Maple Leafs face critical decision in how to use 2020 first-round pick

TORONTO – Kyle Dubas will not rule out trading his third first-round draft pick in a span of 20 months.

Critics may disagree with his vision, but there is no doubt the Toronto Maple Leafs general manger — feeling more direct heat this summer than in any previous — won’t hesitate to use all tools at his disposal in an effort to construct a roster ready to contend as soon as possible.

In late January 2019, Dubas spent a first-round ticket to pull Jake Muzzin from the Los Angeles Kings, and the defender is now locked in as one half of the club’s shutdown pairing.

In the summer of 2019, Dubas coughed up a first-rounder to the Carolina Hurricanes (13th overall) in order to duck out from under the final season of Patrick Marleau’s contract and further invest in his young forward core.

And Dubas was first to act in this off-season’s market, clawing back a first-round choice from the Pittsburgh Penguins (15th overall) and freeing space under a flattened cap by dealing away middle-six winger Kasperi Kapanen.

Yes, that trade involved seven pieces, but Dubas was adamant in retrieving a first-rounder in a return for his 24-year-old 20-goal scorer. Getting the Maple Leafs logo on the board for Oct. 6 was the key.

Leaping back into a deep draft simultaneously alleviates a little pressure and creates options for Toronto’s brass.

“We’re open, certainly, to keeping the pick, but I think the spot that we’re at with our team right now, we’re also open probably to moving it if the right deal came along for someone that could help us now,” Dubas said.

“We wanted this [cap] flexibility so that we could be flexible inside the marketplace for either free agents or for trades.”

The GM might as well have hired a plane to skywrite “Make me an offer!” over top of Scotiabank Arena.

One suspects it would take a proven top-four defenceman or, perhaps, a middle-six centre with term, to pry the 15th slot from Dubas. And there are a number of clubs without a first- or second-rounder — the Arizona Coyotes, Vancouver Canucks and Penguins, specifically — antsy to get a seat at the table. (Heck, Bill Armstrong’s Coyotes aren’t scheduled to draft until Round 4.)

Any trade option Dubas considers for the pick should significantly address either (a) the thin right side of his blue line or (b) his under-construction third line, which was ineffective during the post-season.

Dubas would be trading from a position of power here, and we examine some potential defence trade targets here.

Worst case, safe case: Dubas simply makes the pick and adds to a cupboard that has lost some decent young talent the past couple of years.

A trade up for an earlier pick feels both unlikely and unwise, but Dubas has also shown he’s willing to trade down and strike gold -- the way he did at the 2018 draft, when he got his man, Rasmus Sandin, at 29.

“In a typical draft year at the No. 15 spot, a trade back might be considered,” Sportsnet’s draft expert Sam Cosentino tells us. “But Toronto still has a decent pick at No. 44, and with the depth of this year’s draft, I think 15 is a great place to be. It won’t be top tier, as I do believe that tier ends at about 12.”

OK, so which second-tier prospects should be available for the Maple Leafs at 15? And which need will Toronto’s scouts be focusing on?

“There’s players at every position — forward, defence and goalie — that are of interest to us at that spot,” said Dubas, not tipping his hand.

On the blue line, a pair of WHL defencemen, Braden Schneider and Kaiden Guhle, shoot to the top of the list. Schneider, 19, is a six-foot-two, 202-pound right shot who erupted for 42 points in his third full(ish) campaign for the Brandon Wheat Kings factory. Guhle, 18, is a lefty who also hit the 40-point mark for the Prince Albert Raiders.

If Dubas wants to improve his pools of centres, 42-goal man Seth Jarvis (Portland Winterhawks) and 80-point guy Connor Zary (Kamloops Blazers) could still be on the board halfway through Round 1.

All four would be conservative choices.

More intriguing (i.e. risky) is Round 1 wildcard Hendrix Lapierre out of Gatineau, limited to just 19 games for the Chicoutimi Sagueneens in 2019-20 due to injury.

Lapierre’s agent contacted all NHL teams with an extensive medical history to explain that the centreman didn’t miss time due to concussions but more because of a cervical injury.

“More so than most teams, the Leafs have the resources for extensive background check into the medical reports,” Cosentino says. “And if they can corroborate that the issue is not concussion-related and they feel safe enough with how he’s played since coming back, then I do believe he is the Leafs’ range.”

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