‘Bit of a surprise’: Maple Leafs draft local Easton Cowan in Round 1

Watch as Brad Treliving and the Toronto Maple Leafs select London Knights forward Easton Cowan with the 28th pick in the 2023 NHL Draft.

NASHVILLE – Minutes after Easton Cowan stepped off the draft stage in Nashville, he received an incoming FaceTime request from the last London Knight to get drafted in the first round by the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Mitch Marner wanted to be among the first to welcome his fellow forward to the club.

“That was pretty cool,” beamed Easton, his aquamarine tie poking out the top of his brand-new blue No. 23 Leafs sweater.

“He was just really happy. He’s like, ‘Can’t wait to meet you. Happy you’re part of the Buds.’ And obviously talking about London there, so it was awesome. I was kind of in shock, really.”

As a native of Mount Brydges, Ont., who grew up to play for his local OHL team and now get drafted by his boyhood NHL team, Cowan was riding a high Wednesday night at Bridgestone Arena.

“Kind of a loss for words right now,” Cowan said, his phone buzzing persistently in his pocket. “I played for my hometown there in London. So, to get drafted by another hometown team, it’s pretty cool. And it’s a moment I’ll never forget. I’m really excited that my family and friends are here to celebrate with me.”

Cowan’s parents and sister, joined by a posse of aunts, uncles, cousins and friends erupted in cheers when Maple Leafs head scout Wes Clark announced his name as the 28th-overall pick — Toronto’s first Round 1 selection since Rodion Amirov in 2020.

“I can’t wait to see their smiles,” Cowan said.

The 18-year-old looks up to Knights icon Marner and tries to model his game after Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk, whose net-front play Cowan admires. (“He’s got that JVR play everyone knows,” Cowan says.)

Scouts describe the 5-foot-11, 170-pound left shot as a high-energy playmaker who plays with an edge and is willing to dig in the corners.

Clark targeted the 18-year-old for his hockey sense and competitiveness.

Cowan believes his “hounding mentality” made him an attractive pick. He prides himself on leadership and hard work.

“I really hound pucks. My 200-foot game. And using my skating ability and hockey sense,” he said. “I want to work on getting bigger, work on my shot, and you can always get better.”

A mild surprise to go off the board in Round 1, Cowan was the 51st-ranked North American skater by NHL Central Scouting.

But the Maple Leafs don’t pick Thursday until the fifth round, and there’s no way he would’ve been available so late.

Because his conversations with Toronto’s brass at the Buffalo combine went so well, Cowan has a hunch the Leafs were interested.

Though he put up impressive regular season numbers in 2022-23 — 20 goals, 33 assists and a plus-10 rating in 68 games — Cowan figures his explosive postseason (21 points in 20 games) and being surrounded by winners upped his stock.

“A bit of surprise, but I’m really thankful to be drafted by the Leafs. I can’t wait to get down there and see what it’s all about,” Cowan said.

“It’s a moment I’ll never forget.”

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