It’s the busiest time of the year for NHL front offices just 48 hours away from unrestricted free agency.

There are plenty of topics to cover this week, so let’s get right to it.

Patrick Marleau Deal

A first-round pick is a steep price to pay for a one-year contract dump, but this was a “you gotta do what you gotta do” trade. Every team in the NHL knew that the Leafs were willing to give up an asset to get out of that contract, so this obviously ended up being the best deal they could get. With the cap only rising to $81.5 million, I just don’t see how the Leafs could justify keeping Marleau on the roster.

The Leafs are contenders. With Frederik Andersen, Nazem Kadri, and Morgan Rielly at a combined cap hit of $14.5 million per season, they need to take full advantage of this window. They will greatly benefit from spending the $6.25 million elsewhere and now have the flexibility to pounce on any great deal that may present itself. As someone who actively scouts for the NHL Draft, it’s frustrating to see the Leafs without a first round pick again, but I just don’t know how they could justify holding onto that Marleau contract.

I have no idea what Lou Lamoriello was thinking when he signed Marleau to a three-year deal. That was a horrible move from day one, even though Marleau is incredibly likable as both a player and a person. Lamoriello was fantastic at getting out of bad deals, but he struggled greatly when trying to make key additions.

The Carolina Hurricanes had an outstanding draft and this was an outstanding trade for them. We know there were teams that were not interested in this type of trade, including Columbus, and I just can’t understand why. You need a committed owner in order to stomach Marleau’s buyout cheque, but that’s a smart move by Thomas Dundon.

Early Thoughts on the Draft

The Leafs didn’t have a top 50 pick, so I’m not going to call this an absolute haul. However, they managed to make the most of the picks they did have and closed the gap as a result. Almost everyone who they drafted should have been taken 30 spots higher. It felt like I was constantly on the same page as Toronto’s scouts.

Nicholas Robertson

Nicholas Robertson is great. He doesn’t let his size stop him from going to the dirty areas and he should have no problem keeping up at the NHL level. His elusiveness and vision give him 30+ assist potential and he also has an above average shot. I think he’s going to be an NHL player with a decent chance of becoming a top-six forward. I don’t care if a player is 5’9″ if they don’t play like they are 5’9″. Robertson always seems to be one of the most offensively dangerous players on the ice, even when he’s playing against top competition.

Had he played for the USDP, I don’t think he would have made it to #53. He did play at the U18 tournament and it’s easy to forget just how impressive he was last summer at the Hlinka. Given he didn’t have much to play with in Peterborough, he probably would have generated more buzz if he was on a top OHL team. I’m quite confident that he’s better than many of the late first-round picks let alone the second rounders. He’s not an A-grade skater, but he should be able to beat NHL defenders out wide.

Mikko Kokkonen

There were a few players who I preferred over Kokkonen at #84, but this was great value nevertheless. I was surprised he made it to the back half of the third round; he’s not small or slow, so he doesn’t have the typical characteristics of a player who falls. I expected him to be an early second round pick and I wouldn’t have been shocked if a team reached for him in the top 31.

I struggled to figure out where to rank Kokkonen. I don’t think he’s anything special offensively, but he’s quarterbacked Finland’s second power-play unit in the past and he’s not an “off the boards and out” player. He played next to Ville Heinola on Finland’s top-pairing at the U18 tournament, where he was a competent shutdown guy. For a third-round pick, he has a really good chance of making the NHL, even if that’s only as a #5 defenseman. He’s a smart player who can play on the right side if needed. It wouldn’t shock me if he took another small step forward offensively.

Mikhail Abramov

Russia had a very good team at the Hlinka, yet there weren’t many Russians towards the top of the NHL Draft Rankings. With seven points in five games, Abramov was tied for their second-leading scorer at this event, even though he only had one goal. Looking back on my notes from this tournament, I was quite impressed with him:

“One of the better players on the team, and one of their primary playmakers on the powerplay. Keep an eye on him. Good powerplay talent it looks like. Seems like one of the better skaters and carriers, pretty good on the forecheck, but I’m not sure about his complete game”.

He then headed to the QMJHL to start his rookie season with Victoriaville, where he was the third-leading scorer on a below average team and had more than twice as many assists as goals. You can see his craft playmaking on display here:

Not a good goal-scorer, Abramov is a clear pass-first player, but he’s crafty with the puck and sees the ice well and I could see him becoming a 30+ assist winger at the NHL level. He’s going to take another step forward once he puts on weight and gets stronger. He’s a little bit like Dmytro Timashov of the Toronto Marlies.

Not nearly as safe of a pick as Kokkonen, but it’s tough to complain about Abramov at 115th overall. He was 62nd on my pre-draft rankings.

Nicholas Abruzzese

I don’t know much about Abruzzese as he wasn’t really on my radar. He’s the same age as Timothy Liljegren, so he won’t be eligible for the World Juniors this year, but he led the USHL in scoring. He’s a 5’9″ center who is known for his speed and the Leafs probably noticed him while they were there to watch Robert Mastrosimone, who went 54th overall to the Red Wings.

From what I have seen, he looks like an above average skater. My main question now is if he’s slightly above average in that area or a real burner. Given his height and age, I’m hoping it’s the latter. I like what I’ve heard about him, but I always get a little bit concerned with players who are headed to Harvard, as it can make them tougher to sign if everything goes well.

Michael Koster

I may have been the only person on the planet who put Koster in their top 62, but I loved his game last year at the Hlinka. Robertson and Koster were my two favourite players on Team USA at this tournament (I wasn’t a big fan of Kaliyev’s game at the time); the Leafs ended up drafting both of them. Here are my notes on Koster from the first time I watched him play at the Hlinka:

“Looks real quick back there, both as a skater and passer. Really good first pass a few times now. First round talent? Might be a 60 grade skater, and he’s fairly well-rounded. Holy he’s good. Looks like the second best defenceman to Bowen Byram in this game”.

Following the Hlinka, Koster went to play for his Minnesota high-school team, just like Casey Mittelstadt did in his draft year a couple of years ago. I doubt that many scouts watched him play there. He finished his year by playing 21 games for Tri-City of the USHL, but Ronald Attard racked up 64 points in 48 games and Zach Jones was close to a point per game there, so he wasn’t thrown into a huge offensive role there.

I’m sure there’s plenty of Leafs fans who don’t like taking 5’9″ players, but he can play and that’s all I really care about. While I haven’t seen him play all that much, I have loved what I have seen.

Kalle Loponen

I went back to watch one of Loponen’s games at the U18, but he did not get many minutes, so I was left to focus on Kokkonen instead. I have watched him play a few times and he seemed to be fairly mobile out there. At 5’11”, he’s not overly small and it’s always nice to have another right-shooting defense prospect in the organization.

He played 30 games in Mestis this year and found the scoresheet quite often for a draft-eligible defender. He tallied multiple points at the U17, U18, and Hlinka tournaments, so there are positive signs here. I don’t have a ton to say about Loponen other than that he’s looked like a competent skater and puck mover in my limited viewings of him, but he hasn’t “wow’d” me, either. He seems like a perfectly acceptable seventh-round pick.

Final Thoughts

I loved the Robertson, Kokkonen, and Koster picks, while the others seem perfectly fine. It doesn’t look like the Leafs completely punted mid-to-late round picks like they did a couple of years ago. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who are complaining about the lack of size, but the vast majority have never watched any of these players play (those same people probably would have picked Noah Hanifin over Mitch Marner and Nick Ritchie over William Nylander, so I wouldn’t recommend listening to them).

I expect Connor Brown and Nikita Zaitsev to be moved within the next ten days. If we assume that they are traded for nothing but picks, that would leave about $15.3 million to sign Marner and add a defenseman. To get that figure, I assumed that Timothy Liljegren ($863k) and Pierre Engvall ($925k) were on the team. Engvall has the highest cap hit out of the available Marlies, so I decided to use him as a placeholder. If you want to spend a little bit more on these two roster spots, add an eighth defenseman to the roster, or make a change from Garret Sparks, you can take the $15.3 million figure and adjust accordingly.

Even if Marner gets close to $10M, there’s enough room for one of Adam Larsson ($4.16M), Jared Spurgeon ($5.1875M), or Anton Stralman (UFA). I expect to see a move to address the defense.