The view is always more contented from the back of the draft floor. It means you’ve had an outstanding season.
Still, it’s not entirely easy for good NHL teams to watch all the top-end talent be selected every year before they even get a chance to make a pick. It’s better to be good and pick low, but, at the same time, it’s as though watching all those elite teenagers selected by other teams symbolizes just how tenuous the hold on the upper rungs of the NHL ladder may be for those teams.
It had been a while since the Toronto Maple Leafs sat at the rear when they walked into the American Airlines Center in Dallas on Friday night. Heck, they rebuilt their team with four top-10 picks in five years, which delivered Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly.
For the 2018 draft, the Leafs went in with the 25th pick, the lowest the team has picked since 2010, when they didn’t have a first-round selection at all.
So what did they do? They went even lower.
In his first draft as general manager, Kyle Dubas did something very similar to what he’d orchestrated as an assistant GM back in 2015. Back then, the Leafs traded the 24th pick for the 29th and the 61st, then moved the 29th for the 34th and the 68th.
In other words, they started with one pick, and turned it into three picks.
When all those moves were done, they selected Erie defenceman Travis Dermott 34th overall, and Dermott repaid that faith in his ability by cracking the NHL in the second half of last season. The Leafs then used those other selections to take forwards Jeremy Bracco and Martin Dzierkals, both of whom are still in the system.
Fast-forward to Friday night. Dubas, sitting with the 25th pick, traded it to St. Louis for the 29th and 76th picks. He then used the No. 29 selection to grab another mobile, puck-moving defenceman similar to Dermott in dynamic Swedish blue-liner Rasmus Sandin, who played for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds last season.
“Just got better and better every time we saw him,” said Dubas. “He plays the game on defence the way we want to play it.”
That might not play well, of course, with fans who didn’t particularly like the way the Leafs defended last season, including Game 7 of the first round against Boston, when they couldn’t hold a 4-3 lead in the third period.
The theory behind trading down, of course, is that the likelihood of players becoming NHL regulars after the top 20 selections drops dramatically, so the best way to combat those percentages is to have more picks. Most teams now assign a numerical value to each and every selection, and, in this case, Toronto calculated the combined value of the No. 29 and No. 76 picks to be equal to or greater than the estimated value of the No. 25 pick.
It’s about math and probability, which is very much what Dubas is about. But there’s also a potential downside to this approach.
In 2015, Philly got the 24th pick from the Leafs and drafted centre Travis Konecny, who scored 24 goals in his second NHL season this year. Columbus used the 29th pick acquired from the Leafs to take towering defenceman Gabriel Carlsson, who split his season between the NHL and the minors this season.
Will Dermott, Bracco and Dzierkals work out to have more value than Konecny or Carlsson? We shall see over time. Konecny has had the greatest impact so far.
On Friday, the Blues used the 25th pick to take German right winger Dominik Bokk, and we’ll have to wait to evaluate whether Bokk proves to have more value than Sandin plus whoever the Leafs take with the 76th pick on Saturday.
For those who wonder what the Dubas Era will be like in Toronto, this was the first piece of evidence, and it wasn’t surprising. The Leafs are going to be a disciplined, analytical organization, and they are going to continue down the path of being a fast, high-skilled team, with less emphasis on size and physicality than other teams.
Dubas has been perceived as an unorthodox thinker ever since he became GM of the Soo at the age of 26. That’s not likely to change now that he’s taken over from the departed Lou Lamoriello atop the Leafs hockey department.
This draft also marked the end of an era for the Leafs, the first draft without Mark Hunter, their top scout since 2014. Last year, the Leafs took another skilled Swedish defenceman, Timothy Liljegren, with the 17th pick. Add Sandin and Liljegren to a defence group that includes Dermott, Rielly, Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev, and the Leafs clearly have established a preference for speed and mobility on the blue line.
That will apparently continue under Dubas, and given how the first round of the 2018 draft was dominated by undersized, mobile defenders, it would appear the Leafs are swimming with the tide.
On the other hand, Leaf fans hoping that their team will acquire muscle and size on the back end are likely going to be disappointed. That’s just not how Toronto wants to play, and it helped earn them the seventh best record in the NHL last season.
And a seat at the back of the room.