The surprise first-rounder was viewed as a reach by several pundits, and Toronto GM Brad Treliving did explore options for trading down in the draft ladder and gathering more picks.
Problem was, the mortgage-the-future Leafs didn’t select again until the fifth round. The London Knights star may have slipped to Round 2, sure. No way he’d still be on the board in Round 5.
And Maple Leafs chief amateur scout Wes Clark had zeroed in on his target, outside opinions be damned.
“The only name I heard all week was Easton Cowan. That’s the only name I heard. He was the guy. I know they were thrilled to get him, regardless of when it happened or what the circumstances were,” Keefe said Monday, following Cowan’s two-point NHL preseason debut.
“How he’s looked so far, you can’t help but be excited.”
The farm-raised, chocolate-milk-swilling 18-year-old affectionately known as “Cowboy” has burst into camp with pistols blazing.
Hot off a three-game, six-point display at the Traverse City prospects tournament, Cowan treated his family and friends to a show Monday in his pre-season debut, a 4-3 overtime loss to the Senators.
“He was great. Brings a lot of pace. Brings a lot of speed. He’s a fiery guy, gets around that net, makes plays, so it’s great to watch him live,” says Leafs forward Mitch Marner, a Knights alum. “I know he’s a great player, but to see it live was pretty incredible.”
Added John Klingberg: “Really good. Flying through the middle of the ice. Great puck handler. Wins a lot of one-on-one battles as well. So, yeah, he surprised me a lot.”
Cowan factored into all three of Toronto’s goals — scoring once, assisting on another, and drawing a final-minute tripping penalty that led to Marner’s game-tying 6-on-4 goal with five seconds remaining in regulation.
The teenager also earned himself a penalty shot with a speedy net drive and convinced Keefe to throw him over the boards with the big guns both in the final minute and in 3-on-3 overtime.
“He put an exclamation point on it tonight. He was outstanding,” Keefe raved post-game. “I was on the bench and tried to talk myself out of playing him, to be honest, because I got (Auston) Matthews, I got (David) Kämpf and I got (Pontus) Holmberg, all these guys that are older guys are here. They need to get their minutes, but it’s hard not to (play Cowan). Every time he was out there, he was making something happen. So, I got sick of talking to myself out of it and started playing him more in the third.”
Cowan finished with four shots, seven attempts and a first-pre-season-goal puck that he had no interest in keeping as a souvenir.
“No. It doesn’t really matter,” Cowan said. “We lost, so we’ll move on.”
As Maple Leafs camp moves on into Week 2, Cowan joined the NHL group Tuesday morning, skating with the established NHLers and bubble guys, leaving the Marlies group behind and earning a start Wednesday in St. Thomas, Ont., for the Kraft Hockeyville game versus Buffalo
Quickly, the wiry youngster has become the talk of camp.
Roommate Fraser Minten loves his puck hounding: “I think he’s gonna be a stud.”
Former Knight Max Domi is wowed by his humility off the ice and confidence on it: “He’s gonna be a good NHL player for a long time.”
So impressive has Cowan been through the first week, Keefe’s original plans have modified here. The coach figured it would be short camp for Cowan (and Minten, for that matter), simply a chance for the long-view prospect to wet his feet and open their eyes.
Now, the coach wants to see more.
“Seems like almost every day he’s out there, you come away thinking he was one of the best players on the ice. So, just keep stacking together good days and see what happens,” Keefe said.
“Comes every day with a smile, good energy. Yet when the puck drops or he’s in a drill, he’s serious. He’s competitive. And those are all the things you’d like to see in any player, regardless of their age.”
The Cowboy himself isn’t putting the cart before the horse, though.
This is a kid who’s played only 75 OHL games. He understands that he needs more development to stick in the show and has no delusions of fast-tracking — even if his September performance is making a counter argument.
But while Cowan is sharing ice with some of the league’s elite, he might as well steal some lessons — and give the Maple Leafs coach a little something to think about.
“Early wakeups, going to bed early. And just like, you get to the rink, you think you’re there early, but no, they’re already there before you. So, that kind of shocks you,” Cowan said of his first taste of NHL life.
“But you’ll take that back to junior with you, and you’ll show the young guys what it takes to make the next step.”