Maple Leafs prospect Easton Cowan is an OHL MVP and champion. What does it mean for his future?

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Easton Cowan fired a shot past 20-year-old goalie Jacob Oster, looked up toward a stunned crowd inside Oshawa’s Tribute Communities Centre and didn’t say a word.

The 18-year-old London Knight didn’t need to. His production in front of that crowd spoke for itself.

In Game 4 of a sweep of the Oshawa Generals in the OHL Championship Series, Cowan scored one goal and finished with four points — part of a 15-point total the high-energy playmaker logged in the four-game series.

And his 34 points over the Knights’ 18-game playoff run? Those were tops by all players in the postseason and it wasn’t that close. The numbers defy logic and suggest, as one person close to Cowan said, “his upside keeps breaking a new ceiling.”

The Knights had swept three of four rounds in the OHL playoffs. And it was Cowan who pushed them there.

Add it up and the Toronto Maple Leafs prospect was the slam-dunk choice for the Wayne Gretzky 99 Award as OHL playoffs MVP. Cowan became the first OHL player to win both regular-season and playoffs MVP since Mitch Marner in 2016. He’ll now lead London into the CHL’s Memorial Cup with the champions from the WHL and QMJHL beginning May 24.

Not a bad step in Cowan’s development considering how many questions he and the Leafs staff faced when they dipped deep into the traditional prospect rankings and surprised onlookers by selecting him in the first round of the 2023 NHL Draft.

But the draft is history now.

In the moments after the final horn sounded, Cowan’s hollering in celebration with other teammates drowned out the whispers from the disappointed Oshawa fans. He moved quickly from teammate to teammate at the game’s conclusion and kept his hugs brief but repetitive. Each of his teammates earned an embrace from Cowan, his earnest grin growing with each one.

Cowan has developed a reputation among the Knights as one of the more beloved teammates for his lighthearted and team-first attitude. Once Cowan stepped off the ice, the requests for photos with friends, family and fans were constant, and he stopped for each one with the same beaming smile.

“We know what (Cowan) can bring,” Knights assistant coach Dylan Hunter said. “But being able to stay focused when you do lose a game in playoffs, or if you have a bad game yourself and being able to kind of rise above it, that’s going to make for a good leadership run for him.”

His impressive playoff run could go a long way toward his future in Toronto. The way he stormed through the competition with the puck and improved his habits off the puck — especially on the penalty kill — suggests spending another season in the OHL is far from a given. Cowan is not eligible to play in the AHL, so it’s between the OHL and the NHL for now.

It’s a continually asked question when discussing elite junior players and it’s worth asking here: What else might Cowan have left to prove in the OHL?

His Knights coaches will admit, tongue-in-cheek, that they’d like him to return next season. But as Knights assistant coach Rick Steadman said, there are “definitely parts of (Cowan’s) game that are ready for the next step, for sure.”

“I think his speed and the way he handles pucks, with those things for sure he’s ready to make that next step,” Steadman said.

But there’s always room for improvement.

“Because if he goes up next year, chances are he won’t get the power play and those high-end opportunities that he would get (in London). That could make him a more rounded player, and hopefully start in the top six instead of having to start in the bottom six and work his way up,” Steadman said.

Steadman and the Knights might not get their way. Let’s remember Cowan was one of the surprises during Leafs training camp in 2023, having impressed both former coach Sheldon Keefe and general manager Brad Treliving with his dogged work ethic off the puck and elusiveness and creativity in the offensive zone.

Looking toward Leafs training camp this fall, Cowan can take heightened levels of confidence from his OHL playoff run. To perform alongside players with far more professional experience and then crack the Leafs roster out of training camp, Cowan will need that increased self-belief in his game-changing abilities.

And Cowan’s time spent as arguably the most relied-upon player on a league champion has likely helped him become more comfortable than ever in the spotlight.

Slightly reserved and always no-nonsense off the ice, Cowan was the complete opposite on the ice through the playoffs. A newfound panache popped up in his play with the puck.

All in all, Cowan might have come out of the playoffs a different player. Behind the scenes, the Leafs have been thrilled with his progress this season. In particular, they like how Cowan has continually shown the kind of skill and grit package the team desires.

Yes, the attention he received in London — even if the Knights can claim to employ the most professional approach of every junior team in Canada — would pale in comparison to the bright lights and constant attention he would receive on and off the ice in Toronto.

Not every player has the makeup — or even the desire — to skate confidently through the limelight and pressure that comes with being a Leaf. Another touted Leafs prospect, Fraser Minten, said the confidence instilled in him by living with John Tavares was necessary to propel him to believe he belonged with the NHL club.

It’s indefinable, but confidence and bravery need to come from somewhere for a young player.

“(Cowan) has handled (the increased attention this season) well,” Steadman said. “It’s tough because there’s been a lot of eyes on him, a lot of stuff written about him. And sometimes it’s hard to keep a level head. But he tries to just let it roll off his back, just let every day be every day and enjoy his hockey.”

Cowan increased his energy levels and production in the most important games. No one could accuse him of being a shrinking violet.

What Cowan wouldn’t have attained as the Knights steamrolled through far weaker opposition is the adherence to structure, particularly defensively, that NHL teams are built on. All season, the Knights coaching staff have been just as relentless as Cowan is in their hopes of turning him into a 200-foot player.

Cowan took risks at times with the puck because he could. His linemates were skilled and smart enough to cover for any mistakes and the gulf between the Knights and the teams they faced was often wide. Yet those kinds of risks are borderline forbidden in the NHL playoffs.

So, understanding that not all of what he did with the Knights in the playoffs can be replicated in a possible Leafs postseason game will be paramount for Cowan.

If he can add some muscle to his 5-foot-11 frame this summer, this playoff run has proven Cowan deserves the Minten treatment at the very least: runway through training camp to excel and a handful of games to start the season in the NHL. Then, the durability of his confidence will be tested.

That Cowan could potentially play NHL games with a tiny cap hit of just $935,833 makes his case for being a Leaf next season that much stronger. But no part of that case is as strong as the way he carried a team on his back many nights when it mattered the most.

Cowan may have been a surprise first-round pick by the Leafs, but his OHL playoff run proved there may be more surprises in his career to come.

“Leadership and keeping the group together is hard,” Hunter said of Cowan. “It takes a lot out of you. You’ve got to manage that on the ice and off the ice. And we think (Cowan) can do it. He’s maturing into that.”

(Photo of Easton Cowan holding the Wayne Gretzky 99 Award with OHL commissioner David Branch: OHL Images)  

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