Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Easton Cowan might force the Leafs’ hand for a roster spot in 2024-25
By Alex Hobson21 days ago
For a guy who had the heads of fans, media, and draft analysts turned when the Toronto Maple Leafs announced his selection in the first round of last year’s draft, Easton Cowan has taken the biggest leap of faith forward in the first year of his development.
The selection rightfully caused some initial confusion. Cowan wasn’t projected to go until the early third round or late second round at the earliest. With other players who were touted as first-rounders still on the board in Gavin Brindley (CBJ), Andrew Cristall (WSH) and Jagger Firkus (SEA), and Riley Heidt (MIN) among others, nobody expected the Leafs to land on someone who wasn’t projected to go until approx. 30-60 picks later. Then again, that’s why we call them projections. Seven months after the fact, Cowan has given them just about everything a team could ask of their first-round pick in a developmental year.
While 53 points in 68 games don’t look all that impressive on the forefront, the Leafs’ Wes Clark-led scouting staff pointed at the second half of the Mount Brydges product’s year, where he tallied 33 points in his final 33 games, along with nine goals and 21 points in 20 playoff games.
In a nod of respect from Leafs’ management, he was also one of the last players to be cut from training camp prior to this season. While the Leafs were realistically always going to send him back to junior rather than give him a roster spot, it wasn’t necessarily a charity moment either. He capped off his impressive preseason with his first goal in a Maple Leafs uniform, and if you’ve been paying attention to his post-draft season since he returned to the London Knights, you already know that he’s on a mission to prove that his big club made the right choice selecting him.
At the time of writing this, which you can pinpoint to the early hours of Monday, February 5th, Cowan is riding an absurd 18-game point streak with the OHL’s London Knights. He’s already blown past the 53-point plateau, doing so in less than half the games it took him to reach that mark last year. He currently has 64 points in 36 games, on pace for 98 through 55 games in a full season, acting as one of the primary driving forces for the league-leading Knights along with Philadelphia Flyers prospects Denver Barkey and Oliver Bonk, along with top 2024 NHL Draft prospect Sam Dickinson.
It’s easy to look at a prospect having a strong season and think “Oh yeah, this guy is going to make the NHL for sure this year”. But, in addition to how well he’s played this year, Cowan might have a case beyond how well he’s playing for getting himself a look with the Leafs next season.
The first and most glaring reason is the Leafs’ incoming cap situation. Without any knowledge of which free agents are going to join and leave the team this summer, they’re going to have 46 million dollars tied up in cap space at minimum next year. While we know all too well how their cap situation is largely tied up between four forwards, it’s going to be especially tight next season when William Nylander and Auston Matthews both get their raises. Depending on who they bring back from this year’s team and what they do to settle the cap situation over the summer, they might have to rely on the services of young, cheap, affordable players to fill out the gaps. Guess who has a pretty cheap cap hit? Easton Cowan.
On top of this, Cowan is still only 18 years old and won’t turn 20 until May of 2025, meaning he’s not eligible for the AHL next season. Hypothetically, suppose the Leafs find themselves in a situation where they have an open roster spot or two as training camp winds down. Sure, one of those spots could go to the surplus of players they have in the AHL, but if there was the option to either send Cowan back to a league that he’s proving he’s outgrown night-in and night-out or to give him a shot with the team and help their cap situation all in one, I’d imagine they lean towards the latter.
Let me be clear, I’m not saying they should pre-emptively give him a roster spot for all of next year. Heck, I’m not even saying they should leave a spot open for him. But, they certainly shouldn’t be opposed to giving him the nine-game tryout the way they did with Fraser Minten this season, and if he shows he’s capable of hanging with the big boys, they shouldn’t be afraid to give him that shot with the team just because he’s young.
Either way, it’s comforting to see Cowan proving his doubters wrong in his first year after the draft, and I say that as someone who was just as skeptical as the next guy when they drafted him. That said, he’s the type of blue-collar player who responds to criticism with hard work, and as we know all too well, there’s nothing Toronto fans love more than a guy who works hard and wants to be here.
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