The downside of going for it at every trade deadline is you can be left twiddling your thumbs at the entry draft.
In their effort to spend to the seams and try to win in the present — not the worst option when you dress the fourth-highest regular-season scorer and the Hart Trophy runner-up — the Toronto Maple Leafs have whittled their draft selections in the 14 combined rounds of 2021 and 2022 to a grand total of six.
That the Leafs spent their 2021 first-round pick, to Columbus, for Nick Foligno, only to see Foligno injured and unable to contribute much during the playoffs is a bout of bad luck and a reminder of risk.
“Do I regret anything in the last six months?” general manager Kyle Dubas asked himself, following another first-round exit.
“I regret that we weren't able to deliver on the promise and the hope that our regular season instilled in our fan base. And it's up to us to rectify that so that we don't sit here again and deal with that.”
The Maple Leafs are in far too deep to adjust course and focus on the future. Seizing the prime years of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander is the mandate.
So, unless Dubas has another Kasperi Kapanen deal up his sleeve, Toronto’s draft didn't begin Friday but rather Saturday, in Round 2.
Dubas has never been afraid to trade down in the ladder to gain multiple picks, and he has traditionally favoured home-run skill over size in his approach to prospects.
Last season, the Maple Leafs were busy on the floor, drafting 12 players in total, with a heavy continent of Russians, Finns and Americans.
This weekend, Toronto will yield a much smaller crop, but we expect it to target teenagers from those same nations.
"Knowing we expected to contend this year, we were moving out picks to try to help our group. From October 2020 to July 2021, we will add 15 new prospects to our system — that is the way that we viewed it," Dubas said Thursday.
"We thought we had a more complete set of information on the players in the October draft. Knowing what was coming with what we expected from our team and thus what was going to happen to our draft capital at the trade deadline, we tried to shift in 2020 to pick players we thought we would have a more complete view on."
TOR 2 (57th), TOR 5 (153rd), TOR 6 (185th)
Potential Round 2 targets
Josh Doan, right wing, Chicago Steel: “He’d be a target, for sure,” confirms Sportsnet’s prospect guru Sam Cosentino. The Maple Leafs have poured hours into scouting the USHL’s Steel during their 2021 Clark Cup championship run and have their sights on a few players from a roster that was overseen by current Marlies coach Greg Moore in 2019.
Passed over in 2020, the 19-year-old Doan’s stock has skyrocketed thanks to a growth spurt (6-foot-2, 176 pounds) and stat spurt (31 goals, 70 points in 53 games).
Praised for his work ethic and net-front courage, Shane Doan’s son has already worked out with Auston Matthews in Arizona.
“He’s a really good player. He's still young,” Matthews said.
The catch, Cosentino says, is that Doan could be selected as high as the first round and likely early in the second, begging the question: Could Dubas trade up?
Toronto also has Doan teammates Ryan Ufko (a small, puck-moving, right-shot defenceman) and Jack Bar (bigger, smooth-skating D-man who can start transition) on its radar.
Prokhor Poltapov, right wing / left wing, Krasnaya Armiya Moskva: At the 2020 draft, Toronto selected Russians with its first, fourth and fifth picks. The Leafs scout the country heavily, which could lead to Poltapov joining the organization.
The St. Petersburg native made his KHL debut this past season for CSKA Moscow but spent the bulk of the past two years with its MHL farm club, putting up an impressive 25 goals and 52 points in 61 games. An unintimidated, skilled winger with nifty hands.
Ville Koivunen, right wing / left wing, Karpat: Toronto’s draft-and-develop connections to Finland run deep, and the playmaking Koivunen fits the profile of Dubas’s ideal pick.
“His game is one of pure, unrelenting skill, and an attacking mindset to match,” describes Elite Prospects in its draft guide. [LINK: https://www.eliteprospects.com/2021draftguide]
“Koivunen wants the puck on his stick, wants to be a game-breaker, wants to make something happen every shift.”
Last year’s first pick: Rodion Amirov
Amirov absolutely shone in 2020-21.
The Russian was named best forward en route to the 2020 Karjala Cup after scoring in every game against grown men. He followed up that performance with six points in seven matches at the world juniors.
In his second campaign with Ufa Salavat Yulayev, the 19-year-old scored nine goals in 39 games, ranking third among all under-20 skaters in the KHL.
Amirov signed his entry-level deal with the Leafs on April 15 and flew to Toronto to begin training with the Marlies in the spring.
“He just needs to get bigger and stronger,” one scout says. “He’ll be a good two-way forward, though.”
Toronto's development staff — Hayley Wickenheiser, Danielle Goyette, Darryl Belfry — worked with Amirov to set him up for an impact season with in the KHL.
Amirov is currently at training camp with Ufa.
"We just wanted to maximize the things we need him to work on so that he can transition over here as soon as possible when he is ready to do so," Dubas said.
"I think he is going to have a great season with Ufa. It has been really good working with them, actually, as well. They are very open to working with us in terms of sharing information and going back and forth. It has been very, very good."
Rodion Amirov with the Auston Matthews “good goal” celly pic.twitter.com/LCAqBuyCpn
— alberto (@twistedleafs) December 31, 2020
There is no one overwhelming need in a Maple Leafs system that, frankly, could use a boost at all positions.
"In the draft, you would certainly like to come out even in terms of wingers, defence, centres and goalies, but we never also want to sacrifice the best players available or take huge steps backward in terms of how we rate the talent of the player or what their projected future role may be in the NHL just to say we satisfied a positional allotment," Dubas explained.
"In terms of our philosophy, we are trying to find the best players possible that check off our scouting criteria. Obviously, talent is a key thing, but so is toughness, intelligence, and defensive play."
The organizational emphasis on winning in the Auston Matthews era has seen a steady trickle of prospects (fair thee well, Filip Hallander) and draft picks leak away. As a result, the AHL Marlies have tumbled from champions to a middle-of-the-pack group.
Because of this, there is pressure for some on-the-brink (and cap-friendly) talents like Nick Robertson, Rasmus Sandin, Joey Anderson, Adam Brooks and Timothy Liljegren to establish themselves as NHL fixtures.
Behind them are a handful of intriguing names: Amirov, Topi Niemelä, Roni Hirvonen, Nicholas Abruzzese, Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, Mikhail Abramov, Artur Akhtyamov, et al. But there is a sense that more development is required before any of them make the leap.
"We still expect our scouting staff here to do a great job with the three picks we’ve got and be able to return some players," Dubas said.
"Knowing the work that [amateur scouting director] John Lilley and his staff have put into it, I am confident we will make the most of it."