There's a certain amount of self-loathing that comes with being a Leafs fan these days. I suppose it comes with the territory if your team has missed the playoffs as many times as we have, but nobody can create a self-deprecating meme quite like Leafs Nation. The line being tossed around the internet lately is a formula: In any given draft year, the number of quality players can be expressed as QP = (LP)-1 where QP represents the number of quality players and LP represents the slot where the Leafs will make their first selection.
In the eyes of many, this year is no different. Many Leafs fans have adopted the forward-or-bust mantra for the draft and will be disappointed if the Leafs don't land one of Yakupov, Galchenyuk, Grigorenko, or Forsberg. Is it a coincidence that there are four forwards and the Leafs' first pick is at five?
Heading into the draft, we've decided to have a look at the players taken with the 5th overall selection over a fifteen year period. I think you'll find that the results aren't as bleak as you might expect.
Below is a list of the players taken 5th overall between 1995 and 2009.
1995 - Daymond Langkow
1996 - Ric Jackman
1997 - Eric Brewer
1998 - Vitali Vishnevski
1999 - Tim Connolly
2000 - Raffi Torres
2001 - Stanislav Chistov
2002 - Ryan Whitney
2003 - Thomas Vanek
2004 - Blake Wheeler
2005 - Carey Price
2006 - Phil Kessel
2007 - Karl Alzner
2008 - Luke Schenn
2009 - Brayden Schenn
In terms of distribution, 8 forwards, 6 defense, and 1 goalie were taken during this period. A cursory glance of the names above suggests that the hit-rate at 5-overall is pretty high. All of the players above have had NHL careers to some extent and players like Vanek, Price, and Kessel are All-Star calibre. Moreover, it looks like players chosen at 5-overall have been more successful over the last 8 years than they were over the preceding 7 (with an admittedly small n).
In terms of the length of time it took these players to become NHL-regulars, there's a predictable variance. We set the 'NHL-regular' threshold at 'First 40+ game season'. Within those parameters, Connolly, Kessel, and Luke Schenn (20% of n) each became NHL-regulars the year they were drafted. Niederreiter, Chistov, Brewer, and Langkow each met this threshold after 1 season while Vishnevsky, Vanek, Price, and Brayden Schenn were NHL-regulars after 2 seasons. 11 of 15 cases were NHL regulars within two years of being drafted. Of the four players who didn't meet this threshold, two (Whitney and Wheeler) played in the NCAA prior to entering the NHL.
Burke has consistently downplayed the likelihood that a player taken at 5 overall would be able to help the Leafs right away but a 20% probability is nothing to scoff at. If the right player were to fall to the Leafs, like Grigorenko for example, then it wouldn't exactly be an aberration if the kid found himself with the Leafs to start the season. Having said this, I would be surprised if Galchenyuk (given his injury), Murray (given the Leafs' depth on defense) or Forsberg (given his stated desire to play one more season in Sweden) were to suit up with the Leafs as early as this coming season.
In terms of impact, 6 of the 8 forwards taken 5th overall have managed to produce seasons of better than 40-points and Brayden Schenn will have plenty of time to achieve the feat. This leaves Chistov as the lone exception among forwards. Somewhat surprisingly, the forward who was fastest to reach 40-points in a single season was Tim Connolly, who scored 41-points just one season after he was drafted. Kessel and Vanek each notched 40+ point seasons within two years of being drafted, while Wheeler, Torres, and Langkow took 4, 5, and 5 seasons respectively.
Given that Kessel and Vanek are the most high-impact players on this list, it would be fair to expect that if the player we land at 5 is going to be All-Star calibre, they'll likely be better than 0.5ppg by the 2014-15 season.
This time frame is either a blessing or a tease. If this mystery player, taken 5th overall in the 2012 Entry Draft, reaches their peak potential and becomes another Vanek or Kessel, then they'll be an efficient and productive ELC during the offseason that Phaneuf and Kessel's deals run out. It's difficult to predict what the salary landscape of the league will be by that time, but it's safe to say that even if Phaneuf doesn't get a raise, Kessel will likely be due for a large pay hike. On the one hand, it would be nice to have Kessel outperforming his deal while this kid is hitting his stride as well but, on the other hand, it will be nice to have the efficient ELC stepping up as Kessel's deal hits a number that's closer to his market value.
Historical development would suggest that we're at least 2 years away from reaping productive NHL seasons from the player we take at 5 but history also indicates that we're likely to get a pretty talented NHLer out of the selection. The question that Burke will have to answer (or will have answered for him) is whether this player will be a piece of the present core led by Phaneuf and Kessel, or one of the early pieces of the next core.