Toronto Maple Leafs: Five Players to Target with the 30th Overall Pick

By: Aaron Greenfield

As the dust settles from the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the focus now shifts to the Draft. Barring any surprises, Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello and Co. will call out Auston Matthews’ name, making him the first selection at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. Once the celebration dies down in Leafs Nation, the Canucks make one more trade that hinders their franchise’s development and the Oilers prove they are still too afraid to trade one of their former first round picks for defensive help, the real question marks will arise: What should the Leafs do with their second 1st round pick from the Pittsburgh Penguins?

Last year, the Leafs traded down twice, eventually leaving the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida with only one draft selection, Mitch Marner, but collected multiple picks in the later rounds of the draft. Will the Leafs’ brass try this tactic again? Statistics seem to suggest that a team will likely find more success in a draft if it has more picks, as opposed to the trading of multiple lower picks for one higher draft selection. Unless there is a player the scouting team is really high on, it is very unlikely they will trade up; assuming they don’t trade down and select a player with the final pick in round one, here are five players that might hear their name called, joining Matthews in the Blue and White on the draft stage at First Niagara Center in Buffalo.

Alex DeBrincat

Anytime you have the opportunity to draft someone who put up back-to-back 100-point seasons in the OHL you should jump at the chance. DeBrincat is an interesting player in this draft because of his diminutive frame. The Otters’ forward stands at just 5’7 165 pounds and has been fortunate to play on star-studded Otters teams that included Dylan Strome and Connor McDavid. All the major scouting outlets had DeBrincat ranked higher than 30th but that won’t stop him from potentially dropping outside the first round. The consensus among many GMs is still size over skill, but in Toronto that phrase has been abandoned by the current management group as evident by their 2015 draft strategy to take the best player available even if there were concerns over that player’s lack of size. If DeBrincat does in fact slip to the last spot in round one, it’s unlikely he’ll have to return to the draft stage the following day for round 2.
Alex DeBrincat is a smart and responsible player as well as a dynamic offensive juggernaut. He has a lethal shot which is bad for opposing goaltenders because he takes a lot of them; he was 3rd in the OHL in shots on goal and was a large reason why he scored 51 goals in each of the past two seasons. He is also a fantastic passer, one of the reasons he was able to find time on top lines with players like McDavid, Strome or Auston Matthews (briefly before getting injured in the World Junior Championship). That World Juniors did show that DeBrincat is a battler with an edge to his game as he got ejected for a spear against Canada. Back in Erie, he continued to play with that edge, being a pest in front of the net, which is a valuable trait even for a small player to have (such as Brendan Gallagher in Montreal). If DeBrincat can be a Gallagher type, who can score, make opponents draw penalties and battle in front of the net, the Leafs would be getting a home run pick.

Vitali Abramov

5’9 175 pounds. Noticing a trend? Abramov is another player ranked just ahead of that 30th pick but with concerns about his size, it isn’t hard to believe several teams may pass him for a bigger player and safer pick. The Leafs shouldn’t be too concerned with that and should try and stockpile as many skilled players as they can and Abramov is quite skilled. He finished fifth in QMJHL scoring in his first year in the league with 93 points in 63 games and was named QMJHL rookie of the year. Abramov is very quick, especially his first few strides and creates offensive magic because of this. The Gatineau Olympiques’ star young forward is more of a playmaker with excellent precision in his passes but when given time and space he can make you pay with a decent shot of his own. He needs to get more upper body strength to be able to compete with NHL players, as he currently struggles defensively though not for a lack of effort. The Russian factor and the risk in being a boom-or-bust pick could lead to a slide on draft day but whichever team selects him knows that there is top line NHL potential in him. If he is available, expect the Leafs to call his name with the 30th pick.

Lucas Johansen

An article posted on NHL.com  outlined the Kelowna Rockets’ success in grooming NHL-calibre defensemen. There are more defensemen that currently play in the NHL from the Rockets’ system than any other major junior or European team. The latest emerging every-day top 6 defenseman is Lucas Johansen, brother of Ryan who currently plays with the Nashville Predators.

The younger Johansen is 6’2 176 pounds and ranked anywhere from late first round to late second/early third round but for the Leafs, it might be worth using their second 1st round pick and select him, even if it may be earlier than some scouts anticipate. Part of the reason he hasn’t shot up the ranks is because his positioning is so sound and he isn’t particularly aggressive so he wasn’t able to catch the attention of the scouts enough. That doesn’t mean he is a bad defenseman though. Johansen is a great skater, and strong against the opposition, though not particularly physical (he is more of a stick-check type of player versus throwing the body). He will have to get stronger to take the next step when transitioning to the pros but for now the tools are there. He is also calm in his own end, which allows him to exit the zone with ease or make a smart play to move the puck forward. When presented with the opportunity to jump into the play offensively he doesn’t shy away and was able to provide some scoring with 49 points in 69 games last season. For a team that is looking to upgrade on defence, this could be a great selection a few years down the road. The Leafs would be wise to place their bets on a program as widely proven for grooming defensemen as Kelowna.

Markus Niemeläinen

Markus Niemelainen of the Saginaw Spirit. Photo by Aaron Bell/OHL Images

Markus Niemelainen of the Saginaw Spirit. Photo by Aaron Bell/OHL Images

Drafting a towering defenseman hardly sounds like something the current Maple Leafs regime would do but make no mistake. Niemeläinen is an all-around complete blueliner and standing at 6’6 205 pounds, would become the biggest defenseman in their system. Size alone does not mean a prospect has value but to an already positionally sound D-man, who can skate well and make all the right plays in game situations, it can add an extra component to a player’s game that can put that prospect over the top. Zdeno Chara and Tyler Myers were terrible early in their careers but had the tools to succeed from the start. There is no doubt that Chara’s career has been a successful one while Myers has emerged as a solid top 4 defenseman in Winnipeg. Their size has allowed them to add an extra intimidation factor to opponents in the defensive zone and if a player does get around them, they have an extra long reach to be able to hang with a player and knock the puck of their stick.

Niemeläinen started to develop his offensive game late in the season with a poor Saginaw team and projects to be a two-way defenseman. He has great hockey-IQ and rarely makes a bad decision with the puck. The Leafs have a lot of defensemen in their system but not a lot that appear to be really solid locks to be a top-4 D-man in the NHL. Niemeläinen however, has impressed scouts in just one OHL season. It’s confirmed that he’ll be back in the OHL next season but in 3-5 years, right around the time the Leafs will be looking to compete for a playoff spot, I’d bet he’ll be an NHL regular playing a shutdown role and worth using that late first round pick for him.

Carter Hart

This draft isn’t particularly strong with goaltenders but there are still a few options around #30 to take a decent one. Swedish goalie Filip Gustavsson is one option though his numbers this year were pretty unspectacular. Another option is the WHL Everett Silvertips goalie Carter Hart. He is only 6’1 180lbs, which is small goalies today but his numbers speak for themselves. A 2.14 GAA and .918 SV% in 63 games was enough to name him the CHL Goaltender of the Year. His agility and flexibility allow him to make the same amount of saves as a bigger goalie and to top it off, he has a great glove hand so shooters looking to take capitalize on the height disadvantage will have to find another part of the net.

The Leafs have an unspectacular Jonathan Bernier, two goalies in the AHL who failed to impress in the most important moments of the Calder Cup Playoffs (Garret Sparks and Antoine Bibeau) and have a college goalie (Kasimir Kaskisuo) waiting to take one of the two vacant AHL spot once one of Bibeau or Sparks graduates to NHL backup goaltender. That means the Leafs goalie depth is thin and it would be wise to take one or even two goalies in this draft. Carter Hart has made the case that he should be the first goalie taken and it would greatly benefit the Leafs to take him with the 30th pick.

Conclusion

It’s very unclear what the Leafs will decide to do on draft day especially after the first pick is made. We have only one year of familiarity of the current management group to analyze their draft strategy and we still don’t know whether the Leafs will do exactly like they did at last year’s draft or switch things up. Perhaps they will trade up; perhaps they will trade down. But if they do decide to stay where they are and close out the first round of the draft with a pick of their own, these five players should be in the mix to become the next highly anticipated prospect of the Leafs organization.

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Posted on June 15, 2016, in Blog, In the System, Prospects, Toronto Marlies and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. it will not take 3-5 yrs to get a playoff spot. And drafting little guys was last year .Babcock wants some size . Niemelainen if he is there if not Johansen

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    • You think it will take more than 3-5 years to compete for a playoff spot? Players with size can be added through Free agency or later rounds in the draft. I think most of the earlier rounds at least will be spent taking players with skill. We’ll see what they do decide on draft day though.

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  2. Small guys with talent was last yrs draft this yr Babs wants size. Niemelainen 30th Hart 31st. But i really think lou will trade those picks

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