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Prospect Pool Overview: Toronto Maple Leafs

The Toronto Maple Leafs have some notable names in the prospect pipeline. Tony Ferrari takes a deep look at what the team's future looks like.
Nicholas Robertson

Another year, another first-round playoff exit for the Toronto Maple Leafs. 

It's not relevant when it comes to prospect talk, but it basically feels like a prerequisite every time the Leafs are brought up. 

With that said, Kyle Dubas and company have built one of the NHL’s best rosters over the last few seasons, routinely finishing near the top of the league standings in the regular season. They may not have playoff success but to say they aren’t a contender is willful ignorance. Or you’re a Toronto fan.

The impressive part of the Leafs building a contender is that they have managed to maintain a fairly strong prospect pool throughout their window of competitive seasons. Kyle Dubas and the management team in Toronto have made a habit of trading down and identifying players deeper in the draft with impressive skill sets.

They’ve made just one first-round pick (Rodion Amirov in 2020) in the last four drafts, but they managed to come away with quite a bit of promising talent. Amirov is an incredibly talented winger with some of the best skating abilities of any prospect in hockey, intelligent defensive habits, and the offensive weapons to make him a top prospect. He is currently undergoing treatment for a brain tumor he was diagnosed with last year, but he has been positive about it and all signs point to him returning to hockey before too long.

Nick Robertson, a 2019 second-round pick, was one of the OHL’s most dangerous offensive players, but the size concerns he came with were very real as he stands just 5-foot-10. The 20-year-old has a lethal shot and a knack for spacing himself from defenders in the offensive zone. He’s dealt with some injuries in each of the last few years but should be coming into camp fully healthy with an opportunity to make the club.

Power forward Matthew Knies was their second-round pick in 2021. The 6-foot-3 winger was a point-per-game player with the University of Minnesota in his freshman season, putting up 15 goals and 33 points in as many games. He was close to signing with the Leafs after last season but opted to go back for another year but he could bring his game to a Leafs’ lineup that could certainly use the functional physicality that Knies brings.

The Leafs have been using the NCAA route more recently with their draft picks. Nick Abruzzese was with Harvard for a few seasons before inking an NHL deal. Abruzzese played in a handful of games with the Leafs last year, showing some of his vision and play-reading ability in limited action. He could factor into the lineup this year on a more regular basis.

Ryan Tverberg, Veeti Miettinen, Mike Koster, Wyatt Schingoethe, Joe Miller, and others are all playing in the NCAA next season. Nick Moldenhauer isn’t committed to a college yet but is also expected to. The Leafs value the NCAA route as it helps players mature, get used to the rigors of playing against older competition, and develop structure in their game.

Roni Hirvonen and Topi Niemelä are linked for several reasons. The Finnish duo were selected with the two picks that Toronto acquired in a trade back at the draft when the Ottawa Senators took Tyler Kleven in 2020. They have been teammates on the Finnish junior national team several times. Hirvonen is an intelligent two-way forward who can play at center or on the wing. His effort rarely wanes and he has the awareness to make teammates better around him. Niemelä has been a dynamic puck mover in Finland, excelling in the Liiga. 

2022 NHL Draft Class

Round 2 (38 Overall) - Fraser Minten, C, Kamloops Blazers (WHL)
Round 3 (95 Overall) - Nick Moldenhauer, RW, Chicago Steel (USHL)
Round 4 (122 Overall) - Dennis Hildeby, G, Farjestads Jr. (J20 Nationall)
Round 5 (135 Overall) - Nikita Grebenkin, RW, Magnitogorsk (MHL)
Round 7 (218 Overall) - Brandon Lisowsky, LW, Saskatoon Blades (WHL)

The Leafs had a first-round pick, 25th overall, heading into the draft but they utilized that pick to help them get out of Petr Mrazek’s contract. They were confident that they would be able to select a player with similar value at the 38th spot, which wound up being Fraser Minten.

Minten combines shooting talent and physicality to play the game excitingly. He lacks high-end puck skill but he is an off-puck threat and shows the ability to play the give-and-go game fairly proficiently. He needs to become a bit more agile as a skater and a more willing passer as he develops but there is plenty to like about the booming hits and big snapshot that Minten possesses.

Chicago Steel product Moldenhauer brings functional physicality and intelligent board play to his game to go along with some intuitive off-puck offense. He is crafty in the offensive zone, looking to get shots off from various spots and change the angle of his shot with quick hand movements. He shows flashes of creative passes but often sends pucks to spots hoping a player is there rather than identifying teammates. He could be a solid depth scorer with some refinement and development.

Dennis Hildeby was drafted as a 20-year-old after having a few successful seasons in Sweden, including a nice run this past season, splitting time at the SHL and junior levels. The Leafs hope to have found something in the goalie as he hit his stride a few years after his original draft season and boasts a 6-foot-6 frame.

The Leafs grabbed Nikita Grebenkin in the fifth round. The young Russian is a highly skilled puck handler and passer. He plays with a bit of power, dropping his shoulder to get to the inside with his skill and speed. He doesn’t quite play like the typical MHL player. Finishing their draft with Brandon Lisowsky could be great value in the seventh round. He is undersized, but he has an interesting finishing ability. Lisowsky is a shifty skater at times, but he will need to develop the ability to scan the ice a bit more consistently. The skill is all there, though.

Strengths

The Leafs have built up a prospect pool with talent and depth all over, but the wings are where they see their work pay off. All three forward positions look fairly strong, but with centers such as Hirvonen and Mikhail Abramov looking as if they may wind up playing wing at the pro level, they are bolstered on the flanks even more.

Robertson and Joey Anderson could have legitimate shots at making the NHL roster out of camp. Abruzzese will likely factor into the lineup at some point. Knies was one of the biggest surprises in college hockey last season. Dmitri Ovchinnikov is an incredibly exciting prospect who plays a good two-way game at a high pace. Veeti Miettinen is a highly skilled forward who has looked very good in the NCAA. All this and Amirov, possibly the most talented of the bunch is recovering from a major health issue and should be back on the ice this year.

Weaknesses

While center is a soft spot in the prospect pool, the biggest weak spot for the Leafs has been goaltender for a long time. Erik Källgren was a nice addition last year but he was signed out of the SHL and likely tops out as a good backup considering he turns 26 in October. Joseph Woll has been injury prone and inconsistent which has hurt his case as a legitimate prospect. The Leafs have looked to Russia in recent drafts taking Artur Akhtyamov and Vyachslav Peska but both are at least a few years away, as most goalies are, and neither really brings the promise of a starting goalie. With goaltending, specifically of the homegrown variety, having been an issue in Toronto for so long, it should be a bigger priority for the Leafs. Maybe 25-year-old Ilya Samsonov can be the answer after he signed with the club this summer.

Next Man Up: LW Nick Robertson

The American winger is only 20 years old, but Robertson feels he’s been around forever. A second-round pick in 2019, Robertson has been in the AHL for the last two seasons and has flashed the offensive prowess and high-motor forechecking game that he was known for coming out of the OHL but injuries have slowed him in each of the last two years. Robertson has also seen time at the NHL level, having played in the ‘Bubble Playoffs’ and then received cups of coffee in the regular season each of the past two years.

With the Leafs having an opening in their forward group, specifically on the left side, Robertson could be the answer. After a strong finish to his season last year and another offseason of training, the young goal scorer should be heavily looked at to fill the void in the forward group. If he can, he would provide a new element of danger and add to a second powerplay unit that has struggled over the last couple of years.

Prospect Depth Chart Notables

LW: Nick Robertson, Matthew Knies, Nick Abruzzese, Rodion Amirov, Dmitri Ovchinnikov
C: Roni Hirvonen, Mikhail Abramov, Fraser Minton, Ryan Tverberg
RW: Joey Anderson, Veeti Miettinen, Nicholas Moldenhauer
LD: Filip Král, Mikko Kokkonen, Mike Koster
RD: Topi Niemelä, William Villeneuve, Alex Rindell, Kalle Loponen
G: Erik Källgren, Joseph Woll, Artur Akhtyamov, Vyachslav Peska

For a deeper dive into the prospect pool with player rankings, check out the Yearbook and Future Watch editions of the Hockey News print edition

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