Kyle Dubas made the leap from spectator to potential mover-slash-shaker on draft day the minute he signed off on the Kasperi Kapanen trade.
The Toronto Maple Leafs GM had previously conceded his seat at Oct. 6’s draft table when he paid the price of a first-round pick (13th overall) to Carolina in the summer of 2019 in order to skirt the final season of Patrick Marleau’s heavy contract. But he snatched the 15th-overall selection from Pittsburgh as the critical element of the Kapanen deal.
That pick presents options for an executive who should be more concerned with winning now than building for the three years down the road. Hours after the Kapanen paperwork was filed, Dubas said he’d be willing to flip the 15th for an asset who could step in and improve the current roster, and there are a number of cap-tight teams eager to get back into Round 1.
How the Leafs use their quality first-rounder will garner the most attention. But flying under the radar is the nice work this regime has done of gathering a large quantity of selections in 2020. (The best example: Dubas quietly scooping the Vegas Golden Knights’ third- and fourth-rounders by absorbing David Clarkson’s cap hit and a portion of Robin Lehner’s.)
“We have  picks, and a lot of them are later on,” Dubas said. “Our organization has felt that we have to… really, really try to hone our focus on making sure we make the most of those picks because they’re going to be imperative to the future progress of our program.”
They won’t all be gems of course, but the more chips you have spread out on the roulette table, the better your odds of hitting.
In his brief tenure as draft shot-caller, Dubas has proven to favour talent and high-end potential over size and safe options. He’s also shown a willingness to trade down to add more picks. In the late rounds, he now has the ammo to trade up if he feels he could secure a target.
Whether it’s at the virtual draft or upon the opening of free agency Oct. 9, we expect the Maple Leafs to make headlines in the first 10 days of October.
PIT 1, TOR 2, TOR 4, VGK 4, VGK 5, TOR 6, CAR 6, COL 6, SJS 7, WPG 7, STL 7
Potential Round 1 targets
Braden Schneider: A 6-foot-2, 202-pound right shot defenceman who erupted for 42 points in his third campaign for the Brandon Wheat Kings, Schneider could help fulfill Toronto’s greatest organizational deficiency. An alternate captain, he has been heralded for his leadership qualities and strength, happily engaging in net-front battles and clearing space for his netminders. If the Leafs do prioritize defence with this pick, the left-shooting Kaiden Guhle (Prince Albert Raiders; Brendan’s brother) is another fine option with playmaking upside.
Hendrix Lapierre: If Dubas wants to improve his pools of centres, Lapierre is a wildcard worth watching. Because of his injury-limited 2019-20, the first-overall pick of the 2018 QMJHL draft could go down as a late-first-round steal or bust. Lapierre is a fabulous skater with a quick first step and lightning cuts that enable him to create his own space to set up teammates. High hockey IQ. More conservative centre options at Pick 15 could be Seth Jarvis (Portland Winterhawks) and Connor Zary (Kamloops Blazers).
Dylan Holloway: Toronto’s lack of physicality has been called into question during its early post-season exits, and there are some skilled prospect options up front who could help remedy that issue. Holloway (6-foot-1, 203 pounds) is a beastly pivot out of Bragg Creek, Alberta. He put up 17 points and 49 penalty minutes in 35 games for the University of Wisconsin last season. Another Albertan, centre Ridly Greig of the Brandon Wheat Kings, has flexed more offensive flair (60 points in 56 games) but brings a similar edge to his shifts and won’t shy from contact. Past behaviour makes it doubtful Dubas goes this route, but we do think these power forwards are worth a mention.
Last year’s first pick: Nick Robertson
No first-round pick, no problem. Dubas knocked his 53rd choice out of the park in 2019, as Robertson is the frontrunner for second-round steal of 2019. The 19-year-old followed his ridiculous 55-goal effort for OHL Peterborough by winning an NHL roster spot in reset camp and scoring his first Maple Leafs goal during the play-in round versus Columbus. The left wing’s wicked shot, remarkable internal drive and entry-level cap hit all but assure him a top-nine spot on the Leafs’ opening night roster in 2020-21. Expectations and hype are high around this kid.
As ever, the Maple Leafs will go hunting for defensive depth, particularly on the right side. KHL defenceman of the year Mikko Lehtonen is expected to step in and log minutes, but he’s only on a one-year deal. Youngsters Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren, who were mid-season callups in 2019-20, will have a shot to become NHL regulars — but a string of injuries to the blue line exposed just how shallow things get beyond there.
Up front, Toronto has slowly whittled away at its depth by dealing away several forwards in or approaching their prime (Nazem Kadri, Connor Brown, Kapanen, Trevor Moore, Josh Leivo, Carl Grundstrom, Mason Marchment) to address other needs. Inexpensive import Alexander Barabanov, 26, will instantly compete for a role on the wings, and the door is open for Egor Korshkov and Adam Brooks to take a step. That said, since dealing Kadri, it’s evident the organization needs more bona fide centres.
Finally, the future of Toronto’s crease is hazy, with starter Frederik Andersen entering his contract year and backup Jack Campbell only locked up for a season beyond that. Goaltenders are rarely snatched up in Round 1, but if top goalie prospect Yaroslav Askarov is kicking around at 15, would Dubas take a chance on a potential No. 1 for the future?
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