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Leafs draft pick Keaton Middleton to return to the draft: report

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With his rights expiring, this long-shot, fourth-round pick is not getting an NHL contract.

Saginaw Spirit v Peterborough Petes
Captain of the Spririt, Middleton has all the character, but not enough skill.
Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Dhiren Mahiban, who is well tuned into all things Leafs and Marlies is reporting that Keaton Middleton will not get an offer from the Leafs and will return to the draft.

Middleton was selected 101st overall in the fourth round in 2016. He is a big, left-shooting defender who has played his OHL career on a team that no one calls top class. The Saginaw Spirit were able to play him big minutes, and he eventually became their captain, in part because they lacked big-name defence prospects. He is very highly thought of by his team and by his coaches.

There is no question that he’s a man with the character and attitude of a level to be the absolute best good pro anyone could want, but his play isn’t elite. He’s not terrible either. It’s very wrong to decide he’s a coke machine with no skill at all. Like most CHL players he’s somewhere in the middle.

His last two years in junior, he has 18 and 24 points, mostly assists, and mostly because he plays behind the only scoring line the team has. At 20, if he re-enters the draft, it’s hard to imagine him getting taken at anything above a seventh-round pick.

For me, having seen him in brief appearances in development and rookie camp games, he has seemed like someone who could grow into a minor pro stalwart, the sort of player a team can’t figure out how to live without. But not an NHLer. That’s not bad, and I hope there’s no hard feelings there because every team needs good AHLers or ECHLers, men of fine character to surround the youngest and best draft picks with. I’d see him on the Marlies or the Growlers any day.

He’s got years yet to grow into his game, and maybe I’ll see him in European hockey sometime, but I think he’s a good man already, and I wish him all the luck in the world.

By Scott Cullen’s historical draft pick value chart, a player taken at 101, has a 19% chance of playing 100 NHL games, and an overwhelming chance, over 90%, of being a depth player or less. Emphasis on the less. Put those two numbers together and you get most players drafted at that point peak in the AHL or lower.

I half expected the Leafs to offer him an AHL deal, and if he comes out the other side of the draft without anyone taking him, we may yet see that because while the Marlies have a lot of defencemen right now, they are older European UFAs or veteran NHL-contracted minor leaguers. There aren’t a whole lot of prospects coming along to replace them just at the moment, although there’s a couple who played in Orlando this year who look a bit like who Middleton may become.

The other two draft picks unsigned are defender Nicolas Mattinen and forward Vladimir Bobylyov.