We’ll be spending an awful lot of time over the next few weeks discussing which players the Toronto Maple Leafs should be looking to ship out of town ahead of the February 29th trade deadline. That said, we’ve actually spent very little time discussing what kinds of things GM Lou Lamoriello should be asking for in return.
“Picks and prospects” is the simple answer, but we can do better than that. The Leafs have one of the best prospect pools in the NHL, and already have a possible 11 selections in the 2016 Entry Draft. Back in the day when Toronto had nothing in the cupboards, they weren’t in any position to be picky about what they got back when unloading talent. This time around, Toronto has an opportunity to identify areas of weakness in the system, and address those areas in particular.
So, what do the Leafs really need?
I stand by my assertion that Toronto has one of the best prospect pools in the league, but it’s a little top heavy and all of those truly high-end guys seem to be forwards. Travis Dermott, Scott Harrington, Stuart Percy, Rinat Valiev, Andrew Nielsen… they’re all decent prospects, but none of them are exactly blue chippers.
And no, you’re not going to get blue chip prospects in exchange for rental players that Toronto plans on selling off. Maybe you could get something of value if the Leafs deal a Leo Komarov or a James van Riemsdyk, but you’re not going to pick up high-end youngsters in exchange for Roman Polak or P.A. Parenteau.
In the absence of a blue chip defensive prospect, though, it makes sense to build up depth. Not all of these mid-level guys will become everyday NHL players, but the more you have, the more likely you stumble upon an overachiever or late bloomer that makes a larger-than-expected impact on the Leafs roster. Take, for example, a player like Colton Parayko in St. Louis. You’re more likely to get a surprise like that if you have ten developing defenders as opposed to five.
The same argument for picking up defensive prospects can be made for goaltending prospects. I’m not convinced that both James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier will be back with the Leafs next season, and I imagine whichever one does return will be backed up by Garret Sparks. That leaves Antoine Bibeau and… uh… nobody. Toronto doesn’t have a goaltending pipeline to speak of.
It seems like every year I advocate for the Leafs to draft another goaltender. The last time they did, Bibeau was an overager and made the jump from junior to professional hockey only a year afterward. Toronto hasn’t had a goaltender in a while now that they could stash in college or Europe for several seasons.
Simply, the Leafs don’t have a long-term plan in net. And that’s not awful, because the NHL is flush with adequate goaltenders and it’s easy enough to find one on the trade market every year, but I’d argue it’s better to have some goaltending prospects around than none at all. It’s always nicer to grow your own talent.
So, the Leafs really should consider other teams’ goaltending prospects when they’re looking to make a deal. You’ll need at least one more netminder at the AHL level next season, and picking up a young guy still plying his trade in Europe or in school would give you a little bit of assurance down the road. And there’s also nothing wrong with picking up a CHL goaltender who still has a little bit of junior eligibility left, either.
Yes, More Draft Picks
But not necessarily for drafting…
The beautiful thing about draft picks is that they’re a very flexible currency in the NHL. Just because Toronto has them doesn’t mean they have to use them; the Leafs could just as easily use draft picks in trades that bring in NHL-ready players that better fit into the long term plan. Or they could package multiple picks together on draft day and jump up in the selection order to grab better prospects.
I can’t really get behind the idea of drafting 11+ prospects in a single summer. The issue is that, unless you’re very particular about which leagues you draft out of (which limits your ability to draft the best players available), you could face a situation where you have too many young players to sign to contracts at once and risk losing the rights of those you can’t keep. Toronto already drafted nine players in the seven-round draft last year, and drafting 11 or more this time around seems like a bad idea.
The Leafs played the ‘trade down and build depth’ plan perfectly in 2015, so maybe this year the focus should be on moving up in key areas of the draft to nab higher-ceiling players. For example, this might be a good year to jump up in the first round using an extra second round pick in order to nab a falling asset, much like how the New York Islanders snapped up Matt Barzal last year 16th overall last summer. Acquiring a few more picks to go along with what they have would allow them to more easily move themselves up into prime draft positions.