From thunderous booms to hideous busts. From first-round flops to seventh-round steals. From surprises that paid off to smart choices traded way too soon.
The Toronto Maple Leafs’ 15 draft classes of the NHL’s salary-cap era have pretty much run the gamut.
Here, with the benefit of hindsight and a judgmental eye, we take a look back at the results from all the Leafs’ trips to the draft floor over the past decade and a half and power-rank their prospect classes from worst to first.
The Maple Leafs’ 2010 draft class is the franchise’s worst of the cap era, and it’s not even close. Having dealt away what would become second-overall pick and the right to select superstar Tyler Seguin to Boston as part of the Phil Kessel acquisition, Brian Burke’s club had to sit on its hands until pick 43, which was used on Brad Ross. Fun fact: Ross is still playing pro, for the Lausitzer Foxes on the second-tier German circuit.
Burke & Co. did make a little hay in the later rounds, finding NHL depth centre Greg McKegg in Round 3 (McKegg enjoyed a career-high 53 NHL games played this season with the Rangers), plus cup-of-coffee guys Petter Granberg and Sam Carrick.
Hindsight is cruel. Round 1 busts Tyler Biggs (22nd overall) and Stuart Percy (25th overall) were chosen ahead of talents like Nikita Kucherov, Rickard Rakell, John Gibson, Brandon Saad and William Karlsson, to name a few.
Toronto did find a real player in Round 3. Unfortunately, Josh Leivo’s best opportunity arrived on the other side of the country. He was dealt to Vancouver in 2018 for AHLer Michael Carcone, now skating in Belleville.
John Ferguson Jr.’s disastrous trade with San Jose for Vesa Toskala and Mark Bell meant the Maple Leafs were unable to participate until the draft’s third round. JFJ didn’t hit until the fourth round, when he landed winger Matt Frattin, who played 135 NHL games before keeping his career alive in the KHL. Sixth-rounder Chris DiDomenico also made the big leagues eventually.
Ironically, Toronto’s best selection was its last: Seventh-rounder Carl Gunnarsson (194th overall) has enjoyed 600-plus games (and counting) as a reliable stay-at-home defender. And in 2019, Gunner became a Stanley Cup champion in St. Louis.
As with all recent draft classes, this one has a chance to move up these power rankings as the prospects develop. Timothy Liljegren (17th overall) fit the Maple Leafs’ greatest need — puck-moving, right-shot defenceman — and earned his first call-up this season. Expectations remain high for the kid they call “Lily” that he can become a top-four fixture, yet several first-rounders selected after Liljegren (Robert Thomas, Filip Chytil, Henri Jokiharju) have had a smoother trajectory to the pros.
The organization also has lofty hopes for 21-year-old goaltender Ian Scott. He’s been set back this season with hip surgery but was an absolute stud for 2019 WHL-championship-winning Prince Albert Raiders.
With regards to selecting Frederik Gauthier 21st overall, GM Dave Nonis could’ve done better (Shea Theodore) or worse (Morgan Klimchuk). The lovable Goat (six-foot-five every night!) has slowly but surely improved all aspects of his game — skating, faceoffs, scoring — over some injury plagued years and developed into a serviceable fourth-line NHL pivot.
Nonis fared better with some deep cuts: goalie Antoine Bibeau (Round 6) played a couple games for the Avalanche this season, and feisty seventh-round winger Andreas Johnsson had carved a spot in the Leafs’ top-six before a knee injury snuffed out his season.
In retrospect, one could build a case that Erik Karlsson (15th overall) is the superior right-shot defenceman to Luke Schenn (fifth overall). But, hey, Schenn has carved out a long career for himself — 758 games and counting. Yes, he may have been given too much too soon, but he’s outlasted and outperformed the majority of 2008 first-rounders.
Burke also uncovered a pair of decent NHLers in his first draft as Leafs shot-caller, picking Jimmy Hayes in Round 2 and Greg Pateryn in Round 5.
Way too early to tell, the Leafs’ most recent draft class could go either way. Yet placing it inside the top-10 is a testament to our hopes for the undersized, super-skilled Nick Robertson.
Having spent a first-rounder to acquire Jake Muzzin from L.A., Robertson was Kyle Dubas’ first pick last June (second round, 53rd overall) — and the kid has exploded with offence for the Peterborough Petes.
Meanwhile, fourth-round forwards Mikhail Abramov and Nicholas Abruzzese put up better than point-per-game numbers with Victoriaville and Harvard, respectively.
Consider some of the defencemen selected ahead of Rasmus Sandin (29th overall): Ty Smith, Ryan Merkley, K’Andre Miller, Filip Johansson, Jacob Bernard-Docker, Nicolas Beaudin, and Nils Lundkvist. Right now, we’d take Sandin over all of them. That Dubas traded down to get Sandin makes the pick feel all the more like a victory.
There is plenty of promise farther down Dubas’s first NHL draft class, too. Spokane Chiefs defenceman Filip Kral was enjoying his greatest offensive season. AHL defenceman Sean Durzi was used by the GM to help acquire Muzzin. Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, 19, has 75 points in 55 games for the Petes. And Marlies right-shot defender Mac Hollowell, 21, has quietly shown well in his first professional campaign.
No later Round 1 pick has accumulated more points than seventh-overall Nazem Kadri (393). The Leafs did an excellent job developing Kadri, a guy with 1C dreams, into a coveted two-way 2C. He posted back-to-back 32-goal campaigns in Toronto before getting shipped out of town for Tyson Barrie and Alexander Kerfoot. Kadri had a shot at another 30-goal season for Colorado prior to his lower-body injury.
Unfortunately, the ’09 class essentially ends there. Later picks Jesse Blacker, Jamie Devane and Jerry D’Amigo combined for 34 NHL games played.
We feel it safe to crown 2006 the Maple Leafs’ most consistent draft-table performance of the cap era. Six of Ferguson Jr.’s seven picks (sorry, Tyler Ruegsegger) that June not only made the show but played a minimum of 157 NHL games.
First-rounder Jiri Tlusty would eventually become a 20-goal man in Carolina. Second-rounder Nikolai Kulemin made the most of his one 30-goal performance in Toronto and is now keeping his career alive in Magnitogorsk. Viktor Stalberg went on to be a 20-goal scorer for Chicago, nearly hit the 500-game mark and has since found a second life in the Swiss league. And 14 years post-draft, Korbinian Holzer (fourth round) and onetime All-Star Game rep Leo Komarov (sixth round) are still kicking around, playing meaningful games for NHL playoff contenders.
While Nonis did pass over some spectacular talent — David Pastrnak, Dylan Larkin, Nikolaj Ehlers — when he selected William Nylander eighth overall, ask yourself if you’d rather have any of the four players chosen immediately before Willy. That would be Sam Bennett, Michael Dal Colle, Jake Virtanen and Haydn Fleury. Nylander, 23, is in the midst of a head-spinning, 31-goal, 59-point campaign, while driving to the net and making zone entries look like a breeze.
A couple lottery tickets farther down the ladder paid dividends as well. Second-round prospect Rinat Valiev was used as bait to help the Leafs rent Tomas Plekanec from Montreal at the 2018 trade deadline (hardly a great fit, Plekanec did pitch in two goals and two assists in seven playoff games). And versatile forward Pierre Engvall has proven to be a seventh-round steal, helping on the penalty kill and earning a new contract extension just last month.
Back in 2015, there was hope in Toronto that the highly touted Dylan Strome would still be available when the fourth pick rolled around. He wasn’t. There was also much debate over whether the next-best option was a creative, pass-first forward named Mitch Marner or a sturdy D-man named Noah Hanifin. Of the entire 2015 class, only the first two picks, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, have more points than Marner (291). Good choice.
The Leafs also fared well in Round 2, selecting defenceman Travis Dermott and skilled prospect Jeremy Bracco, and uncovered emerging NHLer Dmytro Timashov (now with Detroit) in Round 5.
Burke insists he had Morgan Rielly rated No. 1 on his draft list, and still the defenceman was a surprise to go as quick as fifth overall. That Rielly has outperformed all those picked before him (Nail Yakupov, Ryan Murray, Alex Galchenyuk and Griffin Reinhart) and is now the longest-tenured Leaf is a testament to Toronto’s scouting.
Three late-round picks in ’12 eventually made the NHL as well. Sixth-rounder Connor Brown has enjoyed a more productive career than anyone selected after the fifth round and is now a top-line winger on the Senators. Dominic Toninato (Round 5) and Viktor Loov (Round 7) had cups of coffee.
Today, Tuukka Rask leads all NHL starters in save percentage (.929) and goals-against average (2.12). The Finn has a Vezina on the mantle, 291 wins and 50 shutouts under his belt, and his name etched into the Stanley Cup till infinity. Not too shabby for a 21st pick. The sad news? Rask was dealt to Boston (for the Calder Trophy–winning Andrew Raycroft) before dressing for a single game in blue and white.
Leafs scouts plucked another winner out of Scandinavia in the seventh round. Anton Stralman (216th overall) skated his first 88 games in Toronto before excelling elsewhere. The smart stay-at-home defender is now a 33-year-old Panther with a shot at reaching 1,000 games played.
Midway through the 2017-18 season, as the Maple Leafs sped toward the playoffs, former coach Mike Babcock described his reaction to the television as the 2016 draft lottery unfolded.
“We got Auston. But what if we don’t? I remember when we got to three (in the lottery), I was jumping up in the living room. When we got to one, tears,” Babcock recalled. “People don’t understand. You need real players.”
Matthews was, of course, No. 1 with a bullet (hot tip: tanking can make for good drafts) and has been a goal-scoring machine out the gate. But the Leafs’ 2016 draft paid off in other ways. Big winger Egor Korshkov (31st overall) made his NHL debut this season; Carl Grundstrom (57th overall) was a key trade chip in the Muzzin acquisition and has a bright future in L.A.; Joseph Woll (62nd overall) is Toronto’s most enticing goalie prospect in a decade; and Marlies stud Adam Brooks (92nd overall) earned a seven-game NHL look this season.