster.
Leafs Successes And Failures
In the early years of president Brendan Shanahan‘s rebuild, the talent-thin roster resulted in the many high first-round picks. Luckily, the team made the right choice with these picks. Auston Matthews ahead of Patrik Laine. Mitch Marner over Noah Hanifin. Taking Morgan Rielly fifth overall in the 2012 draft was a hit. William Nylander at number eight overall in 2014 was also a good choice. The problems arise when looking for successes later in the draft.
Pierre Engvall was the only late-round Leafs pick this past season who regularly contributed to the team. That’s it. One player. He was drafted in the seventh round of the 2014 NHL draft. He was also part of their American Hockey League championship Marlies team in 2018. Almost all of the Leafs’ key players are their high first-round picks or came from other organizations. The Leafs are often forced to look at free agency to fix their shortcomings. In a salary-cap world, this often leads to problems.
Player Development Also an Issue for the Leafs
An aging defence corps, especially among the top four, could soon be a problem for the Leafs. Former first-round draft picks Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin must continue on an upward trajectory. Soon they will be needed to be regulars in the top four, especially when father time catches up to Jake Muzzin and Mark Giordano.
The Leafs’ inability to draft and develop a goaltender is of bigger concern. Recent draft picks Joseph Woll and Ian Scott have developed slowly, partially because of injuries. When James Reimer and Felix Potvin are your only prominent homegrown goalie prospects in three decades that is a major organizational flaw. It forces the team to look into free agency or gamble on discarded prospects from other teams. The disastrous contract from the last offseason to Petr Mrazek is the most recent example of this.
Leafs’ Success Limited
Once again the Leafs will be hard-pressed to find solutions for their issues this offseason due to the salary cap. Gone are the days of being able to outspend other organizations. Even with more resources and money available for their Marlies affiliate they still lack player development.
A core of high draft picks like Matthews, Marner, Rielly, and Nylander is a great start to a contending team. The Leafs should be commended for their commitment to these players. But the most successful teams find late-round success stories and develop players to supplement their rosters. Without it, a contender doesn’t become a champion.