Handicapping four of the Maple Leafs’ greatest organizational needs ahead of the 2023 NHL Draft

Photo credit:Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
1 year ago
Let’s start with the obvious points that need to be made first after titling a post with “organizational need…”
  1. The best player available always needs to be considered the priority. The Leafs might need a 6’6″ right shot defenceman who can skate, slap the puck 100mph, and hip check Connor McDavid up into the bleachers, but at the end of the day you are almost always better off taking the player with the talent over the player who checks the boxes on what your organization is lacking. Draft Nick Robertsons, not Fedor Gordeevs.
  2. The best player available means a lot of things to a lot of different people and there are likely 32 different opinions on the best player available once you get outside of the usual consensus top 20 or so of a draft. Given that the Leafs pick 28th overall it’s probably not worth quibbling too much about something like the best player available because there are a lot of them at that point.
  3. How your team develops players has to factor into things as well. When you have a team like the Leafs that haven’t really produced much in the way of power forwards in the past half century, maybe the best player available isn’t the guy who has size but hasn’t figured out how to score with it. Maybe it’s, I dunno, a European defenceman. The Leafs always seem to do okay with European defencemen.
Okay, now that all of that is out of the way, now it’s time to talk about what could use some restocking in the Leafs cupboards with their 3 draft picks they presently have going into the 2023 entry draft.

1. A top-six center

Undoubtedly this is the hardest one to fill and relies on the draft either being so deep that one is available at 28th overall (entirely possible this year) or the Leafs going off the radar and gambling on an underviewed player or one that might be missing one or two key skills that they feel they can develop in them.
The Leafs presently have Fraser Minten, a center with some size and offensive ability; Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, who might not receive a qualifying offer and hasn’t shown any reason to think of him as graduating beyond the AHL and if he did it would likely be as a winger; and then beyond that players like Nick Abruzzese, Nick Moldenhauer and Joe Miller are also much more likely to make their careers on the wing than up the middle.
A promising center would be great and of course, size would be a plus.

2. Size with skill

I might as well throw the obvious one out there now and it is a blend of size and skill at any position. The Leafs only have a couple of prospects above 6’0″ in their system who fit this bill, assuming Knies has already graduated to the Leafs. Minten is one, Grebenkin is another, and after that it is Filip Kral and William Villeneuve on the blueline.
A few more options would be great, but with the appreciation that while you can’t teach size, size also does tend to inflate success at the junior hockey level. When players are in a situation where they are playing against grown men who are the same size as them, will these players have enough other skills to be impactful? There are a lot of “no” answers in the Leafs draft history and Frederik Gauthier might be the most obvious one.
There needs to be at least something else exciting about the player beyond what they measured at during the NHL combine and if you believe that physical play is important, I’d prioritize the 5’8″ junior player with a mean streak over the 6’6″ one with good reach, though both can be risky options in the pro ranks.

3. Defencemen?

It seems odd to be saying defencemen after the Leafs recently graduated Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren, and having Topi Niemela queued up to be in the NHL in the next couple of seasons, but the Toronto European defensive factor is grinding to a halt. Mikko Kokkonen might still be something and the notably not European William Villeneuve took some big steps forward last year as well, but given that Toronto has had a good track record in the area it might be nice to see the late round picks used on players that can one day restock the Marlies talent pool.

4. A natural goal scorer

It’s a goal scoring competition and if there isn’t a center who projects as at least a top-nine center for the Leafs available when they draft they might as well go after the next hardest thing to find and that is someone who looks like they can be counted on to put the puck in the net. At the very least a natural goal scorer will put up some nice looking numbers in their last year of junior or whatever and can be a valuable trade chip at the trade deadline.
The other thing worth considering is that an affordable top-six forward is always in need and if Toronto can use an offense first player in the next couple of years who can bail out a potentially rough salary cap situation, this might be the best way to go.

And what the Leafs don’t need…

It seems strange to be saying goaltenders, but with only three draft picks and a somewhat promising pipeline that includes Dennis Hildeby, Artur Akhtyamov, and Slava Peksa in addition to Woll, Petruzzelli, and Dryden McKay, if there ever was a year to take off from adding a goaltender this might be it. I can feel myself regretting that after constantly saying that one of the best things the Leafs have been doing draft wise is that they’ve always added a goaltender, so clearly I’m on the fence but I think it can at least be labelled as a non-pressing need at this point.
The other one that thing the Leafs don’t need are players who project towards the bottom of the roster. Penalty kill specialists, stay-at-home defencemen, energy players, etc, these are players that can be found in free agency every year for pennies on the dollar. Zach Aston-Reese cost the Leafs less than $1M last season, Luke Schenn was also paid under $1M last year, and free agency this year is filled with plenty of options like Derek Ryan, Josh Archibald, Nick Bjugstad, and Trevor Lewis that all represent the potential upside that you are chasing in the draft. Why draft someone who has a 1 in 10 chance of turning into Devin Shore when you can just sign Devin Shore for the league minimum?
The Leafs might not have a ton of that filler in the prospect pipeline at the moment and that’s a good thing. Over time those skill prospects that really want to stick around can reimagine their game into those roles.
Given Brad Treliving’s time in Calgary it doesn’t seem that he would really go against a strategy that would address these needs and avoid these pitfalls. He chased a high end goal scoring talent in Matthew Phillips in the 6th round while with the Flames, he looked for a top-six center in Connor Zary, and Rasmus Andersson was a great find in the second round to improve the blueline. He also might have struck gold with Dustin Wolf with a late-round pick. Those examples are spread out over 9 years of drafting, but he does have a track record that supports him getting it right no matter the round.

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