At least on the draft floor, it was a relatively calm NHL Draft weekend for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
After opting against trading up to acquire a pick in Friday’s first round, the Leafs kept all but one of their seven selections between the second and seventh rounds on Saturday, choosing to just quietly trade their final seventh-round choice to the St. Louis Blues for a seventh-rounder in 2020 while adding six new prospects to the system.
Off the floor though, Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas was busily completing items on his off-season to-do list.
Dubas started with the trade of Patrick Marleau early on Saturday afternoon, sending the veteran winger, a conditional first-round pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft and a seventh-round pick in the 2020 draft to Carolina in exchange for a sixth-round selection in 2020.
Shedding Marleau’s $6.25 million cap hit through giving up a high draft selection and receiving little compensation in return was a necessary decision by Dubas if he intended to bolster the team’s defence corps and keep restricted free agents Mitch Marner, Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson in the fold.
Not that getting everything done will be easy, even with the added room. Until more work is completed on Marner’s extension, which is likely to cost the Leafs upwards of $10 million per season, Toronto doesn’t have a clear picture on just how much space is available to make other moves.
Dubas stated that plainly to reporters in Vancouver on Saturday, admitting the club doesn’t have enough space to re-sign pending unrestricted free agent defenceman Jake Gardiner, leaving Morgan Rielly, Nikita Zaitsev, Travis Dermott and Jake Muzzin the only top-six defencemen in Toronto’s stable (although Zaitsev did request a trade out of town last month and Dermott will be out until November following off-season shoulder surgery).
"We would like to be able to keep that on the front burner," Dubas said about trying to retain Gardiner. "But until we solve Mitch's situation, it's impossible to engage with anybody."
Still, Dubas has forged ahead where he can. Following news of Marleau’s trade, TSN Hockey Insider Bob McKenzie reported the Leafs “more or less” have an agreement in place with Kapanen on a three-year extension with an average annual value (AAV) between $3.2 and $3.4 million per season. Shortly after, TSN Hockey Insider Darren Dreger reported the Leafs are “closing in” on a four-year extension with Johnsson, with an AAV between $3.25 and $3.5 million per season.
Dubas said on Saturday those two deals "are close to the finish line", but until there's more clarity on Marner's next contract the Leafs may opt not to make them official.
And gaining that clarity may still take some time. TSN Hockey Insider Pierre LeBrun reported on Saturday that Dubas did not meet with Marner’s agent Darren Ferris over the weekend in Vancouver, but that the two sides still have time to catch up back in Toronto. LeBrun also reiterated that Marner’s camp is prepared to speak with teams about a potential offer sheet when the RFA window opens on Wednesday if talks with the Leafs haven’t made progress by then.
While Dubas continued wrestling with the Leafs’ immediate needs, for the past two days he’s also been helping to build its future. Guided by the Leafs’ Senior Director of Player Evaluation, Jim Paliafito, Toronto ended up taking three forwards and three defencemen from amongst the 2019 draft class, none of whom are taller than 5-foot-11 and are profiled below.
Toronto Maple Leafs 2019 NHL Draft Class
Left wing Nicholas Robertson (second round, 53rd overall)
2018-19 stats with the OHL’s Peterborough Petes:
GP: 54 G: 27 A: 28 P: 55
With their first selection of the 2019 draft, the Leafs plucked 17-year-old Robertson off the board, a winger boasting dynamic offensive ability complete with a wicked shot and a high level of individual skill. Heralded for his work ethic and shiftiness getting in and out of corners, Robertson is a relentless forechecker who plays hard on pucks, even as he stands at just 5-foot-9 and 161 pounds.
Robertson was originally projected to be selected in the mid-first round, but fell to the Leafs in the second partially over concerns about his size. Toronto hasn’t shied away from drafting smaller players in recent years though, and Robertson is another example of how hockey smarts, determination, quick feet and good hands can outweigh any undersized worries. And while Robertson acknowledges his smaller stature, he sees it as an advantage, because of a lower centre of gravity, and he’s already found a Leaf to look up to in that respect. In his post-draft media availability, Robertson pointed out that Leafs’ winger (and fellow California native) Trevor Moore is smaller too at 5-foot-10, but “he’s obviously plugging minutes and he’s a very effective player.”
Unsurprising given his age, Robertson is still raw and in need of ample development time, particularly on the defensive side of the puck and in his overall consistency. But he expressed genuine excitement on Saturday about just being part of the Leafs’ organization. Robertson’s teammate with the Petes, Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, was drafted by Toronto in the third-round, 76th overall, last year, and has had nothing but good things to tell Robertson about the team.
“I think they play my style,” Robertson deduced. “They have a big skill game.”
Plus, Robertson has his own connections to the Greater Toronto Area. Finding the Los Angeles area “too congested” as a young player, he eventually migrated to Toronto and spent his bantam and midget hockey in the GTHL.
Robertson said it was the perfect decision for him to spent his formative hockey years in the Toronto area, and describes himself now as a “very skillful player, very elusive as I’m a smaller guy. I think I’m a passer yet a shooter. I’m a very tenacious player, I like to cause havoc, turnovers.”
The youngest of three brothers, Robertson was selected two years after his older brother Jason was drafted in the second round, 39th overall, by the Dallas Stars.
Defenceman Mikko Kokkonen (third round, 84th overall)
2018-19 stats with Finland’s Jukurit Milkeli:
GP: 56 G: 3 A: 16 P: 19
The 18-year-old Kokkonen was ranked 10th overall by Central Scouting among international skaters heading into the draft, and he joins a growing stable of young left-shot defencemen in the Leafs’ system. And while Kokkonen may be slightly undersized still at 5-foot-11 and 198 pounds, he proved he can come up big when it counts by playing more than 20 minutes per game at the end of last season for Jukurit Milkeli. A good puck distributor with a strong transition game, Kokkenen may lack for flash but he’s a reliable presence in the defensive zone who can contribute offensively with his tight wrist shot and has experience on the power play and the penalty kill.
Skating is still an issue for Kokkonen to address as he develops, and he admitted as much after being drafted on Saturday, but overall he’s a solid two-way player with a maturity beyond his years.
Centre Mikhail Abramov (fourth round, 115th overall)
2018-19 stats with QMJHL’s Victoriaville Tigres:
GP: 62 G: 16 A: 38 P: 54
Another pick, another smaller, high-skill selection by the Leafs in 5-foot-10, 161-pound Abramov. Billed as a competitive, creative two-way centreman with a great shot, Abramov plays with a high level of pace and has grown into being a solid playmaker displaying patience and craftiness in the offensive zone. Beyond just adding bulk to his frame, Abramov needs more consistency in his game, evidenced by his periods of up-and-down play with the Tigres last season.
Centre Nicholas Abruzzese (fourth round, 124th overall)
2018-19 stats with the USHL’s Chicago Steel:
GP: 62 G: 29 A: 51 P: 80
Finally selected at 20 years old after being passed over in the previous two NHL drafts, Abruzzese was a double-overager last season who led the USHL in scoring with 80 points in 62 games, and is bound for Harvard University in the fall. Joining the Leafs’ large contingency of undersized players, the 5-foot-9, 160 pound Abruzzese made a point of getting stronger and faster last summer to improve his confidence, and subsequently his play in a breakout campaign for the Steel. While Abruzzese may be a late-bloomer, it’s his maturity and process that have most re-shaped his game over the last year, along with the skill set he already had in good hands, playmaking ability and vision on the ice.
Competing at the NCAA level will offer tougher battles for Abruzzese and better insight into what type of player he could one day develop into.
Defenceman Michael Koster (fifth round, 146th overall)
2018-19 stats with USHL’s Tri-City Storm:
GP: 15 G: 2 A: 4 P: 6
Hailing from Chaska, Minnesota, Koster spent most of last season as captain of his high school team, registering 59 points (19 goals, 40 assists) in 24 games at Chaska High before moving on to the Tri-City Storm. Coming in at 5-foot-9 and 172 pounds, Koster has some physical growing to do as his game continues maturing on the ice. He struggled a bit during a stint at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup last year, putting up only two assists in five games, and he’s lacking in speed that could use development. But Koster has the attributes Toronto covets in its prospects, with ample skill in his own end and the potential to blossom as an offensive threat as well.
Koster is bound for the University of Minnesota this fall.
Defenceman Kalle Loponen (seventh round, 204th overall)
2018-19 stats with Finnish League’s Kärpät U20:
GP: 18 G: 2 A: 7 P: 9
After selecting two left-shot defencemen earlier in the day, the Leafs grabbed Loponen, a right-shot defender, with their final choice. The 18-year-old performed well internationally with Finland’s U-20 national teams last year, posting 18 points (three goals, 15 assists) in 25 games. He was loaned to second-tier Hermes for 30 games, adding 12 points (four goals, eight assists) in 30 games, in addition to skating for the Karpat U20 junior squad (nine points in 18 games). He’s projected to play in Liiga with Kalpa next season.
Loponen is a smooth-skating, puck-moving blueliner with strong offensive upside. He’ll benefit from continuing to play against tougher competition as he adds strength to his 5-foot-11, 187 pound frame.