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Why EJ Emery is the right pick for the Maple Leafs at the 2024 NHL Draft

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Photo credit:Steven Ellis/Daily Faceoff
Steven Ellis
1 month ago
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The Toronto Maple Leafs don’t have much draft capital to work with again this year. They’ll select 23rd overall, assuming they don’t move the pick as they’ve been keen to do in the past, but won’t select again until No. 120 in the fourth round.
So they’ve got to make it count – and if EJ Emery is available, that might be the right pick for the Maple Leafs this year.
GM Brad Treliving has put an emphasis on size, signing Simon Benoit last summer and adding Joel Edmundson and Ilya Lybushkin at the trade deadline. He also traded for and signed 6-foot-6 blueliner Cade Webber and drafted 6-foot-4 Noah Chadwick, giving the team some extra size in the depth chart.
But in terms of prospects, the Leafs lack a big, physical, right-handed defender with serious top-four potential. Webber looks destined to be an AHLer at best, while top defensive prospect Topi Niemela is just 5-foot-11. Chadwick is far away from being NHL-ready, but he could be a bottom-pairing option later on.
But from watching Emery over 40 times this year, it’s safe to say he’s got more potential than any of them.
“He’s a natural-born athlete,” a scout said. “You won’t find many guys as competitive as him out there. Practices, games, in the weight room. He just wants to win.”
Emery only scored one goal in 2023-24, coming during a top prospects showcase in January. But that’s not his game – he’s got all the shutdown characteristics you look for in a player of his level. He’s got a 6-foot-3 frame, he’s mobile and after spending the past year playing with the high-flying offensive stylings of Cole Hutson, Emery showed how well he could lock things down when he needs to.
In a draft dominated by speedy, puck-moving blueliners, Emery is one of the best shutdown options this year. He doesn’t offer much offensively and his puckhandling can be questionable at times, but Emery makes it his mission to get in front of as many players as possible. He was easily the top defensive defender on the USA Hockey National Team Development Program, with his skating being well above average for a player of his makeup.
“Think Brandon Carlo,” a scout said. “He’s got the snarl, but he’s smart enough not to get himself in trouble. He doesn’t want to get beat under any circumstances and has the awareness and defensive know-how to make sure he’s always in the right position at the right time.”
Many scouts see Emery as a first-round pick, but his invisible offensive play hurts him. He’s not the all-around threat that other fringe first-rounders – Hutson, Henry Mews, for example – possess, so he’d be easily typecasted. Given how good his skating is, adding that extra step with the puck would be huge – and that’s something he said he’s hoping to further develop at the University of North Dakota next year.
Emery’s pro size and mobility should allow him to comfortably adjust to the college game. It’ll help him buy a few years of development before turning pro and challenging for a second-pairing role, something many scouts think is possible for the youngster.
Right-handed defenders are a popular commodity in the NHL. Timothy Liljegren, Ilya Lyubushkin, Conor Timmins and John Klingberg all shoot right, but none really look like long-term solutions in Toronto. Niemela is a RHD, too, but he plays a more offensively inclined game than Emery – and there’s some concerns that he’s a bottom-pairing defenseman at best right now.
You don’t often want to draft for need in the first round, but with a quiet slate of picks early on, Toronto should consider going the aggressive route and snagging someone who can fix an organizational black hole. Emery already looks like a pro-style player with his frame and defensive play, but he’ll need at least two years in college. By then, maybe he’s challenging for top-four ice time in a team that should still be a serious contender.
If Emery can add some upgraded puck skills to his repertoire, he’ll be a more rounded threat that the Leafs truly need. They’ve drafted some good middle-six scoring options in recent years with Fraser Minten and Easton Cowan, but it’s time to go the defensive route. With a lack of picks early, Toronto needs to get this first selection right to help give their pipeline a much-needed boost. Given what Leafs fans seem to want, Emery feels like a perfect fit, too.
If you’re looking for a big, mobile shutdown blueliner who can play heavy minutes, EJ Emery is your guy.

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