Leafs Prospect Pool: Holes to Fill at the Draft

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With a little over a month until the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, Toronto Maple Leafs fans are chomping at the bit after getting the news that the team will be selecting first overall for the first time since selecting Wendel Clark in 1985. A first-overall draft pick gives a struggling franchise a chance to acquire a prospective cornerstone player for years to come.

The NHL Entry Draft presents an opportunity for franchises to address certain weaknesses. While the Toronto Maple Leafs seem to be weak in many facets, this year’s top prospects offer the Leafs that star forward the franchise has been searching for since Mats Sundin– please don’t bring up Phil Kessel. Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi are the slated top three prospects in this year’s draft class. All three players stand over 6’2 and offer the promise of tremendous offensive skill and firepower for years to come.

Leafs Prospect Pool: Holes to Fill at the Draft

It is no secret that the Leafs will acquire a potential game-breaker at first overall, but one player cannot win a Stanley Cup on his own. The Leafs hold 12 draft picks in this year’s draft, which will give Lou Lamoriello and his scouting staff a tremendous amount of power heading into Buffalo on June 24th.

To give a sense of the major needs in the Leafs prospect pool, let us dissect the franchise’s best player prospects at each position. Following is a look at each position’s most notable players and where the Leafs should strengthen in the coming draft.

Centre

This is extremely tough considering the Toronto Maple Leafs have a stud prospect up the middle in right-handed forward William Nylander. We could also see head coach Mike Babcock place the talented Mitch Marner, 19, at centre, but it’s more likely he’ll stay on the wing due to his incredible speed and ability to break from the sides to the net.

Fans saw a small sample of the 20-year-old Nylander, in which he contributed 13 points in his first 22 NHL games. Nylander seems to possess no shortage of skill and has that special ability to make his teammates better with his vision while holding the puck. A core center-ice man is crucial in today’s NHL, so the Leafs will likely look to add a stud center early in the draft to compliment these two top prospects.  It seems almost a given that prospect will be Auston Matthews.

If both Nylander and Marner end up as wingers, a very real possibility, the Leafs next best prospect is Frederik Gauthier.  Projected as more of a defensive centre than an offensive force, and with the sheer number of picks the Leafs have, don’t be surprised if Matthews isn’t the only centre taken at this draft.

Right-Wing

Right now, the Leafs top prospect at right-wing is Mitch Marner. Beyond him, though, the position can be filled by the 19-year-old Kasperi Kapanen. Kapanen was acquired as a piece in last summer’s Phil Kessel trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins. While Kapanen had a decent season in his first full campaign in North America, he may not have the size or firepower as most top prospects. The former Pittsburgh first-rounder projects as a depth scorer, rather than a player the Leafs will lean on for production year after year.

Jeremy Bracco of the Kitchener Rangers has put up a ton of points in junior, and Connor Brown has looked good with the Marlies after tearing up the OHL with the Erie Otters.  They provide some depth at the position as well.

Add in the likelihood that Marner and Nylander both end up at wing, and this is likely the Leafs best stocked position, in a well stocked farm system.  If the Leafs do grab a right winger at the draft, you can bet he was rated the best player available on Mark Hunter‘s draft board.

Left-wing

After lighting up the QMJHL for a total of 85 points in 57 games this past season, 19-year-old Ukrainian-born Swedish forward Dmytro Timashov garners much interest on the left wing. Last year’s fifth-rounder does not possess tremendous size at 5’10, but is one of the most skilled forward prospects the Leafs have. While Timashov has yet to play his first pro game, the scouts have been drooling over the slick lefty. It bodes well for Timshov that he has been playing on North-American rinks for the past two seasons, but time will tell if he will be able to handle the physicality of the pro game next season in a Toronto Marlies sweater.

Further down the depth chart, the Leafs have Andreas Johnson who just finished helping Frolunda to both the Champions League title and more importantly, the SHL Championship.  After doing so he joined the Marlies, but was hurt in his first game. Johnson had a strong regular season, and CL tournament, but was mostly invisible in the SHL playoffs.

The Leafs also have Martins Dzierkals who put up 67 points in 59 games for the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. The Latvian winger also has a winning pedigree, as the Huskies took the QMJHL crown and is currently playing in the Memorial Cup.

The Leafs will look to add left-wingers in this draft. As skilled as Timashov, Johnson, and Dzierkals are none of the three a sure-fire blue chip prospect.  Increased depth at the position would help the franchise move forward.

Defensemen

Travis Dermott, of the Erie Otters, is a slick, puck-moving defenseman- almost comparable to a poor man’s Morgan Rielly. Dermott has put up very good numbers for a two-way defenseman, but it is doubtful his junior numbers will translate in the pro game. Dermott does make a great first pass out of his zone, which is valuable in a Leafs team which struggles making simple plays. Dermott’s best qualities are his mobility and his intensity level. His tenacity and work ethic on the ice practically make him a sure-fire NHL blueliner someday. This being said, the well does seem to run dry for young defensive prospects after Dermott.

The Leafs recently signed KHL All-Star Nikita Zaitsev.  The 24-year-old is expected to make an immediate impact on the main roster. He had a strong showing for Russia in the recent World Championships, generating offence from the back end, while also playing an excellent defensive game.

Next in line is mobile defenseman Scott Harrington. Harrington possesses high hockey IQ, but does not do anything flashy. At 6’2 205, Harrington translates as a potential third-pairing, stay-at-home defenseman. Harrington played 15 games for the Leafs this year picking up an assist and 4 PIM.  He must make the team next season or face the NHL’s waiver wire.

Further down the list are Stuart Percy, Connor Carrick, and Rinat Valiev.  There are questions about the ultimate upside of Harrington and the rest, and with so many picks, the Leafs would be well advised to invest in some young defensemen.

Goalie

22 year-old Antoine Bibeau has been in the Toronto system for the past two seasons. Always viewed as a bit of a project, the 6’3 netminder’s progress has been very encouraging. Bibeau possesses a large frame and sound skillset, but consistency is what will ultimately give him a shot at an NHL job in the future.  Garrett Sparks has done well at the AHL level, and excited Leaf fans in his first NHL start this year.  However, he yet to repeat that performance and was inconsistent down the stretch.  Also just 22-years-old, he has time to develop that consistency.

The Leafs have also signed young undrafted free-agent Finnish backstopper Kasimir Kaskisuo.  These three goaltenders are further along than any 18-year-old the Leafs could select in the draft.  By the time any drafted goalie is ready for the AHL, the path will have likely been cleared, either by one of the three taking the reigns with the big club, or by them reaching an age where the Leafs will no longer consider them top prospects.  Spending one of their numerous picks on an up-and-coming goaltending prospect is likely in the cards for the Leafs on June 24th.

 

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