For the Toronto Maple Leafs, there is a silver lining to missing the 2014 NHL playoffs and finishing 23rd overall in the league standings – the potential of selecting an impact player with the eighth overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft.
As the Leafs organization looks optimistically towards the 2014-15 season and beyond, they can take comfort in knowing that a core group of players aged 26 or younger are already playing prominent roles on the team. Wingers Phil Kessel (26) and James Van Riemsdyk (25) anchored the first line and shouldered the bulk of the team's scoring last season. Center Nazem Kadri's age (23), and offensive creativity provides reason to believe that he has more upside to his game. Two fast and offensively gifted defensemen in Morgan Rielly (20) and Jake Gardiner (23), also give the Leafs the potential of an offense-minded one-two punch on the blue line that few other NHL teams can match. Most importantly, 25-year-old goaltender Jonathan Bernier showed that when healthy, he gives the Leafs a chance to win on any given night.
Top 10 Prospects:
The team's needs fall into three primary areas. The most importance is on the blue line in the form of defensemen who are fundamentally strong in their own zone. Next, is a big, offensively dominating center, although that need can be mitigated somewhat if the Leafs can re-sign pending UFA David Bolland. If he does re-sign, the troika of Bolland-Bozak-Kadri provides adequate short-term depth at the position. If Bolland leaves, they will have to address the position in a significant way. Finally, the team needs bottom six forwards that can contribute offensively and play more meaningful minutes than in seasons past.
For the first time in many years, the Leafs have depth on defense with as many as seven prospects playing under contract in North America next season. Primary among them are Stuart Percy and Matt Finn, who show promise as solid two-way defensemen. Petter Granberg and Andrew MacWilliam play a tough, defensive brand of hockey in their own end. While none of this group will provide immediate impact the Leafs may need during the 2014-15 season, the depth and quality of this group may prove valuable for the organization in the long run.
Gritty, physical forwards with strong character, and who can play a two-way game, are a dominant theme when looking at forwards in the system. Carter Ashton and Jerry D'Amigo will have legitimate aspirations of making the Leafs rooster in 2014-15. Former first round pick Tyler Biggs remains intriguing as a potential NHL power forward given his size, strong skating ability and age (21), but more time in the AHL will be required. Sam Carrick represents a good example of a Leafs prospect that has put himself on the radar by sheer determination, unselfish team play and contributions that may be better measured qualitatively than quantitatively.
The Leafs have been on an endless search for a proverbial number one center since Mats Sundin. While Peter Holland finished sixth overall in the 2013-14 AHL playoff scoring race and set a Marlies franchise post-season record with 15 points in 11 games, Holland has not yet established himself as a front-line center. 2013 first round pick Frederik Gauthier has the skill set of a shutdown checking center rather than as a high point producer.
Offensively skilled forwards are also lacking within the organization. Josh Leivo, OHL scoring champion Connor Brown, and Andreas Johnson, who won the SHL's Rookie of the Year award in 2013-14, represent prospects with top six forward potential. The Leafs also lack that dominating shutdown defenseman they so desperately seek, even though Rielly may evolve into a dynamic offensive NHL defenseman.
The Leafs Director of Amateur Scouting Dave Morrison has been in charge of the Leafs draft since 2006. Over that time, he has had to work under four general managers. Players currently in the system reflect the Brian Burke philosophy of drafting players who are tough to play against and possessing strong leadership and character. Morrison's picks have been geographically diverse, ranging from US hockey programs to European leagues, however the last two years have favored players from the CHL. Another distinct trend under Morrison has been the little importance placed on drafting goalies. From 2006 to 2013, the Leafs had 55 draft picks, but selected only four goalies. Only one – James Reimer, drafted in the fourth round and 99th overall – had been drafted higher than the sixth round.
Danish-born Ehlers enjoyed a memorable 2013-14 season playing alongside Jonathan Drouin (TB) with the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL. The list of accolades for Ehlers last season include CHL Rookie of the Year, QMJHL Best Plus-Minus (+65), and most goals, assists, and points by a rookie (49-55-109). Ehlers continued this offensive dominance during the Mooseheads post season by scoring 11 goals and 17 assists in only 16 playoff games.
Ehlers' dominance in Canadian junior hockey last season as an 18 year old rookie from Europe was possible due to a skill set that features excellent speed, a high hockey IQ, good puck handling skills, and a hard, accurate wrist shot. Ehlers excelled last season despite having to overcome playing on smaller ice rinks and in a league that is much more physical than he faced playing in Europe. That success was not entirely unexpected given that he played the 2012-13 season in Switzerland where he also dominated for the Biel U20 junior team, scoring 26 goals in 32 games. He also played 11 games for Biel in the Swiss National League A as a 17-year-old.
The risk with Ehlers is his size. At 5'10 and 165 pounds, the natural question will be how much bigger and stronger he can get, or how he will adapt to playing against men. Regardless, with a skill set and upside potential that is unparalleled in the Leafs system, Ehlers could be a special offensive player.