The Toronto Maple Leafs, as presently constructed, are a win-now team. In essence, that means they’ve been built to flourish sooner than later, and that Leafs GM Kyle Dubas is prepared to sacrifice assets down the line for assets who can contribute immediately to their Stanley Cup aspirations.
This is why, despite the fact Toronto has only three picks in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft – their own picks in the first-and-seventh-round, and via the Travis Dermott trade, Winnipeg’s third-round pick (218th overall) – you’re not going to see the Leafs make big moves on the draft front. While it’s true Dubas still has a handful of assets at the minor league level, Toronto’s prospect pool has thinned, and if the Buds are going to be playoff-worthy year-in and year-out, they need that constant stream of young, cheap talent to augment their expensive core of talent.
So let’s be clear: Dubas and team president Brendan Shanahan are acutely aware of the value of drafting and development, and so, at this point in their growth as an organization, the Leafs need to prioritize experience and top-end talent in any trades. If it means sacrificing a second-rounder next year to acquire a player that sticks with the NHL team all year long and leaves an unmistakable footprint for the Leafs, that’s going to be worth the price Dubas would have no choice but to pay.
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Now, that doesn’t mean the Leafs will just sit back and make trades and sign free agents to try and improve their position in the Atlantic Division. There are some other possibilities that would add to their prospect group. Some reports have suggested Dubas is shopping around the negotiation rights to winger Ilya Mikheyev, who has one-and-a-half feet out of Toronto’s door and almost certainly will play elsewhere next year. Dubas may be able to get a late pick or B-level prospect out of a Mikheyev trade, but otherwise, he isn’t going to make deals that will replenish his team’s pool of young talent. He’s locked in with the current Leafs, for better or worse.
That’s why you should expect Leafs’ brass to dangle picks in future NHL drafts in exchange for experienced NHLers. In the 2023 draft, the Leafs have already moved their second-round and seventh-round picks. But unless they’re bowled over, they’re not trading their first-rounder. That leaves picks three-through-six up for grabs, just the kind of picks that could land you an above-average rental player. Dubas has made some great swaps during his relatively short time as an NHL GM, but he’s always under pressure to do more, and if he can convert draft slots into full-blooded, skilled players by trading one for the other, he can give himself more time to have his blueprint for success to fully play out.
This year’s draft in Montreal – and the ensuing analysis and coverage of the Canadiens having the top pick – might make Leafs’ fans fret that their team isn’t out there, trying to leap up the draft and acquire a top-ranked youngster for their future. But you don’t need to do that every year. The Leafs have their draft superstars in forwards Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. They have their top-pair defenseman in Morgan Rielly. The draft can’t help them at all positions immediately, so they have to prioritize the present group once they’ve established themselves as being core-worthy.
Right now, the Leafs need to improve by signing or trading for veterans who will help them keep pace in the Atlantic. The draft is a necessary part of every team’s degree of success, but there comes a point when you need proven talent right away. That’s where the Leafs are at right now. Is it “Draft, Schmaft” all over again? No, that wouldn’t be fair. But the draft has had its moments in the sun for the Leafs. Now it’s about people drafted many years ago putting it all together and winning hockey’s top trophy.
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