PITTSBURGH — To be a Toronto Maple Leafs scout at the NHL entry draft is to be Charlie Brown lining up for a field goal with Lucy holding the ball.
You spend most of the year of the year compiling information on every type of prospect, but when it comes to making the pick, you end up flat on your back.
At least, that has been the recent trend.
The last time Toronto qualified for the playoffs was in 2004. But unlike the Edmonton Oilers, who have reaped the rewards that come with a rotten record, the Leafs have traded away their first-round draft pick in five of the last seven years, including what could have been the No. 2 selection in 2010 as part of the Phil Kessel trade.
Sure, the team has accumulated prospects along the way and managed to acquire the 22nd and 25th picks in last year’s draft, but for those who make their living on the road travelling from rink to rink, there has been little payoff for the amount of bad coffee they have had to drink.
This year should be different. The Leafs, who fabulously tanked in the second half of the season and finished 26th overall in the standings, enter Friday night’s first round with the No. 5 pick. That is, if someone doesn’t yank the football away on the draft floor.
The more likely scenario, if the Leafs do not keep their top pick, is that they will slide either up or down in the first round.
“If we could move up at a reasonable price, it would be something that we would consider,” said Dave Nonis, Leafs senior vice-president and director of hockey operations. “But we’re comfortable we’ll get a pretty good player at (No. 5).”
Being in the top five essentially means Toronto is back in the dance. The last time they selected this high was in 2009, when the team traded up two spots and picked defenceman Luke Schenn fifth overall. This year, the team has its sights on a top-line forward, preferably a centre.
The problem is there might not be one available. Nail Yakupov and Alexander Galchenyuk are expected to go in the top three and Filip Forsberg could be off the board by the time Toronto picks. But even in what is considered to be a watered-down draft, the Leafs are confident that they should be able to find a blue-chip prospect — whether it be Russia’s Mikhail Grigorenko or one of the many defencemen — who can grow into an impact player down the road.
“I think the higher you are there is a need to get it right, no question,” Nonis said. “You should have the ability to get it right when you’re picking from a pretty narrow field.
“The one thing about this draft, again, there’s some players that we’ll have in the top 10 that other teams might have in the top 15 or 20, or vice versa. It is truly in the eye of the beholder with respect to the quality of this draft and where players are placed. I think that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
While Nonis said the pick has not been put in play, it has also not been taken off the table. After all, the Leafs are looking to improve their roster for next season as well as the future, and it is not just prospects that teams are after this weekend.
In the last several years, the draft has essentially become the summer trade deadline. And while talk has so far been quiet, there is an all-star list of names reportedly on the market, including Vancouver goaltender Roberto Luongo, Columbus captain Rick Nash, Anaheim forward Bobby Ryan and Pittsburgh centre Jordan Staal.
“It’s pretty slow,” Nonis said of trade talks. “Usually there’s a little more pace to it than now. But it will happen. The draft is usually a time — especially in recent years — where teams have been able to make some changes to their roster. I think that will be the case again this weekend. But again, most people you talk to will tell you that, yes, there are discussions but they’re not close to a deal.”
Any major trade would likely require the Leafs to give up their first-round pick. If that is the case, Nonis is confident that they can stock the cupboard in some other way.
The Toronto Marlies, who advanced to the Calder Cup final this month, are proof of that. Of the six first-round prospects on the team, five — Jake Gardiner, Joe Colborne, Carter Ashton, Matt Lashoff and the draft pick that turned into Stuart Percy — were acquired through trades.
“Most people think we don’t have first-round picks in our system,” Nonis said. “It’s just that we’ve been able to get them in a non-traditional way.”
Will that trend continue? Keep your eye on the ball to see.
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