Time for Toronto to draft local?

Time for Toronto to draft local?

The Toronto Maple Leafs need another hit, and they only have three swings to connect.

All in on the Auston Matthews–Mitch Marner–William Nylander–Morgan Rielly -John Tavares core, general manager Kyle Dubas has handcuffed his amateur scouting staff in an effort to win now.

As was the case in 2021, the Leafs hold a grand total of three picks heading into the seven-round NHL Draft.

Unlike last summer, the organization made a point to hold onto its first-rounder, resisting another Nick Foligno–type gamble. And with Toronto’s prospect pool thinning to boost its contention window, Dubas needs to nail this top selection.

“I am very happy with where the amateur scouting staff has taken things despite not having a lot of picks in two of the three drafts, really,” said Dubas, who clawed back a 2022 third-rounder (Winnipeg’s via Vancouver) through the Travis Dermott trade.

Because no immediate help for the old “Win a playoff round already!” hurdle is coming with a 25th-overall pick who will need more development, Dubas could make more noise at Bell Centre by striking a trade.

That said, it’s been seven years since the Maple Leafs drafted a Canadian in the first round (Mitch Marner, 2015). A handful of talented, homegrown candidates are in a mix of about a dozen players who could slap on a Maple Leafs ballcap Thursday night.

With the pandemic throwing a wrench into so many prospects’ development — and stunting scouts’ viewing samples — experts are finding the latter half of Round 1’s draft order even more difficult to predict than usual.

A couple of things to remember here: (a) Dubas generally loves shooting for high-end skill and potential over the safer play, regardless of the player’s stature; and (b) if the GM senses he can trade down, snatch another lottery ticket and still get his man, he will.

Draft Picks

TOR 1 (25th), WGP 3 (79th), TOR 7 (218th)

Potential Round 1 Targets

Luca Del Bel Belluz, C, Mississauga Steelheads (OHL)

The Maple Leafs spoke with Del Bel Belluz again after the combine, and the Woodbridge, Ont., native would be thrilled to get drafted by his boyhood team.

The centreman broke out in 2021-22 with 30 goals and 76 points in his second tour with the Steelheads, and his plus-23 rating speaks to the pride De Bel Belluz takes in his two-way game.

The 18-year-old left shot has studied how Auston Matthews plays without the puck and has described himself as a creative playmaker who enjoys playing in the D-zone, too.

One of Del Bel Belluz’s Steelheads teammates — Port Hope, Ont.–born centre Owen Beck —could fall into the Leafs’ range as well.

Ivan Miroshnichenko, LW, Omsk (VHL)

With Toronto quietly ending its relationship with diligent European recruiter Jim Paliafito, we can’t be certain the pipeline that brought in Russians like Nikita Zaitsev and Ilya Mikheyev is still open.

That said, a couple of intriguing Russian pro left wings (skillsy Alexander Perevalov is the other) could still be on the board when Dubas is on the clock.

Miroshnichenko has been tagged as a draft-day wild card whose stock has fallen since 2021. In January, the 6-foot-1 kid with the wicked release had his season cut short with a Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis. He was cleared to resume training in June and plans to be ready for the 2022-23 season in Russia.

His health is a risk. His shot is a weapon.

Jagger Firkus, RW, Moose Jaw Warriors (WHL)

Small? Yep. Skilled? Yep.

If only Firkus played junior for the Soo, he would fit the Dubas type to a T.

Kidding aside, the kid can play. Firkus ripped 36 goals and added 44 assists in 66 games for the Warriors, then tacked on 12 more points in 10 playoff games.

The Alberta native may be undersized (5-foot-10, 154 pounds) but he is ultra-competitive and driven to produce. Not only is his shot fierce, but the winger finds deceptive ways to let it loose.

With moves like Jagger’s, the “Firkus Circus” could add even more entertainment value to one of the NHL’s must-watch offences.

Last Year’s Top Pick: Matthew Knies

Were the general managers to conduct a redraft of the 2021 class, consensus says that Knies would get scooped in the first round — not the second, where Dubas appears to have stolen the University of Minnesota star at No. 57 overall.

Literally a point per game (15-18–33 in 33 games) and plus-15 for the Gophers as an NCAA freshman, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound left wing projects to be a top-nine power forward. Knies has surpassed Nick Robertson as the most anticipated prospect in Toronto’s system.

Soft hands. Hard hits. Protects the puck well. Drives to the slot. A knack for the finish.

The Maple Leafs attempted to get the 19-year-old Phoenix native to sign his entry-level contract prior to the conclusion of the 2021-22 season (à la Nick Abruzzese) and make him a postseason option, but Knies has elected to re-enroll in school for another winter of seasoning.

“He’s going to be more ready a year from now,” coach Sheldon Keefe said. “He’s had a monster season in college hockey. Not just in college hockey, but in world juniors, Olympics, he’s really made his mark. We’re very excited about having him in the organization.”

Either Knies signs his ELC at the conclusion of his sophomore campaign with the Gophers and potentially adds to the Leafs’ arsenal for the 2023 playoffs. (That’s the safer bet.)

Or — and this is scary — Knies plays the long game, declines to sign with the team that drafted him, and goes the Adam Fox route as an NCAA free agent. The player has some leverage here. (Too early to panic, but, hey, it’s an option.)

Organizational Needs

Goaltending: Resulting partly from a big swing and a miss on injury-prone 2021 UFA Petr Mrazek and partly from the franchise’s failure to draft and develop a regular starter since James Reimer in 2006, the Maple Leafs are again on the goalie hunt.

Dubas hasn’t exactly lavished impending UFA Jack Campbell with offers, as clubs with cap space, like Detroit and New Jersey, lurk in the weeds.

Does the GM make a free agency play (Ville Husso, Marc-Andre Fleury, Darcy Kuemper), or try to swing a draft-weekend deal (Matt Murray, Semyon Varlamov, Jordan Binnington) to address his most obvious weak spot?

Top-nine left wing: The looming Ilya Mikheyev exodus will only further weaken Toronto’s weakest wing. Perhaps the solution is simply promoting from within (Robertson?) and banking on Knies to lend a hand come spring. That would certainly be cost effective.

But if Dubas is inclined to make headlines, there are intriguing UFAs (Mason Marchment, Valeri Nichushkin) and potential trade targets (J.T. Miller, Tyler Bertuzzi) to chase.

Right-shot defenceman: Stocked with lefties, the Maple Leafs’ right side remains a work-in-progress. Pending RFA Timothy Liljegren signed a reasonable bridge deal, but questions surround righties Ilya Lyubushkin (UFA) and Justin Holl (available for trade).

For a contending team picking late, this too is a need that must be filled via free agency or the trade market.

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