The past couple of days, I've put the first two parts of my look at who Easton Cowan is as a prospect. The first part looked at his background, stats and context to lay the foundation. The second part was an in-depth breakdown of Cowan from a scouting perspective. Today, to wrap everything up I will talk about my general overall assessment using everything I know about him now.
I'm going to warn you all, what follows is a back and forth conversation I was having with myself as I tried to come to a conclusion. Because I did not have a firm one in mind when I started writing this.
THE MILLION DOLLAR QUESTION
So, let's just jump right to it.
Do I think Easton Cowan is a good player? Yes, I do. As expected, just because he was ranked lower and I didn't really know much about him at the time, I do like him better now that I've dug into him.
But... do I think it was a good pick? Again, I do like this pick better now than I did at the time. Some of that is disappointment that they didn't pick a player I knew better and liked more, or trade down to get multiple picks. I do have the same kind of issues with Cowan that I did with Minten at the time, even if I do like Minten now as well. If you read the concluding section I wrote about Minten last year, a lot of that conversation I had with myself is true here for Cowan.
At first, Cowan seems like a safe bet to be an interesting depth forward who can play in all situations. He could have an impact on the play all over the ice, but doesn't quite have the skill to be a top six guy. If he takes some important steps in in his development in key areas, fixes some of his bigger issues and adds more layers of skill, I can see a Hyman or Knies-like top six supporting winger in him.
COWAN'S PROJECTION PROBLEM?
I have two main points of contention with Cowan as a pick, and I will again stress that after looking into him I do like what I see. I can see why Toronto likes him, and I like him too.
I just have concerns about Cowan's projectable areas of growth. With a lot of prospects, some of the easiest and most likely areas for growth comes from physical maturation. The best way to add power to your shot and explosiveness to your skating is to grow taller and add muscle. Getting in better shape by following a professional diet and exercise routine for the first time can help players physically perform with more consistency and intensity through each shift and through full games.
Cowan could certainly add another inch or two, but this guy is already fit as hell. He has 7% body fat. He has lungs and endurance for days. So it's difficult to think he has a lot more room to get physically better in ways that can improve his play on the ice a lot. Instead, Cowan's areas for improvement that will help him the most in the future are almost all purely skill-based. Toronto may be able to help tweak his skating to make him a bit faster, more agile and more explosive. But what he needs the most is to improve his skill and creativity with the puck, and to find a way to get more power on his shot – be it a wrist or slap shot.
There is also a notable difference between Cowan and the high end support forwards that I've compared Cowan to: Hyman, Knies and to a lesser extent Minten. Hyman is 6'1", Minten is 6'2", and Knies is 6'3". Meanwhile, Cowan is 5'10", and while I read someone with Toronto saying they thought he had signs he would grow another inch or two, that size difference is not insignificant. The fact that Cowan is already very strong and fit helps mitigate some of the worry of how well he can physically handle the NHL in the future, but that also has a separate problem I mentioned above.
The reason why I worry about skill being his biggest need for improvement is that it's hard to project that. "Just become more skilled" is a weird thing to anticipate or pull off. Cowan is already relying right now on being a physical specimen in much better shape than most of his competitors. What happens when he advances to higher levels in the AHL and NHL and suddenly everyone is in good shape as much as he is? What happens if he doesn't grow any more so he has more room to add muscle? What happens when that advantage just becomes an even match? Right now, he doesn't have skills at such a high level that he can compensate for it. It's not very common for prospects at his age to dramatically improve their skills.
TORONTO HAS EARNED SOME TRUST
If you want an example of a prospect who did just that after being drafted, we come back to Matthew Knies. I still marvel at how different and more skilled he looked between the end of his draft year and right away when he played for Team USA in some summer international exhibitions. That leap in skill came out of nowhere, and I still haven't seen any prospect make such a leap either that year or since. So it's not like Toronto has yet to show they know what they're talking about with this kind of thing.
So I'm facing the same questions I did when I was looking into Minten after the draft last year, but I'm just less certain about his projectability. Like I said, I like Cowan as a player much more now. He seems like he'll be a fan favourite wherever he plays in his career. And if Wes Clarke and Toronto's scouts see a higher level of skill in him than I do, or any scouting report I've read has, they have earned at least a certain level of trust from me. With what I have seen and read he seems very likely to be no better than a bottom six energy guy, or a safe bet. That's very unlike Toronto, and I know they didn't take him with that role in mind. They think he will be better.
In the post-draft media scrum, Wes Clark kept bringing up how Cowan was "early in his development curve". That wasn't something he elaborated on, but I'm assuming he's thinking the same thing that Cathy has talked about – how Cowan was new to the OHL this year, and missed an important season from the pandemic. He's still adjusting to higher level hockey, but after he adjusted to start the season he's really taken off. The thought process seems to be that because of this, Cowan may have more developmental growth to come where others that have been in the OHL or their junior leagues for 1-2 seasons don't. I'm not sure I fully buy that, but Wes Clark is a smart guy so I am not going to say he's wrong.
THE CHOICE TORONTO MADE
One way to get more value in the draft is to trade down, and that was something I said I hoped Toronto would do. Many fans and experts said it would be a good idea. In fact, Toronto reportedly had offers to do just that but they declined them. They said in the post-draft scrums that they a) thought Cowan was the best player on the board, and b) the intel they gathered said they were not the only team who had him that high, and they didn't think they'd get him if they traded down. That notion is supported by other public scouts who talk with NHL teams.
There were a number of reports from insiders about teams wanting to trade up, but we had no idea what the deals might involve for Toronto. According to Elite Prospects, however:
The Maple Leafs did have opportunities to turn down – plural. The best offer included a pair of second-round picks, though the specifics beyond that are unknown.
Obviously, the Leafs didn't see the risk of losing Cowan as worth the additional picks, but those fears appear to be unfounded. None of the teams we spoke to indicated that Cowan was likely to go early in the second round. Perhaps even being available in the third.
For what it is worth, what I have read from others is that Cowan would definitely be gone early in the second round. So what it came down to is that Cowan was their guy, and they thought they would get more value taking him straight up than trading down and getting two picks in the second round instead. And in the post-draft press conference, Treliving mentioned they spent a lot of time trying to get more picks through the draft and just couldn't get anything that worked for them.
If you're thinking, well couldn't they have traded down into the early second round and still got him? Likely not, at least not in a way that would make it seem worth it. If they only traded down from 28 into the low 30's, for example, they likely would not have gotten two second round picks but one in the third, fourth or fifth round. Toronto was probably offered two second round picks in the middle and later parts of the round, which I still would have taken to be clear. I do not believe that Cowan on his own will be better than two of Felix Nilsson, Oscar Fisker-Molgaard, Jakub Dvorak, Martin Misiak, Beau Akey, Tristan Bertucci, Gracyn Sawchyn, and Nick Lardis.
On the other hand, the other thing that Elite Prospects in that same article said is important to keep in mind:
Maple Leafs Dir. of Amateur Scouting Wes Clark is one of the very best in the business, so you have to be willing to give him some benefit of the doubt here. If he thinks that Cowan will be one of the 28 best players in this year's draft, I'm not sure I want to be on the opposite side of that argument – let's put it that way.
So that's where we're at. The biggest disagreement I may have about this is that I would have traded down, but Toronto has a process that they trust in and will not sway from it. Right now, I think they were maybe too rigid in wanting to get "their guy" that the process led them to want. But I've thought that about Matthew Knies, who Toronto said they also chose not to trade down in order to take. I did it to a lesser extent with Minten, but I don't recall there being any reported offers to trade down when they took him. Knies sure shut me up right away, Minten still has time to do the same.
We'll see where on that spectrum Cowan lies, because the Leafs have said they liked the growth Cowan already showed last year and think there's a lot more room to get better. That's what they had said about Minten as well.
But, but, but, but, but.
After all of that, here's what I have concluded, as far as what I think about Cowan both as a player and yet also as a choice. I have decided that I like Cowan the player, quite a bit actually. However, I keep saying but because I just cannot talk myself into liking the choice to pick no matter how much I try. To be clear, I don't hate the choice, in fact I don't even dislike it. I just do not, as of now, like the pick as much or as quickly as I came to like Knies and Minten after looking into them. Even though they may wind up with a solid player and Cowan develops nicely.
So colour me neutral on it for now, though where I lean will change as he develops. If he can immediately take an big leap in his development like Knies, that would have me all aboard his bandwagon. If he takes a smaller but still positive step forward, more like Minten this year, I would just lean a bit towards agreeing with the choice. If he doesn't really show any development or add any real evolution to his game, I'm going to start leaning the other way. It is hard to not trust Toronto in knowing what they're doing with him, but they are not infallible.
So this will be a very interesting year to follow Cowan. London was a younger team who surprised with how deep they went last year, in part because of the growth they got from Cowan and other younger prospects like that. Most of them are returning, and Cowan will likely play a lot of minutes in all situations for them again. Forget about the points this year, what I want to see from him is the ability to take over games more and show more consistent skill at a higher level. Turn his shot into a real weapon, like Minten did last year. Add better elements of skill and deception when handling the puck, like Knies did before. Don't just be a supporting winger in junior, be THE guy for one of the OHL's top teams.
All of that said, I can tell you what I have talked myself into pretty easily after digging into him this much, and that's rooting for him to do it.