Maple Leafs Draft Day Targets: Defensemen

By Tom Hunter (@PuckDontLie)

When talking about the prospect pool of the Toronto Maple Leafs, one thing is clear – the strength is up front. We all know that goaltending is a black hole on the depth chart, but that is a discussion for another time. With 12 picks in this year’s draft, one area of focus for Mark Hunter and his staff is likely to be the blueline.

The Leafs are truly lacking the kind of defensive prospect that teams like to have in the system. There’s Travis Dermott, who looks to be developing on the proper trajectory to be an NHL defender down the road. There’s Andrew Nielsen who took a huge leap this season but still has a long way to go to with his skating to be an effective player at the pro level. Then there’s a true wild card like in Jesper Lindgren, who know one can possibly expect much from at this point.

That’s two junior and one European prospect that MIGHT have a chance to contribute in the NHL in a few years – but all three are far from a sure thing.

This lack of talent among 18-20-year-olds in the system points to a glaring need to select at least a few defensive prospects in this year’s draft. Luckily the Leafs have more than a few draft picks on draft day.

Now I’m not suggesting the Leafs draft for position, as opposed to drafting the best player available – although I am a proponent of specifically targeting at least one goalie. I feel that with this year’s draft being as cluttered as it is, it might be wise to lean towards the defender if your scouting staff is down to a few names at a given pick.

Two things about this year’s draft are certain from a Leafs perspective;

  1. They will be using their first draft pick on Auston Matthews
  2. It is impossible to predict what they’ll do after that.

That said, here is a look at a few guys the Leafs could target with their remaining 11 picks.

Picks 30 & 31

Kale Clague – Brandon, WHL – For those who only saw Clague’s performance at the Memorial Cup last month, this might seem like a reach for the Wheat Kings defender. The fact of the matter is, Clague has the talent to justify being a first-round pick – it’s not a fluke that he was ranked in the top-10 by many to start the season.

Clague is an elite skater regardless of his position. He’s quick on the rush and has the acceleration to lead a forecheck and catch the opposition off guard. Add his high-end vision to his skating and you get one of the best puck movers in the draft class.

Clague had a bad start to the season but after Christmas started to show the talent many scouts knew he had. He definitely needs to get stronger and work on not depending on his defense partner as much as he does.

With the number of picks the Leafs have, they can afford to take some more risk with potential boom or bust guys like Clague. If he figures it all out, Clague has the raw talent that rivals Morgan Rielly, he just hasn’t shown the mental capacity to use it properly.

Dennis Cholowski – Chilliwack, BCHL – There is a good chance that Cholowski will be off the board by the time the Leafs are selecting at #30. The young BCHL defender has moved up steadily through the year and now sits with a first round grade from many scouting outlets.

Cholowski is a smart defender that has the ability to play in every situation. He can be the powerplay quarterback one shift then switch to shutting down the oppositions on the penalty the next. He has great instincts that allows him to make the right play without trying to do too much.

He’s 6’1 but very skinny, the next couple of years in the NCAA will go a long way in terms of maturing physically. Cholowski seems like a long-term project but one that could pay huge dividends.

Picks 57 & 62

Victor Mete – London, OHL – Ollie Juolevi is a virtual lock to be selected in the top-10 of this year’s draft, Victor Mete on the other hand, was the one that was the Knights best defender for most of the season. Mete is an undersized defender that has an incredible offensive game but lacks the size and strength that scouts like to see in the NHL.

Given enough open ice, Mete has the speed and quickness to make you pay. He moves laterally in a way rarely seen by junior players and can create skating lanes most defenders can’t. He has great vision and is a wonderful facilitator.

Mete struggles against bigger puck-protecting forwards. He doesn’t have the strength to knock opponents off the puck at the junior level so that is a huge concern when trying to project his pro game. He has a lot of work to do on his defensive game but Mete is a very intriguing player that would be well worth the risk.

Sean Day – Mississauga, OHL – Speaking of risk…

At 15-years old, Day was seen as the next great OHLer. Following in the footsteps of Tavares, Ekblad and McDavid, Day was granted exceptions status and was allowed to enter the league a year early. Unlike the other three, Day wasn’t fast tracked as much for his exceptional talent, but more for the fact that he was a man-child that was far too physically mature to play with children his own age.

Day has the physical tools. He is already bigger than half of the defenders in the NHL but skates like he’s half his size. Day has the ability to take over a shift and be completely dominant in every facet of the game. The problem is you only see those shifts once or twice a game – or sometimes not at all.

With Day it’s all mental. He doesn’t think the game the way you want to see from an elite defender. He makes bad mistakes and just doesn’t anticipate the play all that well. His commitment to the game has been questioned – his fluctuating weight and game condition are a concern – as some scouts believe he’s happy to coast on raw talent without actually working to improve.

In my books Day is worth the risk,  especially for a team that is confident in their development staff. With proper coaching – something he hasn’t necessarily had in Mississauga – Day has the raw tools to be something special. If a coach and management team can get through to him, a team could luck into a top pairing defender at the cost of a late nd or 3rd round pick.

72nd Overall

Jordan Sambrook – Erie, OHL – Sambrook had an inconsistent season, but that is to be expected from a defenseman in his rookie season. Playing mostly in the second pair for the Otters this seasons, the right-handed shooting defender got stronger as the season went on.

He’s got ideal size for a defender and skates very well. That said, Sambrook’s biggest asset is his intelligence. He has quick hands and a good reach that allows him to create turnovers in his own end.

Sambrook will make his share of mistakes but usually as a result of trying to do too much. As he simplifies his game, he shows a very solid two-way game. The point total won’t wow you, but it’s something that could see a big boost with a bigger role in Erie next season.

HockeyProspect.com scout Ryan Yessie reiterated in their Draft Book what I have been saying for a while now; “Jordan Sambrook has the ‘it’ factor despite being a little raw”. 

Riley Stillman – Oshawa,  OHL – When the Memorial Cup winning Oshawa Generals began their rebuild last summer, it opened the door for some younger players to step into bigger roles. One such player is Riley Stillman – son of Cory.

Stillman is a defender that contributes in all three zones. He isn’t overly big for the position, but he plays a very physical game and is strong when defending puck carrying opposition. He has very good foot speed and a quickness with the puck that allows him to lead the breakout effectively.

As the year went on, Stillman was given top-pairing minutes and assignments. He thrived in the expanded role and took off as a high-end OHL defender. The more I watch and talk about Cory Stillman, the more I realize he’s incredibly similar to Travis Dermott.

Stillman was given an ‘A’ as a rookie, showing just how much his teammates and coaches think of him. He’s projected to be selected in the very late third or beyond but I wouldn’t bat an eye if a team took a chance on him anywhere after the 60th pick. Stillman looks like everything you want in an NHL prospect.

Rounds 4-7

Cole Candella – Hamilton, OHL – He has the skating and size to be a legitimate NHL prospect. After making Bellville as a 16-year old, Candella showed huge improvements in his second season. Unfortunately, injuries limited him to less than 40 games.

Had he played a full season, Candella likely would have been a middle-round pick, but missing so many games we could see him available in the 6th or 7th – a great time to take a chance on a kid with the skills he’s shown.

Justin Murray – Barrie, OHL – Murray is a very late birthdate that has a long way to grow. As his rookie year in Barrie went on, he eventually fought his way into the top-4 of a veteran team and fit in perfectly.

He’s 6’0 but skinny – a byproduct of being young. Added strength will go a long way in helping his defensive game – although his 165lbs frame didn’t stop him from playing a with an edge.

He is a mobile skater that can skate with the puck, which became necessary because he had a little issue with long outlet passes this year. He picks his spots when rushing and pinching and has shown the ability to adapt as the year went on.

He’s very young and a long way off but Murray could be a legitimate steal late in this yea’rs draft.

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