Since the departure of Mats Sundin, the Maple Leafs have lacked a true No. 1 centre. Looking at successful clubs like Chicago, Los Angeles, Anaheim and Tampa Bay might make management envious; they can count on Jonathan Toews, Anze Kopitar, Ryan Getzlaf and Steven Stamkos to hold down their top position year in and year out. Which is why they could understandably feel compelled to look for a big scoring centre like Dylan Strome as a consolation prize in the 2015 draft, now that they have lost the lottery. Strome is widely agreed to be an elite prospect. He's big, he scores, and he has a pedigree. He looks to be tailor-made to fill the position that the organization has felt starved for in the last decade. However, the Leafs pick fourth, while Arizona holds the 3rd pick. Arizona is rumoured to be high on Strome, and even if one gives no credence to these rumours, it is easy to see why they might select Strome. They would do it for the very same reasons that Toronto would love to select him. So, in that event, does Toronto go after Mitch Marner, an electric and versatile forward with elite potential, or Noah Hanifin, the general consensus top defenceman in the draft and the nearest defender to being NHL ready? The answer is that it doesn't really matter. The Leafs organization seems to believe strongly that they are in a position of weakness in terms of dealing assets from out of their system. When asked about the merits of the player that will be selected fourth overall in this year's draft, Acting GM Kyle Dubas noted that the potential existed that Toronto might not be at the podium when the selection was called.
“It’s something we would definitely look at,” said Leafs interim co-GM Kyle Dubas. “If someone else was adamant about a player, we’re pretty comfortable with the players in that cluster. “We need to be acquiring as many draft pick assets as we can, as many prospects as we can. If there was something that made sense, we’d be open to listening and having some thorough discussions on the fourth pick.”
The Leafs are hardly in any position to draft based on positional needs. Few teams, if any, are. Toronto has two picks in the first round this year, thanks to the Cody Franson trade. They do not have any picks in the second round, thanks to the Jonathan Bernier trade. Their organizational cupboard is bare. They have one prospect in their system that presently projects as a top six forward, and that is C/RW William Nylander. They have another forward that looks to be able to one day contribute at the bottom of an NHL team's depth chart in Frederik Gauthier. Outside of that, keeping in mind that there are always surprises that cannot be accounted for (and that these surprises might just as well prove unpleasant as they do happy, so that they hardly bear mentioning), it looks unlikely that any forwards in the system will contribute regularly in the NHL even in a depth role. The Leafs system looks as dismal on the blue line, highlighted by Matt Finn and Stuart Percy; decent prospects that may or may not contribute in a top four role in the NHL. Certainly, both boast less upside than William Nylander. In goal, the Maple Leafs have no obvious blue chip prospects the likes of Andrei Vasilevskiy, John Gibson or even a Jack Campbell. Further along there is Morgan Rielly, a recent draft pick who is already contributing, and who on some nights gives the impression of being the best defender on the team. There is Jake Gardiner, a player who both needs to assert himself as a regular top four defenceman in the NHL and who needs to be with an organization who will give him the opportunity to do so. I imagine that he will get this opportunity under new coach Mike Babcock. There is Nazem Kadri, who is arguably already the best performing forward on the team, and happily one of the most talented. But this group is hardly a championship core. And there is no feasible way to augment it through trade and free agency. Surely, free agent acquisitions and trades have helped to build championship teams around the league. Boston signed Zdeno Chara as a UFA. Chicago signed Marian Hossa. Los Angeles traded for Jeff Carter and Mike Richards. Paying big money to your stars, however you get them, is almost always an easy thought to stomach for NHL GMs. At the same time, drafting and development not only put these clubs in a position to succeed by supplying them with elite talent, it bolstered their rosters with cheap, quality young players, giving them the depth that pushed them over the top. Kopitar and Drew Doughty were LA draft picks. Chicago drafted Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith. Boston drafted David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron. But they also drafted players like Brandon Saad, Marcus Kruger, Teuvo Teravainen, Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson, Tyler Seguin, Dougie Hamilton, Alec Martinez, etc., all talented players who emerged to provide quality play in complementary roles for small cap hits. Some of these players may go on to become stars in the future. Others may not. But without an uninterrupted pipeline of young talent on entry-level deals or cheaper RFA contracts flowing into your NHL roster, perennial contention is a pipe dream in a salary cap world. Which returns us to the Leafs, who lack both elite talent and frankly graduate few players at all from their development leagues to their NHL roster. Toronto has been cap crunched by veteran players brought in from other organizations at a steep cost to the talent in their organization's pipeline. Consequently, their elite talent is flawed and their depth is non-existent. They need more prospects and better prospects at any position. Assuming Marner or Hanifin or Strome are around the same talent level, the organization is in a position where it basically makes little difference who they select, as long as they hit on their assessment of talent. And if, for example, Ivan Provorov is judged to be just as talented as Noah Hanifin in the long term, and trading down to choose him nets you an additional second round pick, then that would be a win for this organization. The present management group appears to know that their best interest lies in beginning to lay the foundations for a successful organization. And that starts with loading up on as much talent as possible in any form and at any position. It is that flexibility, the flexibility that comes with having nothing, that gives them the advantage to net talent in deals. Forget about the Leafs taking shape over the upcoming off-season; their best hope is to embrace that they have no particular form in place and take advantage of that fact.
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