Leafs pick 21st – Who to target?

We figured out last week, based on Detroit’s and New York’s losses in the second round, that Toronto would stick with the 21st overall pick. That’s well out of the range, potentially, of game-changers like Max Domi and Bo Horvat, a couple of guys from the London Knights that the Maple Leafs could have used.

So what are we looking at? Craig Button, just for frame of reference, ranked Rimouski’s Fredrick Gauthier at 21 overall Tuesday afternoon. I’ve never seen Gauthier play, and there are few players I have seen from the QMJHL this season, but he doesn’t strike me as one of the skilled players in the class, a little lunkier than classmates Adam Erne, Anthony Mantha and Laurent Dauphin.

NHL Central Scouting has the following forwards in the 21 range: Horvat, Ryan Hartman, Kerby Rychel, William Carrier, Max Domi, Curtis Lazar and Jimmy Lodge. The feeling is that thanks to Domi and Horvat’s impressive performance at the Memorial Cup this spring, they’ll land higher in the rankings. I can’t tell you much about the individual prospects because I’ve only seen three or four games for each of them, which isn’t enough of a sample to generate any meaningful conclusion. You’d hope though, that the Leafs try to add the most talented player, rather than the one who can make the NHL the quickest.

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I don’t say this because I’m a prospophile, but there aren’t many ways to add to your organization without, unfortunately, the help of a lottery pick or two. The cost-effective players in the NHL in today’s game are on entry-level deals: picking players up that can score is a market inefficiency to exploit.

The Leafs got some of that this season with Nazem Kadri, but he’ll have to land himself a new deal this spring. Let’s fast-forward ahead to a peaceful future two years down the line where a guy like Stuart Percy is a top four defenceman. That’s very good to have, but the reality is that it’s easier to find a top four defenceman on the free agent market than a top six scorer.

It’s the “boom or bust” philosophy. Generally, I like Nic Petan from Portland, but only because I’ve seen him a bunch. He’s excellent at possessing the puck, has honed offensive zone instincts and seems like a very good playmaker whose skills would transition to the NHL level… iiiiif he were much bigger. But he’s small. But would you take a less skilled player because he’s guaranteed to at least make the show, even if he’s in a closer to replacement role?

That’s why I’m down with drafting forwards. Take a guy who may score 25, because it’s easier to pay for him with ELC and second contract dollars than it is to pluck a 25-goal scorer off the trade or free agent market. Third liners are a dime a dozen, if you know what to look for. Ditto second pairing defencemen. There are lots of teams that undervalue good players that aren’t in critical spots in the organization.

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Scoring costs a lot. Scoring is cheaper when you can find it in the draft. I liked the Leafs picking a player like Morgan Rielly (honestly, not a lot of forward talent on the board after Nail Yakupov and Alex Galchenyuk were taken last summer) because he has game-breaking ability. Does Biggs? Does Percy? Not from what I’ve seen of them, where the most you could hope is for them to be strong, mid-range contributors.

So aim for the home run, at any rate.

PROGRAMMING NOTE: I took a quick detour to San Francisco this week. I’ll have a little bit of my travels visiting a Blue Jays and Giants game at AT&T Park today or tomorrow (likely tomorrow). Should get back into a regular posting schedule next week now that I’ve a) moved b) had a vacation and c) am looking for new hobbies.

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