Toronto Maple Leafs First Round Draft History 1963-1970
Much is made of Brian Burke’s decision to trade away the Toronto Maple Leafs’ first round draft choices in 2010 and 2011 to acquire Phil Kessel. And opinions vary greatly, from those who maintain that the final tally is years away from being made, while others are already sure of the way history will see it.
The NHL Entry Draft (previously the Amateur Draft) is littered with as many examples of poor judgment, wrong moves, and mistakes as it is with superstars who came to define the franchises that made the selections. It would take a monumental effort to evaluate every franchise’s success relative to another. For these articles, I will focus on the Toronto Maple Leafs, and how the organization has handed its first round choices beginning with the first NHL Amateur Draft in 1963. I will look at the way the Leafs acquired each pick, who was chosen, the impact that player made, what other players were available to the Leafs after that selection (but before the next Leaf selection). For the purposes of these articles, I will not focus on players such as Jim McKenny, Pat Boutette, Doug Jarvis, all drafted in later rounds by the Maple Leafs. In other words, this analysis will not be affected by an idea that a third round pick who went on to a decent career can save a poor first round choice. Nor players such as Randy Carlyle, Joel Quenneville or Bradley Ross, who were the first selections made by the Leafs in a given year, but not in the first round (though I will note them as the first selection of the draft and the round chosen). I will also not be commenting on intraleague, expansion or supplemental drafts.
In the days before the draft, teams sent scouts to see players and get them to sign a form (A, B, or C). The C form, signed by a player over 18 or his parents, transferred rights of the player to the team in exchange for a bonus. In order to secure a player, some teams went so far as to buy complete amateur leagues. The Amateur Draft was introduced to allow all teams a fair chance at unsigned talent. The first such draft occurred in 1963.
1963 – #6 Walt McKechnie C
As the Stanley Cup winners, the Maple Leafs drafted last in the first round, taking London Jr. B player Walt McKechnie. McKechnie would not play for the Leafs before being traded in 1967 to the Western Hockey League team in Phoenix for Steve Witiuk, a 38-year old who would never play for the Leafs. McKechnie would eventually get into the NHL with the expansion Minnesota North Stars, and play for 7 NHL teams, including a 133 game stint with the Leafs as a second line centre from 1978-80. He’d score 33 goals and 104 points in Toronto before being traded to Colorado for a 3rd round draft pick in 1980 (Fred Boimistruck). McKechnie would play 955 NHL games, with 606 points. It should be noted, only 5 players (of 21 total) from the 1963 draft played any NHL games, and only 2 (Jim McKenny – Leafs #17, and Gerry Meehan – Leafs #21) were drafted after McKechnie. Verdict: In the early days of the draft, few amateur players of great value were not already owned by the NHL teams. Walt McKechnie became a decent NHL player, and though the Leafs received little in return for trading him, it was time when players not in the NHL held little value.
1964 – #5 Tom Martin LW
By agreement through the league, the Leafs had the 5th selection in each round of the 1964 draft. They would select Tom Martin from Toronto Marlboro Midgets. Of the 24 players selected in the 1964 draft, only 9 would play any games in the NHL. Martin managed to play 3 games with the Maple Leafs, scoring one goal. No other first round draftee made the NHL. Martin was traded to Phoenix of the WHL for cash in 1970. The only player to play in the NHL who was drafted before the Leafs’ second choice was Tim Ecclestone (Rangers – #9). Ecclestone would play 692 NHL games, including 51 as a winger for the Leafs between 1973-75, scoring 10 goals and 15 assists. Verdict: Again, with early drafts, few players became NHL regulars. While the Leafs may have made a better choice in Ecclestone, ultimately the franchise was not hurt by the selection of Martin.
1965 – No Selection
The Amateur Draft of 1965 was deemed by most to be a very weak field. As such, the Toronto Maple Leafs declined to exercise their draft choices. Only 11 players were chosen, only 2 played any NHL games, and only Pierre Bouchard (Montreal – #5) played more than 100 games. Verdict: No harm, no foul.
1966 – #4 John Wright C
The Leafs finished 3rd overall, giving them selection #4 in the draft. They chose John Wright, a centre from West Clair Jr. B. Wright would be claimed by Vancouver in the 1970 Reverse Draft. He would play a total of 127 games (16G, 36A) at the NHL level, none for Toronto. Drafted by other teams between the Leafs’ picks were Phil Myre (MTL #5, G, 439 GP,149 wins, 198 losses, 76 ties, 3.53 GAA, 14 shutouts), Steve Atkinson (DET #6, RW, 302 GP, 60G, 51A, 104 PM), Rick Smith (BOS #7, D, 687 GP, 52G, 167A, 560 PIM) and Joey Johnston (NYR #8, LW, 331 GP, 85G, 106A, 320 PIM). Verdict: As the draft grew in importance with the fading of the old farm system, selections began to take on meaning. While no star players were passed on, Toronto chose a player who played a limited role on expansion teams, while passing on Myre, a young goalie that could have helped as Bower and Sawchuk aged. They also passed on Smith, who played as a regular defenceman for the Cup-winning 1970 and 1972 Bruins.
1967 – #9 (selection passed)
For some reason, Toronto chose to pass in the first round of the draft. In the second round, Toronto chose J. Bob Kelly of Port Arthur Jrs. In all, 18 players were selected by the 12 NHL teams, and only 3 played in the NHL. Kelly would play the most, 425 games as a left wing for St Louis, Pittsburgh and Chicago. Verdict: The Leafs actually drafted the player who had the most success in the NHL. Philadelphia, drafting at #5, and Detroit, drafting after the Leafs, were the only others to draft NHL players. The Leafs never signed Kelly, and he made his way to the IHL before catching on in the NHL.
1968 – #10 Brad Selwood D
An unorthodox draft order was used, which resulted in the Leafs having 10th choice. It was the only choice they’d make in the draft, selecting Brad Selwood, defenseman from Niagara Falls. Curt Bennett, a centre drafted by St. Louis at #16, would be the only draftee following Selwood to play significant NHL games (585 GP, 152G, 182A). A Memorial Cup winner, and teammate in Niagara Falls of Phil Myre and future Leaf Rick Ley, Selwood was eventually traded to Vancouver of the WHL with Rene Robert for Ron Ward. Ward would play 18 games for the Leafs before being drafted by Vancouver in the expansion draft, and Selwood was returned to the Leafs for cash in 1970. Brad Selwood would play 100 games as a Leaf, scoring just 6 goals and 27 assists before jumping to the WHA. Toronto would leave him unprotected in the 1972 intra-league draft, and his NHL rights went to Montreal (who would have to wait until 1979 to exercise them). Verdict: Selwood would be a decent WHAer, playing over 400 games. He could have been a major piece of the Leafs’ rebuilt young defence corps, but as with many of the Leafs’ young players post 1967, the franchise allowed his jump to the rival league, and then gave away his rights for nothing.
1969 – #9 Ernie Moser RW
With the first truly poor draft selection as a franchise,the Leafs selected Ernie Moser from Estevan. Moser would not play a single NHL game. Between the Leafs’ choice at #9 and #20, the following players were selected: #10 Jim Rutherford G (151 wins), #11 Ivan Boldirev C (1000+ games, 850+ pts), #12 Pierre Jarry RW (300+ games), #13 JP Bordeleau RW (500+ games), #14 Dennis O’Brien D (almost 600 games), #17 Bobby Clarke C (Hall of Fame, 2 Stanley Cups) and #18 Ron Stackhouse D (almost 900 games, 450+ pts). Verdict: By 1969, the Maple Leafs had holes to fill in their roster as veterans of the 1967 Cup winner had retired, been traded or drafted to expansion teams. While it is true that Bobby Clarke’s diabetes made him a risky choice at the time, the Leafs obviously missed out on a number of solid NHL calibre players. Rutherford and Jarry would go on to play short periods of time with the Leafs. Any one of these 7 players could have helped the franchise climb back up the standings.
1970 – #8 Darryl Sittler C
The Leafs redeemed themselves with the selection of Darryl Sittler from the London Knights. Though he was never able to win a Stanley Cup nor individual NHL award, Darryl Sittler is regarded by most as the premier Toronto Maple Leaf player of the 1970s. He served as team captain, and was named to the 1977-78 NHL 2nd All Star Team. His 117 pts in 1977-78 was a Leaf record (surpassed by Doug Gilmour), and his franchise totals of 389 goals and 916 points were team records (since surpassed by Mats Sundin). His 10 points in a single game against Boston in 1976 remains an NHL record. Sittler also scored the winning goal in the 1976 Canada Cup tournament. Verdict: Though quite a deep draft, the Leafs selected the best player available in Sittler. Only Gil Perreault (Sabres – #1) has played more games or scored more points for their career. Sittler was the leader on a team many felt was only 2 or 3 players away from challenging seriously for the Stanley Cup, Unfortunately, feuds with Harold Ballard and Allan Eagleson were a cause of turmoil for the Leafs in that era, and many players, specifically friends of Sittler’s, were traded away for little return. Sittler himself was traded to Philadelphia in exchange for Rich Costello, Hartford’s 1982 Round 2 pick (Peter Ihnacak), and future considerations (Ken Strong) on January 20, 1982. Only Ihnacak would play significant time for the Leafs, very little return for a Hall of Fame player.
Though it may seem the Leafs did not do as well as could be hoped in the first 8 drafts with their first round choices, the truth is that it really wasn’t until about 1969 that the Amateur Draft began to become a key piece in NHL team building. This was because for the first few years, the old farm systems of the NHL teams had already locked up many of the best young players, such as Bobby Orr. Also, until expansion in 1967, there were only approximately 120 NHL jobs as players, and many veterans were difficult to move from rosters. By 1970 though, the Maple Leafs were able to secure Darryl Sittler, who would be the franchise’s best player who was not a part of the 1960s dynasty team.