Thursday, January 10, 2008

Sixteen Wins in 43 Games - Bring on the Draft

The way the Leafs have played so far this season the most compelling story line – perhaps the only compelling story line left – is that the team is looking more and more like they’ll have a solid shot at a top pick in the 2008 entry draft.

If the Leafs hold on to their first round pick (don’t laugh) odds are they will be in the draft lottery and have a chance at drafting 1st overall.

Sixteen wins in 43 games will do that.

Despite the well known cycles of ineptitude this franchise has gone through, the team is not known for its high draft picks (unless you're referring to trading them).

In the past 15 years, the Leafs have not drafted higher than 10th. The only pick that would have cracked the top 10 was traded to the Islanders for the return of Wendel Clark (the Isles picked up Luongo).

Year, Prospect, Rank
2007 – Traded for Toskala
2006 – Tlusty (13)
2005 – Rask (21)
2004 – Traded for Leetch
2003 – Traded for Nolan
2002 – Steen (24)
2001 – Colaiacovo (17)
2000 – Boyes (24)
1999 – Cereda (24)
1998 – Antropov (10)
1997 – Traded for Clark (4)
1996 – Traded for Yushkevich (15)
1995 – Ware (15)
1994 – Fichaud (16)

Wendel Clark remains the Leafs only 1st overall pick in the last 40 years.

Given that a draft is really all I have to cheer for, Gare Joyce’s new(ish) book Future Greats and Heartbreaks couldn’t have come along at a better time.

The book chronicles a year behind the scenes with NHL scouts, with Joyce having unprecedented access to the Columbus Blue Jackets.

In part 1, he sits in on meetings with the scouts and Blue Jackets team management, takes part in prospect interviews, watches players work out at the combine, and is privy to the official team draft list for the 2006 draft.

The middle section of the book includes detailed game by game notes from junior games and tournaments around the world as Joyce moves through the world of scouting.

The book closes with the 2007 draft, as many of the players who Joyce has met, interviewed and followed on the ice are drafted into the NHL.

I enjoyed the first and third sections of the book the most.

In the first section it's what so many of us would love - a chance to be a fly on the wall as GMs discuss their plans for the club. Who hasn't wanted to sit on a meeting with the GM and his staff or to listen in as scouts and team management plot strategy for an upcoming draft? My only piddling complaint about the first section is Doug MacLean has a few big trade offers on the table and we never find out what teams or players were in play...

Much of the middle section is comprised of Joyce’s game notes and interviews with junior players, coaches and others appeared on his old blog 100 Games a Season.

As someone who’s interested in many of the same aspects of the game that fascinate Joyce, I was really surprised at the lack of deep info compiled by teams and their scouts (much of what the scouts gather is no better than hearsay, there’s no fact checking or searches for a second qualifying source). I was also surprised that the same scouts who are so interested in combine results (cardio, body type, oxygen levels, bench press) have no interest in seeing a payer practice.

The final section wraps things up, bringing the scouts and the players together one final time at the 2007 draft.

One of the most fascinating insights in the entire book comes to the fore in this section and that’s how little the traditional hockey media know about these prospects. Yes, the Hockey News may have run a few profiles and many reporters may have filed something based on the final rankings from Central Scouting and others – but the scouts have their lists, have seen these players on the ice countless times and many of these scouts talk openly (though off the record) about players whose stock is falling like a stone. None of the scouts, or Joyce, are remotely surprised when team after team passes by Angelo Esposito.

This runs so counter to my experience watching the draft live last year (yeah, I'm a geek). The soundtrack of day one of the NHL draft was pretty much Pierre Maguire bellowing about Esposito’s being passed over by team after team, like it was some sort of huge travesty. With Esposito putting up terrible numbers in his second year in the Q, it looks like the scouts were on to something and Maguire was nothing more than a belch in a whirlwind.

With the exception of a continuing misunderstanding or misrepresentation of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball (another middling complaint) I really dug this book. As the Leafs drop through the standings like some passed over prospect, it’s a solid and very timely read for all those Leaf fans who are dreaming of a lottery pick this summer.

For those who'd like to read more, Joyce has a blog that has some updates and out-takes from the book. James Mirtle also filed a nice interview he did with Joyce (the comments from that post do a nice job with the whole Moneyball thing too).

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