The NHL has changed drastically in the last 20 years, the days of blockbuster trades involving star players are very rare. What used to be commonplace might happen once or twice a year, when is the last time you saw a deal like the Oilers and Kings made with Gretzky?
Successful organizations like the Detroit Red Wings have figured out that draft-and-develop is how a team becomes a consistent playoff competitor. It looks as though for the first time in the last twenty-five years, the Red Wings won’t see the postseason this year, an astonishing feat unmatched in other professional sports. Twenty-five years of playoff appearances would be a record in the MLB, NFL and NBA; amazingly it’s only the third longest streak in the NHL.
Looking back over NHL draft picks for the last 20 years, you can see just how valuable those early round picks can be. While we all know the story of the guys drafted in late rounds that turn out to be superstars, the reality is that most players in the league get drafted in the first three rounds.
Digging into the Leafs draft picks over the last 20 years, it is so blatantly obvious why it’s been such a dark journey, picks traded, poor choices and zero patience. So many of their better choices were traded away too soon, just look at how many stars around the league drafted by Toronto but now reside on different rosters.
It’s been a long dark road for Leaf fans, but under the Shanahan, Lamoriello and Babcock regime there is finally light at the end of the tunnel.
20 Worst: Jeff Farkas, 1997 - 57th Overall
Without any picks in the first two rounds, the Leafs' first selection in the 1997 Entry Draft would be Jeff Farkas, a skilled centre from Boston College. Farkas’s career would be cut short after falling headfirst into the boards while playing for the Chicago Wolves of the AHL. During the fall, Farkas fractured a vertebra that came within millimetres of leaving him a quadriplegic and eventually forcing him into early retirement from hockey.
March 13, 1996, Toronto General Manager Cliff Fletcher re-acquired Wendel Clark in a deal with the New York Islanders that involved the Leafs 1997 1st round pick. The Islanders would eventually use that pick to select Roberto Luongo 4th overall. Fletcher also traded away the 1997 2nd round pick to the Flyers in a deal involving Dmitry Yushkevich.
Farkas only played in a total of eleven NHL games over eight years, demonstrating just how difficult it can be for scouts to forecast a player's future.
19 Best: Frederik Gauthier, 2013 - 21st Overall
Size down the middle is a desire of most NHL clubs, and that is what the Leafs exactly got when they drafted 6’5” centre Frederik Gauthier from the Rimouski Oceanic of the QMJHL. Known for solid defensive play, Gauthier is currently honing his skills with the Toronto Marlies after suiting up for twenty-one games at the start of the year with the Leafs.
The Leafs are proving this year they are a team to be reckoned with, currently sitting 7th in goals for this season. As the Leafs mature as a team, look for Gauthier to be a regular contributor to the club, fans of the team should be excited to see him as a regular soon.
18 Worst: Kris Vernarsky, 2000 - 51st Overall
Wasting early round picks has been a big part of the Leafs subpar performance over the last twenty years. After selecting Brad Boyes 24th overall in 2000, the Leafs used the 51st pick to select Kris Vernarsky, while Boyes went on to have a very successful career after the Leafs traded him in the Owen Nolan deal with San Jose, the same can’t be said for Kris Vernarsky.
Vernarsky played a mere 17 NHL games, hardly the expectation of a second round pick. The Leafs would trade him in May 2002, right after Vernarsky finished up his junior playing days with the Plymouth Whalers. Toronto received former first round pick Richard Jackman in return for Vernarsky, but Jackman wouldn’t play much better, spending most of his pro career in the minors and Europe where he still plays for the Fife Flyers.
17 Best: Viktor Stalberg, 2006 - 161st Overall
Rarely do 6th round picks ever amount to much in the NHL but the Leafs found a diamond in the rough when they drafted Stalberg in 2006. Stalberg would don the Maple Leaf jersey just 40 times before being traded to Chicago in a deal involving Kris Versteeg.
Stalberg has proven that his speed and versatility is a desire of many clubs, he also has a Stanley Cup to his name after winning with Chicago in 2013. Now playing for his 5th NHL club, Stalberg mainly fulfils a checking line role but with 167 points in 480 games, he can add secondary scoring at times. Unfortunately, Stalberg wasn't a Leaf long enough for Toronto fans to see him develop into the player he is today, despite that, the Leafs made a tremendous pick when they drafted him.
16 Worst: John Doherty, 2003 - 57th Overall
Acquiring a player of Owen Nolans' stature usually requires a club to give up something in return, the Leafs apparently agreed to part with their 2003 1st round pick in the deal. The Leafs first pick in the 2003 draft would be at the 57th spot where they would select John Doherty.
Doherty born in Lynnfield, MA would choose to go to the NCAA after being drafted by the Leafs. After finishing up at Quinnipiac University, he would sign his first pro contract with the Columbia Inferno of the ECHL.
It's difficult to see what the Leafs did in Doherty, never putting up very impressive numbers at any level, he would play a total of 37 games of minor pro hockey before retiring in 2008. The Leafs wasted a valuable second round pick on Doherty passing on David Backes who was selected five picks later by St. Louis.
15 Best: Carl Gunnarsson, 2007 - 194th Overall
Taken 194th out of 211 in 2007, Carl Gunnarsson was passed over in three previous NHL drafts before the Leafs took a chance on the steady blueliner. Not a big point producer, Gunnarsson uses his solid defensive play to log meaningful minutes on the backend.
After five seasons in Toronto, the Leafs traded Gunnarsson to St. Louis for Roman Polak. Gunnarsson would look great in a Leafs jersey right now as one of the team's weak spots is their defence, lacking a solid stay at home guy. Gunnarsson led the Leafs in 2013-14 with a +13 rating and 171 blocked shots, he also led St. Louis with a +10 rating in his first year with the Blues.
Polak brings a toughness to the Leafs d-core that Gunnarsson lacked but with the way the game is changing, I wonder if the Leafs would make the trade today if they had the chance to do it over?
14 Worst: Karel Pilar, 2001 - 39th Overall
With a lot of future NHL stars drafted in the second round, it is crucial if a team is going to succeed to get this pick right. After taking Carlo Colaiacovo 17th overall in 2001, its was the Leafs' second pick of the draft that raised many eyebrows in wonder.
The Leafs would select Karel Pilar 39th overall passing on players like Fedor Tyutin, Mike Cammalleri and Jason Pominville. Pilar would dress for a total of 90 games for the Leafs over three years where he would score six goals and twenty-four assists for thirty points.
A native of Prague, CZE, Pilar would leave after the 2003-04 season to go back and play in his homeland for Sparta Praha, after a stint in the AHL in 2007-08 unable to crack an NHL roster he again headed back home where he still plays today. Another terrible pick by the Leafs that returned zero to the clubs chance of success.
13 13 Best: Nazem Kadri, 2009 - 7th Overall
Born and raised in London, Ontario, Kadri grew up cheering for the Leafs. When drafted by his childhood team 7th overall in 2009, it was a dream come true for the gritty centre. It was playing for his hometown junior team, the London Knights, where Kadri would garner the attention of the Leafs scouts, scoring 25 goals, 53 assists for 78 points over 56 games.
Kadri would need three seasons splitting time between the AHL playing for the Toronto Marlies and the Leafs before he would be ready to make the jump to the show full-time. Since becoming a consistent performer for the Leafs, Kadri has continued to develop into a valuable character player for Mike Babcock. Asked to take on more of a shutdown centre role than a goal scorer, Kadri has earned the respect of his teammates and coach.
Leaf fans should be excited about the player Kadri has become because he is going to be with the team for a while after being rewarded him with a six-year $27 million contract extension in 2016.
12 Worst: Brad Ross, 2010 - 43rd Overall
Blowing another early round pick, the Leafs selected Brad Ross 43rd overall in 2010. The Leafs expected Ross to develop into a tenacious left winger that could contribute with more than just his fists. Ross dropped his mitts eleven times during the 2009-2010 WHL season while playing for the Portland Winterhawks racking up 203 penalty minutes while netting 68 points in 71 games.
The Leafs would soon realize that they had made a mistake as Ross was without the talented cast of surrounding players he had in Portland. Once Ross didn't have talents like Ty Rattie, Sven Baertschi and Nic Petan to play with, his actual talents or lack thereof started to shine through. After bouncing between the AHL and ECHL, Ross has finally landed in Germany the last two seasons playing for the Iserlohn Roosters.
11 Best: Morgan Rielly, 2012 - 5th Overall
Smooth-skating, big and skilled, is there a better combination when selecting defensemen? The Leafs have been ecstatic with their 5th overall pick in the 2012 draft. Morgan Rielly is showing signs that he is going to be everything the Leafs hoped for ranking second in assists and sixth in points among rookie defensemen in 2013-14.
It appears that Rielly will be the first half of the Leafs top-pairing for years to come. Like all great offensive defensemen, Rielly needs a partner that can be a steady rock on the blue line allowing him to jump up when the opportunity arises. Hopefully, the Leafs can find that much-needed partner for Rielly in the very near future.
10 Worst: Petr Svoboda, 1998 - 35th Overall
After the solid first round pick of Nikolai Antropov at tenth overall, the Leafs totally ruined their early second round pick, when they selected Petr Svoboda thirty-fifth overall. Missing players such as Brad Richard, Pavel Datsyuk and Mike Fisher, the 1998 entry draft was loaded with hidden gems. Scouting European players has always been arduous, it’s just hard for the scouting staff to get a lot of viewings of players. A video isn't the same as watching live.
Thinking they were getting a beast to bolster their defence, Svoboda didn't live up to the Leafs expectations. At 6’3” 216 lbs, size wasn’t Svoboda’s problem but defending was, -5 in just 18 games with the Leafs in 2000-01, the coach had seen enough, and the next year Svoboda was sent to the AHL.
9 Best: Alexander Steen, 2002 - 24th Overall
When the Leafs selected Alexander Steen 24th overall, they hoped he would be as successful as his father Thomas was. The eldest Steen played 950 games all with the Winnipeg Jets from 1981-1995. The Steen’s would become the first Swedish father-son combination to each score in the NHL.
Not sure what Cliff Fletcher thought when on Nov 24, 2008, he traded Steen and Carlo Colaiacovo to St. Louis for Lee Stempniak a former fifth-round pick. Steen has developed into a consistent 50-point producer which should be no surprise, as he put 45 points in his rookie season with the Leafs. Trading away first rounders for fifth rounders may just be part of the reason for the lack of success for the Leafs. Things look to have changed in Toronto with the great young core they currently have.
8 Worst: Luke Schenn, 2008 - 5th Overall
While playing junior for the defensemen factory the Kelowna Rockets, Luke Schenn came with a lot of hype. A beast of a man at 6’2” 229 lbs, Schenn dominated the physical play of the WHL. In 2008, the new NHL was already starting to emerge, it was clear that speed and skill were replacing size quickly, so it’s perplexing why the Leafs opted for size when they selected Schenn fifth overall.
Besides the Lightning who drafted Steve Stamos first and the L.A Kings who selected Drew Doughty second, twelve other teams missed out on Erik Karlsson. Karlsson has redefined how defensemen play today, and the Leafs could have had him. Schenn lasted four seasons with the Leafs before being traded in 2012 to the Flyers for James Van Riemsdyk. That’s one positive from the Schenn pick; this is one deal that former Toronto GM Brian Burke hit out of the park.
7 Best: Tuukka Rask, 2005 - 21st Overall
With a .922 SV%, what in the world was John Ferguson Jr. thinking when he traded the rights of Tuukka Rask to Boston for Andrew Raycroft? Rask has been one of the best goalies in the NHL for the last ten years, what a mistake the Leafs made letting him go. In the two years the Leafs got out of Raycroft, he squeaked out a mere .885 SV%, a massive difference from Rask. Raycroft has been playing in Europe the last two seasons and so far this year has a SV% of .896.
Rask won a Stanley Cup with the Bruins in 2011 and a Vezina Trophy three years later at the end of the 2013-14 season.
The time and effort that goes into scouting and deciding on first round picks are immense, and it’s baffling to see teams trade these players away early in their career until they have proven beyond a doubt they don't belong. The Leafs totally blew this deal.
6 Worst: Justin Pogge, 2004 - 90th Overall
Another year where Toronto was without a first and second round pick, as their first selection would be Justin Pogge at 9oth overall. The exact opposite of the Tuukka Rask pick in 2005, the Leafs bombed when they decided Pogge was their man. With those early round picks not available, it's imperative the scouts are sure about their choice, or it could be a waste of a draft and that's precisely what 2004 was for the Leafs.
Of the seven drafted players, Toronto chose only two players who played any games at all. Pogge played a total of seven NHL games and Robbie Earl who was taken in the sixth round played forty-seven.
5 Best: William Nylander, 2014 - 8th Overall
NHL scouts are always big on lineage; it just seems to be positive. Well, Leaf scouts got the William Nylander pick bang on, the son of a long time NHLer Michael Nylander hockey is clearly in the blood of this family. A third member of the family following in his dad’s and brother’s footsteps is younger brother Alexander, who was taken with the same eighth overall pick in the 2016 draft by Buffalo.
After two years in the AHL with the Marlies, William Nylander needed to prove to the Leaf coaching staff he could play without the puck. Scoring has never been an issue for the young Swede as he is demonstrating this year in his rookie season, tallying 52 points so far in 70 games. Nylander is an important part of the Leafs’ future for sure.
4 Worst: Luca Cereda, 1999 - 24th Overall
Remember Luca Cereda? Neither do other Leafs fans. Drafted 24th overall by the Leafs in 1999, Luca Cereda somehow managed to impress Coach/GM Pat Quinn. Few will ever have a bad word about a man that left his mark on the game of hockey like Quinn did, but he missed on this pick for sure.
Cereda was an eighteen-year-old playing in the Swiss-A league when Toronto decided on him; the Leafs brought him over to North America in 2001-2002 to polish his game in the AHL. Three seasons passed with the Marlies and the Leafs would never give him a single chance at playing in the NHL. After the 2003-04 season, Cereda would head back to Switzerland where he would retire from hockey in 2006-07.
3 Best: Mitch Marner, 2015 - 4th Overall
Mitch Marner is turning heads every time he steps on the ice this season. As a nineteen-year old and ineligible to play in the AHL, the Leafs only had two choices this year with Marner. Keep him with the big club or send him back to junior with the London Knights of the OHL. With back-to-back 100+ seasons in junior and a Memorial Cup Championship last spring, it was evident despite his size the Leafs had to give him a shot.
At 5’11’ and 164lbs, Marner has shown his size won't hold him back. Already compared to Patrick Kane, many could argue he could be number one on this list. Any other season, Marner would be the hands down winner of the Calder Memorial Trophy for the league’s Rookie of the Year, but with stand out sensations, teammate Auston Matthews and Winnipeg Jets star Patrik Laine, Marner has his work cut out.
2 Worst: Tyler Biggs, 2011 - 22nd Overall
NHL clubs have to get their first round picks right, or it can be a devastating blow to the future success of the team. Brian Burke missed the boat when he selected Tyler Biggs twenty-second overall in the 2011 entry draft. Playing for the U.S. National Development team during his draft year, Toronto thought they had a real winner, but with Biggs only playing 20 games that season, the sample size was just too small to get an accurate assessment of his potential.
Things looked like the Leafs had made the right choice when Biggs switched in 2012-13 to play for the Oshawa Generals of the OHL. Biggs chalked up 53 points in 60 games. Biggs got a shot with the Toronto Marlies for two seasons but could only deliver fourteen points in 104 games. It’s not over for Biggs, he is currently playing for the Kalamazoo Wings in the ECHL, and maybe he can find his way back to the NHL.
1 Best: Auston Matthews, 2016 - 1st Overall
It didn't take long for Matthews to show Leafs fans why he was the first pick overall, scoring four goals opening night of the 2016-2017 season it was evident the Leafs messiah had arrived. The hype surrounding Auston Matthews before the 2016 entry draft was electric; it would be the Leafs picking first and everyone knew without question Matthews was going to the guy.
In 2014-15 while playing for the U.S. National Development Team, Matthews broke Patrick Kane’s record of 52 goals and 102 points in 2005-06 by recording 55 goals and 117 points. Apparently ready for the NHL at 6’3” 216lbs, the eighteen-year-old Matthews decided to take a one-year deal and went to play for NHL veteran coach Marc Crawford in Zurich, Switzerland. Growing up in Phoenix, Matthews is the first U.S. born player drafted first overall since Patrick Kane in 2007.
Now that Matthews and Marner are exciting Toronto fans nightly, many are pointing out the similarities between the current Leaf squad and the Chicago Blackhawks after drafting Kane and Toews, the future is brilliant for the Toronto Maple Leafs!