Draft is Leafs' silver lining

Fall much further in the standings and the Leafs might have a shot at potential first overall pick...

Fall much further in the standings and the Leafs might have a shot at potential first overall pick Nail Yakupov (left) of the Sarnia Sting. They would have to win the draft lottery draw, first. (QMI AGENCY)

Mike Zeisberger, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:19 PM ET

TAMPA - Early last month the Maple Leafs appeared to have a better shot at being eligible for the Stanley Cup playoffs than the draft lottery.

After a 6-3 victory over the Edmonton Oilers on Feb. 6, the Leafs were just four points out of third place in the Eastern Conference. Then, the only lottery on the minds of most Maple Leaf fans was the huge jackpot being offered by Lotto 6/49 that had people lining up at their local convenience store counters to scoop up tickets.

My, how quickly things have changed.

Just five weeks later, a horrendous 2-13-2 skid has virtually booted the Leafs out of post-season contention and directly into the discussion of which five teams might get a shot at the first overall pick in the June draft.

The final order of selection, of course, will be determined by the luck of the ping pong balls during the draft lottery draw early on in the upcoming playoffs. The 14 non-playoff teams are all eligible to move up four spots, but only one will end up getting that opportunity.

If the season ended Wednesday morning, the 24th-place Leafs, coming off a 5-2 loss to the Florida Panthers, would line up seventh in the initial draft pecking order, meaning the highest they could move up if they won the lottery is the No. 3 slot.

Of course, that could change, since the Leafs still have 12 regular season games to go.

Or, for those hoping they continue to go in the tank, “blow.”

The cream of this year’s draft crop is Sarnia Sting forward Nail Yakupov, the 5-foot-11 Russian forward who has collected 170 points in just 107 OHL games. At this point, the bottom-feeding Columbus Blue Jackets, 30th overall, have the best odds of landing him.

Having said that, Maple Leafs director of amateur scouting Dave Morrison admits that Leafs scouts are now focusing more on those players at the top of the draft because of the team’s recent swoon. Whereas the more likely targets in early February probably were those kids projected as mid-to-late first rounders, closer attention is now being paid to that first handful of potential picks.

“It’s unfortunate the way things have gone for our team in the last little while, but it has caused us to look more at the top 10 right now,” Morrison said in a phone interview on Wednesday as he was making his way to scout an OHL game in Guelph.

“Look, we’ve always been cognizant of the top guys. Dating back to the days when (Brian Burke) and (Dave Nonis) were in Vancouver, the mandate was to always scout the top guys no matter how low it appeared the parent club was going to pick. You never know when a trade will be made to move up, so you always had to be prepared for any possibility.

“Of course, you always narrow down your focus at some point when you start projecting where you might finish. But this has been a bit of a different year for our scouts for much of the season in that, because there are so many teams so tightly bunched in the standings, you had to be flexible in your projections. Things could still change quickly.”

Even so, there is no doubt Leaf scouts are eyeballing the top tier of prospects with more detail these days.

“I don’t see a Sidney Crosby in there, but there are good players with big upside,” Morrison said. “There are a lot of defencemen in there.

“What makes this year unusual is the high number of injuries. Yakupov has been hurt. His teammate, Alex Galchenyuk (knee), has missed almost half a year, and so has Moose Jaw defenceman Morgan Rielly (knee).

“It seems our doctors are going to be busy going over reports.”

Just like the Leaf scouts are,

The Leafs have not picked in the Top 10 since 2009 when they selected London Knights forward Nazem Kadri at No. 7.

mike.zeisberger@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/zeisberger

 

 

 


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