As scouts, GMs and other NHL team executives work away in Buffalo, N.Y. for the League’s draft combine event, Maple Leafs director of player personnel Mark Hunter is in an enviable position: his team currently holds the No. 1 overall selection, two picks in each of the first four rounds of the draft, and 12 picks altogether. And after he and Toronto’s brass sat down this week and interviewed more than 90 young prospects as part of the combine process, Hunter is excited about what the organization will come away with when the draft is held in the same Western New York city on June 24 and 25.
That said, he and Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello aren’t going to allow their decision on any individual player based solely on what a nervous youngster might say in any one interview.
“I don't think you write anybody off in an interview if they have a bad day,” Hunter said late Friday afternoon on a conference call with reporters. “(The prospect evaluation process is) from start to finish, and making sure that what you're hearing early on in the season is the same as what you hear later on in the season. It's been a good week here of taking to players, finding out about them, finding out about their family, seeing what they're all about. These young men are very well-schooled, and it's something that you don't make a decision totally on these interviews by any means.”
The focus of the hockey world undoubtedly will be on the Leafs, who have a choice at the No. 1 pick that many believe narrows down to American centre Auston Matthews and Finnish winger Patrik Laine. And from Hunter’s perspective, both players have availed themselves excellently, most recently playing for their respective homelands at the 2016 IIHF World Championship in Russia.
“I really believe he's a big, strong young man, who can shoot pucks, pass pucks, makes other people better,” Hunter said of Matthews, who had six goals and nine points in 10 games for the U.S. in Russia after amassing 24 goals and 46 points for Zurich of the Swiss elite league in the regular season. “He's a guy who will play 200 feet. He's an impressive young man that will have a great career in the National Hockey League.”
As for Laine – who suffered a minor left knee injury Friday and will only have upper body tests conducted Saturday – Hunter also sees a young man who has much to offer to the team that selects him.
“He's had an exceptional year,” Hunter said of the 18-year-old, who had seven goals and 12 points for the Finns at the World Championship in Russia. “What he’s done at the World Championships, from both junior to pro, is impressive. It's nice to see a hockey player, from the scouting point of view, the way he's developed from start to finish. That's a credit to him. He’s an impressive hockey player, and that’s what it's all about - guys like him making it tough on scouts to make decisions.”
Hunter took time with media to discuss the progress of Maple Leafs prospects who’ve also enjoyed success, individually and at the team level, of late. That includes 19-year-old forward Mitch Marner – who just finished his third year with the Ontario League’s London Knights and added a Memorial Cup championship (as well as that tournament’s MVP honour) and the OHL’s most outstanding player of the season award to an already-astonishing resume – as well as Toronto Marlies centre William Nylander, who helped his squad to an appearance in the American League’s Eastern Conference Final.
“He showed a lot of leadership,” Hunter said of Marner’s impact in London. “The organization is very happy about that. And of course, the Marlies had a good run. They fell short in the (conference) finals, but Nylander was coming around and playing some good hockey. Hopefully our young guys can continue to get better.”
Another youngster who made clear progress in the Marlies’ playoff run was winger Kasperi Kapanen: the 19-year-old began the playoffs as a healthy scratch, but rapidly improved his game to the point he was one of the team’s most dangerous players by the time Toronto was eliminated by Hershey last weekend. Hunter said it’s the pace with which Kapanen plays the game that makes him such a handful – and it’s his ability to step up and produce offence at pressure-packed moments (as he did in the 2016 World Junior Championship and again in the AHL playoffs) that’s raised eyebrows.
“(He’s got) exceptional speed, and I just think he's so untapped, and there's so much upside to him because of his speed and ability,” Hunter said of Kapanen, who finished the AHL post-season with three goals and eight points in 14 games. “He’s only going to get better. And he has a trait that's impressive - he plays in big games and gets big goals.”
Hunter also is feeling good about what he’s seen from two blueliners – third-year pro Connor Carrick and Russian D-man Nikita Zaitsev – who haven’t been with the Leafs organization for long, but who factor into the team’s NHL plans in a big way in the coming season.
“They’re both talented young men,” Hunter said of the 22-year-old Carrick (acquired by the Leafs in February from the Washington Capitals) and the 24-year-old Zaitsev (signed last month to a one-year pro contract after playing more than 300 games in the Kontinental League). “Connor Carrick had a great year in the American League in the playoffs, and before that, he was coming around in the National Hockey League (with the Leafs) and looking very good. He’s going to get every opportunity to play in the National Hockey League next year.
“And Zaitsev, he was an all-star in the (World Championship). This kid, he’s the real deal, we expect big things from him, and I think he’s very capable of it. He’s not a 20-year-old, he’s old enough to handle situations now, he’s played a lot of hockey in the KHL, so we’re very happy to get him signed to a Toronto Maple Leafs contract.”
For now, though, the task at hand is to fine-tune the Leafs’ draft rankings for the selection process that will begin in just three weeks. It will be the culmination of a year of dedicated and virtually non-stop analysis by Hunter and his team of scouts, and Toronto’s plethora of picks make this particular draft that much more special to them.
“It’s a good feeling for scouts,” Hunter said of having a dozen picks this year. “That’s what we’re in the business (to do) is to draft players...to get the players we want you’ve got to have picks. So it’s a great feeling to be part of all of these picks, and now it’s our job as scouts to get the right ones.”