Siegel: Sitting down with Leafs' director of amateur scouting

Jonas Siegel
6/23/2014 10:26:51 AM
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There were only 14 games remaining in the regular season when the trade was made.

The then-Pat Quinn-led Maple Leafs were jostling for top spot in the Eastern Conference and wanted to add some Hall of Fame punch to their lineup. So on Mar. 3, 2004 - with John Ferguson Jr. installed as general manager - Toronto swung a deal with New York for Brian Leetch; a swap that would cost them two prospects, (and of much more significance to the future) a first round pick in 2004 and a second round pick in '05.

Six days later they would fire another draft selection - a fourth round pick in '05 - to Carolina for Ron Francis. It was only one year earlier that they surrendered their first round pick in '03 and two young players - Alyn McCauley and Brad Boyes - to San Jose for Owen Nolan. They'd sacrifice another second round pick ('04) for Glen Wesley less than a week after that.

Later was constantly being sacrificed for now in an era when draft futures held little of their current premium for a big spender like the Leafs. But it was that strategy of now for later - two firsts, two seconds in a string of three drafts - that helped damage the club in the years that followed the second lockout; useful (and inexpensive) prospects in a cap era were nowhere to be found.

Sending out another first ('07) in the Vesa Toskala trade and two more ('10, '11) in the Phil Kessel swap, the Leafs had, over the course of nine drafts ('03-'11), traded five of their first round selections. The result was a prospect cupboard continually lacking in NHL-caliber talent and an organization short on internal depth.

That prospect could be changing with a collection of youthful talent - the likes of Petter Granberg, Josh Leivo, Jerry D'Amigo, Stuart Percy, and Andrew MacWilliam among others - edging closer to potential jobs with the Leafs and others - such as Matt Finn, Connor Brown, Tom Nilsson, and Carter Verhaeghe - in line to follow.

With the eighth overall selection (at the time of this writing) in the 2014 draft, the club will add another asset to that mix. Fronting the charge for that selection is Dave Morrison, the team's director of amateur scouting, who spoke with TSN.ca about the Leafs draft history, Brendan Shanahan and his role in the draft process, high-risk, high-reward picks, a burgeoning group of blueline prospects and an unpredictable draft in Philly.

SIEGEL: You've talked to me in the past about looking for indicators as far as prospects go, indicators that will tell you that a prospect can play in the NHL - whether that's speed, size, or a shot. In terms of that personality, how would you say it's progressed from when Brian Burke was in charge to now that you have Brendan Shanahan at the helm?

MORRISON: Well, those things never really change because I think some of those core indicators really do need to stay the same. They have to be able to get to a certain proficiency in skating, if they're not already elite skaters. Some kids just are naturally very gifted on their feet; other kids have to really work at it. Does their brain function fast enough to be able to play at the next level? And if they're not a good skater does it function fast enough to compensate for their lack of foot speed? Do they have enough courage? The game has changed a lot and courage, probably the definition of it and how it pertains to the player being able to play in the game has changed too a little bit. It's a little different than it was 10, 15 years ago.

But a lot of those things haven't changed in the sense that you have to be able to put a value on them and make sure that down the road they're going to have those things that are going to enable them to play or give themselves a chance to play.

SIEGEL: Is foot speed more important now than maybe 10 years ago?

MORRISON: Absolutely. I think pre-original lockout there was a lot more hooking and holding. I think strength, size, the ability to battle through things was really, really important. It's still important. As you can see in the playoffs, teams that are big and strong and have those bodies can be really effective at this time of year. But it has changed in the sense that the smaller player is maybe getting a little bit more of an opportunity. I think speed, you can really see speed and what it can do in a game. So it has changed a little bit in that sense. I think all things being equal you would like a big player with great speed, with great hands and with great hockey sense (laughs).

SIEGEL: Perfect player.

MORRISON: Yeah, it's always been that way, but unfortunately it's never as clear-cut as that.

SIEGEL: We got a pretty good understanding when Brian was here; he liked that North American player, black and blue style. His first draft in 2009 you picked seven North American players. So now that you've had one draft under Dave Nonis and obviously Dave Nonis and Brendan Shanahan are now at the top [together], what does a Brendan Shanahan player look like now? What kind of player has he passed along to you that he would like in the system?

MORRISON: You know Brendan himself was a black and blue, skilled player. He was a very competitive, skilled player. I think he himself likes those kind of players as well. We as an organization, we've always sort of wanted those kind of guys. Yes, along the way we've maybe tried to get a different type of player at different times and sometimes that's difficult to do. But I think anybody in our organization would tell you that competitiveness is really important and obviously you need to have skill on your team. Those are important ingredients. But you also have to have a certain number of physical players that play hard and can play the game two ways; preferably everybody plays hard and two ways. You do have different types on your team. Competitiveness is really important to us. Certainly you want to be a big, strong, skilled team if you can be.

SIEGEL: When you look at the current group that you have, you've got some prospects that look like they could be ready to take that next step...but when they project right now you can see them more as role players at the NHL level. Do you feel like you've got to keep injecting more skill into the prospect cupboard?

MORRISON: I think you always want to inject everything into your prospect cupboard every year. If you look at the past it always sounds like our cupboard is bare of skilled players - what I read and what I hear - but if you look at a kid like Andreas Johnson, who was just the Swedish Elite League rookie of the year with 15 or 16 goals as a 19-year-old in that league, I see a skilled player. I see a Connor Brown, who won the scoring [title] in the CHL. Does he need some development time? Yes. But he's a very skilled player. Fabrice Herzog [scored] over 30 goals in his first year with Quebec last year. Do we have some skill in the pipeline? Yes. Do we have role players? Yes. Do you need to inject skill players? Yes. You always need to do that. Kids like Nazem Kadri and Morgan Rielly, I think those kinds of players you do have to draft and we've drafted them in the past and we'll draft them again.

SIEGEL: Well and I think you could probably add Carter Verhaeghe to that list as well - you look at what he did last year in Niagara. But whether it's Andreas Johnson, Fabrice Herzog, can you look at those guys and say they'll be high impact players at the NHL level?

MORRISON: I think they have a chance to be [high] impact players, Jonas. I think any prospect has a chance and an opportunity to do that. The blue-chip type, those franchise-type guys, there's not many of those available every year. And I think you can throw a lot of other players in as they develop, the closer they get they get closer maybe to being a blue-chip [prospect]. But it's always an opportunity and a chance for these kids to become those players and that's part of the development process that we've been putting a lot more work and effort into the last few years. We're hopeful that we're going to see the fruits of that labour at some point here. And I know there's an impatience in Toronto and I understand it totally and it's incumbent upon us to change things and put a winning team on the ice - that's just the bottom line.

SIEGEL: What's the balance when you're putting together your list, and it's obviously a really rigourous process, but what's the balance between ranking a player who is maybe a safer bet to make the NHL as opposed to a player who's higher risk, but potentially offers higher rewards?

MORRISON: That's a million dollar question. Sometimes if you think you can get a third line player, big centre like Fred Gauthier we'll use an example. Is he going to be an impact player in his own way? Well, we believe he is. Is it going to be as an offensive player? No. Is he going to be an integral part of a winning team at some point? We certainly hope so and we think so. So there's a lot of these different things that you think about. And it takes a lot of different pieces to make a winning team and some people get focused on the idea that you have to get 150 points in junior to be a good NHL player and that certainly is a good indicator, but it's not everything. Weighing everything out, yes, you'd love to get that high-impact offensive, first-line player with every pick. The reality is that's very tough to do. So when we're doing that you're weighing 'well what are the odds of this guy getting there versus this guy? And what will he bring to your lineup? And is it going to be valuable? And is it going to be tough to find when you need that?' That's another question. Teams will give up first round picks for players because they don't have [that specific skill] at some point.

SIEGEL: But couldn't you make case that it's more difficult to find skill than it is a role player? If you're going to get that player don't you have to draft him?

MORRISON: Yeah, I don't disagree with you in that sense. Yes. Skill, a guy that will be a top-line player, is definitely harder to find and we are trying to do that at all times. Certainly at some points you're looking at that guy and you're saying 'Well, how far away is he? Does he have a chance?' And then you're ranking him versus another guy, who's maybe not a first-line player, but a second-line player, but you say 'Hey this guy has those intangibles, maybe we do that?' We haven't done that with every pick we've made. Again Jonas, we're always trying to get that top guy with every pick and we feel like we can get a guy that can impact our lineup we're going to take him.

SIEGEL: Yeah, I guess it's just easy to look at some of the teams that have advanced deep into the playoffs, Chicago, L.A., and they've managed to find some steals later in the draft. I understand it's a crap-shoot and picking Andrew Shaw in the fifth round, there's got to be some degree of luck to that, but when you look at the [Leafs] organization's drafting history, is there something you've identified and said 'You know what, we can do that better'?

MORRISON: Well, you're always trying to get better. In our group, our amateur scouting group here, we talk about it constantly throughout the whole year every year. 'What can we do better? With this particular pick what did we do wrong? What can we improve upon? What did we miss? What's something we can make ourselves better at?' We do that constantly. And I think most scouts would tell you they're extremely proud of the players that they've picked that have made it, but they also talk about the failures. We often compare it to a batter going up to the plate; you're going to fail more than you're going to succeed. And that's an unfortunate reality that we really don't want to come to grips with and we don't. We go into that draft thinking with seven picks we're going to get seven players and we want to get seven players out of every draft. So we're always, always trying to get better at. I believe in this scouting [staff]. I think if you look at a lot of scouting staffs, over time with experience, they all tend to get better.

SIEGEL: When you look at the group that you've put into place, are you most excited about some of the prospects that you've been able to assemble on the back-end? You look at Petter Granberg, you look at Tom Nilsson, Matt Finn, the year that he had. Is that the area where you probably have the most strength right now?

MORRISON: That's the group right now that's further along in the cycle. Am I proud of that group at this particular point? Yes, I am. But they haven't got there yet Jonas and until they get there I'm not satisfied and neither are they. I see a group of forwards too that I think have a lot of potential and are trying to get to that ultimate goal as well. I just think that all the picks we've made we've put a lot of our heart and soul into and these kids we know are doing the best they can to get there. We just need them to take those extra steps and a lot of them seem to be doing it. And right now it appears some of these defencemen we have are getting very close so that's a good thing.

SIEGEL: When you look at this year's draft, does the unpredictability at the top make it difficult to project what you're going to be able to land at the eighth pick?

MORRISON: I would say so. You look at a lot of these independent lists and things online and different publications and there's a real difference in the lists. Maybe, other than a few guys at the very top, there seems to be a real difference in who likes who. I would think that it's probably the same with 29 teams. It's difficult, but at the end of the day we know what we like and we know what we'd like to get and that's I think the most important thing going into the draft.

SIEGEL: When you look at some of those publications, aside from the 2-3 guys at the top, it seems to be winger-heavy at the point where you're picking. If that's the case and obviously this organization's strength, one of its strengths is on the wing, are you okay with picking another winger or do you look and say we've got to find a way to keep addressing the need at centre? You added Gauthier last year. How do you balance that juggling act?

MORRISON: I think we take the best player. I think we don't think about the position so much as the player and the talent. And that's the way we're going to look at it. We want to get the best player we possibly can, the player with the most NHL potential and potential impact at the NHL level when they get there. So that's what we're going to do. We won't be position-specific; it's more about the player.

SIEGEL: I don't want to go through all the different guys, but is there a type that you're looking at within that group, because you seem to have some power wingers, you've got a couple two-way centres; what about the group coming into this draft strikes you?

MORRISON: This group, there's all different flavours there. There's really a different bunch of styles and types in that group. We like quite a few of them. We've got a framework now for our list obviously. We know who we like and we're confident we're going to get a good player. It's exciting going in.

Carter Verhaeghe (Photo: Graig Abel/Getty Images)


(Photo: Graig Abel/Getty Images)
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