Your Toronto Maple Leafs have an impressive twelve draft picks to play within the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. Six of those, including first overall, are found in the first three rounds. Barring an unlikely but altogether possible blockbuster trade announcement, we have a pretty solid idea about who the Leafs, who haven’t had anything resembling a franchise centre in almost a full decade, will take at first overall. What’s most intriguing at this point, however, isn’t which sort of far-fetched fantasy trade scenarios we can dream up regarding the one-pick, but rather, what the Leafs’ braintrust has planned for the remaining five picks. Let’s look at the Leafs’ best draft options beyond Auston Matthews… or Patrik Laine, as the case may be. Hey, it could happen…
Toronto Maple Leafs Draft Options
Assuming the Leafs don’t start flipping picks on the draft floor, they are scheduled to select at either 29th or 30th, depending on who the Stanley Cup winners are; then 31st, 56th, 61st, and 71st. For our purposes today, we’ll dip down as low as 56th in our analysis of whom the Leafs may be most interested in, and why. Let’s start with that late first-rounder, presumably, the 30th pick, judging by the way the Stanley Cup Finals are shaping up.
At 30th, the Leafs will probably be looking at the likes of U.S. product Tage Thompson (US NTDP/ U-Conn); a large, lanky, budding power forward in the mold of either a James van Riemsdyk or a Martin Hanzal, depending on the role and position he ultimately settles in at. Known for possessing an excellent defensive element to his game, this 6’5” forward has legitimate two-way upside with the ability to both strip opponents of the puck using his long reach and active stick, and to generate scoring chances down low using his generous size to protect the puck and sustain the cycle game while the landscape in front of the net opens up for his teammates. Also, a very effective power play weapon, Thompson is a multiple threat in a variety of situations. His ability to wait out defenders down low in the offensive zone creates seams and shooting lanes for teammates, but he can also skate it into prime scoring areas where he unleashes a hard, accurate wrister. You have to think Leafs coach Mike Babcock would be all over a towering, skilled power forward who can drive possession as well as play a committed defensive game. If Thompson is there at 30th, he’s a bet worth taking.
Another intriguing option at 30th might be Sam Steel, an undersized playmaking pivot out of the Regina Pats organization. Like Thompson, Steel is known for his high compete level, as well as a willingness to work hard on the back-check. He possesses excellent skating abilities in all directions, blazing speed, soft hands, and a nose for the high-traffic areas where he can dazzle with his very polished stickhandling skills. While he can finish, his assist totals indicate that he’s more of a setup man than the trigger. Ben Kerr, resident prospects aficionado at Last Word on Sports describes Steel as a player with a degree of “peskiness”, especially, post-whistle, that warrants mentioning. Shades of Nazem Kadri, perhaps? Regardless, he is certainly a dynamic performer with a boatload of smarts, skill and speed to burn. Is he a top-six NHL’er in the making, or more of a top-nine guy with the ability to slide up the depth chart as needed? That question could prove to be a simple matter of further development and opportunity, as the upside is there in spades. If he was two inches taller, Steel would likely be a mid-first-round consideration for a number of teams.
At 31st, the Leafs have the luxury of back-to back picks, so, in the event that it’s a ‘push’ between two draft candidates, they can have their proverbial cake and eat it. If last year’s entry draft is any indiction, it would not surprise if Toronto traded down to acquire another asset in the second or third round, however, such moves are impossible to anticipate. Lucas Johansen (Kelowna Rockets), younger brother of Nashville Predators centre Ryan Johansen, possesses an attractive package of NHL size, great mobility in all directions, and two-way attributes that make him tough to overlook as an early second- round option. While he prides himself on his defensive acumen, the confident youngster admits that he loves to chip in and jump into the rush, preferring to skate the puck into high-percentage scoring areas when opportunity arises. Is he something akin to a poor man’s Jake Gardiner, but with a higher hockey IQ and better situational awareness? It may be early to make such prognostications, but with the right opportunity in a good development program, he’s worth taking a look at, as he projects to be a robust, second-pairing back-end weapon.You have to love defenders who can anticipate an opponent’s trajectory and establish ideal body positions, forcing them into low-percentage areas the way Johansen does, according to our guy Benn. At 31st, there’s not a lot to dislike about Johansen.
It is often said that outside of the top 30, the real work begins. This is where scouts and general managers prove their worth by uncovering a gem or two who develops into an everyday NHL’er. It may also represent an organization’s best chance at acquiring a potential future starting goaltender, especially in years where the talent pool is not necessarily overflowing with high-end options between the pipes. Does Toronto get the jump on goalie talent with the 56th overall pick? While the Best Player Available mantra is a well-established draft-day convention, teams looking for tomorrow’s goaltender may be tempted to deviate, as it wouldn’t surprise to see a few of the upper-echelon goalie picks go in a tight cluster, given that a number of clubs possess multiple picks in the 55-90 range, including the Calgary Flames (4 picks total in rounds 2 and 3), Buffalo Sabres (4 3rd round picks), Edmonton Oilers (3-3rd round picks) and Carolina Hurricanes (3-3rd round picks), among others. Chances are, most, if not all take a flier on a goalie in this range. Toronto would also do well to target a goalie, with a view to developing him organically over the next three to four years before contemplating NHL exposure.
In all likelihood, Swedish prospect Filip Gustavsson (Luela HF) as well as Canadians Evan Fitzpatrick (Sherbrooke Phoenix) and Carter Hart (Everett Silvertips) will be off the board as round two comes to a close. If any of those three are still on the board when the Leafs pick at 56, it may be foolhardy to overlook the opportunity to land what could become an eventual stud. The Leafs are likely looking at Tyler Parsons (London Knghts), and perhaps Dylan Wells (Peterborough Petes) if it’s a goalie they seek.
Parsons was outstanding for London last season, finishing with a sparkling .925 save percentage while leading the OHL in both shots faced and saves made, and his performance at the Memorial Cup versus Chase Marchand of Rouyn-Noranda Huskies turned out to be a classic goalie battle in which Parsons ultimately bested his opponent. Considered something of a throwback to the Martin Brodeur school of standup goaltending, the 6’1” Parsons also excels at playing the puck in a way that keeps the flow of play heading back up-ice often before the opposition can initiate a forecheck, as Brodeur was famous for doing. Parsons is a battler who absolutely refuses to give up on any play, relying on excellent positioning, a quick catching glove, and fluid, rapid lateral movements to mitigate back-door chances. The now-famous Hunter connection suggests that there is a chance that Parsons is a legitimate target. Leafs top prospect Mitch Marner spoke glowingly of his Knights teammate, refuting speculation that the slightly undersized Michigan native cashed in on playing behind an offensive juggernaut. Parsons has big-game skill and the cool yet competitive demeanour to make the big save when called upon to do so, and he has the numbers to back it up. Generally believed to go somewhere in the third round, it might behoove the Leafs to get the jump and use their 56th overall selection to lock up Parsons, if that London connection carries weight.
Wells is a work in progress who is staking his claim in Peterborough, also posting an impressive .971 save percentage over two games of international competition with Canada’s under 18 squad at the Ivan Hlinka Tournament. The 6’2” native of St. Catharines, Ontario didn’t have the greatest numbers with Peterborough last season, but scouts love his work ethic in both game and practice situations, as well as his unrelenting desire to be “the guy”. There’s a lot to like about Wells’ upside, but if you had to expend a second-rounder on either him or Parsons, you have to think Parsons is your guy, especially given the intel available on him via coach Dale Hunter and his staff.
The Leafs would do well to add potential ‘gems’ such as Thompson or Steel, along with a future second-pairing defender with NHL bloodlines like Johansen to their development pool. Drafting and developing a potential starting goalie to one day contribute to a cup campaign led by coach Babcock, Matthews, Marner, and others is worth investing a second-round pick in, and Parsons may very well be that goalie in the years to come.
SUNRISE, FL – JUNE 26: Kyle Dubas Assistant General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs talks on the phone as President Brendan Shanahan looks on during the first round of the 2015 NHL Draft at BB&T Center on June 26, 2015 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)