I want to take you back to the draft floor of the 2023 NHL Draft in Nashville, where I was standing with my wonderful contemporaries in the scouting and media world when the Maple Leafs approached the podium at 28th overall.

As Toronto’s Director of Amateur Scouting Wes Clark inched closer to the mic, I told those around me, “It wouldn’t surprise me at all if this were Easton Cowan.” It turns out that even a blind squirrel can find a nut every once in a while.

Did I have insider information about the Leafs and Cowan? No. Did I have insider information about Cowan’s rapid rise on many teams’ draft boards? Yes.

Many in the scouting world and in the wider hockey media tried to make you believe that Cowan was a reach at 28. In reality, it just wasn’t the case.

Those who scout and those who report on the OHL consistently would have told you that Cowan was one of the best players in last year’s playoffs and one of the main reasons London captured a Western Conference title. For that reason, he deserved to be a top-40 pick, and if Toronto hadn’t pulled the trigger at 28, another team would have done so in the top-40 range.

Now, I know what you’re saying—why did so many independent scouting agencies have Cowan ranked outside the first two rounds, then? I can’t speak for everyone, but I think it’s important for people to understand how these final lists come together so that publication dates can be hit well in advance of the draft.

At McKeen’s Hockey, we finalize our list immediately after the IIHF U18s at the beginning of May in order for our draft guide to be published in June (editing, formatting, etc, takes serious time). The OHL playoffs wrapped up in mid to late May. That means our ranking (78th) of Cowan largely did not factor in his strong playoff performance.

By early June, in discussion with our scouting team and my Ontario scouts (specifically The Hockey News’ Joely Stockl, who was a fan of Cowan all season), we had already decided that we had ranked Cowan too low and wished we had him inside of our top 50 based on his rapid progression late in the season and in the playoffs. Would we have ranked him in the first round? No, but he would have been much higher.

I want to take you back to the 2003 NHL Draft for a similar example. Brampton Battalion forward Brent Burns (yes, he was playing center at the time) was a bit of an enigma in his first year in the OHL. He showed flashes of brilliance, but inconsistency largely had him ranked outside the first two rounds by most publications, especially considering the strength of the 2003 Draft. Yet, in the playoffs, Burns absolutely took over. The now-Hurricanes defenseman jumped to a point per game in the postseason and helped Brampton reach the second round.

This completely changed the perception of Burns heading into the draft for those who covered the OHL and for some scouts. At the time, it was labeled as a massive reach by Minnesota when they took him 20th overall. Yet, I can tell you with the utmost confidence that if “X” (or Twitter) had existed back then, there would have been posts (like mine about Cowan) about Burns as a potential first-round pick based on the upside he flashed in the postseason.

Fast forward nine months, and we can safely infer that most (or all) Leafs fans have come around on the Cowan selection. At the time of the pick, it seemed to be widely panned by the fan base. Just look at the responses to my tweet from the draft following the selection:

Things change in a hurry, especially when a prospect is on one of the greatest heaters in the CHL’s history. Only Alexander Radulov (50 games) has strung together a longer point streak in the CHL.

It turns out that the player we saw in last year’s OHL playoffs was the “real” Easton Cowan. Full of confidence, he has transformed himself into one of the OHL’s elite players, altering his projection from more of a middle-six complementary piece to a potential versatile difference-maker on a scoring line.

Let me throw some advanced stats at you, courtesy of InStat Hockey, on Cowan’s rankings in the OHL:

StatCowan's Ranking
Offensive Zone Entries Via Stickhandling 1st (6.6 per game)
Successful Dekes7th (1.91 per game, 76.8% success rate)
Shorthanded Shots 1st (0.69 per game)
Scoring Chances11th (1.33 per game)
Puck Touches 1st among forwards
Accurate Passes1st among forwards
Expected Goals (xG) 10th (0.48)

Now let’s look at Cowan’s placement on this year’s OHL Coaches Poll:

  • Third Best Skater in the Western Conference
  • Third Best Defensive Forward in the Western Conference

Hopefully, the data above paints the picture. Cowan has emerged as a dominant threat with the puck on his stick, yet he remains such a consistent off-puck player due to his skating, tenacity, and tempo. This gives him both a high ceiling and a high floor.

At worst, we’re still looking at a potential middle-six, complementary piece, just as was stated at the draft last year. He can kill penalties with his speed. He can operate as the F1 on the forecheck and help establish zone time with his ability to secure possession and apply pressure. He can work the cycle, and his quickness opens up space for others on his line.

But, based on what I’ve seen this year, Cowan has drastically improved his odds of becoming a larger contributor than that. He has learned to harness his speed and improve his puck-handling ability in small areas; as the old adage goes, “the hands have caught up to his feet.” He’s become one of the OHL’s most dominant playmakers because he draws defensive attention and pressure with his attacking mentality, and he has the passing touch and precision to thread the needle to open teammates under pressure.

Not only that, but Cowan also has the awareness to know when to pass off, limiting turnovers when attacking north/south. He’ll chip and chase. He’ll alter his speed to keep defenses on their toes. He’s keen to work the cycle or win battles down low; he has confidence in his ability to keep plays alive with his feet and hands. As he continues to improve his strength and conditioning, Cowan will be a very difficult player to separate from the puck given his high work rate and quickness.

Where will Easton Cowan fit into the Leafs’ lineup in the future? Unfortunately, I don’t have a crystal ball. But, when we look at some recent players who’ve had a ton of success playing with the likes of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander — such as Michael Bunting and Zach Hyman — Cowan has many similar tendencies. He brings a consistently high work rate and can be the straw that stirs the drink. However, I’d argue that he’s more naturally gifted as a puck handler than both Bunting and Hyman, he is a more precise passer and playmaker, and he is certainly a better skater than Bunting.

Between Matthew Knies’ power game, Nick Robertson’s strong goal-scoring ability, and Easton Cowan’s well-rounded nature, the future looks bright for the Maple Leafs at the forward position.

The Video Room

This was a beautiful pass by Cowan, who slid it through coverage to a streaking Denver Barkey. I love Cowan’s patience here as he waited for his teammates to drive the middle lane rather than simply attacking wide with speed.

Cowan went from the net front as a screen to behind the net to win possession, then found the open man in the slot. He is winning these battles way more consistently this year.

Another great play along the boards by Cowan to help set up a goal. Notice how he exploded off the wall and headed to the net to draw in the second defender before dishing off.

This clip encapsulates why Cowan has been absolutely lethal on the penalty kill this year. Even shorthanded, he has an attacking mentality. His compete level is so good, exemplified by his ability to stay with this play to make the pass from his knees.

With more open ice on the power play, Cowan is almost never stopped from gaining the offensive zone. He attacked with speed and got behind the initial layer of pressure. The beautiful saucer pass to Oliver Bonk and the vision of looking past the tied-up London player in the slot is impressive.

Lost the draw on the penalty kill? Doesn’t matter. Cowan was hard on the puck, quickly closing on the point to force the turnover and the eventual shorthanded goal.

This was a great play by Cowan on the backcheck in the neutral zone, but the quickness of his counterattack is really impressive. He caught the Windsor defender flat-footed and created a great chance in tight.

A great example of Cowan’s greatly improved hands this season. He’s stopped by top 2023 draft prospect Carter George, but this chance in overtime is created solely by Cowan’s speed and skill.


“This season is far beyond what I — and many others — expected. One thing a scout told me around development camp time: He’s growing, and should for a while more. He’s still figuring out how to use that to his benefit, but you can see him winning more puck battles and creating chances off of it. We know he’s a good penalty killer and brings energy — that alone should make him an interesting middle-six option. I wouldn’t be surprised if he stayed up for a few NHL games to start next year at his current rate because he’s so smart.”

– Steven Ellis, Daily Faceoff

“Selecting Easton Cowan 28th overall in the 2023 Draft is already starting to pay dividends for the Maple Leafs. Cowan has shown his dominance, finishing top-10 in OHL scoring all while missing the start of the season (preseason with the Maple Leafs) and taking part in the World Junior Championship. His energy, compete level, intensity and overall skill set is on another level this season after he started to show glimpses of his play late last season and into the playoffs. He’s become a constant and reliable player for the Knights, utilized in all situations and coming up clutch at certain points. His recent point streak is a big reason why general manager Brad Treliving wouldn’t even consider moving him as a piece in a trade, as he’s going to be a strong asset for this team’s future.”

– Peter Baracchini, The Hockey Writers

“Easton Cowan began his rookie season in the OHL by working on the fundamentals and ensuring his 200-foot game. By focusing on the little things first, Cowan was able to explode offensively in last year’s playoffs, and that has, of course, translated to this season. Cowan has all the freedom to focus on his offensive game because he can be relied upon in any situation and doesn’t give up anything the other way. The fact that Cowan continues to drastically improve over the course of each season speaks to his trajectory as a potential top-six support player with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He continues to prove that he can make the players around him better, and this season, he has proven that he can drive and create at a high level independently, too.”

– Joely Stockl, The Hockey News

“It’s easy to let the numbers do the talking regarding Easton Cowan. Arguably one of the biggest surprises in the first round of the 2023 NHL Draft, Cowan’s D+1 year has seen one of the biggest offensive arcs this season, jumping from 53 points to 94 — and that’s in just 53 games this season. What the numbers won’t tell you is his value to this team in all other areas of the game. He already had a 200-foot game that rivals some of the best NHL prospects and he plays in all situations for the Knights — using his speed to exhibit dominance on the PK. He plays with a physical edge to his game reminiscent of a Darcy Tucker type and has the possession game of another former Knight — in Mitch Marner. Sure, there are areas of his game he can continue to improve on, including overall strength, but next season, if he remains in the OHL, I feel as though we’ll be having the debate of CHL/AHL and how there needs to be a change in eligibility. That said, it’s easy to see why he was considered an untouchable for the Maple Leafs at the trade deadline. And it’s tough to imagine that he won’t get an extended look with the Maple Leafs next season.”

– Andrew Forbes, The Hockey Writers