The Toronto Maple Leafs have a bad reputation when it comes to drafting. Some of it’s warranted, but they really haven’t been as bad as you might think. Sure, getting the first overall pick in a year when a generational talent (Auston Matthews) is draft-eligible helps, but, beyond that, their draft history in the past 15-20 years actually isn’t that awful. It’s not exceptional, but there’s some quality first round picks in the bunch. Unfortunately, the Leafs either traded them – Alex Steen and Tuukka Rask – before they hit stardom or failed to develop them properly (there’s a lot of those).
Under the guidance of President Brendan Shanahan and General Manager Lou Lamoriello, the Maple Leafs have been much better at drafting in the first round, at least going by early returns. Matthews was an obvious slam dunk selection, but picking Mitch Marner with the fourth overall pick when defenseman Noah Hanifin was on the board was a somewhat risky, but rewarding pick. John Ferguson Jr., as loathed as he is in Toronto, actually didn’t have a terrible drafting record. Then there’s Brian Burke, who hated first-round draft picks so much he did his best to get rid of them. And given his drafting record, it was probably for the best he dealt as many as he did. With that said, let’s begin with the most forgettable of Toronto’s last 15 first-round picks.
15. Luca Cereda – 1999
Swiss-born Luca Cereda is as far back as we’re going for this list. The now-35-year-old was taken by the Leafs with the 24th pick in 1999. At the time, he was thought to be an up-and-coming two-way center with improving offensive capabilities. He posted 16 points in 38 games in the Swiss pro league during his draft year, but seemed to regress the following year, scoring just once in 43 games and adding only five assists.
A heart surgery kept Cereda from playing at all during the 2000-01 season and likely affected his potential greatly. He lasted just two-plus seasons with Toronto’s AHL affiliate in St. John’s before returning to play in Switzerland and retiring in 2007. As disappointing as the selection was, the 1999 draft didn’t feature many impact players beyond the 24th pick save for Martin Havlat and Jordan Leopold.
14. Tyler Biggs – 2011
The only reason Tyler Biggs wasn’t 15th is because Luca Cereda literally couldn’t play hockey for a year as he dealt with a heart condition. At this point in his career, it’s surprising that the 23-year-old was drafted at all. But in 2011, he epitomized the philosophy of the Brian Burke era as a big-bodied, hard-hitting winger and the team took him with the 22nd overall pick. It didn’t take long for the team to realize it was a disastrous selection.
Biggs had a rocky freshman year at Miami University (Ohio) and left school the following year to play for the OHL’s Oshawa Generals. He was decent there, but he didn’t dominate, which is what a 19-year-old first-round pick should do. Since turning pro, he has just 17 points in 119 AHL games. Naturally, he hasn’t played a single game in the NHL and it’ll be an absolute miracle if he ever does. He was dealt to Pittsburgh in the Phil Kessel trade.
13. Stuart Percy – 2011
Toronto selected defenseman Stuart Percy three picks after taking Biggs with the 22nd pick in 2011. While there were concerns immediately regarding the Biggs selection, Percy actually had a pretty impressive skill set and appeared to be a promising prospect. He had 33 points in 64 games for the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors of the OHL and improved the following two seasons of junior. Yet, he was never able to gain any traction as a pro.
Percy’s best season with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies came in 2013-14 when he recorded 25 points in 71 games. He even made the Maple Leafs out of training camp the following season, but was sent back to the AHL after nine games. He played three more games in the NHL last season, but wasn’t re-signed by the Leafs. The Penguins signed Percy as a free agent this past offseason and he plays with their AHL team today.
12. Frederik Gauthier – 2013
Frederik Gauthier wasn’t a Brian Burke selection, but he might as well have been. The Goat was picked with the 21st overall pick in 2013 by Dave Nonis, who served for years as Burke’s right-hand man and became the General Manager after Burke was fired in January of 2013.
Gauthier was everything that the Burke-era Leafs were all about. He’s a 6-foot-5, 235 pound center who was known primarily for his penalty-killing and faceoff abilities, although he did score near a point-per-game in his draft year. The problem was he never really improved offensively. He’s been an adequate AHLer in his first two pro seasons and even had a decent stint with the Maple Leafs this year, scoring twice in 18 games on the team’s fourth line, but he’s likely a career minor league player.
11. Jiri Tlusty – 2006
It only took four complete busts, but now we’re at least getting to the players who have been able to play in the league. If you’re currently asking yourself who the hell is Jiri Tlusty, he was the player taken 13th overall in 2006, nine picks ahead of Claude Giroux. All kidding aside, Tlusty had a pretty uneventful few years before turning pro, aside from leaked nude selfies that made their way online. This was in 2007, so you can at least say he was ahead of his time – just not in terms of skill.
Tlusty scored ten goals as an NHL rookie in 2007-08, but bounced back and forth between the Maple Leafs and Marlies for the next couple of seasons before being dealt to the Carolina Hurricanes. He was unable to earn a contract with an NHL team this season, but has accumulated 446 career games to date, picking up 177 points along the way.
10. Luke Schenn – 2008
Luke Schenn was an extremely impressive 18-year-old rookie defenseman for the Leafs back in 2008-09 and has had a decent career to date, but he’s been a disappointment considering he was a fifth overall pick. The current Arizona Coyote has played in 617 career games, recording 133 points, but at best he’s a bottom-pairing defenseman. With Toronto, he became a whipping boy among fans by his fourth season with the team. Yet, the Philadelphia Flyers decided to offer up James Van Riemsdyk for the struggling rearguard in the 2012 offseason.
Schenn was even worse in Philadelphia, spending four years with the team before being dealt to Los Angeles. Schenn has just five points through 51 games with Arizona and it’s unlikely the 27-year-old has a job in the league for much longer.
9. Carlo Colaiacovo – 2001
Now playing in Germany, Carlo Colaiacovo appeared to be a decent value pick with the 17th selection in the 2001 Draft. Beyond that, he was a Toronto-born kid who put up decent numbers in junior and had the look – and name – of a potential stud blueliner. He even had a promising first pro season with the St. John’s Maple Leafs, posting 31 points in 62 games, but injuries and inconsistencies limited his opportunities with the Maple Leafs. After four-and-a-half seasons with the club, Carlo and Alex Steen were shipped out of town for Lee Stempniak in what might be the organization’s most lopsided trade in the past 20 years – and this is a franchise that gave up two top picks for Phil Kessel and dealt away a future All-Star goaltender for a scrub.
Despite early injuries, Colaiacovo was able to at least carve out somewhat of a career in the league, playing in 470 games and picking up 157 points. He spent last year as a seventh defenseman with the Buffalo Sabres.
8. Brad Boyes – 2000
Like Colaiacovo above, Brad Boyes was a local kid who dreamed of one day playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Toronto made Boyes the 24th overall pick in the 2000 draft and 15 years later he was able to realize his dream, playing in 60 games with the god-awful 2015-16 team.
It didn’t take Boyes that long to make the NHL; rather, the Leafs, as they tended to do with young players back then, dealing Boyes to the San Jose Sharks in 2003 along with Alyn McCauley and a first-round pick in exchange for Owen Nolan. In retrospect, it wasn’t a horrible deal, but it was those types of trades that resulted in the Leafs being a mediocre-at-best team for the better part of a decade. Boyes actually went on to have a fairly productive career, collecting 505 points in 822 career games. His career-best season came in 2007-08 when he scored 43 goals for the St. Louis Blues.
7. William Nylander – 2014
No, William Nylander doesn’t have near the numbers that Brad Boyes had throughout his career, but every indication is that he’s going to be an impact player at the NHL level. Just how good he is going to be is yet to be determined, but already in his first full year with the team, the oldest son of former NHLer Michael Nylander has proven himself as a top-nine forward and a power-play threat.
Nylander arrived in North America from Sweden for the 2014-15 season and has since recorded 77 points in 75 AHL games. He had 13 points in 22 games with the Maple Leafs last season and has 38 through 54 games so far this year. He was named the NHL’s Rookie of the Month in October, which is an impressive feat given the team’s – and the league’s – stable of high-quality first-year players. He could potentially be a top-five player on this list, but for now we’re comfortable slotting him at seven.
6. Nazem Kadri – 2009
Two years ago, Nazem Kadri might have been ninth or tenth on this list, but the former seventh overall pick in 2009 has matured and solidified himself as one of the league’s premier second-line centers. When Toronto made the playoffs in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, Kadri finished second in team scoring with 44 points in 48 games, but he followed that up with seasons of 50, 39, and 45 points while playing 70-plus games. He was even suspended by the team at one point for showing up late to practice.
The team’s influx of young talent has sparked Kadri in 2016-17, however. The London, Ontario native is on pace to shatter his career high of 50 points and has been one of the team’s most complete, all-around players. The six-year, $27 million contract he was awarded by the team last summer looks like an absolute steal now.
5. Morgan Rielly – 2012
Shoutout to Brian Burke for doing something good for a change. The former General Manager once claimed Morgan Rielly was the best player available in the 2012 Draft. That isn’t exactly the case almost five years later, but he’s certainly better than two of the defensemen taken before him – Ryan Murray and Griffin Reinhart. And we’re willing to bet not one GM in the league would take Nail Yakupov first overall in a do-over of the draft. So score one for Burkie.
The Maple Leafs were fortunate enough that Rielly was injured for much of his draft season, which meant the four teams ahead of them were hesitant to take the risk. But the Leafs, needing a defenseman, were more than happy to do so. It’s paid off quite well as the 23-year-old is already an alternate captain with the team and has 113 points through 285 games. Under Mike Babcock, he’s becoming a true first-pairing defenseman.
4. Alex Steen – 2002
One of the game’s most underrated players, Alex Steen was dealt in a ridiculous deal by the Maple Leafs during the 2008-09 season; along with Carlo Colaiacovo, he was shipped to the St. Louis Blues in exchange for Lee Stempniak. Sure, Steen had just four points in the first 20 games that season and didn’t really do much with St. Louis in his first year, but he was just 24-years-old at the time and had scored 15-plus goals in each of the past three seasons in second and third line roles.
Fast forward nine years later and Stempniak has played for every damn team in the league, while Steen has become a mainstay in St. Louis. He’s one of the team’s hardest-working forwards and has improved his offensive ability to boot. Steen has 518 points through 796 career games.
3. Tuukka Rask – 2005
Yeah, one of the best goalies in the NHL was a Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick. Let’s go back to the 2006 World Junior Championships when the Maple Leafs had two starting goaltenders in Rask with Finland and Justin Pogge with Canada. Pogge’s Canadians won gold, but he was tested very little throughout, while Rask single-handedly earned the Finns a bronze medal. Anyone watching the games could tell it was obvious that Rask, a first-round pick in 2005, was much more talented than Pogge, a third-round pick the year prior. The only person who apparently couldn’t tell was John Ferguson Jr., who later dealt Rask to Boston in exchange for one-year wonder Andrew Raycroft, though we later found out that they would’ve taken Pogge instead.
Goalies often take long to develop, but it was evident Rask was a stud early on, especially after his dominance in the AHL and a ridiculous rookie season with the Bruins in 2009-10. Rask now owns a 2.25 career Goals Against Average and a record of 194-116-47, while Raycroft probably works at SportChek.
2. Mitch Marner – 2015
Yup, he of just 55 NHL games lands the number two spot on this last. Quite simply, the Toronto Maple Leafs have never had a player like Mitch Marner. They’ve had big, bruising goalscorers and gifted playmakers, but nobody in team history has had the offensive creativity and shiftiness that Marner possesses. The fourth overall pick in the 2015 draft won almost every award he was eligible to win as a junior with the OHL’s London Knights last season and put to rest any questions about his (lack of) size early in his rookie season.
Marner has been the Leafs most consistent player throughout the 2016-17 campaign and currently leads the team in scoring with 48 points through 55 games. He’s drawn comparisons to Patrick Kane and they’re not unwarranted. Leafs fans should be excited about the dynamic winger.
1. Auston Matthews – 2016
Unless you’re the Edmonton Oilers pre-Connor McDavid, it’s hard to miss on a first overall pick. That said, some years the talent simply isn’t there. Look at the Atlanta Thrashers, who selected Patrik Stefan (who?) first overall in 1999. Prior to the 2016 draft, the Leafs hadn’t picked first overall since they selected Wendel Clark in 1985 and fortunately, their prize was generational talent Auston Matthews.
The Scottsdale, Arizona native opted to play his draft season in Switzerland’s top pro league to adjust to the rigors of the pro game and adjust he did; Matthews led his team in points with 46 in 55 games. If that wasn’t enough, he set a NHL record by scoring four goals in his first career NHL game. Matthews is the franchise center the Leafs have been waiting for since Mats Sundin left and he’s the likely future captain.