The optics weren’t all that favourable last summer when the Toronto Maple Leafs surrendered a first-round draft selection one year in advance to shed the final season on Patrick Marleau’s contract. This was partly because they were already without one to trade in the draft they were preparing for at the time.
Often we see elite teams go a few seasons without spending first-round selections because they have made the conscious decision to funnel maximum resources into building the team with the best possible chance to win. But the Maple Leafs were below that level at the time they spent their second consecutive top selection, and instead bled valuable assets as a consequence of mismanagement— or in this case, kicking in that third season for Marleau on that free agent contract way back when.
But as it happens, the Leafs found a way back into the first round. Kasperi Kapanen’s trade to the Pittsburgh Penguins shortly after the season ended in the play-in round not only fetched valuable salary cap space and a decent prospect, but also allowed the Leafs to reclaim that first-round draft position they had vacated more than a full calendar year before that.
While some might point to Kapanen, a player with several plus attributes, as another avoidable sacrifice, this was a player who seemed to reach his ceiling with the organization and therefore would not deliver the same value on his current contract that he maybe could to another club.
Simply put, this wasn’t an “at all costs” move for the Leafs to get back into the first round. Instead, they achieved it while making a trade that seemed best for the organization.
So, that leads us to the discussion we weren’t having before the Leafs sent Kapanen back to the team that originally drafted him in the first round in 2014.
What will the Leafs do with the 15th overall pick?
Taking the best player available is almost always a sound strategy, and it seems after Kyle Dubas’s comments Monday that the club plans to adhere to that general rule. In this case, though, it may apply to the Leafs more than most teams, as the organization’s prospect base has weakened considerably over the last few seasons with several players having graduated through and others being moved out in order to improve the roster.
Nothing should be considered off the table for the Leafs, except maybe — maybe — a left-shot defenceman.
So let’s review the options.
Take a forward
If there is a quickest route to the Maple Leafs’ top six, it’s through the left side. That’s because unless something changes, the Leafs will have two elite and established centres and right wingers taking up those slots for the foreseeable futures with Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander.
However if the Leafs are to nab a forward from the No. 15 slot in the draft, they will likely be selecting one three or four years away from taking on a featured role, and therefore the club shouldn’t be at all choosy in terms of handedness or position. The best forward available will offer a significant boost to a prospect pool that is fairly thin behind Nick Robertson.
Who that may be is up to the Leafs.
Few are more skilled than Ottawa 67’s forward Jack Quinn, who would certainly pique the interest of Dubas and the Leafs staff in the event that he slips to the tail-end of the lottery. There’s also Anton Lundell, who seems like something of a wild card in the draft but might be the perfect fit for the Leafs as a teenager already making his mark professionally as a quality two-way centre in Finland’s top division.
However it might be more likely that the Leafs choose from a glut of talented and well-rounded centres expected to follow that first wave of forwards off the board, which may or may not include Quinn and Lundell. Seth Jarvis of the Portland Winterhawks has a lot of upside, while Dawson Mercer of the Chicoutimi Sagueneens, Ridly Greig of the Brandon Wheat Kings and Wisconsin’s Dylan Holloway seem like options for the Leafs at the midway point in the first round.
Take a defenceman
With so many talented forwards available in the draft, the Leafs could secure one of the top selections by position if it’s a defenceman they choose to invest in.
Jamie Drysdale and Jake Sanderson are likely out of the question as surefire top-10 picks, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the Leafs select from that next tier, which is projected slightly lower, albeit solid, and mostly limited to Kaiden Guhle of the Prince Albert Raiders and Braden Schneider of the Brandon Wheat Kings.
Guhle is rated higher than Schneider on most draft boards, but the Wheat King is the one between them who shoots right — a detail that’s either completely overblown or of considerable importance for the Leafs, who have more left-handed defensemen than they do slots on the active roster, and a dearth on the right side.
Again, this shouldn’t mean all that much, because a lot can change in two, three, four years, or however long it might take to reach the show. But there seems to be a shortage in talent on the right side league-wide, which might boost Schneider’s value in itself and make him that much more attractive for the Leafs.
Take a goaltender
After the decision at No. 2 for the Los Angeles Kings between Quinton Byfield and Tim Stutzle, the most intriguing draft night storyline surrounds the rare goalie with lottery potential: Russia’s Yarolslav Askarov.
Askarov seems like an option for at least a handful of teams and it doesn’t seem out of the question that he becomes the highest-drafted netminder since, or perhaps even before, Carey Price, who went fifth overall in 2006. That said, it’s exceedingly rare for goalies to be taken in the lottery, which could mean that a potential franchise-altering player could be there for the Leafs at No. 15 if no other team is willing to take the plunge.
Taking Askarov is playing the long game more than any other selection. In fact, it seems likely that they would have to bridge Frederik Andersen to Askarov in the event the Leafs do land the prized prospect, because the 18-year-old still might have a half decade of development ahead.
What might be most intriguing about the idea of the Leafs selecting Askarov is the simple fact that an elite goaltending prospect has been such a foreign concept to the organization. In no way is that alone the reason to take the plunge; there has to be a plan in place. But the Leafs can do far worse than to add an Andrei Vasilevskiy comparable to the system, and earmarking the prospect for a decade run down the road.
There seems to be some chatter over the Leafs trading down from No. 15 to accrue more selections, and it does make a ton of sense for them to explore that option. While there will certainly be some quality players available, the home-run picks should be off the board by that point, aside for maybe Askarov.
Simply by moving from their current position, the Leafs could inject more bodies into a system that is a bit starved for talent, while still managing to secure a high-priority target — or two, or three.
By this point it’s expected the Leafs will have different priorities than most teams, and moving down might be the best way to take advantage of the fact they don’t subscribe to the typical groupthink.
For all the words spilled over who the Leafs could select, it might be a 50-50 proposition that they even select in the first round in the first place. There is obvious pressure on the franchise to win in the postseason after a fourth consecutive disappointment, and the easiest way to bring in an impact player would be to move their most valuable asset at the draft.
As much as the Leafs need to replenish some talent in the prospect system, the need to improve the current roster supersedes it.
That’s why it wouldn’t be a surprise to see another team spend the first-round capital the Leafs worked to reacquire.
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