Ayear removed from being in last place, winning the draft lottery and selecting franchise centre Auston Matthews, the Toronto Maple Leafs find themselves in familiar territory. Before they were at the bottom of the NHL standings as in previous years, the Leafs were once consistently playoff bound each year and had a mid- round pick.
It has been a couple of years since the Leafs were able to get a mid to late round- pick. The last time this happenedwaswhen they made the playoffs in 2013 and selected Frederik Gauthier 21st overall.
After that, they had three consecutive top 10 picks that included William Nylander (eighth overall), Mitch Marner (fourth overall) and Auston Matthews (first overall). Now that they made the playoffs for the first time since 2013 and after a full season since 2003-04, the Leafs look to be back on track with a coaching staff that’s putting an emphasis on winning and a management that wants to continue to draft and develop for the future.
This year’s draft wasn’t as predictable as it was in the past. There were players that were slated to go later in the draft that were quickly scooped up by teams in the top 10. Players like Elias Pettersson and Lias Andersson went five and seven respectively. Gabe Vilardi, who was ranked fourth overall among North American skaters by Central Scouting, dropped to 11th, being selected by the Los Angeles Kings.
For the Leafs, we saw a pattern each year. In 2015, they made it a point to draft a lot of skill with Marner, Travis Dermott, Jeremy Bracco and Andrew Nielsen. Last year, we saw them continue that trend but added size and experience with players like Matthews, Yegor Korshkov, Carl Grundstrom, Adam Brooks and Jack Walker.
With defense being emphasized throughout the season, and with seven picks in their hands, they made strong on their promise to add more depth on the blueline.
Round One, 17th Overall: Timothy Liljegren, D, Rogle (SWE):
The Leafs kicked off their draft by stealing one of the best dynamic, puck- moving defenseman in the draft in Timothy Liljegren.
Originally slated to be a top two or three pick at the start of the season, Liljegren’s season didn’t go the way he wanted. The year started off with him missing a couple of months with mononucleosis. After he overcame it, he came back earlier than expected and wasn’t able to find the game he wanted. He only produced a goal and four assists in 19 games played. And that didn’t sit well with most teams.
However, this didn’t seem to be the case for Mark Hunter and the Leafs.
At six- feet, 192 pounds, Liljegren is an excellent skater with great speed and agility. Now add that with his strong offensive awareness and puck handling skills, the Leafs have the making of potential top pairing, puck- moving defenseman.
Mark Hunter even stated that it was “a no- brainer” to take Liljegren as he’s “an elite talent and elite skater.”
Whenever he plays, I can’t help but see a lot of Erik Karlsson in him. I’m not saying he is Karlsson, but his ability to skate up and create plays is very similar to that of Karlsson. So far, he’s proven to be extremely effective for the Ottawa Senators.
He is very composed with the puck and has a very accurate shot from the point. He is a nightmare to play against after playing with men in Sweden this year.
If you need to be further convinced of his skill level, here is a video of what Liljegren can bring to the Leafs:
The Leafs already have great depth on the blueline with Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev. There’s also the possibility that Travis Dermott and Andrew Nielsen will fight for a spot as well.
Liljegren gives the Leafs a right- hand shot and another great defenseman to work with as the Leafs continue their quest for success. His defensive game is good, but he needs to polish up on a few things in his own end. Another year in Sweden will definitely help with his development, but the qualities and skill is there for him to be a successful top pairing defenseman. And when he makes it to the NHL, there’s no doubt that Babcock will help guide him as well.
The Leafs are in no way taking a risk on Liljegren. Yes, he had an illness that is difficult to overcome and was originally going to be a top three- pick. However, other teams and GM’s are going to regret not selecting Liljegren as he fell right into the Leafs’ hands.
Round Two, 59th Overall: Eemeli Rasanen, D, Kingston (OHL):
This pick originally belonged to the Senators, but was sent over in the Dion Phaneuf trade. And the Leafs continued to fill out their defensive depth by drafting the hulking Finnish defenseman.
Rasanen comes in at six- foot- seven, 205 pounds and isn’t afraid to use his size to his advantage. He’s strong physically, can knock down players easily and is a steady defender in his own end. He has also great offensive instincts in the offensive zone. He is able to make smart decisions with the puck and is a smooth and effective skater for his size. Rasanen also has the ability to close gaps on attacking forwards and take away any passing lanes.
In his first season with the Kingston Frontenacs, Rasanen put up six goals and 33 assists as well as a goal and four assists in the playoffs. While he only had six goals, he still has a powerful shot from the point that nobody wants to get in front of.
Rasanen was a 1st team rookie team all star in the OHL. Offensive upside and at 6-6 a big body presence. #TMLTalk
— Paul Hendrick (@HennyTweets) June 24, 2017
I can honestly say that he reminds me a lot of both Zdeno Chara and Rasmus Ristolainen, just by the way he is able to play the game, his physical style and impact at both ends of the ice. Obviously he needs to develop his game a bit more, but he’s a great player to have as he had an impressive first season with Kingston. He could potentially be a second or third pairing, two- way defenseman.
Round Four, 110th Overall: Ian Scott, G, Prince Albert (WHL):
While it’s not a defenseman, the Leafs continue to add depth on the backend by selecting Ian Scott from the Prince Albert Raiders.
Ranked third among North American goalies, Scott put up sub-par numbers. He went 12- 31- 3, averaging almost four goals against along with a save percentage under .900 (0.895). However this isn’t a knock on him as Scott wasn’t to blame. The Raiders this year as whole didn’t have a great season, finishing last in the East Division of the Western Hockey League.
Scott himself has the potential to be a great goaltender in the NHL. He’s already got great size (six- foot- three) to fill up the net. He’s aggressive when challenging shooters and has great poise in the crease.
Scott has a great glove hand and doesn’t give up a whole lot of rebounds. His reaction time, speed and vision on the ice to locate the puck are other great assets, which is why I think the Leafs took a chance on him.
With Joseph Woll already in the system, the Leafs add another goalie that has a lot of potential, despite the numbers he put in his draft year. Scott has a long way to go but he’s a great prospect and player to add to the Leafs goalie depth.
Round Four, 124th Overall: Vladislav Kara, C, Bars Kazan (Russia- 2):
This pick was originally acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins as a result of the deal that sent Frank Corrado to the Penguins for Eric Fehr and Steve Oleksy.
Kara, tallied three goals and added five assists with Bars Kazan this year.
I’m not going lie, I don’t know enough about Kara to give a full analysis and he wasn’t listed on NHL Central Scouting’s list of European Skaters.
Clearly this is an off- the- board pick that is leaving everyone scratching their heads.
The only details we have of him are in this article by TSN’s Kristen Shilton, where Hunter said he’s, “a big, strong winger who plays a two-way game.”
Round Five, 141st Overall: Fedor Gordeev, D, Flint (OHL):
The Leafs continued stocking up on defense prospects by adding six- foot- six, 211 pounds defender Fedor Gordeev.
A Toronto, Ont. native, Gordeev tallied three goals and added 10 assists with the Flint Firebirds this year.
Like Rasanen, he is a big-bodied defender. He is capable of using his size to his advantage, be it protecting the puck or making life miserable for players in front of the net. He can be aggressive along the boards, shutting opponents down.
Chief Scout of North American Central Scouting Mark Seidel, gave his take on Gordeev:
“Fedor Gordeev has great size and has learned to simplify his game. He makes a very good first pass but doesn’t force anything. When he fills out, he will play at 215 pounds… Clears the front of the net.”
He isn’t quite known for his offense like Rasanen, but he does possess a strong shot. He has the potential of being a shut down defender that will be useful in a third pairing role.
Round Six, 172nd Overall: Ryan McGregor, C, Sarnia (OHL):
The Leafs selected the Sarnia Sting sophomore with their sixth round pick in the draft.
McGregor tallied 14 goals and added 13 assists in his second season while being an assistant captain for the team.
Seidel states that McGregor is a, “very smart two- way centre that can be used in all situations. He wasn’t given much of an offensive role with Sarnia this year but that will change next year…Wins key draws and is always on the right side of the puck… Potential 3rd line centre.”
He’s got great hands, speed and vision but weighing 157 pounds is an issue as he can easily be knocked off the puck. If he is able to add some size to his frame, he could turn out to be great player for the Leafs.
Round Seven, 203rd Overall: Ryan O’Connell, D, St. Andrew’s College (High- ON):
The Leafs final pick was used to select Ryan O’Connell from St. Andrews College.
O’Connell put up six goals and 27 assists this season with the prep school in Aurora, Ont. He’s going to play for the Penticton Vees for the 2017/18 season and is committed to Boston University for the 2018/19 season.
O’Connell likes to keep things simple in his game while still trying to be an offensive threat on the ice. He’s a strong skater capable of making quick decisions with the puck.
Seidel adds that O’Connell, “uses his feet to get himself out of trouble. He was dominant at times in that league. He is certainly a long- term project but he has the physical tools to become an impactful guy at BU and ultimately have a chance to play for the Leafs.”
O’Connell sounds like a reliable player in his own zone, managing to keep players to the outside and not let them get a great shot or scoring chance on net. He’s a safe player to have on the backend.
Overall, the Leafs went into the draft focusing on defense and they stayed true to their promise by selecting four defensemen out of their seven picks. It wasn’t mandated that they had to select defenseman, but it did help out the cause considering there were plenty of defense prospects to take in this draft.
Post draft, it seemed that both Hunter and even general manger Lou Lamoriello, were happy with the way things went down on draft weekend.
“I’m very happy about it,” Hunter said. “We got a goalie in the fourth that we liked. We got two defensemen with the first two picks. We filled some holes and now it’s time for our development department to take a hold and get these young men better.”
“You have players that you now have as assets as well as players that you’re developing,” said Lamoriello. “He (Hunter) has seen each and every one of them plus most of our scouts have. You feel very good about that because they know the type of people we want, they know the type of players we’re looking for.
“Everybody feels really good today. We put some size and strength in the lineup.”
The players selected provide a mix of offense, defense and physicality. While most of them won’t make the NHL immediately, it’s good that they’ll be taking their time to improve their skills. Sometimes, the best thing for a player is the “be patient approach”. They added depth to position that was key factor going into the off- season. That in itself is a win.
* As always, a special thank you to Mark Seidel for his insight and analysis on this year’s draft.