Last year, an NHL.com article regarding the 2014 NHL Draft listed Kyle Wellwood as the only notable “dark horse” draft selection in recent Leafs history. At the 2001 Draft, Wellwood was selected 134th overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the fifth round. With the Belleville Bulls of the OHL, Wellwood tallied 118 points throughout 68 games in his draft year. He not only led his team in scoring that season, but he also led the league in scoring. This seems troublesome for modern day hockey fans as most draft eligible players who lead their leagues are quickly scooped up in the first round. How could anybody pass up on this guy once, let alone four times? Well, the short answer is that it simply was a different era. There appeared to be some stigma around drafting smaller, skilled players. Heck, even Doug Gilmour was selected in the seventh round of the 1982 Draft despite finishing with 119 points throughout 67 OHL games in his draft year. In 1981, the Leafs felt Ernie Godden’s OHL record-setting 87 goals in a season was only deserving of a third round selection. However, Godden would never establish himself as an NHLer, so maybe the stigma was somewhat justified. Now, in 2015, this stigma is rightfully fading away as teams are changing their draft philosophies to match the needs of modern hockey.
I recently spoke to Kyle about his draft year in Belleville and the 2001 Draft. Here, he provided some interesting insights on why he was drafted so low despite being the OHL scoring champion. He also highlighted some of the things that scouts look for when evaluating prospects. It appears that point production becomes less valuable if there are other concerns present. In addition to his observations about the draft, Kyle discussed the pressures of playing in Toronto and the difficulty of developing in such a market. I will carry on with this discussion a little bit later, but for now, enjoy reading what Kyle Wellwood had to say…
Kyle Wellwood – Leafs Hub One on One
Hey Kyle, I just wanted to thank you for being gracious with your time and answering a few questions for Leafshub.com. Before I get started with some hard-hitting journalism, I’m dying to know something. Which NHL team did you cheer for when you were younger? The reason I ask this is because we are both from Windsor which typically means you are either a Leafs fan or a Wings fan. So which is it? Leafs or Wings? Good or Evil?
“I didn’t actually have a favourite team growing up. I usually just followed players. Mario Lemieux, Alexander Mogilny and Steve Yzerman were the guys I watched the most.”
All solid choices. Thankfully, you didn’t say Montreal. Okay, now to the real questions. In 2001, you led your team and the entire OHL in scoring as you finished with 118 points in 68 games. Why do you think you slipped into the 5th round?
“I think there are many factors that played into it. Scouts noticed that I was playing on a bigger ice surface in Belleville which suited my style of play. They paid attention to the fact that I played with two overagers on my wings all season. I also had two older defenseman watching my back that year. They probably noted that I scooped up many points while playing on the top powerplay in the OHL too. And of course being a smaller player was one of the issues back then. It was odd to look at the pre-draft rankings and see a bunch of guys ranked ahead of me even though I was the OHL scoring leader. I can understand these factors now, but it was kind of confusing as a 17 year old.”
Some Quick Facts About the Leafs 2001 Draft
- Carlo Colaiacovo, Karel Pilar, Brendan Bell, Jay Harrison, and Nicolas Corbeil were selected ahead of Wellwood in this draft. While Maxim Kondratiev, Jaroslav Sklenar, Ivan Kolozvary, Jan Chovan, Tomas Mojzis, and Mike Knoepfli were drafted after Mr. Wellwood.
- The 2000-2001 Belleville Bulls had many connections to the Maple Leafs. Besides Wellwood, the team featured future Leafs centre Matt Stajan as well as future Leafs enforcer Andre Deveaux. Both goaltenders had ties to the Leafs as the club would draft starter Jan Chovan in the seventh round of the same draft. Notably, Paulo Colaiacovo, the twin brother of Carlo Colaiacovo who the Leafs took in the first round of the 2001 Draft, was the Bull’s back-up goalie that season.
- Five of the Leafs’ draft picks were from the Czechoslovakia region. Two from Slovakia and three from the Czech Republic. This tendency can be explained by examining the 2000 and 2001 World Juniors tournaments where the Czech Republic achieved back to back championships.
- The Leafs had twelve selections in the 2001 Draft and to this day, Kyle Wellwood has played more (489) NHL games than any of these picks. He hasn’t played in the league since 2013 and he still has played more games than Carlo Colaiacovo and Jay Harrison who remain the only active NHL players from these selections. Furthermore, Wellwood’s 235 NHL points is more than Harrison and Colaiacovo’s totals as well.
- Toronto acquired Darcy Tucker, a 4th round pick and the pick used to select Kyle Wellwood from the Tampa Bay Lightning for Mike Johnson, Marek Posmyk, a 5th round pick, and a 6th round pick.
You mentioned size as being one of the factors that worked against you in your draft year. Do you think you would have been drafted higher had you been draft eligible in 2015 rather than 2001?
“Yeah, I think I would have been drafted higher in 2015. The pace of the game is much faster and there is a greater focus on puck-possession players. The longer you can hold the puck, the better it is for the whole team. But I completely understand why scouts always pick bigger guys. When it gets down to the playoffs, you want to be the team with the big guys that can wear your opponent down.”
How did playing Junior with Matt Stajan and other Leafs prospects help you guys gel when playing with the big club? And how did your two seasons in the AHL help you develop into an NHLer?
“I developed some good friendships in those days. Everyone became pretty close at the draft camps and in Junior. We had a lot of fun and we were focused on learning to be pros. The NHL lockout created an interesting scenario in my second AHL season. All the top prospects were crammed into the league which in turn created a super competitive environment. It was really an era of growth for everyone. I think the younger guys had a huge advantage as most teams used that season to evaluate their prospects. The lockout gave young guys a greater chance to develop and showcase their skills. Although, this might have hurt some of the older guys that played in the league at the time. Nevertheless, I truly believe that the lockout season helped me make the jump into the NHL the following year.”
How did the veterans in Toronto help rookies develop into bona fide NHLers?
“I felt that there was a lot of ‘watch and learn’ techniques used. I just tried to watch the pros and see what I could learn from them. The older guys set the tone from the beginning of training camp and it was very competitive. The Leafs had many older players when I made the team, so I had to do whatever I could to earn ice time. There was a strong team culture and the veteran players really worked well with us young guys. Mats [Sundin] was the leader of that club and he did it so well. He was the hardest worker on the team and he set a terrific example. But all the older guys chipped in and helped me develop. During my rookie season, I usually played on the fourth line with Tie Domi. However, I got a lot of powerplay time with Mats and that’s where I collected a majority of my points that year.”
What do you consider the highlight of your Leafs career?
“Seeing Mats Sundin score his 500th goal. He scored a short-handed goal in overtime to complete a hat-trick and a big milestone. It was unbelievable!”
It was a tremendous goal, but do you have a highlight of something you accomplished?
“Ahahaha…Oh. Yeah I would have to say it was my first NHL goal. It came against the Philadelphia Flyers.”
What was the difference between Pat Quinn and Paul Maurice’s coaching styles?
“Pat was more laid-back and he relied on his vets. He also liked to make decisions based on how his players were feeling and performing. Whereas, Paul was more focused on systems. He was a high energy, motivational type of coach. He liked to make his decisions based on what he was seeing on the ice and how the game was playing out.”
Do you have any thoughts on Mike Babcock and the current Leafs? Do you follow the team at all?
“I’m aware of what’s going on in Toronto, but I tend to watch Junior hockey more often. I’ve never had Babcock as a coach, but I know he is the most intense coach in hockey. The Leafs need guys that can handle his intensity. In short, the players better be prepared!”
Speaking of coaching, your brother Eric just won the Memorial Cup as an Assistant Coach with the Oshawa Generals. Given that many former Toronto Maple Leafs draft picks have experienced NHL success at the coaching level (Joel Quennville, Jack Capuano, Randy Carlyle, Ron Wilson, Bruce Boudreau, Peter DeBoer), have you ever thought about getting into coaching?
“My brother had a career-ending injury and he just jumped right into coaching after getting a chance with another Windsor guy [and former Leaf], DJ Smith. But as for me, I haven’t considered coaching at all.”
Sidenote: The Leafs recently hired DJ Smith as an Assistant Coach.
Random thought…since you mostly watch Junior hockey, who do you like better Dylan Strome or Mitch Marner?
“I mostly watched the Oshawa Generals, so I’ve seen some of Strome. Unfortunately, I haven’t paid much attention to Marner and the London Knights. However, I think the Leafs really need to take a defenseman with their 4th overall pick. I haven’t watched [Noah] Hanifin or any college hockey, but the Leafs should take a chance on a top-ranked defenseman.”
Switching gears here, why do you think the Leafs failed to make the playoffs in the three seasons you were with the club?
“I think it came down to talent. We just didn’t have enough talent. In my first two seasons, we came within a couple points of the playoffs, but it wasn’t enough. It really could have gone either way. However, I don’t think we would have been contenders even if we did make the playoffs. I remember, in 2007, we all thought we would make the playoffs if we could beat Montreal in the final game of the season. We never thought that the Islanders were a threat because they would need to win their final three games just to hop us. Again, it could have gone either way.”
Sidenote: Kyle scored the winning goal in that crucial game versus Montreal. Yet, he did not feel the need to mention this while giving me a re-cap of the game.
Much has been made about the horrors of the Toronto media. How did you handle it and do you have any advice for future Leafs?
“At first, I was just excited to be there in the NHL. By the second year, I realized ‘wow, this going to be my life.’ The media was largely negative and made things difficult. Toronto can be a bad place to play if you don’t have a top-tier team. It’s simply not a good environment if you’re losing. Thankfully, Mats was there to manage the media. He was an incredible leader and teammate. Somehow, Mats was able to handle the media, shelter players from the market and produce at a high level. Not everyone can do something like that.”
Many people think rookies can’t survive in Toronto and as a result, many believe that the Leafs often ruin their young talent. Do you think the pressures of playing in a hockey mad market like Toronto stunts the development of prospects?
“During my time in Toronto, I felt that the pressure was immense. A friendlier environment was definitely needed to develop younger players. Whether it was the media or management within the organization, pressure was coming from everywhere. It was truly disheartening to see Pat Quinn fired after we failed to make the playoffs in 2006. We played to the best of our abilities and missed the playoffs by a couple of points. Like I said earlier, we just didn’t have enough talent. It was tough to play in a market where managers were getting fired even though everyone was playing to capacity. As the pressure builds up and the media begins to scrutinize everything, people feel a need to talk. Things that shouldn’t be anybody’s business begin to circulate. It’s very difficult to play in that type of setting.”
Phil Kessel has been criticized for his off-ice conditioning habits. As a player who has faced similar criticisms, what is your take on the situation?
“Every player is an individual. People need to look at the whole picture and Phil Kessel as a whole. His off-ice conditioning should not be a big deal. He is what he is. I believe that Phil is more than capable of winning a cup and he can contribute to any cup-team. The media is harsh and I find all these criticisms to be quite silly, frankly. The fact is that the whole team wasn’t good enough and Phil doesn’t deserve the brunt of criticism. It’s tough to be the only guy scoring when you know your team isn’t going to win anyways. But that’s part of the Toronto market. There is going to be harsh criticism if the team isn’t playing well. I bet he’s sitting there right now just waiting to be traded.”
As the Leafs gear up for the 2015 NHL Draft and the #ScorchedEarth rebuild, I believe Kyle’s experiences can teach us many things about player development in an intense hockey market. Moreover, his insights have led me to several conclusions. First, there is an apparent need to acquire some media savvy veterans to control the dressing room. To put it simply, the team just needs a few mature players who are capable of sheltering rookies from a market that can be quite hostile at times. In this way, the younger players can solely focus on developing their game and becoming professional athletes. During his tenure in Toronto, Wellwood was appreciative of the veteran presence in the team locker room. Surely, this presence has not been the same since the departure of legendary Leafs’ captain Mats Sundin. We may not have Sundin anymore, but we now have coach Mike Babcock who has already publicly promised to protect and support his players from the ferocity of the Toronto market.
Secondly, the hockey atmosphere of Toronto can be compared to a pressure cooker. There is pressure from the fans, the media, and Maple Leafs management. In addition to this, Kyle was faced with a different kind of pressure as the Leafs management group experienced a lot of staff turnover. He talked about how it affected everyone in the dressing room and made matters worse. Thankfully, this should not be an issue for the current Leafs moving forward as most of the management group is locked-up long term. There is a #Shanaplan set in place and MLSE would be foolish to deviate from it.
Finally, there should be a special emphasis placed on the American Hockey League. If the Leafs want to rebuild properly, then they will need to utilize the AHL effectively. Kyle felt it better prepared him for the NHL as it helped him adapt to professional hockey. He also noted that this was something he didn’t realize until after reflecting upon his career. I trust that this approach will be taken by Shanahan and Co. as they have frequently stated similar ideas in the past few months. This means guys like Nylander, Brown, Gauthier and Valiev will likely be one or two more seasons away from their Maple Leaf debuts.
In closing, as Kyle said, the Leafs will need to create a friendlier environment to help their players grow. Certainly, this is the key to developing home-grown talent and ensuring that these players can succeed in a strikingly difficult market. As the #Shanaplan is slowly coming into effect, I firmly believe that the club is well on their way to creating this ideal environment for not only players, but coaches as well.
Again, I would like to thank Kyle for the interview and providing Leafs Nation with something to think about as we embark on our painful rebuild. Oh and Kyle if you are reading this… I still think you should take a shot at coaching. After all, the 2015 Stanley Cup winning coach (Joel Quenneville) and the 2015 Memorial Cup winning coach (DJ Smith) are both former Leafs players from your hometown of Windsor, Ontario. It’s only inevitable that you are destined for coaching greatness!