Hard to deal with

STEVE SIMMONS, Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:20 PM ET

Every time I watch Steven Stamkos play, I hear Brian Burke’s voice in my head and I want to cringe.

Because this is the kind of possibility Burke traded away of when he chose to throw drafts picks at the Boston Bruins in exchange for Phil Kessel. Because this is a deal he feels the need to justify, when there is almost no justification for it now.

Because maybe he would have gotten a Stamkos in this year’s draft, or a Patrick Kane, and how does it make sense to have passed on that?

In truth, it seemed like a good idea at the time, the addition of Kessel, and it might have been had the Leafs not plummeted towards the basement of the National Hockey League.

It’s not a good idea now, not anymore.

While Burke may say the opposite, that he likes the deal no matter where the Boston lottery pick will end up — and really, what else is he supposed to say? — that can’t be anything more than bravado.

The flaw in this thinking is that neither he nor his people ever anticipated that this Toronto team would be this terrible. And if they did anticipate it, they didn’t believe it themselves.

A five-year analysis of the Top Four picks in the NHL Entry Draft almost certainly indicates that a major mistake has been made here. The odds are stacked highly against this deal working in their favour.

In 2008, one of the great drafts in recent years, Stamkos went first, Drew Doughty went second. Today, all they represent is the most explosive young forward in the game and the most advanced franchise defenceman playing.

If you were the Leafs, would you even consider giving up either of those players plus another first-round pick, plus a second-round pick for Kessel?

The answer: Only if you’ve lost your mind.

The year before that, in 2007, Patrick Kane went first and James vanRiemsdyk was the second pick. You couldn’t get Kane for Kessel today under any circumstances. For vanRiemsdyk, yes or maybe. But this is also a game of odds.

The 2004 draft makes more of a case for Burke, had the Leafs cooperated in the standings or should the Leafs get any kind of draft lottery help when the selections are eventually made. The first two picks were Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin. The next two picks were Cam Barker and Andrew Ladd. The first two are franchise changers. The next two were sent packing by their franchises. If the Leafs have traded away an Ovechkin or a Malkin in the persons of Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin, that will be hugely disappointing. But if the picks turn out to be Barker or Ladd, then that is a victory on any scale for the Leafs.

Still, the odds remain terribly against them.

“I wouldn’t say they’re nuts (to do what they’ve done) but it’s definitely a good thing to have a Top 5 pick,” Stamkos said.

“If you look at the last couple of drafts, guys have been able to step in right away and make an impact. Obviously, they’ve chosen to go in a different direction. Who knows how it will work out? But it’s definitely nice to get a Top 5 pick, especially when you look at what’s happened in the past few years.

With Sidney Crosby, the top pick in 2005, and Malkin, the second pick in ’04, the Pittsburgh Penguins have already lost and won a Stanley Cup.

With Staal, the second pick in 2006, the Carolina Hurricanes have won a Cup.

The best young team in hockey, the Chicago Blackhawks, are led by Kane and Jonathan Toews, the first pick in 2007 and the third pick in 2006.

The Stanley Cup contending Washington Capitals are led by scoring champ and MVP Ovechkin, who is often centred by Niklas Backstrom, the fourth pick in 2006.

In a five-year period, a high percentage of Top 4 picks have turned out to be good, great or superb NHL players. Maybe Alex Pietrangelo or Thomas Hickey will get there one day (it takes defencemen longer to mature unless their name is Doughty) but there have been very few high-end busts in recent drafts.

But even assessing the Team Canada Olympic roster, for example, there were four No. 1 picks in the draft, five No. 2 picks, two No. 3s and one No. 4 — more than half the roster — picked in the Top 4.

The Leafs never had the chance to pass on Stamkos. They messed that up by not bottoming out when they had the chance. Trouble is, they’re bottoming out now, without a pick, with only a good player like Kessel to show for it: Not a great one or a next one.

steve.simmons@sunmedia.ca


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