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Getting Leafs fans up to speed on the 2020 NHL Draft first round

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All the stories from this season that we missed out on without a first round pick.

2020 CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game
HAMILTON, ON - JANUARY 16: Alexis Lafreniere #11 of Team White and Quinton Byfield #55 of Team Red following the final whistle of the 2020 CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game at FirstOntario Centre on January 16, 2020 in Hamilton, Canada.
Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t owned their 2020 first round pick since June 2019, and apart from those few weeks where the Leafs were edging towards being a bottom-10 team, none of us have paid any attention to the 2020 NHL Draft at all. Here’s a quick primer to help get Leafs fans back up to speed on what to expect.

Weak Defense Class

There is no #1 defenseman in this class this year. Jamie Drysdale might be that guy but he projects to be closer to a #2. He’s going to go very early because he’s the highest ranked defenseman in the draft and GMs tend to not like picking the fifth-best forward when they can pick the best defenseman, even when the fifth-best forward is markedly better than the defenseman.

Jake Sanderson is the next best defenseman of the bunch and there has been a lot of speculation that he’s going to go not far after Drysdale. Kaiden Ghule and Braden Schneider are probably going to follow not long after, and I don’t have those two in my first round. They’re big with limited offense, but GMs still love picking those guys if they’re in the first round. Marco Rossi, Lucas Raymond, and Anton Lundell are probably going to fall as a result. I doubt the first two get anywhere near the 15th overall pick, but Lundell might.

The weak defense trend continues for much of the draft, though there could be some really good pick-ups late in the draft (Victor Mancini and Anton Johannesson are particular favourites of mine). Samuel Knazko and Topi Niemela are the two other defensemen that stand out to me in this draft who will go in the second and third rounds, but that’s about it for me, though I really like Knazko.

There’s a Goalie in the Top-10

Yaroslav Askarov put up a .920 in Russia’s VHL (AHL equivalent) in 18 games. He’s expected to hit the NHL as a starter in a few years like many of his peers currently entering the league (Carter Hart, Ilya Samsonov, Igor Shesterkin, Kaapo Kähkönen, and Alex Nedeljkovic).

He’s projected to be drafted around the 10th or 11th pick, but history tells us he might drop later. Spencer Knight was taken 13th in 2019, Samsonov was taken 22nd in 2015, Andrei Vasilevskiy was taken 19th in 2012, and all other goaltenders were taken in the second round or later. There is a chance he falls to the Leafs and if he gets there, the Leafs should scream his name on the Zoom call.

Small Forwards Still Underappreciated

Marco Rossi, coming off a 120 point season in 56 games in the OHL, might be the third best player to come out of this draft. At 5’9” he’s small, but he’s a centre, which means people think he’ll be a winger in the NHL. I, on the other hand, look at Brayden Point and laugh.

The rest of the draft has a host of players negligibly away from six feet tall that are still being undervalued massively by the mainstream (and I’m using Bob’s rankings as a proxy compared to Will Scouch’s almost-final rankings).

Beyond Rossi, Seth Jarvis, Daniil Gushchin, Jan Mysak, Marat Khusnutdinov, Mavrik Bourque, Anton Johannesson, Topi Niemela, and Roni Hirvonen are all prospects I would think about at 15th knowing most will still be available in the second round. The same goes down the draft for players like Emil Andrae, Zion Nybeck, Eamon Powell, Zayde Wisdom, Sean Farrell, Alexander Pashin, and Tristan Robins. The list is long.

For the Leafs, there is a lot of home run value that can be found, and considering the number of picks they have, they shouldn’t be afraid of swinging on a several 3-0 pitches.

The Debate at the Top

Quinton Byfield will be the second-best player out of this draft, and he has a very good chance of being the best, but there has been a lot of speculation recently that Tim Stutzle will go second to Los Angeles and Byfield will fall to Ottawa at three. It’s a dumb argument in my eyes, but here are the reasons if you want to come to your own conclusions.

  • Byfield is “raw”

Byfield is a big centre with amazing skill and speed, but he hasn’t caught up to his own size yet. Byfield is one of the youngest players in the draft — he turned 18 yesterday. As a result, he doesn’t look quite as developed compared to his peers; Stutzle and Rossi are two of the older players in the draft by comparison. Byfield is a Black player, and there has been some touchy conversations being had about him, particularly in the language used about him versus other players. For example, relating him to animals and putting his hockey intelligence into question, neither of those things are valid.

  • Drafting now vs. Drafting for the future

Adjacent to his age, people have rightly claimed that a player like Tim Stutzle is a better player at 18 years old than Byfield was in his age-17 season. But are NHL teams drafting for today, or are they drafting for the next nine years they have these players rights? I would say the latter, but a lot of people don’t agree with me. If you’re drafting Byfield’s future vs. Stutzle’s future, Byfield wins and I don’t think it’s incredibly close. Especially since Byfield is expected to be a #1 scoring centre on a team for a generation and Stutzle can be that too, but on the wing. Do the LA Kings really need a top pick in the league right now? It seems like they can wait a year or two and get someone who could provide you much more value.

  • LAK has a lot of centre prospects

The Kings already have Gabe Vilardi, Akil Thomas, and Alex Turcotte in their system at centre. Do they want another or should they focus on wingers? Personally, Byfield will become the best centre prospect the franchise has had since Anze Kopitar and fill in the rest behind him. Turcotte could be a really good winger, Akil Thomas might never hit the top line but he could be an extremely valuable and clutch second or third centre, and you could trade Vilardi for a king’s ransom. And there’s still a chance one or two of these prospects doesn’t pan out. It doesn’t make sense to me to make that decision at this point.

Actually, let me clarify, at 17, he was scratched by Team Canada (and the Hunters) for most of the WJC in favour of players two years older than him on one of the deepest teams in the tournament. Meanwhile Stutzle was the best player for Germany, a much weaker team, and put up a lot of points. I don’t think it’s a fair argument, but one that’s been fueling this Stutzle over Byfield narrative all summer.

  • LAK owns a DEL team

And of course, there is money involved here. The LA Kings own a DEL team (Eisbären Berlin). Drafting Stutzle, a German playing in the DEL, and trading him to LA’s team is a massive opportunity for them in terms of development and marketing in the country. That said, Stutzle is only going to be in the DEL one more year before he’s probably ready for the NHL, so is the investment even worth it?

Personally, having watched and tracked Byfield in Sudbury, he is closer to the first overall pick Alexis Lafreniere than he is to being drafted third. Putting him third is for hot take-ists and Ottawa Senators fans.

Please, don’t let him end up in Ottawa.