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.