Normally teams aren’t judged on how they did at the draft immediately following its conclusion. This is especially the case when they enter the event holding late first round picks (25th and 30th) like the Toronto Maple Leafs did in 2011. However, the moment then General Manager Brian Burke moved two picks (30th and 39th) to the Anaheim Ducks for the 22nd pick, in order to select Tyler Biggs, it left many people with a sour taste in their mouth. Having the Leafs first first round pick after two difficult seasons being compared to Colby Armstrong ruffled many feathers. Since that eventful night in late June of 2011, Biggs has progressed as many expected (a bottom six winger with limited offensive abilities). On the plus side though, the rest of the 2011 draft has a strong chance of being a fruitful and productive crop for the blue and white. With the spotlight shining squarely on Biggs, the Leafs were able to come away from the 2011 draft with intriguing prospects like Stuart Percy, Josh Leivo, Tom Nilsson and Garret Sparks.
While I have mentioned the other players above in the past, I’d like to take a closer look at Leivo today. The Leafs selected Leivo in the third round with the 86th overall pick. At the time, the (now) emerging winger was coming off of a mediocre draft year having registered only 30 points in 64 games for the Sudbury Wolves. In the playoffs that season though he was a different player. In the post-season Leivo notched 6 goals and 7 assists in 8 games. The Leafs were so impressed by that playoff streak they took him in the third round despite the fact he wasn’t even among the final rankings of North American skaters by Central Scouting that year. Since then, the 6’2″ winger has made the Leafs look very smart.
After being selected by the Leafs, Leivo rattled off two very productive seasons:
2011-12 GP 66 G 32 A 41 PTS 73
2012-13 GP 63 G 29 A 44 PTS 73
Those numbers above are better than many players picked before Leivo in the 2011 draft who played in the OHL (Biggs being one of them). The winger has progressed dramatically since the Leafs took a flyer on him to the point where he made his NHL debut last week. Leivo has so far played three games for the blue and white and his effort against the Minnesota Wild Tuesday night was his best. The 20 year old rookie is still very rough around the edges, but his raw skills demonstrate that he can be something worthwhile sooner rather than later for the Leafs. Beyond the big club the Leafs are sorely lacking high impact forwards. Leivo though is the exception to that rule as he has top six skills and just keeps getting better and better. Eventually, he will return to the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League to learn the ropes of professional hockey under the tutelage of Steve Spott (his former coach with the Kitchener Rangers). Leivo won’t be demoted because of performance, but because his development will be much better served playing top line minutes and seeing power play time against men.
The main reason that Leivo was so undervalued heading into the draft was due to his age. While all draft eligible players are thought of as 18 year olds. The reality is, players must have reached the age of 18 as of September 15th in said year to be eligible for the draft. Leivo’s birthday is May 26th which may have explained why he wasn’t as effective until later into the season of his draft year. All young players develop their abilities at different points, and it appears as if the light went on for Leivo late in his draft year and he has taken off since then.
Encouraged by their success with Leivo, this year the Leafs drafted Carter Verhaeghe (August 14th birthday) in the third round with the 82nd overall pick. Verhaeghe was ranked 102 for North American skaters by Central Scouting. The Leafs though didn’t think much of that ranking and took him much earlier than many expected. The 3rd round pick has been a revelation since the moment he hit the ice at the Leafs camp in early July. The 6’1″ 180 lbs pivot was a standout in that camp, as well as the rookie tournament in September. Verhaeghe has continued with that momentum to begin the OHL season where he has 8 goals and 10 assists in the opening 9 games of the campaign. Currently tied for third in OHL scoring, the more Verhaeghe grows into his frame the better he is going to be. While I doubt he’ll challenge for the scoring title, Verhaeghe (like Leivo before him) is proving to be an astute selection by the Leafs.
The Leafs appear to have hit a home-run with Leivo and the early returns on Verhaeghe indicate that they very well may have done so again. I view the draft as a high risk high reward type scenario, and cashing in on third round picks is something that makes organizations that much stronger. Considering the smart drafting of late, the Leafs seem to not only be turning the page on the ice but behind the scenes as well. All signs point to the Leafs having a gem in Leivo. I’m curious to see if we’ll be saying the same about Verhaeghe in the future.
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