Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Brian Burke Philosophy of Draft-picks

Part of the reason why I'm writing a topic on Brian Burke's philosophy and his measured use of the draft picks to acquire Phil Kessel is because I feel that we're all using the wrong vocabulary. When I speak of the wrong vocabulary, I speak of the associated ambiguous terminologies that fans have grasped as part of their hockey jargon: Franchise. Superstar. Generational. Stud. Elite. Assets. Dynamo. Game-breaker. Winner. Cornerstone. All these words are used in conjunction with high-end draft-picks. Fact of the matter is, many are using these in the wrong context. For every player drafted in the first-round, there's a player that has completely failed to meet the expectations of his draft position. The Crosby's and Ovechkin's of the drafts are exceedingly rare, and should never been used as a barometer as to what a high-end draft-pick should always be. Are these terminologies used to describe a player's ability to statistically produce? Are they used to describe a player's ability to transform the outcome of a game? What exactly are the implications of these ambiguities? If all these superlatives of a draft-pick are a true measurement of a player's potential, then a 1st-round pick should be deemed immovable and inviolable to change in ownership - especially if they are used in lottery-range.

While a high-end draft-pick will forever be associated with potential - a potential for change and renewal - it comes at a risk, albeit some picks are riskier than others for a multitude of reasons. It's strange that draft-picks are sometimes associated with guarantees. It's not, however, strange that the reverence of draft-picks are specifically hoarded by those who enjoy living vicariously through the career of a younger player. For the fans to extract enjoyment of the game, they latch themselves onto players that they envision themselves to be - or they simply enjoy how a player plays the game because it matches their expectations of how the game should be played. Separately, I can understand why draft-picks are so valued amongst losing teams - they are a part of any traditional rebuild for a team in need of change.

The traditional rebuild is very much associated with losing to procure high-end talents with draft-picks. I'm not speaking rhetorically - I believe this to be a fact. By losing, a team promises itself an opportunity to position itself for long-term success. A player drafted is a player under control. When a player is under control, you're asserting your line-up with controllable talent. This method is tested, tried, and true. A draft-pick has three years triggering his entry-level deal to establish himself as worthy of his draft-position. If within that time that a player has justified his draft position, the pick is a success. If not, criticisms are more than justified; especially if a player's short-comings were project prior to his selection. But for every Crosby and Ovechkin, there are the Daigle's and the Stefan's.

My first challenge is this: Can you legitimately tell me that those who selected Ed Jovanovski, Owen Nolan, Roman Hamrlik, and Chris Philips were justified in taking them first overall? The association of the superlatives imposed on lottery-picks are poorly misplaced and irrefutably wrong on many counts. Of course, a criticism could be made that my analysis is far too superficial for it to be considered serious. My response to this criticism is that I don't identify the majority of players taken in the first round from 1990 to 2005 with the associated superlatives I've targeted for my analysis. The apotheosis of draft-picks has become saturated with the wrong vocabulary, simply because there's a 'higher' occurrence of finding players of Crosby and Ovechkin's abilities. I don't disagree with that. In fact, I agree that there's a higher chance of finding these players. But for all these great players found in the lottery selections, there are more complete busts that have failed to live up to their expectations.

Back to the Leafs and their bombastic General Manager, Brian Burke.

We have gone 43 years and counting without that beautiful silver mug inside the Air Canada Centre. For the first time, we've finally decided to rebuild and retool with a younger and stronger chassis with a firm direction; but worst of all this losing, we don't have that draft-pick to show for all this losing. For the first time, we're in the bottom two of the NHL since 1985 and won't get our Wendel Clark. I realize my next sentence will likely put me in the intenable position of being traitorous: Clark did not and never did justify his position of being a first-overall pick. He was a great player and a terrific leader. But for all the superlatives piled upon him, he never did live up to the expectations of a lottery pick. Leafs have perpetually failed in the first-round for four decades - not once have we ever succeeded in acquiring the right player for the right team. I deem it far too early to try and justify Luke Schenn and Nazem Kadri's draft-selection and I won't start now. I will, however, say that if draft-position is a reflection of the talent available in any given draft, then we've already acquitted ourselves well with Schenn.

So what do we make of Burke Burke's acquisition of Phil Kessel? How do we best determine the value of two 1st round draft-picks and a 2nd against Kessel's production and potential? A traditional approach would lead many to think that the Leafs failure to achieve average success and bring themselves to avoid lottery position a win for the Bruins. I strongly disagree. For this to be measured correctly, we need to look at the grand scheme of things. Burke's calculated moves in acquiring Jonas Gustavsson, Tyler Bozak, and his evaluation of the roster prior to the Kessel trade is not necessarily a product of poor evaluation, but the movement from a traditional rebuild to a non-traditional one. It's been established that Burke's intentions were to completely rebuild the roster and jettison the players he did not want on the team. Good-bye Jason Blake. See you later Vesa Toskala. Peace out Matt Stajan. We'll miss you, but not really, Ian White!

Great thinkers have always been driven to seek out non-traditional approaches to conventional solutions. Burke's approached this rebuild by realizing the realities of the NHL salary cap has severely limited teams from being able to acquire and hold onto the talents they possess. By his evaluation of his roster, he was able to parlay Stajan, White, and Hagman into Dion Phaneuf. Lets look at this trade for a moment. In the realities of the cap-world, we can determine that Stajan, Hagman, and White have limited upside and that they are replaceable because they are redundant. However, Phaneuf is unique, possesses enormous upside, and it can be argued that he hasn't actualized his potential. His skill-set is not redundant. It is rare. That Burke was able to acquire a rare talent with replaceable players is traditionally rare in the NHL. That is the reality of the cap-world.

With Kessel, we've acquired a 5th overall pick in the 2006 draft for two 1st round picks and a 2nd. The general consensus is that Kessel is a unique talent with the ability to change a game. He has not actualized his potential . Yet, many criticize the trade because for some reason, the players in the lottery somehow stand a better chance of being better than Kessel, regardless of the many compliments and positive descriptions thrown in Kessel's direction. "If he played defense with greater urgency, he would be the perfect player." "Had he been in the 2010 NHL draft, strictly on talent alone, he would go 1st overall." The glorification of these draft-picks has unofficially reached ridiculous projections - for every draft pick from here on out, they will always be associated with super-stardom before they have a chance to sign a contract. But combined with Burke's acquisition of a stud defenseman for a 2nd round pick, a 6th round pick, and a UFA, I feel it's necessary to point out that we've achieved more out of the Kessel trade due to the over-production of those three traded players than Burke wouldn't have gotten without Kessel's influence to all three of these players. Without Kessel’s influence, Stajan, Hagman, and White’s production would have been restricted to the limited output of the players around them – their value, quite likely, would not have enabled Burke to acquire a player of Phaneuf’s pedigree.

The incessant juvenile criticism towards Burke comes from those limited by their traditional knowledge of the game. They are relying on empirical data when Burke is avoiding the traditional approach to the rebuild. Burke's non-traditional approach has garnered two cornerstone players - under contract for four more years - because one player's influence has temporarily raised the value of players with limited upside to acquire one with upside potentially greater than anyone involved. THAT is the value of two 1st-round picks and a 2nd: Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf. From here on out, I wish you all the best of luck trying to spin how two 1st round picks and a 2nd who have achieved none of the superlatives listed above are better than the two players who have already begun to prove they are worthy of the labels.


  1. Your arguments have been spoken before, but never so eliquently put. Well said.

  2. Re: Clark did not and never did justify his position of being a first-overall pick.

    Sure he did. He was easily the second-best player taken that season (Nieuwendyk would be first) and this is despite losing several complete seasons to injury.

    The problem was that it was a lousy draft. One year earlier, that pick would have been Super Mario.

  3. @Andrew

    Thank you for the kind words.


    I agree that in itself, the Leafs made the right pick with Clark as the first overall selection. I don't agree that as a whole, that Clark succeeded in being an overwhelming success. He certainly wasn't generational. He wasn't a superstar. He didn't possess elite skills unless it was throwing the four hardest punches in the history of mankind when he and McSoreley went head-to-head. I feel that the exaggeration of draft-picks are simply fueling the unnecessary glorification of them. It's getting to be a bit much.

  4. In all honesty - did you watch him?

    Wendel lost an enormous amount of his potential success to injuries - first back, then knee. He had the potential to be a repeat 50-goal scorer. He hit like a freight train and had one of the best shots in the game.

    Was he Mario? No. But then again, neither was anybody else.

    I agree that the value of a first-round pick is exaggerated - particularly in years when generational talents aren't available. But that's not to say that Wendel Clark didn't justify his draft position.

  5. BTW - I'm not saying that to be rude. If your only exposure to Wendel Clark is what came out of his last go-round, then you missed the game-breaking aspects of his game. The hits and fights were just one aspect of it.

  6. As someone who is likely a touch older than you (and I'm basing that purely on the statistical liklihood - given I'm older than about 65% of the Canadian population) let me say that Wendel was indeed generational.

    My first son wasn't born until 1997, and as a died-in-the-wool Leafs fan since forever, the only thing which stopped me from naming him Wendel was the fact that I knew his peers would have no idea who Clark was, and I had no desire to tag my son with a "Wendy" nickname for his childhood years.

    Clark transcended statistical measurements of his impact - in no small part due to the fact that technology (both in data gathering and in disemination was far poorer back then) was light years behind what it is today.

    hits? +/-? Takeaways? ... we have no idea how Clark's real impact (which was not always on the scoreboard, but helped the Leafs win games nonetheless) would compare to current day's overanalyzed stars.

    ... and that doesn't even touch on Wendel's value to the franchise of putting a$$es in the seats on what were some dreadfully awful teams in the early years. That too is a measure of value.

    That all said, I like your arguement regarding Kessel's value compared to the draft picks, the real truth won't be known for another few years, as the picks are winding up their entry level contracts, and the Leafs are determining whether they can afford to - or want to - resign Kessel.

    Very interesting take.

  7. Phil Kessel is 37th in goal scoring and 82nd in points. On a per-game basis he's 23 in goals scored. He's on pace for 26 goals and his shooting percentage has fallen by 50% since he joined the Leafs. He carries a cap hit that's 200% higher than each draft pick he was traded for.

    Dion Phaneuf's points totals will have declined two years running, and his goals scored totals have declined every year he's been in the league. At the time of the trade, he was 73rd in Goals against 60 (GA60) among the NHL's 212 d-men. His 24 points are good for 49th among d-men and ties him with Francois Beauchemin on the Leafs. His shooting percentage is 466th in the NHL and his shots reach the net just 54% of the time. For this, Phaneuf carries the 8th highest cap hit among D-men in the NHL.

    Both players have significant questions about their leadership skills.

    Cornerstone players indeed.