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Leafs look to pluck gems at NHL Draft

by Adam Proteau Proteautype /

As NHL Draft weekend kicks off in Vancouver, the newest faces of Leafs Nation will have their names called. Adam Proteau writes on how the Leafs will look to find future contributors to the organization no matter where they are picked in this year's draft.

Given where they are in their competitive cycle, the Maple Leafs don't need the luck of the NHL entry draft lottery to help deliver them to the next level. Without a first-round pick in this weekend's 2019 draft, the Leafs are simply looking to find future contributors to the organization regardless of the round in which they're selected.

And Toronto's drafting and development staff -who'll have seven picks (five of their own, and two acquired from other organizations) to use at the draft table in Vancouver - have shown that's a task they can succeed at. Whether it's with their first selection at this draft - that would be No. 53 overall, in the second round - or with their final pick this year (that would be the 208th-overall pick, in the seventh round), Toronto's focus is clear: select the best player available at the time and let the overall stockpiles of talent dictate what other areas can be addressed over the summer.

"We say to our scouts all the time, 'When you are picking No. 1 (overall) or No. 4 or No. 8, even last year, making those picks count is going to be pivotal to continuing our run here for when we can push it through and be where we want to be,' " Leafs GM Kyle Dubas told media members at the draft combine in Buffalo May 31. "It's finding another player like (Leafs defensive prospect) Rasmus Sandin late (in the draft) and later. Our scouting staff is going to become even more important, and then our development staff. These are all important drafts for us for a long time."

Indeed, Dubas referenced Sandin's name for good reason: the 19-year-old Swedish defenseman was taken by Toronto 29th overall at the 2018 draft, and went on to enjoy a terrific first professional season, appearing in 44 games with the American League's Toronto Marlies and amassing six goals and 28 points. Similarly, one year earlier, the Leafs picked 17th-overall and got another Swedish blueliner, Timothy Liljegren, who has contributed meaningful minutes with the Marlies in each of the past two years and helped the team win a Calder Cup in 2017-18.

But the list doesn't end there: in the 2017 draft, Toronto took goaltender Ian Scott 110th overall, and all the 20-year-old has done since then was be named the Canadian Hockey League goalie of the year. In the 2015 draft, Toronto used its second pick (34th overall) on D-man Travis Dermott, now a regular on the NHL team's defence corps, and they also got current Marlies star forward Jeremy Bracco with the 61st-overall pick that year. At the 2013 draft, Toronto found current-up-and-comer winger Andreas Johnsson in the seventh round with the 202nd-overall pick. And in 2012, Leafs brass found a major-impact player in the sixth round when Toronto took forward Connor Brown with the 156th-overall pick.

At the time all of the aforementioned players were drafted, most Leafs fans would've been hard-pressed to identify them by their facial or personality attributes. Instead, those players let their talent and work ethic do the talking for them. And now, although some of them are at different points on the Leafs' main roster radar, they're all in the mix, all working toward a common end: bringing the Stanley Cup back to Toronto.

The young men the Leafs will take in Vancouver this weekend are likely to come from across the globe and will carry different (at least, public) expectations given their draft spot. After Toronto makes its first selection with the 53rd-overall pick, the Leafs will have their third-round pick (84th overall), their fourth-rounder (115th overall) and St. Louis' original fourth-round pick (124th overall). Toronto also will have its own fifth-round pick (146th overall), but no sixth-rounder, as they sent that selection (177th overall) to Buffalo last summer in exchange for the Sabres' sixth-rounder (No. 156) in last summer's draft. And the Buds will have two picks in the seventh-round: their own original seventh-rounder (208th overall) and the pick (204th overall) that belonged to the Dallas Stars.

But no matter where they played in the years leading up to the draft, the fact they join an Original Six franchise, with the history and support Leafs Nation enjoys, will give them a leg up on their fellow prospects. 

As Dubas said, once you're a Maple Leaf, it's clear the organization thinks you can be a good player. The rest - the nose-to-grindstone, elite work ethic that will separate you from the pack - is up to you.

"We want to find the best players and draft them and bring them in," Dubas said last summer of his draft philosophy. "We can sort (positional need) out through trades and waivers after. The more good players we can get in, the better."

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