Déjà Vu for Leafs Nation?
For the first time since the 1984 to 1985 National Hockey League (NHL) season when the Maple Leafs finished in last place, which gave them the right to select future Leaf captain Wendel Clark first overall, Toronto managed to finish in the basement of the NHL standing in the 2015 to 2016 NHL season.
However, unlike the good old days some three decades earlier, there is no guarantee that the Leafs who pick atop the upcoming 2016 NHL Entry Draft this time around. The reason is simple: There is now a draft lottery that determines which team would have the first overall selection. In fact, the Maple Leafs could conceivably end up picking fourth overall come Friday, June 24, 2016 because unlike previous years dating back to the inception of the draft lottery in the year of the Sidney Crosby sweepstakes in 2005, the newly implemented rules and regulations stipulate that three separate draft lotteries will now be run to determine the winner of the first, second, and third overall pick. Hence, in the event that Toronto looses all three lotteries, the Leafs would be relegated to the fourth overall draft position. Seeing that Toronto appears firmly committed to building through the draft properly once and for all this time around under the Brendan Shanahan regime, the million dollar question becomes how the Leafs should react in the four different scenarios, i.e., if the team ended up holding the first, second, third, or fourth overall selection?
Drafting Auston Matthews?
At first glance, taking Auston Matthews–the consensus top prospect according to Hockeyprospect, ISS Hockey, Future Considerations, McKeen’s Hockey, and NHL Central Scouting–appears to be a no brainer should it happens that Toronto secures the top pick seeing that the Leafs badly needs an elite centre and “Generation Auston” certainly fits the bill. After all, Matthews put up 55 Goals, 61 Assists for a total of 116 points in the 2014 to 2015 season when he played for the U.S. National Development Team out of the United States Hockey League. This past season, he also racked up impressive numbers with 24 Goals, 22 Assists for a total of 46 points this past season when he horned his skill sets overseas with the ZSC Lions out of the National League A in Switzerland despite playing against much older and more physically-developed opponents. The urgency is evident as the Maple Leafs have not had a legitimate first-line centre since the departure of former and long-time captain Mats Sundin following the conclusion of the 2007 to 2008 NHL season.
Why Trading Down Is Logical:
However, trading down from the first overall pick actually makes sense because this move would allow Toronto to acquire additional assets from its trading partner(s), especially since the Leafs already have William Nylander, who is a natural centre by position with first-line potential and held his own with 6 Goals and 7 Assists for a total of 13 points in 22 games with the big club after getting called up. In fact, to maximize their returns, the Maple Leafs could take a three-step approach:
- Toronto could acquire assets from another team by trading down from the first overall selection to the second overall pick,
- the Leafs could next acquire assets from a second different team by trading down from the second overall selection to the third overall pick, and
- the Maple Leafs could then acquire assets from a third different team by trading down from the third overall selection to the fourth overall pick.
Once the three-step procedure is completed, Toronto could take Alexander Nylander with the fourth overall selection to create the Leafs’ version of the “Sedin Twins.” Beyond the fact that the Maple Leafs could obtain three separate sets of assets from three different trading partners and on top of that land a highly-skilled left winger in Alexander Nylander, drafting Alexander also make sense on two fronts. First, Alexander already has chemistry with his brother William. Second, by penciling William at centre and Alexander at left wing, the Leafs do not have to wrestle with the difficult decision of whether or not to play William at centre or keep him on the wing. Keep in mind that current top prospect Mitch Marner is a natural right winger who can also play centre so the Maple Leafs could play Marner on right wing on the same line as William and Alexander so as to create a highly-explosive offensive first line.
It All Comes Down to Alexander Nylander:
Bottom line, drafting Alexander Nylander fourth overall is a win-win-win scenario. It is a win in the sense that Toronto can potentially extract up to three sets of assets from three different trading partners by progressively trading down from the first overall selection to the fourth overall pick in the aforementioned three-step sequence. It is a win in the sense that the Leafs can keep both William Nylander and Mitch Marner at their natural position respectively so that they can flourish on a line where we see Alex on left wing, William at centre, and Marner on right wing. It is a win in the sense that the Leafs can take full advantage of the inherent chemistry between Alex and William much like the way the Vancouver Canucks does with Daniel and Henrik Sedins over the past 15 seasons.
One question remain: What if the Maple Leafs ended up with the second or third, or fourth overall pick after the draft lottery took place tonight on Saturday, April 30, 2016 at 7:00 p.m.? The answer is simple. If Toronto gets the second overall selection, simply utilize my aforesaid three-step approach directly at step two. Should it turned out that the Leafs secured the third overall pick, just follow my above three-step approach immediately at step three. In both of these two scenarios, the Maple Leafs would still pick up assets from other trading partners (just not as much as they would have had had they got their hands on the top selection) while ensuring that they bring Alexander Nylander into the fold.
Some pundits would argue that drafting Patrik Laine (who put up 7 Goals and 6 Assists for 13 Points in 7 Games for Finland during the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Junior Championships) second overall or Jesse Puljujarvi (who put up 5 Goals and 12 Assists for 17 Points in 7 Games for Finland playing alongside Laine during the same tournament) third overall would be more logical but my plan would give Toronto the most return if the Leafs are awarded the second or third overall draft position after the draft lottery–particularly since quite a number of General Managers would be willing to pay a premium to be able to draft Laine or Puljujarvi.
Indeed, my blue print fits well with the Maple Leafs’ draft strategy in last year’s draft given that Toronto repeatedly traded down to increase its number of draft picks–effectively turning a late first-round pick (24th overall) into two second-round selections (34th overall and 61st overall) as well as a third-round pick (68th overall).
— OntarioHockeyLeague (@OHLHockey) April 18, 2016
Finally, if Toronto were to strike out on all three lotteries, then the Maple Leafs can directly use the fourth overall pick to choose Alexander Nylander (who by the way has huge upside as he put up a very impressive 28 Goals and 47 Assists for a total of 75 points in only 57 games with the Mississauga Steelheads of the Ontario Hockey League as a Rookie on route to winning the Rookie of the Year Emms Family Award) outright.
Kenneth Lam is an Assistant Professor in the School of Health Policy and Management at York University; a former Junior Fellow at Massey College; as well as a Peer-Reviewer for American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Canadian Scholars’ Press Inc., Healthcare Policy, Oxford University Press Canada, and Women’s Press.