Here is a look at Toronto’s organizational needs and possible draft targets:
Since Mark Hunter has joined the organization the Leafs have done a tremendous job of rebuilding a team that has been in dire need of injecting young high-end talent into the lineup since Wendel Clark was chosen first overall.
It wasn’t overly difficult deciding on Auston Matthews first overall or even Mitch Marner at four given how well Hunter knew his former London Knights’ player, but the club had 20 draft selections in 2015 and 2016 for the first two-year period since 2001-02, and while the jury is still out on a lot of those picks, there are at least a half dozen who should help the team down the line, and any time you can get three or more future NHLers from a draft, including first-liners, you have been successful.
It will be tougher to get three or more future Leafs out of this year’s draft as the club only has two top-100 picks, but at 17th overall Toronto should be able to fill a long-term team need, and the one which stands out at this time is defence. Toronto had nine picks in the top 70 in the last two drafts, and only used two of them on defencemen. Other than Travis Dermott there are no defencemen in the system who are decent bets to be top-four blueliners, so the emphasis may well be on finding one in the first round of this draft.
Working in Toronto’s favour is that odds are high that there will be at least one or two of the second tier of defencemen still available at 17. After the top two defencemen (Miro Heiskanen and Cale Makar), it is expected that there will be a run on forwards as Recrutes has no blueliners ranked between five and 15.
The most likely candidates to be taken at 17 would be Urho Vaakanainen, Timothy Liljegren, Conor Timmins and Juuso Valimaki, with an outside chance that Cal Foote and Erik Brannstrom are also considered. Vaakanainen rose to the third slot of a lot of NHL scouts’ defence lists after a terrific showing at the U-18’s, and he would add speed, smarts and a sound two-way game to the Leafs lineup in a couple of seasons after he gains some more muscle. One of the safer defence picks in this draft, he also has the upside to challenge for a top-three spot on the Leafs blueline down the road.
Liljegren is another possibility given his skating ability and previous reputation for being an offensive threat even if he didn’t show that side of his game often this season. Once thought to be a top-two consideration for the draft, the talented Swedish blueliner struggled for most of the season after returning from a bout with mononucleosis, and there is a decent chance that he will be there at 17, and give the Leafs’ scouting staff a strong reason to debate on whether he will be worth the gamble. If he can get his game turned around there is certainly the physical potential in his game to be a top-three defenceman, but a Leafs team with just two picks in the top 100 may lean towards a safer selection.
Timmins is a pretty safe bet to be a top-five NHL defenceman, but also has the smarts, vision and passing skills to be a top-three if he can gain some quickness. The OHL blueliner made huge strides this season, and if the improvement continues there’s no reason to believe he can’t be a solid powerplay contributor who fits into a second-pairing in the NHL in two or three years. Working in Timmins’ favour is that Leafs’ assistant GM Kyle Dubas was the GM of Sault Ste. Marie when Timmins was drafted by the club, so he will have intimate details on the players’ character and upside.
Valimaki may have the most offensive upside of any of the second defence group, and there is certainly no question about whether he will be able to see powerplay time in the NHL. His shot and passing skills are elite; it’s his play without the puck and agility that will have to be developed before he’s trusted to play a significant role 5-on-5 at the NHL level.
Foote is another defenceman who dropped in his draft year, and it’s unclear where exactly he will end up being drafted, but the Leafs may feel his skating deficiencies can be overcome with time. If that’s the case, he would be a good addition to the club as a 6-4 shutdown-type defender with smarts who could also see some powerplay time on a second unit.
Later in the second round the Leafs will look to add the BPA to a farm system that has been well restocked in the past couple of drafts at every position with the possible exception of goal. There are several defencemen with top-five upside that may still be on the board at 59 including Mario Ferraro, Dmitri Samorukov, Dylan Samberg, Cale Fleury and David Farrance, so it would not be a surprise to see the Leafs add a rearguard with both of their top picks. The parent team is well stocked with young forwards and there are several others on the way, so defence could, and should, be a priority for the club. As the old hockey saying goes…you can never have too many defencemen.
Fleury is the highest-ranked defenceman by Recrutes in that group, and if he is still there at 59 the Leafs would be well served to select him as he has top-four NHL upside. Fleury is flying under the radar in a lot of scouting circles because he played on one of the worst teams in the CHL in Kootenay, and received very few scouting views in comparison to other WHL prospects. His -61 plus/minus may scare off a lot of teams but that most certainly was more a product of his environment than of his skill or hockey sense.
Toronto will have five picks in the mid and late rounds, and the hope will be to add a darkhorse prospect or two that can beat the odds and challenge for an NHL spot with time. Don’t be surprised to see the club add another goalie or two with those picks. There should still be some decent ones on the board at 110; perhaps Tomas Vomacka, Matthew Villalta or Dayton Rasmussen is still available, and any of those three would be a nice addition to a club that could use the depth.