TORONTO — By the end of a marathon NHL Entry Draft on Wednesday, the Maple Leafs had stockpiled 12 prospects for the club’s future, but general manager Kyle Dubas was also keenly focused on his club’s present. Namely, the type of player he’ll be coveting when NHL free agency kicks off come Friday.
“We're looking to become a harder group to play against, particularly in the lower end of our forward group,” Dubas told reporters on a Zoom call Wednesday night. “[Those players] will make life hard on the opposition, with their speed and their pressure and their physicality. But they have to be able to play as well. We’ve done a lot of work and studied what exactly we want. So we've got a good sense of what we're trying to do, and it’s just a matter now of whether the market will allow us to and whether our cap space will allow us to.”
The Leafs don’t have much room to spare, especially with the NHL’s cap staying at a flat $81.5 million for the foreseeable future. CapFriendly puts about $5.41 million in Toronto’s pocket for the coming season, and that’s before restricted free agents Travis Dermott and Ilya Mikheyev, who both received qualifying offers from the Leafs on Wednesday, signed extensions.
It’s those looming economic difficulties for potentially several years to come, coupled with uncertainty generated throughout the league by the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic, that made drafting well this year paramount for Toronto in helping bolster its organization down the road.
Because at the moment, Dubas admits he “doesn’t know” what the trade market will even look like moving ahead, or how a lack of interview period will affect free agent signings. So Dubas and his staff are preparing for any manner of possibilities, including how to motivate current players to reach new heights.
“We’ve had a number of discussions in that regard,” said head coach Sheldon Keefe. “We know we need to be a team that’s tougher to play against. Part of that is player acquisition, part of that is you grow from our individuals [we have]. We’re going to demand a lot more of our players, and our players are going to demand a lot more of themselves. We [also] have to solidify our defence, and that's obviously a priority. We need to be a team that is more cohesive and more complete in lines one through four all the way through.”
And if achieving that means the Leafs have to sacrifice some skill in the process, so be it.
“I think that’s absolutely the case,” said Keefe. “You’re not going to get the desired skill level you want all the way through the lineup. At the same time, being harder to play against is not just a physical thing. It’s ultimately [about] winning. You don't want to just be more physical but then at the end of the day be a worse team, so we have to be very smart with each of the moves that we make and be very calculated.”
Toronto took a similarly overarching approach into its virtual draft. When Wednesday’s seven-hour-long saga of rounds two through seven began, the Leafs had already taken Russian forward Rodion Amirov at No. 15 the night before, and then turned their 10 remaining selections into 11. All told, Toronto brought in six forwards, four defencemen and one goalie by day’s end.
“I thought we were happy with the draft, we're happy with the all the players that we came away with,” Dubas said. “And now it's up to us to to develop them into prospects that can play in the NHL for us and continue at the same time to move into the next few days and get ready to improve our roster any way we can.”
The Leafs started out by trading their 44th pick to Ottawa for the 59th and 64th selections in this year’s draft, and then grabbed two undersized Finnish elite league players off the board: left-shot centre Roni Hirvonen (from Assat Pori) at 59, and right-hand defenceman Topi Niemela (of Karpat) at 64.
Those could end up being especially high-value selections by Toronto. In his pre-draft rankings, TSN Director of Scouting Craig Button had Hirvonen (5-foot-9, 164 pounds) at 65th overall on his board, and Niemela (5-foot-11, 163 pounds) at 47.
From there, Toronto went back to Russia for the 106th overall pick, selecting goaltender Artur Akhtyamov of the MHL’s Irbis Kazan, and then went for QMJHL Sea Dogs defenceman William Villeneuve at pick #122.
The Leafs then traded with Florida to acquire the 137th pick in exchange for picks No. 153 and 212, and took KHL centre Dmitri Ovchinnikov. Toronto rounded out its 2020 draft class with right wing Veeti Miettinen (bound for St. Cloud State University) at No. 168, defenceman Axel Rindell (from the Finnish elite league’s Jukurit) at No. 177, centre Joe Miller (of the USHL’s Chicago Steel) at No. 180, defenceman John Fusco (just starting at Harvard) with No. 189, centre Wyatt Schingoethe (from the USHL’s Waterloo Blackhawks) at No. 195 and finally centre Ryan Tverberg (of the OJHL’s Toronto Jr. Canadiens) with pick No. 213, which the Leafs acquired from Boston in exchange for a 2021 seventh-round choice.
If there were constants throughout the Leafs’ draftees, it was their potentially higher-end skill sets, and their size (or lack thereof): of the 12-person haul, only Akhtyamov and Villeneuve are listed as taller then 6-feet, and the average weight of the group is around 170 pounds.
But the Leafs’ amateur director of scouting John Lilley said some of those listed stats may be misleading.
“Because of the COVID-19 [pandemic], a lot of these young men haven't been able to get tested with their height and weight and these [numbers] are coming from last November,” Lilley said. “My guess is some of the players we did draft are a little bigger than what they're listed at at this point. But the bottom line is we want the best players available. The criteria we want are skilled players with hockey sense that compete."
And despite how it may look, with the Leafs’ selecting four of its 12 players from Finland and three from Russia, there wasn’t any bias towards any league by design.
“It’s just how the list falls sometimes,” said Lilley. “I think it was just somewhat of a coincidence. I [do] find typically though the Finnish players are low maintenance, and they really work hard, which is something we value. They all compete, they all show up.”
As the draft rolled on, the NHL’s 5 p.m. deadline to qualify restricted free agents came and went, too. Toronto tendered offers to Dermott and Mikheyev, while forwards Frederik Gauthier, Jeremy Bracco, Evan Rodrigues and Max Veronneau were not qualified and will become unrestricted free agents.
The Leafs’ decision to move on from Gauthier was the only real surprise of the bunch. Toronto drafted the centreman at 21st overall in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, and have worked to develop him ever since. Primarily skating on the fourth line throughout his young career, Gauthier tallied 31 points (13 goals, 18 assists) in 168 NHL games for the Leafs, and was also part of the Toronto Marlies’ squad that, under then-head coach Keefe and then-GM Dubas, won a Calder Cup championship in 2018.
After Keefe took over behind the Leafs’ bench this past November, Gauthier was slowly fazed out of the lineup, and appeared in just one of Toronto’s qualifying-round games against Columbus.
“We just felt that, as we learned more and more about the guys that were going to be going to [the free agent] market and about different teams doing different players, we were just going to look for a bit of a change at that point in our lineup,” said Dubas of not qualifying Gauthier. “And at the same time, we wanted to do right by Fred, and give him the chance to explore the market as well.”
Unlike with Gauthier, the writing seemed to be on the wall for Bracco. A second-round selection (61st overall) by the Leafs in 2015, Bracco failed to ever crack the team’s lineup. He instead played three straight seasons with the Marlies, and last winter was absent for the final two months of their campaign for “personal reasons.”
“For us it was just time to move forward,” Dubas surmised. “We wish him the best wherever he plays next.”
With a big draft behind them and a crucial free agent period looming, Toronto is by all accounts trying to turn over a new Leaf, through balancing what they already have with what missing links are still out there.
“Ultimately [it’s] just being more consistent and that isn't just with the people that we're after,” said Keefe. “I've been having a lot of conversations with our current players [about] really looking inward and recognizing that we all have to get better as a group. And that starts with the individuals, and we have more to give all the way through our lineup. So my focus is the players we do have, and any additions we make are going to help our cause, and we're excited for that.”