When it comes to rebuilding a franchise in the NHL, you need to draft wisely and develop your team from within. And the Toronto Maple Leafs have been in a “re-building stage” for almost 50 years. The Leafs have little to show for their last 15 first-round selections at the NHL Entry Draft, so clearly the Leafs haven’t been drafting very well. Even recently, the Leafs acquired the majority of their "core" players via trade rather than through the draft. Again, that isn’t a good way to build up a franchise. It forces you to over pay for players in free agency or in a trade. And that is what the Leafs have been doing all this time.
Take the Chicago Blackhawks for example. The Blackhawks, a modern dynasty, contains mostly homegrown talent. Their star players, including Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford were all drafted by the team. And the Blackhawks have even more potential stars break their roster every year. Now that’s how you build a franchise.
Clearly a lot of hindsight went into making this list and the Leafs weren't expected to draft any of these players in the first round. That being said, here are some of the best players that the Leafs passed up on in their last 15 first round appearances at the draft.
Rules: The players we choose to re-draft will have been taken at most 30 picks later, so that it would've been possible for the Leafs to have considered them.
15 1995 – Petr Sykora
In 1995, the Toronto Maple Leafs originally selected defenceman Jeff Ware at 15th overall. What a mistake that was. Over two seasons with the Leafs, Ware played a grand total of 15 games and offered zero goals or points. The Leafs then traded Ware to the Florida Panthers where he would go onto play six games and tally one assist. In return, the Leafs acquired winger David Nemirovsky who never played a game with Toronto.
Petr Sykora, drafted 18th by the New Jersey Devils, put up 42 points in his rookie season. Sykora would eventually become a solid 25/30-goal scorer for the Devils.
14 1998 – Alex Tanguay
The Toronto Maple Leafs original draft choice at 10th overall was Nik Antropov in 1998. While Antropov wasn’t a complete bust, he was a mediocre first line center for the Leafs. If they were looking for an impact forward in this draft, they should've looked to Alex Tanguay, who went two picks later to the Colorado Avalanche. Though he had some injury issues, he still managed to play more than 1,000 games and put up an impressive 828 points in that time. Tanguay also stepped up in the playoffs, winning a Stanley Cup with the Avs in 2001, scoring 21 points in 23 games that year.
13 1999 – Martin Havlat
Drafted 24th overall, Luca Cereda was a huge bust for the team, as the Swiss prospect never played appeared in an NHL game. Within the next 20-30 picks, they weren't many notable players taken apart from the player we wish they had selected, Martin Havlat. Two picks after they wasted a pick on Cerada, their provincial rivals, the Ottawa Senatora, selected the intelligent two-way forward, who's had a strong NHL career thus far. While he's slowled down considerably because of injuries, he's managed 593 points in only 788 games, giving him a solid point-per-game ratio of 0.75.
12 2000 – Justin Williams
While Brad Boyes, their original draft choice, has been a respectable second or third forward for the majority of his career, he hasn't been as good as the player they wish they chose, Justin Williams. While he hasn't been elite during the season, though he still owns a respectable 582 points in 918 games, he is one of the best playoff performers of his generation. He's won three Stanley Cups, one with the Hurricanes and two with the Kings, putting up impressive point totals in each of those campaigns (18, 15 and 25 points). His performance was so great in 2013/14 for the Kings that he won the Conn Smythe trophy. Selected only four picks later by the Flyers, the Leafs could've used his clutch goal scoring over the last fifteen years.
11 2001 – Fedor Tyutin
In 2001, the Toronto Maple Leafs came away with a top-six/depth defenseman in Carlo Colaiacovo. He played only a few seasons in Toronto before being traded to the St. Louis Blues, where's he continued to be a solid depth defender. Considering this wasn't an incredibly deep draft, our choices to select from were not exactly stellar like with some of these other picks. We've decided to go with an improvement on defense in Fedor Tyutin, who was selected 23 picks later by the New York Rangers. While he's not an elite defender, he's been a lot more valuable than Colaiacovo, averaging nearly four more minutes on the ice per game.
10 2002 – Duncan Keith
For the past few years now, the Toronto Maple Leafs have lacked a cornerstone defenseman. The Leafs thought they landed one when they traded for Dion Phaneuf but he hasn't been as good as expected. When Phaneuf came to Toronto in 2010, Duncan Keith was on his way to winning his first Norris trophy and just entering his prime. Over his tenure with the Chicago Blackhawks, Keith won three Stanley Cups and helped turn the franchise around.
Instead of drafting Keith in 2002, who was originally selected 30 picks later (making him just barely eligible for our list), they selected Alex Steen who turned out to be pretty good, but only played a few seasons with the Leafs and is no franchise player.
9 2005 – Tuukka Rask
The Toronto Maple Leafs had it right this time, as Tuukka Rask was their original selection in 2005. And what a good decision that was. The only problem is that they immediately traded him. The Leafs traded Rask to the Boston Bruins for Andrew Raycroft, who had won a Calder trophy, before doing absolutely nothing else. If they had kept Rask, they may have managed to put together a winning team, as Rask has a Vezina Trophy and a Stanley Cup ring. Instead, Andrew Raycroft played two seasons with the Leafs, putting up stats that were less than respectable.
8 2006 – Claude Giroux
In 2006, the Toronto Maple Leafs drafted Jiri Tlusty 13th overall, now a top-nine forward and an unrestricted free agent. Tlusty managed 20 points in 74 games with the Leafs before he was traded for virtually nothing in return.
Later on in the first round, the Philadelphia Flyers took Claude Giroux at 22nd overall. Giroux has become an elite player with 450 points in 496 games and the 27-year-old would probably be the Leafs best center since Mats Sundin.
7 2008 – Erik Karlsson
Other than Duncan Keith, Erik Karlsson is the best defenseman on this list, while also being the best offensive defenseman on this list. Karlsson, one of the quickest players in the league today, holds an impressive 84 goals and 303 points in 397 games. Now with two Norris trophies under his belt, the only thing missing in Karlsson’s game is consistency in the playoffs.
At fifth overall, ten picks before Karlsson was selected, the Toronto Maple Leafs originally chose Luke Schenn, who never met expectations. Schenn lasted four mediocre seasons in Toronto.
6 2009 – Ryan O’Reilly
In 2009, the Toronto Maple Leafs selected Nazem Kadri at seventh overall. Kadri, at center, has yet to reach his full potential, as the 24-year-old’s work ethic has been criticized. Since being drafted, Kadri has scored 152 points in 250 games, showing glimpses of being an elite talent.
While Kadri has struggled to earn elite status, a better option for the Leafs, in hindsight, would have been Ryan O’Reilly, who was selected 26 picks later. Taken 33rd overall, O’Reilly has been a better player than Kadri and recently signed a huge contract with the Sabres to help lead them in the Jack Eichel era in Buffalo.
5 2011 – John Gibson, Brandon Saad
In 2011, the Toronto Maple Leafs had two picks in the first round. They drafted winger Tyler Biggs at 22nd overall and defenseman Stuart Percy at 25th. Percy tallied three assists in nine games with the Leafs last year while Biggs has yet play his first NHL game.
The Leafs should have drafted goalie John Gibson, before picking up Brandon Saad with their second. Gibson was drafted by the Anaheim Ducks at 39th overall and is considered to be one of the best goalie prospects in the league. In his rookie season last year, he posted 13 wins, eight losses and a shutout. With the Leafs issues in nets, Gibson would've been the perfect candidate to right the ship.
With their second pick, they could've had one of the best young forwards in Brandon Saad. Already a two-time Stanley Cup winner, Saad was terrific for the Blackhawks. He's since been traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets, where he'll be expected to take on a bigger role than he did in Chicago.
4 2012 – Hampus Lindholm
The Toronto Maple Leafs actually did pretty well in this draft, coming away with defenseman Morgan Rielly and you can even argue that Rielly was the best player available at fifth overall. However, Hampus Lindholm, another defenseman, seems to have a stronger all-round game. The Leafs, looking to re-build, have a weak blue line and Rielly’s offensive skillset and inability to play strong defense might not compliment the Leafs back end. Lindholm, taken at sixth overall, is bigger and stronger than Rielly and owns a wider skillset. Lindholm has already played a huge role for the Ducks and helped lead them to another outstanding year.
3 2013 – Andre Burakovsky
It may be too early to judge the winners and losers from 2013, but I think it is safe to say that Andre Burakovsky, taken two picks later by the Caps, may have more upside than the Toronto Maple Leafs original selection at 21st overall, Frederik Gauthier. Burakovsky has great speed and can impact any game offensively, while the six-foot-one forward can play at center and on the wing. On the other hand, Gauthier owns a coveted six-foot-five frame and can play a shutdown role at the center position. However, his narrow skillset offensively may limit him to a third or even fourth line role in the future.
2 2014 – William Nylander
Again, it may be too early to judge recent draft classes but the Toronto Maple Leafs might have hit with this pick in 2014. Coming off of an impressive junior career in Sweden and an even better rookie season in the AHL, the dynamic winger looks to have a high ceiling in the NHL. At five-foot-eleven, Nylander lacks size but he makes up for it in skill. He’s a strong skater who can make plays, as well as score goals. He also showed off his game at the World Juniors this year scoring three goals and 10 points in seven games for Sweden.
1 2015 – Noah Hanifin
With the fourth overall pick in this year’s draft, it was hard for Brendan Shanahan and company to go wrong. That being said, the Toronto Maple Leafs passed up the kind of defenseman that doesn’t come around often. The Leafs have a particularly weak back end and Noah Hanifin is an exceptional all-round prospect defenseman. On top of owning a near perfect six-foot-three frame, Hanifin spent last season (and will likely spend this season too) playing hockey in the NCAA, honing his skills against the big boys. Whereas Mitch Marner, coming from the OHL, still has a lot of work to do before being physically ready to play in the NHL.