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First round pick Ben Danford checks a lot of boxes for the Leafs

Ben Danford (Steven Ellis/Daily Faceoff)
Photo credit:Ben Danford (Steven Ellis/Daily Faceoff)
Nick Richard
14 days ago
After taking a swing on Easton Cowan late in the first round of the 2023 NHL draft, the Leafs went back to the OHL well with their first pick of the 2024 draft, again bucking consensus by selecting defenceman Ben Danford of the Oshawa Generals with the 31st overall pick. General manager Brad Treliving and his scouting staff are hoping Danford is able to silence the critics in the same way Cowan has since he was labelled a “reach” a year ago.
Most public rankings had Danford pegged as more of a late second or early third-round pick, but the Leafs stuck to their convictions and got their guy while adding a second-round pick by trading down from their original slot at 23rd overall.
“He’s a guy that our staff was really focused in on,” Treliving told Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman following the pick.
The parallels with last year’s selection of Cowan are apparent, from growing up in Ontario as Leafs fans right down to the blue-collar mentality both players have been praised for throughout their junior careers.
Unlike the NFL or even the NBA drafts, where players are a bit older and expected to make an impact for their professional teams right away, there is far less emphasis on drafting for positional or stylistic needs in the NHL. Outside of the first few picks in any given year, it typically takes multiple seasons for new draftees to break into the NHL, making it more difficult to plug immediate holes through the draft.
That said, Danford checks a lot of boxes for an organization like the Leafs, who have little in the way of projectable defensive prospects coming up through their pipeline. In TLN’s midseason ranking of the Leafs’ prospect pool, Topi Niemelä was the only blueliner ranked inside the top 10, and Danford is the only defenceman Toronto has taken in the first three rounds since Niemelä was chosen with the 64th pick in 2020.
In Danford, the Leafs have added a highly competitive defensive presence who they hope will grow into a pillar on their blue line for years to come. Viewed as one of the most polished defenders in the OHL after being voted as the top defensive defenceman in the OHL’s Eastern Conference by opposing coaches, Danford takes care of his own end of the ice above all else. He has shown the ability to defend the rush at a high level, maintaining tight gaps and disrupting plays with a combination of an active stick and physical play. Danford forces oncoming attackers to the outside, routinely squeezing them off the puck along the wall before retrieving it and moving it up ice to send his team back on the attack.
Danford’s mobility is a big reason he is so effective, providing him with the ability to recover if he makes an overly aggressive read and win races to loose pucks along the wall. He is regarded as more of a smooth skater than an explosive one, but that four-way mobility allows him to read and react to take away space from opposing players, both off the rush and while defending in his own zone. In the defensive zone, Danford does a lot of the grunt work that it takes to be effective in his role at the next level, whether that be laying out to block a shot or battling to clear space around his own net. Still just 18 years of age, he has already developed a reputation as one of the more difficult players to go up against in the OHL.
After recording just one goal to go along with 32 assists in 64 regular season games for Oshawa last season, there is still plenty of room for Danford to improve his offensive game, but there are several scouts in the public sphere who seem to believe that his point totals aren’t entirely representative of his skill set. Like Cowan a year ago, Danford showed continuous signs of growth as the season wore on, and he put up four goals and six assists in 21 postseason games to help lead the Generals to the OHL final before they were ultimately swept by Cowan and the London Knights.
Danford became more comfortable activating to join the offensive attack as the season progressed, showing the intelligence and hockey sense that was already apparent in his defensive game. He showed a knack for holding onto pucks to draw in opposing defenders before finding a teammate through a seam, and there is some deception in the way he opens up lanes to move the puck as well. Danford is also adept at getting pucks to the net through traffic and picked up his fair share of helpers off of deflected shots or rebound goals.
Danford is all but certain to return to Oshawa next season, and there is reason to believe that he will continue to develop at both ends of the ice, especially if he is able to play on his natural side more regularly after frequently playing on the left during his draft year – a rarity for right-handed defencemen.
With projectable size at 6’1″ and just under 200 pounds, a mature defensive game, and a willingness to do the dirty work required to win, it isn’t difficult to envision Danford locking down a spot on Toronto’s blue line for years to come. It may take a few seasons of development in junior and the AHL, but the Leafs feel they have added a player with the upside to grow into a valuable member of their club down the road.
“Lots of intangibles, high-character kid, moves really well. We think he’s just sort of scratching the surface of what he can be,” said Treliving about the Leafs’ newest prospect. “Right shot defencemen – they’re hard to find.”
After years of being thin on the right side of the blue line, with few signs of internal improvement, Treliving and the Leafs believe they’ve found a solution for the future.
Statistics from EliteProspects.com

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