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Paramount To Get Right Player At The Top

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
When Maple Leafs’ GM Brian Burke announced he was trying to move up in the NHL draft and land John Tavares he shattered the protocol that says you don’t covet another guy’s Corvette.

But, in case there was any doubt of his vision, the NHL playoffs have once again reinforced the paramount importance of getting the right player at the top of the draft.

Look no further than the Pittsburgh-Washington series, absolutely dominated by first overall Sidney Crosby (2005) who leads the post season in points and goals as well as Alexander Ovechkin (the number one pick in 2004). Marc-Andre Fleury (the first pick in 2003) is the first goalie to eight wins.

Patrick Kane, the first overall in 2007 scored 25 regular season goals and followed it with a team leading eight post-season goals as the Blackhawks beat Calgary and Vancouver. Starting to see a trend here?

You will find that, barring injury or two spectacularly talented players logjammed at the top (Evgeni Malkin was stuck behind Ovechkin in 2004), the player who was chosen first almost always turns out to be the better than the second choice, let alone the seventh.

Yes, you say, and the sky is blue. Yes it is which means it will take wildly extenuating circumstances for Burke to reach his goal.

Stay with me and you will see what Burke is battling against.

In 2001, the Atlanta Thrashers chose Ilya Kovalchuk over Jason Spezza. In 2002, Columbus chose Rick Nash over Kari Lehtonen and Jay Bouwmeester. Nash has 355 points in 441 NHL games and at 24 has emerged as one of a handful of the league’s hottest young guns.

Eric Staal, twice a 40-goal scorer went behind Fleury in 2003 and the Sabres’ prolific Thomas Vanek was chosen fifth so the winner is nowhere near as clear cut as Ovechkin in 2004 and Crosby in 2005. Injuries have sidelined Eric Johnson, the first overall in 2006 but in 2007 the Hawks aced the draft in choosing Kane. Twenty-five regular season goals and a fine performance in the World Championships prove the Lightning did right by choosing Steven Stamkos in 2008.

Yes, there are first overall flops, Patrick Stefan to Atlanta in 1999, the disaster that was Alexandre Daigle to Ottawa in 1993, the Islanders Rick DiPietro over Dany Heatley and Marian Gaborik in 2000. But mostly nicely-paid GMs who come complete with a golden gut and scouting staffs and psychological profiles get it right.

And this is the genius of Brian Burke’s gambit. Did you notice where the first meaningful trade rumour came out of. Not New York. Tampa.

If you buy where there is smoke there is a spark, the Leafs most likely trading partner is the Lightning, not the Islanders. And so the dynamic is broken down to its base equation: Burke’s gut against that of the Islanders GM Garth Snow. The whole house of cards falls without the fundamental disagreement on who is the number one, Tavares or six-foot-six Swedish defenceman Victor Hedman.

Burke has already put his chips on the corner of the Canadian. Snow is coy. The Lightning’s need for luxury tax relief is an open secret.  So is the Leafs pressing need for a player who can evolve into a first-line centre, a player with a taste for stardom
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