The dreaded time has come for Toronto Maple Leafs fans. It’s officially the offseason for the Leafs after losing their qualifying round on Sunday night to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Not making the playoffs may sting for the team, but it’s already time to turn the tide and look towards one last glimmer of hope–the draft lottery.
As though this year hasn’t made things weird enough, the Leafs have found themselves in the draft lottery despite being one of the league’s better teams. The lottery starts at 6 p.m. EST on Monday and Leafs fans do not want to miss out.
Monday night’s Phase Two draft lottery is an interesting case highlighting the odd season 2020 has put us all in. While the Leafs typically wouldn’t find themselves in the draft lottery, this year’s whacky format gives the Leafs a one-in-eight chance of winning the number one overall pick.
On Friday, I broke down the Leafs chances of winning the draft lottery in more detail. Simply put, the Phase One lottery, which took place back in June, determined that one of the eight losing teams in the qualifying round will get the first overall pick. Now with those eight losing teams determined, the Leafs being one of them, they will be put into one last lottery to select which of them gets the first pick. Every team has the exact same odds of winning, one-in-eight or 12.5 per cent.
And should the Leafs win the lottery, the prize is the consensus first pick, Alexis Lafreniere.
There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to Rimouski Oceanic forward Alexis Lafreniere, who’s assumed to go first overall in this upcoming draft. He’s a franchise calibre talent who can alter the course of a team. While the Leafs already have a couple of first-overall picks of a similar calibre in Auston Matthews and John Tavares, Lafreniere’s skill would nonetheless be an exceptional addition to the team.
To say the 18-year-old was a superstar in junior hockey is an understatement. He’s been the best player in the CHL for a few seasons now. This season, he scored 35 goals and 77 assists for 112 points in 52 games, good for first in the QMJHL and second in the entire CHL (second to Marco Rossi, who had 120 points in more games). He also highlighted this season with a gold medal at this year’s World Junior Championships, scoring 10 points in 5 games for Canada and capturing MVP honours for the tournament. To cap off the stellar year, he was named the CHL Player of the Year. This was his second season in a row winning the award, after he put up 105 points in 65 games last season and 23 points in 13 games in last year’s playoffs. By winning this award, he joins Sidney Crosby as the only two players to ever win the award twice. Closing out his stellar resume, he was also the QMJHL rookie of the year in 2018 after going first overall in the 2017 QMJHL Draft.
Lafreniere is an exceptional skater with great playmaking skills. His high hockey IQ allows him to anticipate plays and accelerate his teammates offensively. Don’t let his 194-pound frame fool you, he can be physical and he’s ready to dig into the corners.
He’s definitely NHL-ready. Here’s what NHL Central Scouting said about him in their final rankings analysis:
“Exceptionally smart player with top-end speed and a pull-away gear. He’s great at carrying the puck and leading rushes and executes under pressure, has great vision and anticipation. Lafreniere offers high-end puck skills and vision to create plays, has an impressive compete level every time he’s on the ice, and elevates his game in pressure situations while demonstrating leadership skills.”
He’s projected to be an NHL superstar who can help a team out immediately, but where exactly would he fit on the Leafs?
This is where things get a little complicated. It’s hard to say that the Leafs truly need Lafreniere over other teams who lack star players. After all, the Leafs were already one of the top scoring teams in the league this season, scoring the second most goals in the league with 237. Toronto is currently top-heavy offensively, so adding Lafreniere would make their top six absolutely stacked. Just imagine a top six of:
Hyman – Matthews – Marner
Lafreniere – Tavares – Nylander
Any combination of these six players would be enough to scare opponents and a lineup like this is something teams dream about. Adding Lafreniere to a young core of Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner would boost the team even more for many years to come.
But the Leafs still have many problems that need to be addressed. Keeping Lafreniere with the current core would be quite the difficult task, given the fact that the Leafs are already tight on cap space. Having Lafreniere on an entry-level deal would give the Leafs three worry-free years to be competitive, but what happens afterwards when he requests a bigger contract, which he likely will given his potential.
And let’s not forget the Leafs biggest problem–their lack of defensive options. The Leafs defence core is thinning heading into the offseason and unfortunately, Lafreniere can’t fix this problem as a forward. At least, not directly that is.
The potential addition of Lafreniere would open up many opportunities for the Leafs on the trading front. A big concern for Toronto is the fact that they have about half of their cap space tied up in four players, which makes it difficult to make any moves to upgrade their defence and other roles that need improvement.
Landing Lafreniere would give the Leafs a cheap, young, star forward while on his ELC. The Leafs could then immediately move another forward, be it Marner, Nylander or someone else, for defensive options, while possibly even saving money. Even though Lafreniere’s arrival could force the Leafs into a cap-strapped headache in a way, it’s definitely a good problem for the Leafs to have.
Whether the Leafs land Lafreniere or not, it’s hard to argue that he wouldn’t be a huge addition to any team that gets the opportunity to select him. The Phase Two draft lottery commences at 6 p.m. EST on Monday night and you can catch it on Sportsnet. While everyone waits to see whether or not the lottery balls roll in the Leafs’ favour, you can check out some of his highlights below.
All stats unless otherwise noted are from Elite Prospects.