This has to be one of my favourite times of the year, the days leading up to the NHL draft and the beginning of free agency. It’s almost like the unofficial start to the new season, a new chance for teams to grow and take the next steps to becoming a contender for Lord Stanley’s mug. There is a abundance of speculation and hope in the air, especially with Leafs fans, where the fanbase is always hoping that this new year will be the one in which their beloved Toronto Maple Leafs win that elusive Stanley Cup. As a Leafs fan, I share this same feeling, and thought I would add my two cents on who the Leafs could potentially draft on Friday, their next step for their quest for a championship. Also, while rumours are floating that Toronto could be in the mix to acquire one of the top four picks, nothing is official yet, so I’m writing under the assumption that they remain at spot number eight.
There was an interesting quote I read awhile ago from Toronto’s director of amateur scouting, Dave Morrison. Morrison said that when selecting in the draft, “You have to rate the risk-reward factor versus a guy you know is going to be an asset…he might not be as flashy, but you know he’ll be an asset.” If Toronto sticks to this way of thinking, it is likely they will use the #8 selection on Red Deer Rebels defenseman Haydn Fleury. What was Toronto’s most glaring weakness last season? The defense. Not enough offensive contribution from the D-core, combined with poor play in their own end. Fleury would be the safest pick for the Leafs. The Rebels D-man, who is 6’3, 200+ lbs., should help in solving the Leafs defensive woes. Red Deer coach/GM Brent Sutter stated that Fleury’s biggest strength is his ability to carry the puck up the ice and then just as easily get back into defensive position. This is certainly shown by the offensive upside Fleury has, one that saw him net 46 PTS this season (with a few excellent goals from his wicked wrist shot), and he was defensively sound as well, playing on the top pairing with a +15 rating. All this coming with increased responsibility by replacing the departed Matt Dumba. He’s the best defenseman in the draft not named Aaron Ekblad, so don’t be surprised if he is drafted before the #8 spot, but if he’s available, I think it’s likely Toronto will take him.
What if the Maple Leafs stray from this type of “safe” drafting though? I understand the rationale behind it, especially with Toronto’s poor draft history, such as the great (sarcasm) draft of ’89, in which Toronto drafted three Belleville Bulls teammates who never amounted to much in the NHL, passing up on talented skaters such as Bill Guerin and Bobby Holik, or the brilliant move to use the #10 pick in 1998 on a young Kazakh centre named Nik Antropov, chosen over the likes of goal scorers like Alex Tanguay and Simon Gagne. Has the recent safe drafting really paid off though? While recent drafts have seen solid picks in Nazem Kadri and Morgan Rielly, maybe the Leafs should have taken the risk instead of looking for Morrison’s aforementioned “asset.” The 2011 draft saw Toronto trade up to select Tyler Biggs, a player with no real major upside or downside, a safe selection. Yet three years later, it looks like Biggs will be a career minor leaguer, while others taken shortly after him, namely Boone Jenner and Rickard Rakell, have much more offensive upside for Columbus and Anaheim respectively than Biggs ever will for Toronto. Last year’s draft may yield a similar result, with the Leafs taking Frederik Gauthier, who projects to be at most a 3rd-line centre, instead of a more offensively gifted player, such as Andre Burakovsky, who racked up 87 points in Erie, and looks to be a budding star for the Capitals.
The point is that by using the safe pick, it’s going to be hard to really draft a bonafide goal scorer, a real difference maker, a superstar who can score in droves for the Leafs. It’s something the Leafs have really only done twice in their past, selecting Darryl Sittler in 1970 and Lanny McDonald in 1973. If the Leafs are looking to hit a home run and draft a pure goal scorer, the following are a few options they could have at #8.
While many reports have Robby Fabbri being drafted in the mid-to-late first round, the Guelph Storm centre may be the most underrated centre/forward in the draft. He has a tremendous amount of speed, and may be the most dangerous player in the draft going north-south down the ice with the puck. Fabbri possesses a quick release with his wrist shot (which helped him net 45 goals last year), and has the skilled hands and patience with the puck to make defenders look silly. If you give him room with the puck, he’s going to make you pay, and if he doesn’t have the space, he’s going to create it with those nasty hands. The only knock against him is that he’s only approximately 5’10, 165 lbs., but that shouldn’t matter. When he goes into the corners against larger defensemen, it does not throw him off his game, and he’s usually the one to come out with the puck.
Jake Virtanen, a left winger from the Calgary Hitmen, may be the best pure goal-scorer in the draft. He’s got speed to burn, as he was able to fly down the ice and evade opponents, whether that be along the wing or down the middle, to score a team best 45 goals. He may also have the best shot, with some saying his shooting ability was at an NHL level three years ago. Portland scout Brad Bowen listed Virtanen as a low-risk, high-reward prospect (hear that Toronto?) because of his adaptability. Bowen said if Virtanen does not become a top-six guy, he could easily turn into a bottom-six player because of his physicality and strength. Only potential problem is that he may not be 100% come training camp, as he is coming off of shoulder surgery, though he is reportedly ahead of schedule with rehab.
The word used by Bowen to describe Virtanen, adaptability, could very well be the perfect word to describe another potential option for Toronto, Peterborough left winger Nick Ritchie. By simply looking at his physical attributes, he’s approximately 6’3, 225 lbs., one would make the assumption that Ritchie is a typical power forward. While he certainly can be a power forward, he also has pure goal scoring ability (39 goals last season), whether that be scoring on the rush, where he uses his size and speed to burn defenders along the wing, or uses his patience and hockey sense to rack up points on the power-play. Fortunately, I was able to learn a little more about Ritchie by speaking with Petes GM Mike Oke. When I asked Oke if the comparison of Ritchie to the Bruins Milan Lucic was accurate, he said that was fair, as would a comparison to Todd Bertuzzi. The more I think about it though, the more I would compare him to Wendel Clark (Ritchie also racked up 136 PIM’s last year), just with a more offensive upside. But it’s that adaptability that is the key to his game according to Oke. “He’s a strong player who’s very versatile. If you need him to be a skill guy, he can do that. If you need him to play a power forward role, he can do that as well. He can adapt to any situation.” Oke also went on to say that Ritchie is physically ready for the NHL level of play. What makes Ritchie a high-risk/high reward type of player though in the minds of some is that he has consistency issues. One scout even went so far as to say, “He might have the best pro qualities of all the kids in the draft, but he doesn’t show up every night, which is disappointing.”
Now if the Leafs really want to go outside the box and take someone who may be the definition of high-risk/high-reward in this draft, they may have a look at Windsor’s Josh Ho-Sang. Some have called him the most talented young man available, so why have many ranked him to be picked in the late-first round/early-second round? While Ho-Sang put up an impressive 85 PTS last year on a mediocre Spitfires squad and impressed many with his hockey sense and superb puck-handling skills, it is off the ice that his caused his draft rank to fall. Many teams have been scared away from Ho-Sang due to his honest, outspoken personality. For instance, he claimed that in three years, he will be the best player from this draft, and has been open in questioning Hockey Canada about leaving him off the junior team. Call it confidence, call it arrogance, the fact of the matter is is that Ho-Sang is a tremendous talent, and while he may speak his mind and be controversial, he may also develop into one of the best point producers in the league.
Whether the Leafs play it safe or try and draft a dynamic, offensive weapon, I’m betting on one certainty, that whomever is picked will create instant debate among the members of LeafsNation regarding whether or not this player is the right piece to the championship puzzle.
Morrison quote from The Hockey News, Sutter quote from reddeerrebels.com, Bowen quote from abbynews.com
Photo credits to thehockeynews.com, arizonahockeytalk.com, calgarysun.com, 123people.com, and espn.go.com