The Toronto Maple Leafs have just completed the first year of their rebuild. They essentially did everything right, including shedding contracts, gaining prospects and draft picks and giving their young guns a chance to shine. They also finished last in the NHL standings. This gave them the best odds of winning the lottery, which they promptly did.
The biggest tool that teams use to rebuild is the NHL draft, which takes place in June. The Leafs went into their first draft under Mark Hunter last year and came away with some solid prospects who had tremendous years. Jeremy Bracco left Boston College and went to the Kitchener Rangers, where he had 64 points in 49 games.
Andrew Neilsen, who the Leafs drafted in the third round, was a scoring machine for the Lethbridge Hurricanes where he put up 70 points in 71 games. The stat is even more impressive when you consider that he’s a defenseman.
A host of others had fantatsic years as well: Dmytro Timashov and Martins Dzierkals lit up the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. And everyone knows about Mitch Marner, the fourth overall selection, who finished the year with 116 points and is on an absolute tear through the OHL playoffs.
If the Maple Leafs want to continue their successful rebuild, having another strong draft is essential.
There should be no debate about what the Buds do with this particular pick. Every team in the NHL covets a big, first line centre, and that is exactly what Auston Matthews can become.
Had a scout who spent time in Switzerland this year compare Auston Matthews to Joe Sakic. A long-range projection, but high praise.
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) May 4, 2016
The skilled forward took an unconventional route in his draft year that involved going overseas to play in Switzerland for the ZSC Lions. He was incredibly impressive and scored 24 goals and 46 points in 36 games. The talented pivot is also impressing with his play at the World Championships, where he is representing the United States.
The Maple Leafs will not be trading this pick away. There was some speculation that the Arizona Coyotes could try and swing a deal to bring Matthews home, but it would need to be a substantial offer for the Leafs to even consider it. The smart money would be on the Blue and White keeping the pick.
Their Second First Rounder
The Maple Leafs also have a second first round pick in the upcoming draft. This was acquired as a part of the Phil Kessel deal when he was shipped off to the Pittsburgh Penguins. With the Pens defeating the Washington Capitals in their second round series, the pick will now fall in the 27-30 range.
The Maple Leafs’ best move would be to try and move up in the order. That’s not to say that there isn’t a solid player in the 27-30 range, but moving up gives them more versatility and options. In a perfect world, the Buds would package that pick and either a player or a prospect and then vault themselves into the 11-20 range.
Assuming Matthews is already in the fold, maybe a defenseman would make sense. Players projected to go in that range include Jake Bean, Charles McAvoy and the hulking, Logan Stanley.
The 31st Pick
The Maple Leafs also hold the 31st overall pick, which is seen by many as essentially another first rounder. With this pick, they should look to draft a stud goaltender who can help the team in the future. Goaltending depth for the Buds is Garett Sparks, Antoine Bibeau and Kasimir Kaskisuo, who signed a two-year deal and came over from the University of Minnesota Duluth.
The Leafs would be smart to look at Carter Hart, the goaltender who played this past year for the Everett Silvertips in the WHL. He went 35-23-4 with a 2.14 goals against average and a .918 save percentage. He was also able to tally one assist.
Hart is projected to be the highest goaltender chosen, and for good reason. He’s displayed a wicked fast glove hand, solid lateral movement and is agile and flexible. He’s able to steal a game for his team and remains cool and composed under pressure. He would make an excellent addition to the Leafs’ prospect pool and could become a very valuable player down the road.