To the surprise of absolutely no one, the Toronto Maple Leafs surprised everyone. After trading down to get the 31st overall pick, Toronto drafted Ben Danford from the Oshawa Generals in the OHL. Like some of Toronto's previous top picks over the past 4 or so years, they took someone that many will immediately see as a "reach" based on his rankings.

But Toronto drafted a guy who is smart, very hard working, and showed a lot of improvement in the second half of the season – stop me if you've heard that before from a Leafs pick. I thankfully have already seen a bunch of Danford, unlike last year when I had no idea who the hell this Easton Cowan kid was. That made writing this profile a lot easier.

So, allow me to introduce you all to Toronto's latest first round pick.


Position: Right-shot defenseman
League: OHL
Height: 6'1.5"
Weight: 191 lbs
Birth date: Feb 06, 2006

Here were his draft rankings:

  • Bob McKenzie: 54th
  • Will Scouch: 66th
  • Elite Prospects: 30th
  • Scott Wheeler: 58th
  • Dobber Prospects: 52nd
  • FC Hockey: 91st
  • McKeen's: 43rd

Before I go any further, I want to touch on the rankings. It's always important to keep in mind that gaps between singular draft spots are not equal. You can usually sort groups of guys into tiers, and say that there really isn't any "better" player than another in the same tier. It's really about which team values which player, what kind of player, etc.

As was said ahead of and throughout the draft, there was a big dropoff or cutoff point around pick 20. After that, there's a pretty big group of guys that goes well into the second round. Here is a helpful chart that Will Scouch made of the aggregate ranking scores, based on his own and other public scouting outlets. I drew red lines to show two of the biggest dropoffs/cutoff points where the tiers are separated.

From Will Scouch:

Now, you can argue there are a couple of mini-dropoff points in that large group, between Ritchie/Letourneau and between Miettinen/Kiviharju. One thing I'll mention is that all of those are within the second round. So while Danford is included at the "bottom" of that big second round group, there are some who had him much higher – like Elite Prospects, who had him ranked 30th, Shane Mallow who had him 36th, or McKeens who had him 43rd. There are others, like Will Scouch, who note that they toyed with Danford as a late first rounder for a lot of this season.

That's what I mean by pointing out 'tiers'. Even if that bar chart makes you think that guys at the top of a tier in aggregate rankings must clearly be much better than the guys at the bottom, the numbers of the rankings skews things to trick us.

This is what I would ask everyone to keep in mind. It's a "reach" in terms of raw ranking numbers, but it's not necessarily a reach based on how much NHL teams and scouts like Danford compared to others in that tier.


Okay, that aside, let's talk about who Danford is and what the context for his season has been.

Danford was a first round pick by Oshawa back in the 2022 OHL draft, where he was taken 14th overall. He was a 6'0", 176 lb kid who played in an U16 AAA league called the ETAHL, where he had the fourth most points among defensemen. Even at the time, he had a strong reputation for defensive play. The following season (2022/23), which was last year, Danford played entirely in the OHL as a rookie, where he had the fifth most points by an U17 defenseman (21 in 63 games).

This season, Danford finished 8th among all U18 defensemen in the OHL with 33 points in 64 games. He was nowhere near the top offensive defensemen like Zayne Parekh or San Dickinson, but he was in that next tier with a bunch of guys that all finished around 0.5 - 0.6 points per game. So he does have a history of being a very good point producing defenseman, even if he wasn't an elite one.

One thing to note is that Danford did not get nearly as much time on the power play as the other defensemen who finished with more points than him. He had only four points on the power play, all assists. He had the fourth most power play points among defensemen on his own team! In fact, Danford had the highest percentage of his points coming at even strength of all the top 50 point producing defensemen in his age group. If you only look at total even strength points, Danford finished fifth with 29. Danford also had a strong playoffs, adding 10 points in 21 games which is good for 11th in the entire OHL – and none of his points came on the power play.

Why do I keep talking about his even strength points? For two reasons. First, because if you want a player to get more points, the easy way is to give him more power play time. Since Danford barely had any, that's the easiest opportunity for him to see a big points increase – look at Easton Cowan last year to this one, he went from depth player to top line guy, and when he was a driver on PP1 this year his point production was heavily influenced by getting a top role with the extra man.

The other reason is because very, very few defensemen ever really get power play time in the NHL (or any league) anymore. Unless you're one of the two best offensive defensemen on the team, your path to the NHL will not rely on your strength quarterbacking a power play. So you'd better be good at even strength and killing penalties – both of which Danford is good at. That's the best path to the NHL for any defense prospect, and in that sense Danford is further ahead than most. If he becomes a guy who can run a second unit? His utility and point production will increase by a good margin.

Danford played a lot of the year on the top pair but on the left side, as a right shot, until they made a big trade at the deadline for their playoff run and bumped him down to second pair on his natural side. This is something that some scouts noted affected him, with Mitch Brown at Elite Prospects remarking: "In a different situation, playing a more natural position, Danford’s production and overall skill-level may have shined a more."

In terms of other usage, Danford played a lot at even strength and on the penalty kill. In the OHL's coach poll for the entire OHL, he had the third most votes as the hardest worker, the second most votes for best shot blocker, and was the best defensive defenseman. This is regardless of age, not just U18s. He is also a leader, having been named an assistant captain for Oshawa despite being a 17 year old. I expect him to earn a lot more minutes next year, as he will be a year older and some of the older defensemen may age out.

Outside of the OHL, Danford also played for Team Canada at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup in the summer. He was on one of their lower pairs, where he again got little to no power play time but was used in more of a defensive/PK role. He also played for one of their two teams last year, and had a bigger role with the quality of Canada's top prospect split. He also played in the CHL Top Prospects Game, where I honestly thought he looked like one of, if not the, best defenseman in the game overall. So he has a history of being among the periphery of top defensive prospects, at the very least.


The first thing that stands out about Danford is that he is just a friggin' hockey player. I get Cowan-vibes from him in that regard, where he is a very hard worker on the ice and beats his man more than he gets beaten. He plays physical without really chasing hits, and he will take hits to make plays.

Danford is also just a very smart defender. If you remember the level of detail for defense that Tory Pitner talked about when I quoted him in my profile, Danford may not have any public interview saying the same things but he gets rave reviews by scouts for his focus on details that helps his overall game. He positions and uses his stick well, he has good positioning and anticipation of the play, and he uses both to shut down the other team trying to enter his defensive end. If they try and dump it past him, he has good skating to get back to it first and is one of the better defensemen in the CHL when it comes to getting it out safely. By the tracking data above, he rates out as one of the best defensemen in terms of retrievals, entry prevention, and zone exits.

If you've been reading my profiles, specifically everything I've said about defensemen, then you'll know that these are all things I have realized I prize in defenders. I want them to have that as a foundation first and foremost. Everything else from there is gravy – and Danford has that foundation.

From the Elite Prospects draft guide:

Ben Danford thinks the game in a more advanced way than most. He knows how to defend in-zone and how to move the puck up the ice, but he couldn't always execute his ideas in the early parts of the season. The puck would spring off his stick in the middle of a manoeuvre and he would trip attempting to pivot and close in on an opponent. But as his technical ability and offensive touch improved, his success rate went up.
Danford started showing more and more abilities to retrieve and move pucks under pressure. He won more of his 1-on-1 engagement, playing the body and knocking pucks away. And his passing game expanded. He deceived forecheckers and defenders, linked plays with give-and-goes, and continuously jumped in gaps in the attack.

The bread and butter of Danford's game will be his defense. He has an argument to being one of the best defensive defensemen in the entire CHL defensive class in this year's draft. If you think of an area or type of defense that a guy can be good at, Danford appears to have been good at all of them. He is good in his own end – he can block shots but also snuff out cycles and possessions, or clearing the crease in front with his size. He is also good defending his own blueline, getting noted for playing a tight gap and either forcing a turnover or a dump in that gives his team a chance to gain possession and counterattack.

It comes from good instincts, good size, and good execution. I touched on the smarts and attention to details above, but he's just a rock solid guy. He may not be a sexy pick with tons of flash, but you can rely on him to just play the friggin' game (to steal a phrase from Will Scouch). He just makes defensive plays that you want him to make. It's nice to see, honestly.

From Will Scouch:

At various points of the year, Danford has been right up near my first round, and I've seen him ranked in that range here and there. Honestly, I can see why. He's got some flashes of really impressive puck rushing ability, with size and puck protection skill that should project to higher levels easily. He's got good short range passing instincts, able to get involved with his first pass in the defensive zone and jump into a rush from time to time.
Defensively though, he's a smart positional player, tracking rushes well, closing gaps and getting to loose pucks often to turn play back around. He's got a physical edge and much in the same way as Will Skahan earlier, I can see a lower upside, but NHL-like defender who could chip in down a lineup in the future. If he captures some of his best moments more often, especially with the puck on his stick, there's potential for more.

The other important element of Danford's game is his emerging offense and how that gives him pretty strong two-way potential. I don't mean this in terms of point production, though that can certainly come from the way he plays – especially if he improves at it. A lot of scouting reports from early in the year noted that Danford with the puck was very inconsistent, and prone to turnovers. By the end of the year, there were many marveling at how much he improved and how he become a reliable puck mover in all three zones.

I can wave my hand at the idea of Danford's offense and excuse his point production from the context I mentioned above, but if we're hoping for Danford to turn into a Cowan-esque 'steal' with a huge improvement in his D+1 season, then it is something we should hope will get better. The good news is that he already seemed to get better in these areas. Not just in terms of passing the puck, even if his playmaking seems more simplistic than dynamic, but also in terms of getting himself involved in the play and being more of a complete, two-way defenseman.

In that regard, Danford as of now is more raw potential. He is not a great shooter, though he does seem to have a pretty good shot at times. He is more of a passer/playmaker from the point, but showed an increased willingness and capability to jump into the play off the point and create some havoc in the slot. Even if he didn't get a lot of goals from it, that's how a lot of his assists were generated.

From Scott Wheeler at The Athletic:

Danford gets high marks as a person and as a player who takes care of his own end first but is developing his offensive instincts and starting to take more chances off of the line and involve himself in more plays around the offensive zone. He also shows good poise under pressure to hold pucks with players on his back and find ways to spin off and head-man.
He did well in testing at the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game (where he also showed those developing offensive instincts and played well at both ends in the actual game) and the combine. More importantly, the details are already there (stick placement, gap control, reads, positioning, etc.). I've also seen him show more comfort under pressure to beat the first layer and make better choices atop the blue line to work off of his teammates and use space to his advantage He’s got a strong foundation and has made important progress in key areas.


There's no way getting around it, Danford does not profile as a high end offensive defensemen. In that way, his potential two-way impact could be more limited than what you might want. He's not likely to be a guy that can drive the bus even on a second pairing, let alone be a top pair guy, without having enough offensive skill.

Here, I'll note that offensive skill does not mean produce points, or at least not just that. It mainly means being able to help push the play offensively in all three zones. Drive transitions, help get the puck out of your end and into their end with control. Help move the puck around in the offensive zone, facilitate the play and help create scoring chances from the point – whether by jumping into the play off the blueline, or making good seam passes to teammates with shooting opportunities.

Right now, Danford may have made some big improvements in these areas over the season, but that just took things from a level where you grit your teeth seeing him handle the puck, to being satisfied and confident he at least won't lob grenades all over the ice causing chaos for his own team. If you want him to turn into a guy with some two-way potential in the NHL, he needs to continue to improve in this area specifically.


In short, I like this pick, especially since Toronto got another second rounder in the trade down to get him. I may not have written a profile about Danford, but he definitely fits the mold for the kind of defensemen I came to like this season. He has the quality defense, but also a high level ability to get the puck out safely and with control.

Danford is in that same tier with other guys like Badinka, Emery, and Brunicke, and while I may not have thought he had the same high level of play or projection to the NHL, I've learned to give some benefit of the doubt to Toronto's scouting team. This year, moreso than in years past with Minten and Cowan, I can see the thought process, and I can see the projection if he improves in areas that I'm sure they believe he can improve in.

Think about it this way: Toronto took a guy who has a very strong foundation of skills that are very valuable in a defenseman. Mobile, smart, defensive, physical, and puck movement (even if it isn't dynamic or elite). At the NHL combine Danford measured at 6 feet and 1.5 inches tall. If he even grows a bit more, having a guy at 6'2" to 6'3" is a good size. It also gives him a bit larger frame to bulk up, so he can be even more physically imposing and have a bit longer reach. 190 lbs is a bit on the light side for a guy his size, so it's not like he comes fully physically developed. There is room to grow, literally. Adding a big more length and muscle to his legs will help improve the explosiveness and speed of his skating. He already has the smoothness and agility at a good level.

Skills-wise, the big question will be Danford's offensive ability – specifically moving the puck and making plays with it. He is already at a high level to evade forecheckers on retrievals, and then make the first pass up the ice to get it out and start the counter attack. So he already has some idea of what to do with a puck, it's a matter of using those same skills, that same evasiveness and passing vision, to execute offensive plays that helps his team create scoring chances. If he does that, he'll get points. And like I said, he's already one of the better point generators at even strength for his age.

I can see an offensive game when I watch Danford. Just look at all the highlights I have shared in this profile. He has some real ability to make simple but effective passes, using little things like no-looks, or making quick one-touch passes back across the ice to a teammate for a wide open net as the goalie has to keep moving from one post to the other. Those are good signs.

If Danford doesn't improve in those areas, he'll still make a fine 4th or 5th defenseman who can lead a penalty kill and eat minutes at even strength. If he does, he can bump himself into a higher tier of second pairing guy that doesn't just eat minutes, but helps drive play and has an impact in all three zones. But I wouldn't bet against him making some big improvements by next season.

I remember how Cowan last year looked like a guy who wasn't really weak at anything, but didn't seem great at anything either. He looked solid and versatile, and his tracking data looked at least pretty good across the board. I agonized over the choice across three full articles, breaking down him as a player in every possible way I could across thousands of words, in as much depth as I was capable of analyzing him.

Getting to Know Easton Cowan Part One: Stats and Context
When the Toronto Maple Leafs drafted Easton Cowan with the 28th overall pick, it produced a mixed reaction. But Toronto has done the same thing with Knies and Minten, so is Cowan set to follow the same path?
Getting to Know Easton Cowan Part Two: Scouting Breakdown
Breaking down the specific strengths and weaknesses of Easton Cowan’s game, using scouting reports and video clips. This covers his skating, puck handling, passing, shooting, physicality/defense, and hockey smarts.
Getting to Know Easton Cowan Part Three: Overall Assessment
Looking at a final, overall assessment of Easton Cowan, his future projection, and if Toronto was right to use their first round pick to draft him.

Then, this season, Cowan took another step. He got top power play time, and played a bigger role from the get-go. All the little things he was doing right before combined with the skill improvements he made, and turned him into a monster. I'm not saying the exact same thing will happen with Danford, or at least not to the same extent, but I've seen that D+1 leap that Toronto's top prospects made after being drafted the past few years. If Danford does the same, even just to an 'average' extent, he won't look like a disappointing pick by this time next year.

So if you wanted Solberg because of his high level physical, and defensive play with some uncertain projection offensively, then the Leafs drafted a similar but slightly lower-ranked version of him while also getting a second round pick. He might not be a future star, but you were never likely to get that even with 23rd overall. What you're hoping to get is a good NHLer, and that's what Danford has a good chance to be even if he doesn't score a lot of points like you want.

Thanks for reading!

I put a lot of work into my prospect articles here, both for the draft and Toronto's prospects. I do it as a fun hobby for me, and I'd probably do it in some capacity even if PPP completely ceased to exist. But if you like reading my work, some support would go a long way! I pay for a few streaming services (CHL, NCAA, USHL, the occasional TSN options for international tournaments that are broadcast) to be able to reliably watch these prospects in good quality streams. I also pay for some prospect-specific resources, such as tracking data and scouting reports from outlets like Elite Prospects, Future Considerations, McKeen's Hockey, The Athletic, and more.

Being able to get paid for this helps me dedicate more time and resources to it, rather than to second/third jobs. And whatever money I make here, a lot of I reinvest back into my prospect work through in those streaming and scouting services. Like I said, I'd be doing whatever I can afford for this anyway, so any financial help I get through this is greatly appreciated!

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