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Top 5 early defensemen targets for the Toronto Maple Leafs at the 2024 NHL Draft

Aron Kiviharju (Steven Ellis/Daily Faceoff)
Photo credit:Aron Kiviharju (Steven Ellis/Daily Faceoff)
Steven Ellis
19 days ago
As of right now, the Toronto Maple Leafs still have their first-round pick.
Will it last? Who knows. It’s currently the 22nd pick, according to Tankathon, but this team is flawed enough to the point where you have to think it’ll be in play heading into the March 8 trade deadline.
One thing the team definitely needs is long-term defensive depth. Topi Niemelä is having a good year with the Toronto Marlies, but the drop off after that is significant. Mikko Kokkonen, Noah Chadwick and William Villeneuve are decent depth options, but none seem like realistic long-term options in the NHL.
Fortunately, the 2024 NHL Draft in Vegas is ripe with high-quality defensive options throughout the first round. It wouldn’t be surprising if about half the players taken on the opening day were blueliners. And that could prove fruitful for the Leafs.
There’s still so much that can happen before now and June 28, but here’s a look at five players the Leafs should keep close tabs on ahead of the 2024 NHL Draft:

Aron Kiviharju (HIFK, Liiga)

Many – including myself – had Kiviharju as a top-1o projected pick heading into the season – many had him as the No. 1 a few years ago. But an early season injury, plus some so-so games in the top Finnish league, has shoved Kiviharju down most scout’s rankings. There’s a very good chance the Leafs can do what they did with Timothy Liljegren and capitalize on a once highly touted player falling for one reason or another. Kiviharju is a dynamic passer who can skate like the wind. Kiviharju will need to show a lot when he returns if he is to go high in the draft. I still think there’s top-pairing potential here, but he has some catching up to do.

E.J. Emery (USNTDP)

EJ Emery (Steven Ellis/Daily Faceoff)
Like size? Emery has it in spades, standing at 6-foot-3. And he moves so well for his size. He might not have as high of a ceiling compared to some of the others on this list, but he’s definitely the safest – and someone I fully expect to have a good, successful NHL career. Emery helps get the play started by retrieving the puck and then playing a more passive game. And he does it quickly, with one scout comparing him to the Road Runner in how he gets where he needs to be so swiftly. A lot of Emery’s value doesn’t tend to get rewarded on the scoresheet, but I think the potential for him to become a mobile, top-four defenseman is there.

Cole Hutson (USNTDP)

Cole Hutson (Steven Ellis/Daily Faceoff)
Could you imagine? Some scouts consider Cole to be better than Lane at the same age. He’s bigger, slightly, at 5-foot-10, and their play similarities are noticeable right out of the gate. Like Lane, Cole’s understanding of how to use open space to his advantage is top-notch. He’s a good skater and has the potential to become a true No. 1 power-play quarterback. Defensively, though, Hutson lacks, and I’m concerned that’ll get him burned in the NHL. Hutson will head to Boston University, where he’ll have time to really work on improving his defensive-zone coverage like his brother.

Henry Mews (Ottawa, OHL)

Henry Mews (Terry Wilson/OHL Images)
Mews is another high-risk, high-reward defenseman. He can get caught trying to do too much too often – but he still often gets desirable results. But it’s one thing to do it in the OHL, and another to do it against NHLers that’ll burn you with speed and skill. He’s a great puck-moving defenseman who most often gets the puck where he wants it to be. So, the base for him to become an effective point-producing defenseman is there. It’ll just take some coaching. Mews did play on the right winger earlier this year when injuries started to creep up in Ottawa – I wonder if that ends up becoming a more consistent thing.

Charlie Elick (Brandon, WHL)

Charlie Elick (Jeremy Champagne/WHL)
If Emery’s off the board, and the Leafs are looking for someone big, Elick could be the answer. At 6-foot-3, Elick has a desirable frame, but he also has some solid speed. He brings a competitive spirit to every game and he leaves nothing on the table when going for a hit. At his core, Elick has the makings of a shutdown defenseman that, as long as he keeps his offensive game simple, should have no issue adjusting to the pro game. Elick’s decision-making with the puck needs work, but he’s not far off.

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