Cue the speculation as the the offseason kicks into high gear. The NHL playoffs are down to just three teams as we await the winner of the Eastern Conference Final and those that are already on the outside looking in are focusing their efforts on the upcoming NHL Draft and free agency.
For the Toronto Maple Leafs, a number of questions overshadow a team coming off a record-breaking season and yet another first-round exit has them stifling for answers. But with the draft quickly approaching, fans of the organization are grasping at straws when it comes to who the Maple Leafs might go after with the handful of picks.
Related: THW 2022 NHL Draft Guide
For now, we’re going to focus on their third-round pick, the one they acquired in the Travis Dermott deal back in March and who might be a target for them with that selection — albeit a stretch to some degree.
Maple Leafs’ Organization Depth Lacking in the Middle
While the Maple Leafs have had some decent drafts over the past couple of seasons, under Kyle Dubas, picking up defensive prospects and players who can play on the wing, centre depth and goaltending have been a consistently tough position for the Maple Leafs to fill via the draft.
Organizationally, the Maple Leafs have names like Alex Steeves, Mikhail Abramov and Nick Abruzzese waiting down the middle for a shot at the big club. Behind them there’s Roni Hirvonen, Ty Voit and Ryan Tverberg. But when it comes to organization depth, there are never too many options at centre ice.
More notably, of those prospects named none of them are taller than six feet. Now, that’s not taking anything away from the skill they possess and the conversation around size in the NHL is one that continues to decrease in merit, but to have a solid player up the middle can still be of benefit to teams — especially when they possess the skill that top-round players have in drafts from the past decade.
As for what the Maple Leafs should be looking for — along with a goalie project that could turn into an organizational development project — is a centre with size. For now, they have Auston Matthews leading the charge, but opportunities will arise for some of their centre prospects over the next couple of seasons and having another player down the middle with size could prove beneficial to the team.
While it might take some maneuvering from Dubas, the Maple Leafs could acquire a player that fits that role in the upcoming 2022 NHL Draft in Bryce McConnell-Barker.
McConnell-Barker Brings More Size, More Skill to Maple Leafs
At one point before the year started, some had McConnell-Barker as a potential fringe first-round pick. Lack of consistency throughout the year led to a dip in his draft stock and, now, he’s likely going somewhere in the mid- to late-second round. It’s a round the Maple Leafs don’t currently have a pick in.
But given that he missed his entire first year of junior with the Soo Greyhounds with COVID shutting down the OHL for the 2020-21 season, the inconsistencies in his play might simply have been a byproduct of not having played an entire season.
Still, the season wasn’t exactly a wash for the OHL rookie who finished fourth on the Greyhounds in goals with 23 and sixth in points with 49 in 68 games. He added another five in 10 playoff games for the Greyhounds to close out his first season with the team and finished ninth overall in OHL rookie scoring.
While teams might not jump on the opportunity to land McConnell-Barker over some others in the first couple rounds of the draft, the 18-year-old brings a lot to the table. His competitive edge is what earned him a shot in the Soo when Tanner Dickinson went down earlier this season and that’s when the production started to pick up for the former London Junior Knight.
He sees the ice well — a must-have for a high-end NHL centre — and his speed allows him to open up the ice and create plays off the rush. His skating is a standout in his game and it allows him to be an integral part of the defensive zone coverage for his team as well, getting back and making plays.
His shot is deceptive and while there are areas of his game that could use some developing, his willingness to earn every minute that he gets could prove to be beneficial for the Maple Leafs if they’re able to get their hands on him — both for McConnell-Barker and as internal competition for the organization’s prospects at that position.
As for his size, it is something he could use to become a little more physical away from the puck, but McConnell-Barker has found ways to expose defenders along the walls using his size to engage and be the aggressor with the puck. That’s something the Maple Leafs could use more of.
Maple Leafs Need to Make a Move on Draft Day
The Maple Leafs did meet with McConnell-Barker in the week leading up to the physical testing at the NHL combine. In fact, he was one of a number of players to meet with the organization as teams get to know the possible future players that could be joining their respective clubs.
While they don’t give much away as to how the conversations went, it’s pretty fair to assume the Maple Leafs have some interest in the Greyhounds’ forward. That along with the fact that Dubas has a history of bringing in players from his former club and it might not be a complete stretch to think that he might be a focus for the organization.
Still, to get him the Maple Leafs will have to find a way of getting back into the second round after moving their second-round selection to the Seattle Kraken in the Mark Giordano deal. To do so, the Maple Leafs might have to trade a pick and a prospect to move up in the draft. Let’s face it — to get McConnell-Barker, the likelihood is the Maple Leafs will need to move up.
Sure, while the argument might be that there are players with similar builds in and skills, McConnell-Barker’s toolbox is full with only a few tools missing and they are attainable within the Maple Leafs organization — especially if he gets an opportunity to work alongside guys like Matthews and John Tavares in camp.
That said, McConnell-Barker would be a stretch for the Maple Leafs who don’t have the luxury of a lot of draft picks this year. Still, don’t be surprised if they try to move up the land the London, Ontario, native.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.