Revisiting the Leafs Decision To Trade Down At The Draft


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Kyle Dubas wasn’t new to the draft, having managing it in 2015 under the title of Assistant General Manager, so we had an idea of what to expect from him as he experienced his first draft as the GM in June.

Three years ago, Dubas and the Leafs traded down in the draft twice, exploiting a market inefficiency— the price to trade up in the draft is, on average, larger than the difference between the two picks, so the team that trades down is typically netting additional value.

Stephen Burtch dove into draft pick value in 2015, finding that late first round picks were worth a lot less than is usually thought; a late first rounder is closer in value to a third round pick than it is to a top-five selection.

Looking at it this way, moving down just four spots while adding a third rounder, which is worth roughly half as much as that late first, appears worthwhile.

It’s no surprise that Dubas, who comes from an analytics background, has taken full advantage of this. At the 2018 edition of the draft, the first where he had total control, Dubas continued this strategy, trading down from 25th overall to 29th overall, adding the 76th overall selection (a third rounder) in the process.

Another look at pick values reveals that, based on the past, this was the correct move. Brad McPherson’s pick values show that the difference between the 25th overall pick and the 29th overall pick is exactly 1 unit of value; the 76th overall pick is worth 1.8 units itself.

The Blues, who traded up, nabbed Dominik Bokk, a German winger with exceptional skill on the puck. The Leafs got Rasmus Sandin, an intelligent two-way defenceman four picks later, and then managed Semyon Der-Arguchintsev in the third round.

It’s been shown that trading down at the draft can be a smart move, but that doesn’t apply to every situation. In this case, the Leafs were giving up a pretty good player in Bokk, or whoever else they planned on taking at that point (personally, I was hoping for Jonatan Berggren). It can be a smart strategy going in, but after the fact, the decisions must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

That’s exactly what we’re going to do today. Using a variety of measures, including statistics as well as the eye test, we can evaluate whether or not the decision to trade down was the right one for the Leafs.

But first, let’s get to know the players involved a little better.

Rasmus Sandin isn’t going to blow you away with flashy offensive play, but he’s a steady all-around play that is proficient at the very least in nearly all areas. He can transition the puck up the ice quickly and effectively, even if most of that is going to come through passing (Sandin isn’t much of a carry threat). Defensively, Sandin is excellent relative to his peers, displaying defensive intelligence as well as strong gap control, and body and stick positioning.

Like Sandin, Semyon Der-Arguchintsev isn’t going to blow you away with dynamic offensive plays, but the centre is an exceptional playmaker with remarkable vision, deception, and creativity. He’s patient with the puck, unafraid of hanging onto it for prolonged periods of time if he doesn’t have an open lane, and is always looking to further develop the play by moving the puck into the slot area. His toolkit is a little raw, but if he can piece everything together, he could be an impact NHLer.

Those are the sure things; we know that they were selected by the Leafs. On the other end, things are more uncertain: we can only speculate who the Leafs would have chosen had they held on to the 25th pick.

For our purposes, we’re going to assume that the Leafs would have opted for the same player that the St. Louis Blues chose with the selection: Dominik Bokk. Other than Joe Veleno, who we will be excluding because he didn’t go until after the Leafs took Sandin 29th overall, Bokk was the best player available at that point in the eyes of consensus, and it wasn’t particularly close.

Now that we’ve put it this way, we can view it as a player-for-player(s) exchange, as if Dominik Bokk was exchanged for Rasmus Sandin and Semyon Der-Arguchintsev.

A really simple, but strong way to look at this is using the consensus opinion to compare the prospects involved. We’ll do this using Bob McKenzie’s rankings, which are created by surveying several scouts.
Bokk ranked 18th by this measure; Sandin placed 27th. Semyon-Der-Arguchintsev didn’t make the list, so we’re going to treat him as if he just barely missed the cutoff, assigning him a rank of 94th.

Now, if we assign pick values to those rankings, we can compare the value that the Leafs added versus the Blues. Using Brad McPherson’s values once again, we can see that the Leafs gained 10.2 units of value from those two by this method, whereas the Blues gained a notch over 15.

Why is this result different from what we got looking at actual draft results? Well, our initial look failed to account for all the craziness that can occur on draft day. It’s very common for players to rise and fall at the draft, and a fair amount of the time, a player’s draft position doesn’t actually represent their true talent and potential.

Dominik Bokk was a major wildcard on draft day: his hands and skill on the puck are incredible, causing some, like Corey Pronman, to rank him in the top 10, while others dropped him to late in the first round because of his raw skillset and poor defensive play. Consensus split the middle on that, leaving him in the middle-first range, a ranking I tend to agree with.

Bokk was a faller; he probably deserved to go higher than 25th (the 15-20 range fits pretty well), whereas I think Sandin’s draft position fits his actual upside pretty well. So really, the difference between the two wasn’t four picks (25 to 29) but nine (18 to 27), and it’s at that point where you have to start to wonder if Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, as young and talented as he is, truly makes up the difference.
We have one more tool in our box here that we can pull out to further evaluate the decision, and it comes courtesy of Emmanuel Perry (@manny_hockey). Over the summer, Manny created a terrific draft model that attempts to predict the future NHL value of a prospect. This is great for our purposes; by comparing the projected value of Bokk versus Sandin and Der-Arguchintsev combined, we can further understand the trade.
Manny’s model generates several useful outputs, the most so being “Projected WAR/82” and “Probability Make” (the estimated probability of that player making the NHL), as well as “Value”, which combines several of these other statistics into one (very large) number.

Interestingly enough, even with an additional high-upside prospect in Der-Arguchintsev, Bokk still beats the duo of Sandin and SDA by Projected WAR/82 (and a positional adjustment for Sandin). Even more intriguing is that it’s SDA, not Sandin, that is pulling the weight for the Leafs side of the deal. His output of 0.26 makes up 73% of the total for the Leafs duo, thanks to a measly 0.07 Projected WAR/82 for Sandin, which only jumps up about 0.1 with the defence adjustment.

This is a great example of why the other category, “Probability of Make”, is very important as well, because Der-Arguchintsev’s chances at the NHL round to just 16%. Sandin, however, is given a 52.85% chance at the NHL, making him a significantly safer prospect.

To account for both, we’ll combine the two into one number by multiplying them together. When we do that, things begin to look even worse for the Leafs.

As we can see, Bokk greatly outweighs the combination of Sandin and Der-Arguchintsev by this metric. Not only does Bokk have the greatest Projected WAR/82 of the group (0.37), but he also has the most favourable odds at the NHL (58.53%).

This looks bad, but it’s also a little misleading. Virtually no defensive metrics are available at the junior level, so Manny’s model is based on offensive output only. For forwards, this is fine, since most of their contributions are offensive, but defencemen, especially those with a two-way style like Sandin, can have a significant defensive contribution as well. This method of evaluation is probably underselling Sandin. However, we can use it to comfortably say that the Blues came out with significantly more projected offensive output in the deal.

So, who won overall? That’s a good question. As anticlimactic as it is, it’s too early to say. Remember, these are prospects that we’re talking about, all three of them just months removed from waiting for their names to be called at the draft no less.

The outcome of the deal will hinge on Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, who is a major wildcard. He’s young with a raw skillset, making it extremely difficult to project his development. He could be a very good NHL player, a second liner even, but very easily could top out in the minors instead. For players as young as him, I think the draft-plus-one season is of incredible importance, so it will be interesting to monitor him over 2018-19.

At this point, I’d be tempted to say that the Blues are ahead. Emmanuel Perry’s draft model demonstrated that the Blues gained more offensive upside in the deal, a statement that my eye test agrees with, and Bob McKenzie’s rankings conclude an edge for the Blues as well.
The important thing to remember is that Rasmus Sandin isn’t equal in value to Dominik Bokk. The gap between them is larger than the space between their draft positions, and it’s a bit of a gamble to count on Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, a fairly risky prospect, to make up that difference.