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Plenty of Burke to be done (Offseason preview part 1: The Draft)

With the NHL awards now concluded, the true offseason begins and it's all but certain to be one of massive consequence to Brian Burke and the Maple Leafs. His first two years behind the helm consisted of forming his core group, which at this point appears to be Dion Phaneuf, Luke Schenn, Phil Kessel, James Reimer and Nikolai Kulemin (interestingly, only two of these players are Burke acquisitions). But now comes the critical moment of finding the perfect complimentary pieces to his group and of course, the elusive component that all contending teams have: a number 1 centre. Does Burke make a blockbuster trade on draft day, enter into the Brad Richards sweepstakes, or take the conservative route and use all his picks?

The Draft

It's been said over and over that there's no star quality in this years draft class, but as we all saw in the Stanley Cup Final, it's very often the second and third liners that help win championships (guys like Marchand and Ryder came up huge while the Sedins were invisible). So although there may be no Sidney Crosby in this draft, there's little doubt that many of the players taken in the first two rounds will be impact players. The Leafs, for a change, are in a position of advantage at this years draft, owning 3 decent mid-range picks that can be bartered for help now or used methodically to acquire a roster player. My feeling is that no deal will be done, as Burke will ask too much for his picks. The idea behind this theory is that he's already shopped them and my suspicion is that teams won't give away much for a pick outside the top ten since it's widely recognized that the talent pool drops off past that point. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, and the aforementioned position of advantage comes into focus upon the realization that Burke can do no wrong here. He either steals a good roster player from a rebuilding team, or he drafts three players in the top 40 and increases his odds of landing at least one future player.

In the last week there have been a number of sports media luminaries who have brought up Brian Burke's miserable drafting background. Apart from the Sedins, Chris Pronger, Ryan Kesler, Kevin Bieksa, Bobby Ryan and Bryan Allen,(most of whom were among the top 5 players taken) the other 101 players Burke took in the 14 drafts he was apart of have for the most part not led successful NHL careers. I won't get into the numbers, but basically Burke is not known for drafting late-round gems, and if he doesn't own a top 5 pick, history has shown he's not known for drafting gems at all. So how has he become arguably one of the most respected and revered GM's in the league without an even passable drafting record? Because the statistic itself has little merit and is a perpetuation of the cynical virus plaguing Toronto-based media. Not that drafting isn't important, but it's not as important as player development, something for which Burke has an obvious knack. Furthermore, Burke has done a tremendous job of acquiring blue-chip prospects from other teams, so although his drafting record is subpar, the notion that this organization is stymied by it's managers fictional "Achilles Heel" is absurd.

NHL.com draft experts cite 5 players as likely to end up in the Blue and White should none of our picks be swapped. Tyler Biggs, Stuart Percy, Jonathan Miller, Boone Jenner and Matt Puempel. Of these 5, my personal favourite is Matt Puempel on the basis that injuries prevented him from reaching his true potential this year and although it's scouting 101 to not take chances on players with injury problems this early on in their careers, I see him being a good depth scorer for years to come. Stuart Percy is a logical choice for the 30th pick, however, until his great playoff run with Mississauga no one would have guessed he may go in the 1st round, which in my opinion is begs the question "Is he that good or did he get hot at the right time?". Boone Jenner is a solid all around forward that is useful in many situations, but I see many players in the Leafs organization that fill similar roles and although scouts claim this doesn't factor into their strategy, it must at some point be a deciding factor when players are rated so closely as they are in this draft class. The problem with Miller and Biggs is that the USHL is not an equal basis of comparison with the CHL in many respects (just watch an OHL game then a USHL game) but in saying that the talent is growing compared to past years. Be that as it may, if Burke should draft any player from the USHL, it should be the hulking defenceman Jamieson Oleksiak. Some mock drafts actually have him going as late as 28th, and in the unlikely event his name is not called by the time Burke steps up to the podium I strongly suspect Burke will take him with the 25th pick. I've also heard predictions that Burke will attempt to draft the undersized Rocco Grimaldi, also from the USHL. At 5'6, he would be among the shortest players in the league. One thing Toronto does not need is another small forward and as such, I seriously doubt these predictions.

One player that has been surprisingly overlooked is dynamic Russian forward Nikita Lucherov. This can be partly associated with his rights being owned by the KHL club CSKA Moscow, as Central Scouting takes into consideration the "signability" of European players, especially Russians. While only registering 2 assists in his first 8 KHL games, Kucherov posted a staggering average of 3 points per game at the World U-18 championship this past year(11G 10A in 7 GP) and is well above a point-a-game player in the MHL. Pretty impressive numbers for a player only listed at 17th among European skaters. Since there's almost no chance of him going in the first round he will be a steal for whoever takes him, and despite the myth among Leaf fans that Brian Burke doesn't like European players, talent is talent no matter what language one speaks. His skill set is easily among the top 10 ranked players, and this writer would go as far as calling him the Russian Nugent-Hopkins because of his ability to score, make creative tic-tac passes and also the fact that at this point his size is the only real concern regarding his potential (5'11, 181lbs).

This will without a doubt be the most exciting draft since Burke took over (which isn't saying a lot since it seems like eons since Toronto last had a 1st rounder). At any rate most experts agree that, generally speaking, the first 50 picks will all be good and Toronto is one of a handful of teams possessing 3 of the first 50 choices. Questions become answers tomorrow at 7 et.

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