Note to Maple Leafs: Draft a D-man on Friday and develop him properly

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If the Maple Leafs draft a defenceman in the first round at 23rd overall on Friday night, perhaps this time they will get it right.

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From the past four drafts that the Leafs have used a first-round pick on a defenceman, going back to 2011 when they chose Stuart Percy 25th, just one — Morgan Rielly — has made the kind of impact that the team desired when the pick was made.

Percy played in 12 games with the Leafs and has spent the past three seasons playing pro in Czechia.

Rasmus Sandin, taken 29th in 2018, had some good moments in blue and white but not enough for the club to figure he was key piece of the future. Traded to the Washington Capitals last season in a deal that included a first-round pick coming back to Toronto, Sandin signed a five-year extension with the Caps in March. Still, he’s not viewed in Toronto as one that got away.

The pick in the Sandin trade turned out to be Easton Cowan, which looked smarter on the Leafs’ part each time the London Knights star stepped on the ice this past season.

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Then there’s Timothy Liljegren, picked 17th in 2017. Just nine defencemen drafted that year have played in more National Hockey League games than Liljegren’s 196, but it’s not like we’re talking about a game-breaker here.

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One reason why Leafs general manager Brad Treliving is on a serious hunt to add to the blue line — on the right side, no less, and we’re looking at you, Chris Tanev — is because the right-shooting Liljegren hasn’t developed in the manner the team would have liked. At 25, could Liljegren’s best NHL days be ahead of him, or has he hit his ceiling? It’s not easy to say one way or the other. By now, though, the Leafs probably would have liked to have seen more consistency from Liljegren. It’s going to be intriguing to see where the sides land on a new contract for Liljegren, a restricted free agent who is eligible for arbitration. The possibility of trading Liljegren is bound to be on the table as well.

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There’s a simpler reason why the Leafs would be wise to take a defenceman in the first round at the Sphere in Las Vegas.

As it stands, the Leafs’ prospect pool isn’t brimming with sure-fire players on the blue line.

While recognizing that defencemen take longer to develop (usually), Toronto has got it right recently when drafting forwards in the first or second round, including Cowan (28th last year), Fraser Minten (38th in 2022) and Matthew Knies (57th in 2021). We know Knies will be a solid contributor in 2024-25 after a good rookie season. Cowan and Minten both will stand an excellent shot of making the club out of training camp and the pre-season.

It’s not the same in the defence corps.

Topi Niemela, a third-round pick in 2020, played with confidence in his first season with the Toronto Marlies in 2023-24 and is the best of the bunch. Niemela, who happens to shoot right, is bound to get a shot with the Leafs at some point. Whether the same holds true for Mikko Kokkonen, William Villeneuve and Noah Chadwick remains to be seen. But no one is tabbing any of them for greatness.

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In speaking to media in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Leafs director of amateur scouting Wes Clark made clear the kind of defencemen the club wants.

“In a perfect world, they’re all big, fast, strong, competitive, offensive, defensive,” Clark said. “If all things equal out, take the bigger player.”

Among the defencemen potentially available when the Leafs pick on Friday night will be Stian Solberg, Adam Jiricek, EJ Emery and Charlie Elick.

The Leafs would be prudent in selecting one. And then, in the next few years, do all that they can to ensure the player properly develops.

It’s an area that badly needs restocking.

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