Peter Baracchini The Hockey Writers
5 Maple Leafs’ First-Round Draft Targets
When Toronto Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas traded Patrick Marleau to the Carolina Hurricanes, he had no choice but to include a first-round pick in order to alleviate his $6.25 million contract. With another early exit from the playoffs this season and missing out on the Alexis Lafreniere sweepstakes, the Maple Leafs gave the pick up because it was only top-10 protected.
With the trade involving Kasperi Kapanen to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Maple Leafs received a really great return for a top-nine winger with some top-six upside. Freeing up Kapanen’s $3.2 million contract gives the team more cap space to explore trade options as well as free agency. In addition to that and a great prospect, Dubas got a first-round pick, 15th overall, in an extremely deep draft.
Whether Dubas uses this pick as part of an even bigger deal to land an established right-shot defenseman remains to be seen. If he does keep that pick, there are a lot of great names to be had at 15th overall. Here are five that will benefit the Maple Leafs if they keep the pick.
Braden Schneider, D, Brandon Wheat Kings, WHL
Central Scouting Final Rank: 9th (among NA skaters)
Josh Bell’s Final Rankings: 36th
Among defensemen in this draft, Jamie Drysdale and Jack Sanderson have garnered most of the attention. Since the Maple Leafs seem to be set for years up front and have great puck movers on the blue line, it might be best to address a positional need instead of selecting the best player available.
Enter Brandon Wheat Kings hulking defender Braden Schneider.
Given what the Maple Leafs lack on defense, he could be that right-handed, two-way defender that can be an impact player in the future. Schneider is ranked 17th on Bob McKenzie’s final rankings and is well within their reach. He’s a complete package defender that the team has been missing for some time.
After recording 24 points in his rookie season, Schneider nearly doubled his point production this past season, recording 42 points. He has the vision and ability to jump into a rush, while not putting his team at risk. He possesses a great shot and a strong first pass.
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Even though he can contribute offensively, it’s his defensive game and awareness that stands out the most. His strength lies in his gap control and board play. At 6-foot-2, 202 pounds, he has the size to go up against anyone to make a hit, tie up the opposition and provide excellent coverage and positioning in front of the net. Schneider also has a long reach, which allows him to keep the opposition to the outside and makes it easy to poke check the puck away. Despite his size, he moves extremely well and has great speed.
The Maple Leafs need a complete package defender. They’ve lacked that for quite some time and they could have that with Schneider. Plus, he seems like a player that can jump in sooner rather than later.
Bell’s Take: Schneider is a name that keeps coming up for the Maple Leafs at this spot and boy, do I hate it. Don’t get me wrong, Schneider makes sense for Toronto. He’s a defensive, right-handed defender that is very close to being NHL-ready. But at this spot, I think it’s a reach. I have Schneider ranked way down at 36, and while I may be a bit low on him, 15 is too rich for me. If he is the Maple Leafs’ target, I think they could trade back a few spots for him. More likely in my mind, is that they have their eye on someone else.
Yaroslav Askarov, G, SKA- Neva St. Petersburg, VHL
Central Scouting Rank: 1st (among EU goalies)
Josh Bell’s Final Rankings: 11th
With trade speculation starting to swirl around Frederik Andersen, his future with the Maple Leafs is up in the air. What better way to prepare for the future than to draft the best goalie in the draft, Yaroslav Askarov.
Although he’s expected to go between 9th and 12th overall, it would be a shock to see Askarov drop to the Maple Leafs. If he does, then this would be a major steal for them and it would be a great addition.
Askarov is a highly regarded goaltending prospect and could be a generational talent in net. He has excellent mobility in the crease. His vision is what stands out as he’s able to always locate the puck quickly and make the most difficult saves look easy. He is extremely quick and is always in position before a shot is taken.
With the uncertainty in the Maple Leafs’ net, having an elite goaltending prospect like Askarov at your disposal is extremely beneficial. Teams that win a championship always have a reliable and consistent goaltender. We’re just not seeing that with Andersen in the last four years. Even when he’s at his best, it just isn’t enough to get the team out of the first round.
With Askarov as the goalie of the future, the Maple Leafs will have someone reliable in net to get them farther than where they’re at. Obviously, it will take some time for Askarov to grow and mature considering he’s only 18, but he will be worth the wait.
Bell’s Take: Does this selection ever fit the Maple Leafs right now. They’ve got the stellar forward corps, they’ve got some young defenders coming up through the system, and they could have a franchise goaltender in Askarov. The Russian netminder is one of the most unique goaltenders that I’ve ever watched. He’s always moving, almost vibrating in the net. I’ve read that it helps him stay focused and calm, which has helped him have one of the best pre-draft resumes for a goalie ever. I like Ian Scott and Joseph Woll, but they’re not sure things. You can say Askarov isn’t either, but he’s definitely closer to it than the others. I think this is my ideal selection for them.
Rodion Amirov, LW, Salavat Yulaev Ufa, KHL
Central Scouting Rank: 5th (among EU skaters)
Josh Bell’s Final Rankings: 10th
I really wanted to include Anton Lundell in this piece, but considering that he may be selected before hand, the Maple Leafs do have a chance to draft a player that plays a similar game.
Rodion Amirov recorded 22 points in 17 games with Tolpar Ufa in the MHL last season. He is an excellent two-way player that doesn’t show a lot of flash but his smarts are always on display. He has flown under the radar and could go anywhere from either 10th– 15th. As he continues to impress, the Maple Leafs should definitely have their eyes on this player with his play style and decision-making.
Amirov is always a threat on the ice, no matter what situation he’s in. He has a great blend of skill and defensive structure to his game. He can be lethal on the power play, while throwing you off guard with his ability to be an excellent penalty killer. His vision allows him to be one step ahead of the competition, anticipating plays and challenging the opposition. He’s able to provide excellent pressure on the puck carrier at both ends of the ice, using his speed and smarts to get an advantage.
Like Lundell, Amirov is a complete package player. Players like this are difficult to come across. The Maple Leafs could definitely be in line to pick one in Amirov.
Bell’s Take: My favourite Russian prospect ahead of this draft, Amirov is a possession goldmine, excelling in the transition game, being solid defensively, and can contribute offensively. The two-way winger will need to put on some muscle, but he has all the tools to be a top-six forward in the NHL. Imagine a top-six with Auston Matthew, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Nick Robertson, and Amirov. It has the potential to be one of the best top-six groups of all time.
Dylan Holloway, C/W, University of Wisconsin, NCAA
Central Scouting Rank: 12th (among NA skaters)
Josh Bell’s Final Rankings: 15th
While he didn’t make Team Canada’s World Junior Team, Dylan Holloway certainly didn’t disappoint and displayed why he’s such a great prospect in this year’s draft.
Even though he didn’t have the best offensive numbers in his freshman year, Holloway’s speed and his ability to do the little things is what makes him a valuable prospect. At 6-feet, 203 pounds, he has great size, which allows him to always be engaged in the play and constantly battle for the puck. His ability to be aggressively engaged in the play is what makes him a dangerous player whenever he’s on the ice, considering today’s game is built on puck possession.
Holloway is also an excellent skater, possessing great speed as well as the ability to find himself in constant pursuit of the puck. He has great edge work and is able to get behind defenders without issue. He has a quick first step, which gives him an advantage when chasing the puck. His ability to compete is already at an NHL level, which is great for a team that wants to continue to build up front.
While the Maple Leafs have enough forward talent, having a presence like Holloway will give them more depth up front and could be a major asset in a top-six role.
Bell’s Take: Holloway headed to the NCAA this season with a lot of hype, and while general consensus is that he disappointed, I really don’t think he was as bad as some people think. Especially as the season went on, it was obvious that Holloway got more and more comfortable. I expect him to bounce back in a big way in 2020-21 and prove the team that takes him in the top-20 right. He’s got speed, he’s got strong offensive and defensive awareness, and he’s excellent with the puck. For what it’s worth, he’s my 15th-ranked prospect.
Dawson Mercer, C/W, Chicoutimi Saguenéens, QMJHL
Central Scouting Rank: 10th (among NA skaters)
Josh Bell’s Final Rankings: 18th
After a year where he won gold with Team Canada at the World Junior Championship and recorded 60 points for both the Drummondville Voltigeurs and Chicoutimi Saguenéens, Dawson Mercer has emerged as a potential top-15 pick in this years draft.
There’s a lot to like about Mercer as he possesses a strong two-way game, wanting to follow in the footsteps of Boston Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron and bring that consistent presence on the ice.
Mercer is a great blend of offense and defense. He’s great at moving the play forward and setting up his teammates with crisp, clean passes. He has great vision, as he tends to read the game extremely well. He always tends to make the right plays at the right moment and is always engaged to try and retrieve the puck.
Mercer’s defensive game is just as strong as his offensive one. He’s able to be effective on the backcheck, while having an active stick in order to break up a play and take away passing lanes. It also helps that Mercer is a strong penalty killer. With his speed, he’s a player that’ll be great in transition that can lead to a short-handed chance.
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His energetic style of play and engagement is what makes him successful. This is the kind of player that the Maple Leafs need up front, someone who isn’t afraid to back away from a play.
Bell’s Take: Mercer intrigues me so much. On one hand, I think he has the tools to be an extremely effective, do-it-all winger that could very much be a top-six guy. On the other hand, I think he’s a little raw still and has some work to do to get to that next level. I do lean more to that first hand though, especially after making Team Canada in the World Juniors despite not getting the Summer Showcase invite. I think he’s a player that’s going to prove any doubters wrong and defy the odds. He may take a year or two longer than some others to develop, but he could be a lot better than a lot of them, too. I like this fit for the Maple Leafs.
Who do you think is a great fit for the Maple Leafs with their 15th-overall pick? Have your say in the comment section.
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