The season is finally over so I guess it’s time to kick back and forget about the Leafs until the draft, right? Wrong, because we found out yesterday that Brendan Shanahan is one cold-blooded killa. Absolutely no mercy, he was just firing people left, right, and centre. I’m the only person on earth who doesn’t watch Game of Thrones, but from what I’ve been told, this seems like the Leafs version of the Red Wedding. While you should never be happy to see somebody lose their job, I’m finding it pretty darn hard not to for some of these guys, given the circumstances (sidenote: I legitimately feel badly for guys like Horacek and Spott, because they both inherited terrible situations, and I don’t think they were the cause of the Leafs’ issues. With that being said, I understand Shanahan wanting to clean house and start from scratch). As I discussed in my last post, over the last couple of months, we have seen the early steps of the long rebuilding process. The rebuild is long overdue, and it’s nice to see that Shanahan understands that in order for it to be done properly, this whole thing needs to be torn down from the top, all the way down. In actuality, this rebuild might have begun a couple summers ago if the Leafs didn’t fluke their way into the playoffs during the shortened season. That season fooled many people (including management apparently) into thinking they were the real deal, and definitely delayed the rebuild that was so badly needed, and is now finally beginning.
While the moves yesterday and over the past couple of months have all been well and good, this was the easy part of the Leaf rebuild. The difficult part will be overhauling the roster by acquiring young assets through trades, and perhaps more importantly, through drafting well. That begins with this year’s draft on July 1st. This Saturday’s draft lottery will obviously play a major role in determining what the Leafs will do at the draft. To be entirely honest, until Shanahan decided to go bananas, this post was supposed to just be about the draft lottery. So with that being said, let’s shift our attention to that.
The lottery is basically Christmas for us Leaf fans, except there won’t be any fat dudes coming down the chimney delivering gifts. Phil Kessel has other things to do.
For diehard fans, this version of Christmas may perhaps be even more exciting. You see, it’s been a painful season. If you were cheering for the Leafs to win every game, you were disappointed 52 times. For those, like me, who hopped aboard the #TankNation train and started hoping for some losses, there was good reason to cheer. Regardless of your attitude towards tanking, with a record of 11-36-4 in the final 51 games, the Leafs turned out to be pretty good at it. And now, the reward for sitting through this train wreck? A chance at winning a generational talent that could assist greatly in turning this team around. It truly is the culminating moment of this season, a Leaf fan’s Christmas. To reference Step Brothers, the remaining question is whether we luck out and get Hulk Hands under the tree, or something a little less exciting.
The truth is, the Leafs are pretty much guaranteed to draft an elite level prospect fact with the top pick, regardless of what goes on in the lottery.
With 27th spot in the standings nailed down, the Leafs will either have first pick, fourth pick, or fifth pick. They have a 9.5% chance of winning the McDavid sweepstakes, a 45% chance of fourth pick, and a 45.5% shot at fifth. Let’s take a look at who the Leafs could end up taking with their first pick.
Connor McDavid – C (Estimated likelihood: 9.5%):
The undisputed #1 pick. What can I say that hasn’t already been said? In case you didn’t get the above reference, Connor McDavid = the Hulk Hands of this draft. He’s the real deal. When he wasn’t busy ripping up the World Juniors as an under-ager, or breaking his hand on Bryson Cianfrone’s face, he could be found racking up 120 points in just 47 games with the Erie Otters. Just last weekend, he posted 5 goals and 6 points in a single playoff game against the London Knights. I know player comparisons can be stupid, but for what it’s worth, the Erie GM said recently that “He said he skates like Bobby Orr did, where it looks like everybody else couldn’t skate at the same level; he has vision like Gretz and hands like Mario (Lemieux). He’s the real deal, that’s for sure.” So from what I gather, McDavid is pretty good at hockey. If the Leafs manage to win the lottery I might die from the excitement. This would be a game-changer for the Leaf rebuild. And who knows, the Leafs are due for a bit of luck. Toronto would go nuts, as it should. One can dream. As great as some of the other talents are in the draft, he is the guaranteed first pick.
Jack Eichel – C (Estimated likelihood: 0.5%):
All of the draft rankings have this guy second, and just like McDavid, he will very likely turn into a franchise player. Since he plays for Boston University of the NCAA, it is a bit of a challenge to compare his numbers to those of McDavid and other CHLers. We can, however, compare his performance this year to some of the other draft-year performances of NCAA drafted players currently in the NHL.
So he’s good…right? His play this season earned him the Hobey Baker award for the top NCAA hockey player, making him the first rookie to win the award since Paul Kariya in 1993. That’s some pretty good company. Realistically, the Leafs won’t have a shot at drafting Eichel, unless a miracle happens and he drops to fourth. Seth Jones was ranked second in the 2013 draft and ended being picked fourth. Strange things do happen sometimes, but realistically, I can’t see that scenario playing out. 0.5% is generous, I just wanted to include him in the list.
Dylan Strome – C (Estimated likelihood: 30%)
If the Leafs don’t win the lottery, Strome could be a great consolation prize. In many draft years, he might be a first overall pick. If the Leafs drafted him, he could become the bona fide first-line centre that the Leafs have coveted since Sundin’s departure in 2008 (no, Bozak isn’t a first-liner). If he is available at the fourth or fifth pick, I would be shocked if the Leafs didn’t draft him. He led the OHL in points this year, with 129, thanks in large part to his six points in the final game of the season for the Erie Otters. While some think he is overvalued because he plays on the same team as McDavid, the fact is, they don’t play on the same line, and he dominated the league even when McDavid was out of the lineup. Unfortunately for Leaf fans, his stock has risen late in the season, and now he is ranked third on many scouts’ draft lists. There is still a real possibility of the Oilers taking Hanifin with the third pick, leaving Strome available at fourth, but it would be shocking if he was available in the five slot.
Noah Hanifin – D (Estimated likelihood: 20%):
Almost everyone seems to agree that this is the top defenceman in the draft. He has opened a lot of eyes with his play in the NCAA this year for Boston College, drawing comparisons to Hall of Famer Rob Blake (who, coincidentally, is one of the rumoured candidates to replace Nonis). While Hanifin considers himself more of an offensive defenceman, he is generally considered by scouts to be strong in both ends, and possess elite skating ability. He will likely go third or fourth overall, so it’s a toss-up whether or not he’ll be around for the Leafs’ pick. With that being said, even if he is available, I wouldn’t be shocked if the Leafs elected to select a forward, like Strome or Mitch Marner, if either of them are still on the board. While the Leafs could obviously still use an elite young defenceman, their need for defence, with guys in the system like Rielly, Gardiner, Percy, Loov, Valiev, and Finn, is probably not as glaring as their need for elite forward (especially centre) prospects.
Mitchell Marner – C/RW (Estimated likelihood: 35%):
This guy was simply a scoring machine with the London Knights this year, putting up 126 points in 63 games. He is not at all a one-dimensional player, as his defensive play has also been praised by scouts. While he played right-wing with the Knights this season, he has played centre in the past, so it is conceivable that he could be used in either spot. He is sometimes knocked for his small 5’10 frame, but keep in mind, the guy is 17 and could still very easily grow a few more inches. Some say he is overvalued because of the talent he plays with (namely Max Domi), but like Strome did with McDavid, Marner showed that he was more than capable of stepping up even when Domi was out of the lineup. Marner also has a history with the Leafs Director of Player Personnel, Mark Hunter, which could be a factor that comes into play at the draft. He will likely be available at the fourth or fifth pick, and if McDavid, Eichel, and Strome have all been taken, I could see him potentially being next on the list for the Leafs.
Lawson Crouse – LW (Estimated likelihood: 5%):
To be honest, I only really included Crouse in this list because a lot of the rankings list him fifth. I won’t lie, I will seriously consider throwing in my Leaf fan card if he is picked, though. No offence to the guy, I’m sure he’ll be a good player, but when you look at some of the other talent that is available at the top of the draft, he doesn’t stack up. At 6’4 and 212, he is a large specimen, and was a man amongst boys in the OHL this year with the Kingston Frontenacs. He had a pretty good World Juniors, where he played a checking role alongside current Leaf prospect Frederik Gauthier. With Kingston, he put up just 51 points, even with 2014 fourth overall pick Sam Bennett playing on his line for some of the year. He serves as an effective power forward, but his offensive upside is nowhere close to the other forwards on this list. He may be a good player for whoever he is drafted by, but in the fourth or fifth slot, I would definitely prefer Strome, Hanifin, or Marner.
Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the lottery balls drop in the Leafs favour on Saturday. But if they do not, there is still a lot to be excited about. With the events that unfolded yesterday in Leafland, something tells me it will be a very interesting off-season. Buckle up.