The 2015 NHL Draft represents the start of a new era in the history of the Toronto Maple Leafs franchise. President Brendan Shanahan has committed the Leafs to a new strategic direction that is focused on scouting, drafting and patiently developing impactful NHL players into the cornerstones of a sustainable winning franchise.
To underscore the point of sweeping changes in organizational philosophy, Shanahan shocked the hockey world by dismissing 18 professional and amateur scouts along with GM Dave Nonis following the 2014-15 season. With interim GM and Director of Player Personnel Mark Hunter orchestrating the new approach to scouting and player development, the Leafs have been active in hiring a number of successful talent evaluators.
Among the fresh new faces are Lindsay Hofford, former Director of Scouting for the London Knights and Jim Paliafito, former GM of the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit. Most recently, the Leafs promoted Scott Pellerin as the new Director of Player Development, and hired Sheldon Keefe as Head Coach of the Toronto Marlies. Keefe led the OHL Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in the same capacity last season.
This change in direction should start to manifest itself in two ways. First, it may see the Leafs take greater risks with their draft picks as they focus on identifying players that can be potential stars rather than taking players that are a safer bet, but in a more limited capacity. Secondly, watch for the Leafs to exercise greater patience in prospect development. This may involve having their top prospects remain with the Marlies for extended periods so they can develop into more complete players, as they have done with William Nylander and Connor Brown.
Top 10 Prospects:
1. William Nylander, RW
2. Connor Brown, RW
3. Stuart Percy, D
4. Frederik Gauthier, C
5. Brendan Leipsic, LW
6. Josh Leivo, LW
7. Andreas Johnson, LW
8. Carter Verhaeghe, C
9. Rinat Valiev, D
10. Matt Finn, D
The team’s 27th place finish, and in particular their abysmal record in the second half of the season, shone a light on a number of glaring weaknesses. Be it questions about team leadership, inconsistent goaltending, lack of scoring up the middle, an absence of fundamentally sound defenseman, or the lack of physical size and presence, the team’s wish list is long and deep.
With the organization now in complete rebuild mode, and senior Leafs management publicly stating that any player besides Morgan Rielly may be moved, the Leafs’ needs may become a moving target. By the same token, their long shopping list for next season takes a back seat to identifying a new core group of players they can build around in order to reshape the franchise over the long-term.
For a number of years, Toronto’s pipeline was extremely thin on skilled forwards who possessed a scoring touch. On the positive side, the Leafs are starting to build depth in skilled, potentially high scoring wingers. Nylander has a legitimate chance at being a top scorer, while the likes of Brown, Leipsic, Johnson, and Leivo provide a glimmer of hope on that front.
Gauthier has not proven anything at the pro level yet, but has the potential to be the big bodied, shutdown defensive center the Leafs have never adequately developed internally. The Leafs also have a number of defenseman with the Marlies that are ready to challenge for a full time NHL role including Percy, Petter Granberg and Viktor Loov.
Meanwhile, former OHL star Finn and WHL standout Valiev offer long-term hope. Three goalies the Leafs currently have under contract are all under 23 years of age, with Antoine Bibeau having the greatest upside.
From a big-picture perspective, the Leafs have failed to draft and develop elite NHL players. Judging the Leafs draft record over the last decade based simply on the number of current NHLers would put the Leafs in the middle of the pack in relation to other NHL teams. However, aside from Tuukka Rask and Thomas Steen, the quality of original Leafs draft picks falls off sharply. To illustrate the point further, the last player drafted by the Maple Leafs to appear in an NHL All-Star Game as a Maple Leaf, was Tomas Kaberle in 2009. In short, the team’s ability to draft and develop high-end players has been an organizational Achilles heel.
Taking a more granular view, the centre position, and in particular a true ‘number one,’ has eluded the organization since Mats Sundin. Nazem Kadri possesses the offensive skill that can define a dominating centerman, however his lack of consistency has not allowed him to earn that role to date. Nylander has all the tools to be a dominant offensive force but he has been utilized as a right winger to date, and may not possess the size and strength for a starring center ice role. Even the most optimistic outlook has the likes of Dominic Toninato, Carter Verhaeghe and Dakota Joshua having the ceiling of a number two center.
The playoff success in recent years of teams like the Bruins, Kings and Blackhawks can be attributed in part to their size and physical play. The Leafs are sorely lacking in both. Whether it’s on the blue line or at the forward positions, the organization lacks size and/or physicality from prospects that project as anything more than limited role players.
Given that the scouting department has been utterly gutted, the Leafs’ draft tendencies become a moot point when looking through a rear-view mirror as a guide to the future. Current Leafs prospects in the organization reflect the draft philosophies of three GM’s – Brian Burke, Nonis, and since last season, Shanahan.
Under the Burke and Nonis eras, picks still in the system are characterized by their size (Tyler Biggs), truculence (Brad Ross, Jamie Devane), or safe projections (Gauthier, Percy, Granberg). The Leafs also put a premium on character and strong leadership at the expense of pure skill (Finn, Carrick, Ryan Rupert, Andrew MacWilliam). What is common to them all are players that profile as bottom six roles at forward, and second or third pairings on defense.
The 2014 draft began the gradual shift to Shanahan’s intended desire of drafting players with potentially more risk, but ones that also have higher upside (Nylander, Joshua, Pierre Engvall).
Overall, the Leafs have tended to shy away from drafting goalies, with only four selections since 2006. As for geographic tendencies, draft picks have originated primarily from the OHL, US pre-college programs, and Sweden (in that order). Hunter’s March 2015 signing of free-agent Russian winger Nikita Soshnikov out of the KHL is the team’s first out of a Russian league since Nikolai Kulemin in 2006.
Hockey’s Future Staff Mock Draft Results
4. Mitch Marner, RW/C, London Knights (OHL)
Marner represents exactly the type of high risk/ reward pick the Leafs are looking to target in re-building the franchise. The reward potential is evident as Marner finished second in OHL scoring with 126 points in 63 games, including 44 goals. In the OHL playoffs, Marner continued to excel with nine goals and 16 points in just seven games before getting injured.
Marner’s single biggest asset is his puck handling ability. He possesses excellent hands, and his strong puck handling skills allow him to create time and space in order to generate offensive opportunities—which he can finish with elegance. His high hockey IQ and vision also allow him to be a creative playmaker. Marner is a fast skater which allows him to get maximum use of his offensive talents.
While the offensive capabilities alone make Marner a compelling prospect, he is more than a one dimensional player. Marner plays well in all three areas of the ice. He is willing to battle for pucks in the corners with equal effort at both ends of the rink. Marner is also willing to finish his checks when presented with the opportunity, despite his small stature—and therein lays the risk.
At 5’10’ and less than 170 pounds, Marner’s critics say that his size will limit his success in the NHL. There has been a general bias by NHL teams against smaller players, however that perception is being challenged with the recent success of Tyler Johnson in Tampa, Brendan Gallagher in Montreal, and 2014-15 Rookie of the Year candidate Johnny Gaudreau in Calgary. It is no coincidence that Marner draws comparisons to another small, but offensively gifted NHL star—former London Knights alumni and 1st overall pick Patrick Kane.
24. Brock Boeser, RW, Waterloo Black Hawks (USHL)
Boeser possesses an intriguing mix of NHL size, natural goal scoring ability and leadership qualities that offers plenty of upside as a potential pro. A 6’1, 195 pound right-handed shot, the native of Burnsville, Minnesota led the USHL with 35 goals in 57 games and ranked third in the league with 68 points. He was team captain of the USA U18 team at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, and also played for the USA U19 team last season , where he scored a combined 10 goals in nine games.
Boeser is a natural goal scorer, but one who also has strong playmaking ability. He is able to maintain strong control of the puck—especially in close quarters—and uses that ability to hit open linemates with opportune passes. Boeser has a strong, accurate shot, and he utilizes a quick release that is a common trait among top goal scorers.
Areas of improvement for Boeser come in the form of battling for loose pucks, and in his defensive zone coverage. Regardless of his current deficiencies, Boeser has a goal scorer’s instinct and knows how to finish. The knack for scoring is hard to teach, and he will be able to round out the other aspects of his game when he joins the University of North Dakota next season.
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