The NHL Draft is now over, and as we continue the off-season game plan series briefly, let’s pause and look at the draft.
Before the draft, I wrote:
For me, a successful draft weekend for the Leafs includes losing wages and adding more draft picks. If they somehow pull off a trade to bring in a quality NHL player? Even better. If the Leafs brass shows up, makes three picks and goes home, it would be a disappointing draft weekend in Toronto.
In the end, the Leafs ticked both of those boxes. There was a predictable trade down 79 to collect pick 95 and 135. We also mentioned that they might consider trading capital in future drafts to complete this one, which they did in acquiring a 2022 fourth-rounder (#122) from the Nashville Predators in exchange for a 2023 fourth-rounder.
Going forward, the Leafs will enter the 2023 NHL Draft with picks in the first, third, fifth and sixth rounds. I know draft picks aren’t the priority right now, but the Leafs haven’t drafted in each of the first two rounds of three of the last four draft picks. They haven’t drafted more than twice in the first two rounds since 2016. We keep saying it, but it will ring true at some point: the franchise will feel it, especially as the players of top Leafs need to sign new contracts. In the years to come. Young players on entry-level contracts make life a lot easier and also provide the currency needed to make big trades.
We also talked about lost wages, which the Leafs accomplished, but not how we discussed it. Frankly, I would have liked to explore Petr Mrazek’s departure in more detail, but at the same time I thought it would cost the club more than he did. I didn’t expect to lose Mrazek’s entire contract at the cost of a 25-38 drop.
The Oilers sent the No. 29 pick to the Coyotes, along with a 2024 second-round pick and a 2025 third-round pick to accept Zack Kassian’s contract. In exchange, the Oilers acquired the number 32 pick.
In 2019, Kyle Dubas traded Patrick Marleau and the remaining year of his contract for a conditional first-round pick in the 2020 draft (Seth Jarvis) and a seventh-round pick in the 2020 draft (Alexander Pashin) in exchange for a sixth-round pick in the 2020 draft (Axel Rindell).
These are the prices I expected to see, and they just weren’t acceptable to me given the lack of choice the Leafs had at their disposal to start with. Wiping out Mrazek’s entire contract – which still has two years left – at the cost of dropping 13 places in the repechage is a clear victory for me.
The fact that the Leafs watched the first round to see how it went before they pulled the trigger suggests to me that they weren’t thinking enough about who was available at that point to just guard and make the pick. Had they made that trade before the draft started, it would have been a different story. It’s a small price to pay compared to many other trades we’ve seen teams make to free up cap space.
Prior to the trade, Dubas noted:
“If I make predictions and bet on him, do I bet he was the goalkeeper he was last year in 20 games, or the goalkeeper he was for the 270 previous games – what was a .910 save percentage that can give his team a chance to win?I would probably bet on the larger sample.
Honestly, I think Mrazek is a great bet to bounce back from, but bouncing off a bad team with very little to play versus playing on a team expecting to chase a Stanley Cup is a very different kind of pressure. I don’t doubt Mrazek’s ability — he’s a recognized and legit NHL goaltender — but his ability to stay healthy is the issue. Which is why, I guess, the Leafs are hesitant to qualify Ondrej Kase as well. It’s hard to build a team with continuity when you can’t trust certain players to stay healthy.
When it comes to draft selections, we’ve gone through them quite extensively already, but I’ll add and reiterate a few things here. They should swing for a goaltender every draft, and they’ve done so in six of the last seven. This organization’s entire goaltending department should be audited if they can’t possibly turn one of them into a viable NHL asset. That would be a lot of swings with few results. They haven’t drafted a major goaltender since James Reimer in 2006; at some point, it’s not just because they write badly.
This is the second straight draft where the Leafs haven’t selected a defenseman, which is kind of crazy when you really think about it. This coincides with interesting timing with a contract standoff between the organization and up-and-coming Rasmus Sandin. It’s not like the Leafs don’t have any other young defensemen. I’m sure they’d say they just pick the best player available and that’s how the board shook, but there’s still no defender in two draft classes. This is also what happens when a team runs out of draft picks in general. They’re going to miss something, and you have to think it’s going to show up at some point.
Beyond that, it was nice to see the Leafs pick a high center in the draft. A team can never have enough; they are always in demand. They missed defenders on one side, but added a goalkeeper and a center on the other.
The Leafs have also generally been successful in signing players with whom they have closer ties. In the case of this draft, the example would refer to Nick Moldenhauer, who plays for the Chicago Steel in the USHL – the Leafs recently hired their former general manager, Ryan Hardy. Rasmus Sandin was drafted from Sault Ste. Marie, and I’d say he’s currently more promising than almost any player drafted after him. Matthew Knies put together a very promising +1 draft season – Tri-City Storm’s director of player development was the Leafs’ video coach. It doesn’t always work out, but there has been success in the past when the Leafs have deeper ties to the prospect.
The Carousel of Guardians
The draft was almost a side story when it came to the Leafs and the draft. To summarize:
- Petr Mrazek was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks
- Ville Husso was acquired by the Detroit Red Wings
- Vitek Vanecek was acquired by the New Jersey Devils
- Alexander Georgiev was acquired by the Colorado Avalanche
- Marc-André Fleury re-signs with the Wild
- Casey DeSmith re-signs with the Penguins
This leaves very little room in the goalkeeper market. We have Jack Campbell and Darcy Kuemper as legitimate free agents (and even then, I’d say Campbell is no guarantee). There is a collection of goalkeepers that are presumably available through trade.
This is the type of decision that will make or break this management group. If they completely botch the goalkeeper position – and they’ve missed out on a number of positions over the years – that’s legitimately the type of decision that gets a general manager fired. It’s one thing to field a good team in the regular season that can’t break into the playoffs; it’s another to miss by crating the team at the most important position in the game.
Rumors are swirling about Matt Murray and the Leafs. In the right kind of deal with a sweetener and strong retention, that might make sense. Ideally, a double retention takes place (i.e. Ottawa retains him and trades him to an intermediate team, who then retains him further and sends him back to the Leafs), and his hit cap is between 2 and $3 million. But even if that’s the case, the Leafs should bring a viable backup option of note.
Murray hasn’t played more than 38 games in a season since the 2018-19 campaign. He signed a huge contract in Ottawa and basically played himself out of the league at one point. Even if the Leafs want to bet on his rebound – good enough; he has a career save percentage of .911, is 28 and has won 2 cups – they can’t count on him to effectively handle a starter’s full workload and then perform well in the playoffs. It’s a big question.
If the Leafs trade for Murray and bet on him, it’s not really a backup plan to just let Erik Kallgren and Joseph Woll fight behind him. There must be a hedge made on a goaltender with actual NHL credentials.
Conversely, if the Leafs were to acquire a real, proven starter, I’d say they could justify running with the young backups. However, even if it was Darcy Kuemper, he started over 50 games twice in his career and now has 32. It’s hard to find proven starting goalies in this league.
In the absence of one, acquiring Matt Murray at a discount and bringing in another legitimate goalie as cover is something that might make sense. Petr Mrazek was a plausible option to partner with another goaltender with an upside, but the Leafs cleared the deck and decided to go in a completely different direction. As noted above, we can see why they wanted to do it, but now the slate is empty of any sort of goaltender with true NHL pedigree.
There’s also the question of how the Leafs are going to improve the forward squad to go along with sorting out the goalie position. A fascinating week of high-stakes decisions awaits Kyle Dubas and the Maple Leafs.