How the Maple Leafs could use their pick at 23rd overall in NHL draft

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There shouldn’t be much mystery in the Maple Leafs’ first pick of the National Hockey League draft on Friday night.

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Certainly, there is unlikely to be anything tricky in the philosophy the team will use when brass decides which name it will announce with the 23rd selection of the first round at the Sphere in Las Vegas.

Heading into the draft a year ago, Leafs director of amateur scouting Wes Clark had this to say about the team’s logic when determining its picks: “Best player available. Intelligence, competitiveness. Those would be the two main priorities, for sure. We’re looking for players that influence winning hockey.”

The Leafs went off just about every pre-draft board when they chose London Knights forward Easton Cowan with the 28th pick.

And how did that turn out? Well, after a season in which Cowan won the Red Tilson Trophy as the Ontario Hockey League’s most valuable player and led the Knights to an OHL title (and was named the playoffs MVP), many expect him to take a significant run at a full-time job with the Leafs in training camp and the pre-season this fall.

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Cowan, in 2023-24, fit exactly what Clark outlined last June. Cowan is a smart player, competes on every shift and not only influenced winning hockey with the Knights, he was the driver of yet another successful season for London under Hunter brothers Dale and Mark.

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Naturally, the Leafs would love to get a similar player with their first pick this year. They’ve had the 23rd pick just three times in franchise history, and not since 1992, when Toronto picked forward Grant Marshall.

He played 700 games in the NHL, but none with the Leafs. Toronto lost Marshall and Peter Zezel to the Dallas Stars in the summer of 1994 as compensation for signing Stars free agent Mike Craig.

The best-player-available thinking could apply to any number of prospects once the Leafs get to their pick and it doesn’t necessarily mean the Leafs will draft a defenceman, which is their greatest position of need. And it’s the player that the Leafs themselves deem best available. Teams picking around the 23rd spot might have a different opinion, which could influence what the Leafs do.

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Among those taken at No. 23 include Wyatt Johnston, Brock Boeser, Ryan Kesler, Todd Bertuzzi and Ray Whitney. More players chosen 23rd didn’t spend much time in the NHL, but the Leafs should get a player that will at least get a look. Since 1986, and not including the past couple of years, only two players taken 23rd didn’t play a single NHL game.

Once the Leafs pick in the first round, the scouting staff will cool its heels a bit on Saturday when the draft resumes. Unless there are additions or subtractions with picks via trades made by general manager Brad Treliving, the Leafs won’t pick again until the fourth round at No. 120.

After that, they will have five picks, including three in the fifth round (Nos. 151, 152 and 157) and two in the seventh round (Nos. 200 and 216).

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Let’s take a look at a list of 10 options for the Leafs at No. 23.

And don’t hold it against us if the Leafs’ pick isn’t among the 10 players we’re profiling.

After all, no one outside the Leafs front office had them taking Cowan in the first round a year ago.

Sacha Boisvert, C, Muskegon (USHL)

Who is Boisvert: After two seasons in the USHL — Boisvert had 68 points (36 goals and 32 assists) in 61 games last year — the native of Trois Rivieres, Que., is heading to the University of North Dakota. His hockey IQ helps set him apart from other forward prospects who could be drafted in between 20th and 30th.

Why Boisvert would be a fit: John Tavares has one year remaining on his contract and whether the Leafs re-sign him (for what would have to be at least a 50% cut from his $11 million AAV), they’re going to require offensive centres beyond Auston Matthews. Boisvert eventually could become that kind of player.

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Percentage chance they take Boisvert: 60%. The chances are good the Leafs would get more out of him than what happened the previous time Toronto chose a Quebec-born centre in the first round. That would be Frederik Gauthier, who was picked 21st in 2013 and played in just 168 games with Toronto. He spent the past two seasons playing in Switzerland.

Liam Greentree, RW, Windsor, OHL

Who is Greentree: The Spitfires captain doubled his point total in his second OHL season and led the Spits in all offensive categories with 36 goals and 54 assists for 90 points. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Oshawa native needs to become a better skater, but few 18-year-olds are perfect in that way.

Why Greentree would be a fit: His playmaking and scoring abilities would have the potential to be a good complement to Matthews and William Nylander, two Leafs stars who aren’t going anywhere and would be with the team if/when Greentree eventually makes it.

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Percentage chance they take Greentree: 50%. If Greentree remains available when the Leafs pick, do they take him or a defenceman? It’s more of the latter that the team needs. There’s also a chance he will be gone by the time the Leafs make their choice.

Stian Solberg, D, Valerenga (Norway)

Who is Solberg: The, physical, hard-hitting Solberg looks to become the first Norway-born player to be selected in the first round (though fellow Norwegian Michael Brandsegg-Nygard could beat him to the punch). Solberg was named one of Norway’s top three players at the world championship this spring. He’ll play for Farjestad in the Swedish Hockey League next season.

Why Solberg would be a fit: The Leafs need impactful, defensive defencemen now and in the future and Solberg would be an obvious candidate. Toronto liked him so much, the club had him come to the city for further meetings following the combine in Buffalo. In short, he’s the kind of D-man that Treliving covets. 

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Percentage chance they take Solberg: 20%. That’s low, but it’s because Solberg has had a rise in most rankings and likely will be gone. If he’s still there, though, it’s hard to see the Leafs passing him up.

Norway's Stian Solberg, right, challenges Denmark's Frederik Storm during the preliminary round match at the Ice Hockey World Championships.
Norway’s Stian Solberg, right, challenges Denmark’s Frederik Storm during the preliminary round match at the Ice Hockey World Championships. AP Photo

Michael Hage, C, Chicago (USHL)

Who is Hage: The Mississauga native is committed to play at the University of Michigan next season. His speed and skill helped him finish fourth in USHL scoring with 75 points (33 goals and 42 assists) in 54 games.

Why Hage would be a fit: No hockey team can have too many centres, whether on the NHL roster or in the system. While Hage might be a few years away as he gets his NCAA career going, the expectation would be that he would eventually crack the Leafs roster and make an impact.

Percentage chance they take Hage: 50%. Like many of the forwards listed here, the chance might diminish if the Leafs figure a defenceman is a better way to go.

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Adam Jiricek, D, Plzen (Czechia Extraliga)

Who is Jiricek: At 6-foot-2, 167 pounds, Jiricek will need time to grow into his body. Considering his season ended at the world junior championship when he suffered a knee injury, it’s going to be intriguing to see how much that influences his draft stock. His older brother, David, also a defenceman, was picked sixth overall by Columbus in 2022.

Why Jiricek would be a fit: He’s a right-shooting defenceman. Need we say more? Well, yes. Jiricek is a mobile skater, likes to join the rush and makes a good first pass. That kind of approach would work nicely with the Leafs offensive forwards.

Percentage chance they take Jiricek: 30%. Sitting at fourth among international skaters in the final rankings by NHL central scouting, there’s a strong possibility he will have been picked before the Leafs have their say.

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EJ Emery, D, US U18 (USHL)

Who is Emery: He had no goals and 16 assists in 61 games for the US U18 team last season, but offence isn’t why Emery is here. He projects as a shutdown defenceman and possesses strong defensive instincts. His dad, Eric, was a linebacker played for three seasons in the CFL in the mid-1980s.

Why Emery would be a fit: Defencemen with offensive skills not hard to find. Like Solberg, Emery, a right-handed shot, could one day become a tight defender in his own end and build off the awareness that he already has.

Percentage chance they take Emery: 35%. The 6-foot-3, 185-pound Emery might not make it as far down as No. 23, depending on what teams’ needs are. At the same time, if other defencemen are available, the Leafs could decide to pass on the native of Surrey, B.C., who has dual citizenship.

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Igor Chernyshov, LW, Dynamo Moscow (KHL)

Who is Chernyshov: A right-shooting left winger, Chernyshov has one year remaining on his contract with Dynamo Moscow. He shone with Dynamo’s junior team this season, putting up 28 points in 22 games. In 34 games in the KHL, Chernyshov had three goals and one assist. 

Why Chernyshov would be a fit: Chernyshov’s offensive instincts, hockey brain and desire are the kinds of elements that the Leafs are looking for. At 6-foot-2, 196 pounds, Chernyshov already has the size to be an influential player.

Percentage chance they take Chernyshov: 45%. The conventional thinking is the Leafs will take a centre or a defenceman, given their needs. But like we said in the introduction, if Clark sticks to his tenet of taking the best player available, the Leafs could wind up with the talented Russian.

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Brantford Bulldogs' Market Vanacker, left, ties up Barrie Colts' Cole Beaudoin.
Brantford Bulldogs’ Market Vanacker, left, ties up Barrie Colts’ Cole Beaudoin. Postmedia Network

Cole Beaudoin, C, Barrie (OHL)

Who is Beaudoin: The Leafs could dip into the Ottawa Senators’ backyard and draft the Kanata native. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Beaudoin had 28 goals and 34 assists in 67 games for the Colts and added five points in six playoff games. His dad, Eric, played in 53 games for the Florida Panthers in the early 2000s.

Why Beaudoin would be a fit: If new Leafs coach Craig Berube likes honest players who perform with grit — and he does — Beaudoin probably wouldn’t take long to land in Berube’s good books. The 18-year-old never met a puck battle he didn’t like.

Percentage chance they take Beaudoin: 40%. A centre who plays with the kind of determination that Beaudoin does, something that can’t always be taught, might be tough to pass up.

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Leo Sahlin Wallenius, D, Vaxjo Jr. (Sweden)

Who is Sahlin Wallenius: The offensive talent is evident, as Sahlin Wallenius put up 42 points (11 goals and 31 assists) in 43 games for Vaxjo. There’s some improvement in his attention to defensive details required, which could be said about most D-men available in the draft.

Why Sahlin Wallenius would be a fit: The Leafs have gone down this Swedish first-round road before, taking Timothy Liljegren 17th in 2017 and Rasmus Sandin 29th in 2018. Neither player became what the Leafs desired, but perhaps Sahlin Wallenius could buck that trend. He’s a smooth skater with good vision and puck skills. That goes hand-in-hand with Toronto’s skill up front.

Percentage chance they take Sahlin Wallenius: 20%. If a bunch of defencemen have gone before the Leafs pick, they could decide he’s the best of the remaining blueliners.

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Charlie Elick, D, Brandon (WHL)

Who is Elick: The 6-foot-3, 202-pound Elick had 27 points in 65 games for the Wheat Kings. A right-handed shot, Elick is agile and overall, skates well.

Why Elick would be a fit: Physical defencemen who know when to step up are welcomed by Treliving, and Elick has length — another asset that the Leafs GM covets. In that regard, Elick is able to close the gap fairly quickly.

Percentage chance they take Elick: 15%. Elick is one of those prospects that could go in the first round or drop to the second. A lot will depend, obviously, on what happens before the Leafs make their selection.

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