It’s nearly the end of 2021, which means it’s finally time to update the Toronto Maple Leafs prospect rankings.
Even without a first-round pick in two of the past three drafts, the Leafs have compiled a fringe top ten prospect pool in the NHL, primarily based upon the depth of their system. In today’s ranking, there are 34 players deemed “Leafs prospects” based on the criteria I’ll set out in just a moment. Of that group, there are prospects as deep as the late 20s that I like to varying extents. Toronto has done a great job of filling out their system with swings on talent deep in the draft and through undrafted free agents.
Before we get into the ranking, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page by establishing the criteria I use for my list. To be eligible for this ranking the player must meet each of the following:
- NHL exclusive rights are owned by the Maple Leafs, either by being signed or drafted.
- This excludes players on AHL contracts, meaning the likes of Keith Petruzzelli, Curtis Douglas, and Jeremy McKenna, among others, are not included.
- They are under the age of 24. Once players reach this age, you essentially know what they are. While there are of course exceptions, there has to be an age cutoff at some point and this is the one I have set.
- The U24 age cutoff means players such as Kristians Rubins, Joseph Duszak, and Erik Kallgren are not included.
- Finally, once a prospect plays over 25 games in the NHL, I no longer include them in my rankings. Given this is the games played cutoff for Calder Trophy eligibility, it’s a reasonable cutoff to determine who should be included.
- The 25 NHL games played cutoff means players such as Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren, and Joey Anderson are not included.
Second, these are the factors I considered when ranking the prospects, in order of biggest impact on their ranking to least:
- High-end potential/skills
- Performance/production this season
- Proximity to the NHL
- Likelihood of making the NHL
- Performance/production in past years
- Quality of competition
Finally, the plus/minus change in ranking position for each prospect is compared to my October rankings prior to the start of the NHL season. The difference is relative to the rest of the prospects still in the ranking. For example, a prospect that was ranked below Timothy Liljegren prior to him graduating from the list does not get a “+1” for that position as they did not move above anyone.
Without any further delay, let’s get into things!
Retaining the #1 spot is none other than Nicholas Robertson, although there are some extenuating circumstances here.
I was really looking forward to the battle for the top spot on the prospect ranking this year between Robertson and Rodion Amirov, but injuries have prevented us from seeing either in any real capacity whatsoever. Robertson was injured in the second game of the Marlies season, suffering a non-displaced fracture in his fibula and forcing him out for a minimum of 10 weeks.
It’s a massive blow given the injuries he battled a season ago. Robertson noted his involvement at development camp was to get him ready for his first full professional season but was halted less than six periods into it. Based on the timeline, we should expect him to return to the Marlies lineup sometime in January.
We don’t have any actual sample of games to analyze for Robertson this year, so I’ll note one thing I want to see from him when he returns. His pace of play is incredible and he’ll never be outworked on a shift, but it’s best for him if he slows things down just a touch. A high pace of play is what makes Robertson great, but at times it results in plays that feel rushed. He has the shooting and playmaking ability to take the extra half-second, survey his surroundings, and make the right play rather than the quickest one.
Similarly to Robertson, there isn’t much to talk about regarding Rodion Amirov this year as he’s been injured basically the whole season.
In the midst of a strong preseason where he featured on the first line, Amirov was sidelined for the first month of the KHL season after going hard into the boards in one of Salavat’s final preseason games. He made his season debut on September 23, picking up an assist, but was back on the shelf after just three games.
Recently, Amirov made his second return from injury. He played three games at the VHL level as a bit of a conditioning stint before returning to Salavat’s lineup on December 6. He played just 1:08 as the 13th forward but still managed to pick up his second assist of the season.
Frustratingly, Salavat has made Amirov a healthy scratch over the past week, prolonging our first real look at the Leafs 2020 first-round pick this season even further. As there hasn’t really been any game action to update you on regarding Amirov, be sure to check out TLN’s deep dive into Amirov from over the offseason by the fantastic Earl Schwartz to familiarize yourself with his game.
The one final note I will add on Amirov is that he’s deceptively older for being a 2020 draft pick. He’s only three weeks younger than Nick Robertson despite being drafted a whole year later. As such, when Amirov comes over to North America at the end of the 2021/22 KHL season, don’t be surprised to see him pushing for time with the Leafs a lot sooner than some maybe expect.
As the top-scoring defenceman in Liiga, it’s extremely tough to simply leave Topi Niemelä third on this ranking. I simply couldn’t justify punishing Robertson or Amirov for being injured, but any slide in performance from either when they return will see Niemelä rise into the top two in no time.
Outside of his fantastic World Juniors performance in 2020/21, it was a frustrating Draft +1 season for Niemelä. He was gaining ice-time with Kärpät but injuries prevented him from really finding his rhythm, limiting him to just 15 games over the season. This year, Niemelä has stayed healthy and has far exceeded expectations. Again, Niemelä is the top-scoring defenceman in Finland. As a 19-year-old. AND was a defensively-minded player when he was drafted.
To put Niemelä’s 0.77 points per game into context, here is the list of U20 defencemen to score at a higher rate in Liiga history with at least 30 games played:
- Reijo Ruotsalainen (1979/80): 30 GP, 28 PTS, 0.93 PPG
That’s it. Miro Heiskanen scored at a 0.77 PPG pace in his Age 18 season and is the only one even close in recent Liiga seasons. The single-season record for points by a U20 Liiga defenceman is 31 points in 52 games, set by Sami Vatanen in 2010/11. Niemelä is already seven points away with 21 games in hand.
Niemelä has emerged as having legit top-four potential with his recent breakout offensively. While I don’t view him as an all-out offensive threat that will become a PP1 quarterback, his strong passing and decision making will lead to offence, especially at 5v5. His advanced numbers are solid as well, with a 49.2% Corsi-for percentage that is 2.5% higher than Kärpät’s results as a team.
Niemelä’s been lights out this year and will be on display once again at the World Juniors for Finland in a couple of weeks, where he will look to defend his tournament top defenceman award and make it three consecutive tournaments that a Leafs prospect has won the award (Rasmus Sandin did it too in 2019).
Matthew Knies, the Leafs first selection in the 2021 draft, is our first riser on the updated prospect rankings and for good reason.
Multiple times over the past few months I’ve mentioned the tale of two seasons that Knies had in his draft-eligible year, which you can read about in more detail here. Going into this season with a strong University of Minnesota team, I wanted to see whether the true Knies was the first half player that struggled or the second half player that dominated in his draft year. In 18 games this season, Knies has shown it’s very much the latter.
Knies has seven goals and 16 points this season, breaking through as a top-six player for Minnesota immediately. He ranks second on the team in goals and third in points, but it’s been the other aspects of his game that have really stood out to me. Knies’ physicality on the forecheck, ability to create space for himself and teammates with his skating and deking, and underrated shot have all been elements that have impressed me this year.
He jumps up above the three prospects to follow in part to his production, but also due to his NHL projectability. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, it’s easy to see a scenario where Knies plays regular minutes in the NHL in a variety of roles. While he could be an excellent complementary top-six winger with his strong forechecking and shot, he could also be an effective bottom-six piece who plays an energy role and chips in some offence if he doesn’t reach his ceiling.
I have a feeling Matthew Knies is going to make a lot of Leafs fans excited at the upcoming World Juniors, where he will feature for Team USA in a major capacity. I was initially apprehensive about the Knies pick at the draft, but the Leafs look to have found first-round value deep into the second round yet again.
A year between games and major hip surgery behind him, Nick Abruzzese has not missed a beat in returning to game action with Harvard this year. The 22-year-old left-winger has 15 points in his first 11 games to lead the Crimson in scoring, a feat he also achieved in his freshman campaign in 2019/20.
Abruzzese started the season with John Farinacci (ARI) and Alex Laferriere (LAK), but in the final two games before winter break was paired with two electric young scorers in Sean Farrell (MTL) and Matthew Coronato (CGY). If that line continues into the new year, it has the potential to be among the most dangerous combinations in the country.
Since being drafted as a double overage prospect in 2019 by Toronto, Abruzzese has done nothing but score. Given his advanced age, he had to step into the NCAA and produce immediately, and that’s exactly what he’s done. A cerebral player, Abruzzese may not have the skating ability, but his use of deception and quick playmaking makes him a very interesting prospect for me. He likely won’t be a top-six NHL talent on his own, but his skill set could make him a strong complementary piece with the Leafs top stars in a couple of years.
It is important to note that despite only playing in his second NCAA season, Abruzzese is already 22 years old. I don’t know what the plan is for him to turn professional, but I would like to see him with the Marlies sooner rather than later. For a reference point, he’s a few months older than recent Leafs debutant Alex Steeves (who we will get to shortly). I’m not sure how much a junior or especially a senior season with Harvard would benefit his development.
A move to a new team with HIFK saw Roni Hirvonen start slowly out of the gates, but the feisty 5-foot-9 winger has started to find his offensive game. After playing centre for most of the year with Ässät in 2020/21, Hirvonen has seen a much more permanent shift to the left wing with HIFK this season. With 16 points in 28 games, he ranks fourth in U20 Liiga scoring, only behind the aforementioned Topi Niemelä, Ville Koivunen (CAR), and Joakim Kemell (2022). Recently, Hirvonen has been even better, as over his last seven games he has eight points.
Hirvonen has been a high volume shooter this season who could still see some more puck luck, averaging 3.89 shots on goal per game but a lowly 5.5% shooting percentage. His individual PDO of 0.945 also reinforces that he’s been a bit unlucky this year and is something that may turn around soon.
The most impressive aspect of Hirvonen’s season for me has been his turnaround defensively. After a tough season with Ässät in which he had the worst plus/minus on the team at -19 and had a 48.8% Corsi-for, Hirvonen’s numbers have drastically improved. Keeping in mind he’s moved to a much better team, Hirvonen’s 62.9% Corsi-for is significantly better than last year’s totals. Even when comparing those results to his team, the 48.8% CF% with Ässät was 0.6% under the team’s Corsi-for, while Hirvonen’s 62.9% CF% this year has outperformed his team’s Corsi-for by 5.5%.
The red -1 above Hirvonen’s name may indicate he’s been disappointing this year which has not been the case. Expect him to star for Finland at the upcoming World Juniors once again and don’t be surprised if his recent scoring streak in Liiga continues when he returns to HIFK in the new year.
I was very excited to see what Mikhail Abramov would be able to do in his first professional season with the Marlies this year. Graduating from the QMJHL after a championship with the Victoriaville Tigres, Abramov has been challenged immensely looking to become a centre at the pro level. Early on there were some issues, but as Abramov has adapted, he’s started to round into form. He has one goal and eight points through 21 games this year.
In recent games, Abramov has been trusted as the first-line centre between Antti Suomela and Joey Anderson. While his overall 5v5 differentials are underwhelming (six goals for, 13 goals against), his play as of late has been improving. He was a plus rated player in recent losses to Bridgeport and Providence, picking up three assists across the two games to break a six-game pointless streak.
In terms of scoring, expect Abramov’s luck to start regressing to the mean soon. None of his eight points has come on the powerplay and he’s shooting just 3.03% this season (one goal on 33 shots). Abramov shot 13.04% in his final year in the QMJHL and 14.34% in his 35 goal season, so it’s only a matter of time before the pucks start to go in for him a bit more.
Toronto may have themselves a gem out of the NCAA free agent market in Alex Steeves. Just 12 games into his professional career, Steeves earned himself a call up to the Leafs, making his NHL debut last week against Columbus. A younger NCAA free agent having turned 22 over the weekend, Steeves has blown away expectations following strong performances at development camp, the few shifts he had at the rookie tournament before he was injured, and in his time with the Marlies.
Steeves was fantastic for Notre Dame last year, leading the entire Big 10 conference in even-strength involvement percentage at 36.2% (per cent of even-strength team goals a player scores a point on). This meant Steeves was leaned on by his team to score at even strength more than any other player in the Big 10, more than the likes of Cole Caufield, Dylan Holloway, and Matty Beniers.
Taking into account Steeves missed training camp due to injury, it makes his start in the AHL even more impressive. He’s got seven goals and 12 points through 12 AHL games. He’s been versatile, playing both wings and both special teams. Especially impressive has been Steeves’ shot generation, as he leads the Marlies with an average of 3.6 shots on goal per game. This was an area he excelled in at Notre Dame as well, as his 4.46 SOG/GP ranked third in the conference.
Steeves isn’t the fastest skater, but he plays with pace and looks to get the puck to the net often. He was rewarded with his NHL debut quickly by Toronto, but a full season with the Marlies will set him up well going into the future. There is a wide range of outcomes when signing an NCAA free agent but it’s looking like the Leafs have a strong one in Alex Steeves.
Pontus Holmberg has one of the best journies of any Leafs prospect currently in the system. Drafted as an overage prospect out of the third tier in Sweden, Holmberg has broken out as one of the top players in Sweden in his Draft +5 season.
Holmberg had a fine 2020/21 regular season, establishing himself as the third line centre on the top team in Sweden with Växjö. Then came the playoffs, where Holmberg took his game to the next level en route to an SHL championship. With seven goals and 14 points in 14 games, Holmberg took home the Stefan Liv Memorial Trophy as the playoffs MVP. He also earned himself an entry-level contract with the Leafs, but with a year remaining on his contract in Sweden elected to return to Växjö for 2021/22.
The question for me this year was whether Holmberg was a fine middle six option in Sweden, or if he could take his game to the next level over the course of a full season as he did in the playoffs.
He’s absolutely done the latter, scoring eight goals and 24 points through 27 games. Holmberg also has an active seven-game point streak, in which he has 10 points. He’s the top scorer among U23 players and tied for 10th across the entire league.
Holmberg will need to become more of a penalty-killing option when he joins the Marlies at the conclusion of the season, as he’s currently a secondary option for Växjö, but his 5v5 game has been strong with a 55.5% Corsi-for. He will be 23 by season’s end, so we could see him factoring in as a call-up option for the Leafs as soon as the 2022/23 season.
Everyone’s favourite prospect, Semyon Der-Arguchintsev has the flashy point totals this season, currently with 13 points in 21 games and sitting fourth in Marlies scoring, but there’s a lot more to the story.
I went in-depth on his struggles a couple of weeks ago in one of our prospect roundups here at The Leafs Nation (which you should read every Monday morning). Der-Arguchintsev has been solid on the powerplay, scoring five assists there, but his 5v5 play has been lacking. No Marlies player has been on-ice for more goals against at 5v5 than Der-Arguchintsev with 18, not to mention he’s only been on-ice for seven 5v5 goals for as well. His -11 5v5 goal differential is the worst on the team.
Despite numerous injuries at the centre position for the Marlies, Der-Arguchintsev was recently demoted to the 4th line for their game against the Providence Bruins. Mikhail Abramov, Curtis Douglas, and recent callup from the Newfoundland Growlers Ryan Chyzowski all played above him in the lineup.
He has yet to play a full professional season and doing so as an undersized centre is difficult, but Der-Arguchintsev needs to turn a corner soon if he’s to prevent being passed on the depth chart. He’s been faced with tough, top-six minutes for essentially the whole season without a veteran centre to lean on, so I am cutting him some slack here. The Marlies have brought in Joseph Blandisi on a PTO which gives them that top-end centre to lean on, so the excuses are gone for SDA for this next stretch of games.
A stellar freshman season from 2020 sixth-round pick Veeti Miettinen saw him shoot up prospect rankings last year, but the hype surrounding the Finnish winger has started to cool a bit with some sophomore struggles. Miettinen destroyed the U20 Finnish league in his draft year and didn’t miss a beat coming over to North America with St. Cloud State in 2020/21, becoming an important scorer down their lineup and finishing tied for the team lead in points. Heading into 2021/22 with the top freshman award in the NCHC in hand, the toughest conference in the NCAA, expectations were high.
Through 16 games, the numbers are underwhelming for Miettinen. He has 10 points but a surprisingly low three goals given how lethal his shot is. He’s been moved around the lineup but nothing has really clicked just yet this season.
The positive is that Miettinen is still doing what makes him such a fun prospect: shooting the puck. He has 52 shots on goal this season, good for an average of 3.25 per game. His 5.8% shooting percentage will certainly rise as the year goes along as well given how dangerous of a shot he possesses. For context, last year Miettinen had 81 shots on goal in 31 games, an average of 2.61 per game. With 11 goals on 81 shots, his shooting percentage was more than double what it currently is at 13.6%, a number that honestly could even be higher with Miettinen’s bullet of a shot.
Ryan Tverberg, AKA your favourite Leafs prospect you don’t know about yet.
Tverberg is the biggest riser on this edition of the Leafs prospect rankings, and rightfully so. I’ve been a fan of his game since he join UConn in the second half of last season. His mix of speed, skill, and eagerness to drill someone through the boards made him arguably the most electric prospect in the organization. For Tverberg, the question was how long it would take him to adapt to the collegiate ranks coming from the OJHL. It’s a big jump to make and as a seventh-round pick with limited pedigree, he was going to have to earn every minute of ice-time he got. And boy has he ever.
Scoring two goals in the season opener, Tverberg quickly found himself promoted to the top line and has not looked back since. His nine goals and 16 points in 14 games both lead the team and were good enough for him to earn an invite to Team Canada’s World Junior camp just last week. It’s been an exponential ascent the past few months for Tverberg, as noted by Hockey Canada when he was cut from the team as a player that was nowhere near their radar heading into the year.
I liked Tverberg’s game coming into this year, bumping him up a few spots and edging closer to the top 20, but I don’t think anyone saw this rise coming. If he continues it the rest of the season, and a couple of the aforementioned names continue to falter, don’t be surprised if Tverberg is a top 10 Leafs prospect sooner than later.
Ty Voit is already starting to look like a bit of a steal in the fifth round of the 2021 draft, unsurprisingly to many. Voit was ranked much higher by many draft outlets, but due to his diminutive frame and limited scoring as a Draft -1 player, fell to the Leafs with their second pick of the draft.
Through 24 games with the Sarnia Sting this year, Voit has been doing exactly what many expected him to do if he had been able to play as a draft-eligible. Voit leads the team in scoring with 29 points and has been a catalyst offensively. His playmaking has been on display many times, both on the powerplay and at even strength. 22 of his 29 points have come at 5v5, so it’s not like Voit has been overly reliant on the man advantage to produce either. He’s doing so while also transitioning to centre, a position he has not played at the OHL level before.
It’s a joy to watch Voit play, his creativity and playmaking leave you never knowing which play he’s going to make. He’s a constant threat on the powerplay but has also been effective at creating space for his teammates at 5v5 and finding them when he does.
Mikko Kokkonen is a tough player to get a read on. His offensive production has continuously dropped over his Liiga career but comes over to the Marlies at the end of the 2020/21 season and scores seven points in 11 games. Then he starts this season with a much better Finnish team with the Lahti Pelicans and has six points in nine games.
As a player who anchored a top pairing for a poor Jukurit team over multiple years, and did so posting positive Corsi-for results while also playing on his off-side, I really wanted to see what Kokkonen could do with Pelicans this year. It was a strong start to the season but things have gone downhill since then, to the point where Kokkonen is in fact my biggest faller since my last rankings.
Kokkonen is in the midst of an 18 game pointless streak. While he remains in the Pelicans top four, he’s a negative Corsi player this season. Kokkonen’s defensive play has been praised in the past, and rightfully so, but this year he’s down at a 43.2% 5v5 Corsi-for. It should be noted that Pelicans as a team allow a ton of shots against and that Kokkonen is slightly positive in terms of relative metrics, but it doesn’t change the fact that he has a limited offensive skill set and the defence has regressed this year.
Part of the reason Kokkonen drops is also his limited upside. While his floor may be higher than many of the prospects around him in this ranking, his ceiling is also much lower. I’m very interested to see what Kokkonen does with the Marlies if/when he comes over at the end of the Liiga season on an amateur try-out.
I was all on-board the Filip Kral bandwagon heading into this season, and still am to an extent. Král has always been a prospect that I’ve kept an eye on, dating back to when the Leafs drafted him in 2018. He’s a player that has graded out very well in underlying numbers when they have been tracked at the junior levels, especially in transition.
Making his pro debut last year, Král surprised me in how quickly he adapted to the Czech league. Originally on loan in the second division, it wasn’t long before he was clearly too good for the league and moved up to the top flight with HC Kometa Brno. There, he continued his strong play, scoring 21 points in 48 games while also playing well defensively.
His play last year made me excited to see what he could do with the Marlies over a full season, but so far it’s been a bit underwhelming. Král isn’t an offensive defenceman and won’t be on the powerplay, but his four points in 19 games are still less than what I had hoped for. A recent poor stretch at 5v5 has seen Král’s goal differential drop into the negatives as well.
The Marlies have given Král a lot of opportunities in the top four, even recently playing on his off-side. Král is a case of a player I wish we had advanced metrics for at the AHL level, as someone whose raw point totals won’t tell the whole story. Simply put, I still like Král’s game but his play with the Marlies couldn’t justify keeping him as high as I had him heading into the year.
Joseph Woll was a tough prospect to rank this time around. I had dropped him a decent way down my list, outside the top 20 in fact, given his inconsistency at the AHL level and already being 23 years old.
We still haven’t seen the consistency at the AHL level, the ultimate thing I need to see before buying into Woll as a prospect again, but you simply can’t ignore performance at the NHL level, even in a small sample, when making these rankings. For Woll, his small NHL stint showed what makes him a prospect worth paying attention to, but also what has made him fall down rankings over the past two years.
A 20 save shutout against the Islanders in hostile territory followed by a stellar 34 save performance against the Sharks? That’s the great side of Woll’s game. The debut against the Sabres, allowing four goals on 27 shots, and the final game against the Jets, allowing six goals on 41 shots, are the downside.
The example I go back to for Woll comes from back-to-back games last year. In the first, he allows three goals but makes 57 saves as the Marlies won in overtime. The following start, two days later, Woll allows three goals again…but on 17 shots and is pulled minutes into the second period.
Woll has yet to post a save percentage above .900 over the course of a full season in the AHL. Until he does that at the very least, it’s hard to see him becoming a full-time NHL goaltender. That being said, we often see AHL goaltenders put up better numbers at the NHL level with significantly more structure and improved defensive play. He’s got a strong track record at Boston College but has yet to put it all together professionally.
Pavel Gogolev burst onto the scene last year on an AHL contract with 12 points in 13 games. His track record of strong scoring in the OHL made him an eye-catching get on an AHL deal, a contract that was swiftly upgraded to an entry-level contract following his performance with the Marlies in 2020/21.
I had some reservations regarding AHL stats from last year given the limited sample of teams players were up against. So far, Gogolev has not been able to maintain that strong play from a season ago. He has six points through 14 games, primarily in middle-six usage.
In 2020/21, Gogolev averaged 2.0 shots per game. This year, that number is down to 1.36, partly due to the reduced minutes of course. There have also been fewer opportunities on the powerplay, a place where Gogolev scored three of his six goals a season ago (though he did score his first powerplay goal of the year Wednesday night). Additionally, Gogolev’s 5v5 goal differential has taken a dip in recent games down to -6 and a 25.0% goals for percentage at 5v5.
Gogolev is still a worthwhile gamble given his raw tools, including his great shot and offensive instincts. He has a long way to go in regards to his skating and defensive play but as a Draft +4 player in the midst of his first full professional season, there’s time for Gogolev to round into form.
Oh, the frustrating case of Dmitry Ovchinnikov in 2021/22. Following a stellar MHL campaign in which he scored 51 points in 40 games and led the league in involvement percentage (per cent of team goals that a player scored a point on), Ovchinnikov essentially guaranteed his graduation to the professional ranks for the 2021/22 season.
But this is the KHL we’re talking about and things are never that easy. Despite having signed a contract extension with Sibir prior to the KHL season, Ovchinnikov has been receiving the classic young player in the KHL treatment. He’s played in 16 games in the KHL this season, averaging 5:30 TOI. Now, this time on ice data doesn’t include the 23 (!) times that Ovchinnikov has dressed but not received a shift over the course of this season.
There was a stretch of seven games from October 18 through November 4 where it looked as if Ovchinnikov was finally getting an opportunity to play, getting a little under 10 minutes of action each game. Upon returning from the Deutschland Cup with Russia in mid-November, however, Ovchinnikov was back playing next to nothing.
After early-season struggles, Sibir has been hot as of late and climbing the standings, so it’s hard to see Ovchinnikov factoring in much the rest of the season. The major issue is that Sibir does not have a VHL affiliate, a middle ground where he could theoretically play against higher competition while waiting for a KHL opportunity. Instead, Ovchinnikov is stuck playing a shift or two in the KHL and getting the occasional game back down in the MHL.
Mac Hollowell just recently returned from time away from the Marlies due to personal reasons, so I don’t love dropping him down my rankings. Here are the facts, though. Hollowell is already 23 years old. He has been passed on the depth chart and is now the 3RD for the Marlies. He’s an offensive defenceman who has 25 points in 69 career AHL games.
I just don’t really see much of an NHL future ahead for Hollowell. He’s undersized at 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, has yet to produce at a high rate at the AHL level, and is far from a strong defensive defenceman. I like him in transition and offensively but in his Draft +5 season, this should have been the year he takes the step to be a top-pairing AHL defenceman and challenges for a call-up. Hollowell has only played eight games this year but he’s fallen down the lineup, not climbed up it.
There’s still time for Hollowell to take a step, it’s just becoming harder to see him break out.
Limited ice-time on one of the top teams in the NCAA has kept us from truly seeing Mikey Koster’s potential. A member of the Minnesota Golden Gophers, Koster has been a fixture on their third pairing since he joined the team in 2019/20, often playing his off-side on the right. I’m a big fan of Koster’s game, a strong transitional player who can just as easily skate the puck out or make a tape-to-tape two-line pass.
His four points in 15 games are unremarkable, but keep in mind he’s playing behind the likes of Sabres prospect Ryan Johnson, Kings prospect Brock Faber, and Ducks prospect Jackson LaCombe. No matter how good Koster plays, he’s not going to be passing any of them on the depth chart. Despite the array of top defensive prospects on the team, Koster impressively leads the way with a +7 rating.
I’m always drawn back to Koster’s four-game sample on the top pair for Minnesota when Johnson, Faber, and LaCombe were away at the 2021 World Juniors. Koster scored two goals and four points, quarterbacked the powerplay, and generated a bunch of scoring chances. Once he gets consistent top-four minutes at Minnesota, I fully expect him to jump right back up my rankings.
William Villeneuve is back in his scoring ways after a disappointing Draft +1 season. Selected in 2020 as the top-scoring draft-eligible defenceman out of the QMJHL, Villeneuve’s points per game dropped from .906 in his draft year to .606 a season ago. Even still, the Leafs clearly believed in him as a prospect by signing him to an entry-level contract prior to the start of the 2021/22 season, and he’s rewarded them with strong play so far this year.
Through 26 games, Villeneuve has 23 points. He’s been especially strong as of late, scoring 19 points over his last 13 games. While keeping in mind plus/minus is far from perfect but is also one of the few stats we have at the junior level, his +16 rating also shows his improved defensive play.
It’s been a strong year for Villeneuve, cementing his place as the top defenceman for the Memorial Cup hosts in the Saint John Sea Dogs this year.
The only new addition to the prospect pool since October, the recently acquired Chad Krys is a bit of a project for the Leafs development staff.
Acquired for Kurtis Gabriel, Marlies GM Ryan Hardy has prior experience with Krys from his time with the USNTDP. Krys is not far removed from being a touted prospect in the Chicago organization, a 2016 second-round pick with a strong resume at Boston University. His professional career has not gone smoothly, to say the least.
Krys scored eight points in 41 games with Rockford during his first AHL season in 2019/20. He was then limited to six games in 2020/21, undergoing major shoulder surgery for a nagging injury which kept him out for the rest of the season. He returned for the start of the 2021/22 campaign but was limited in opportunities with the Blackhawks amount of defensive prospects on their AHL squad.
Now with the Marlies, Krys has gone from rotating as a third pair or seventh defenceman with Rockford to a top-four role. Toronto traded Kurtis Gabriel to give him a better chance of making it back to the NHL and in return get an intriguing project for essentially nothing in Chad Krys. If his shoulder issues are behind him, Krys has the tools to still turn into a useful piece for the Leafs. He’s more than just a minor league addition.
It’s been an up and down season for 2020 fourth-round pick Artur Akhtyamov. He looked great last year in his Draft +1 campaign, playing well in 14 games in the VHL with a .927 save percentage and even getting a taste of KHL action.
With Tampa prospect Amir Miftakhov moving over to North America, Akhtyamov is the clear cut third-string goaltender in the Kazan organization and has been the starter for their VHL affiliate. Unlike last year, though, the performances have been inconsistent for him this season. He has a .906 SV% in 27 games with Bars Kazan, a notable dip from his .927 SV% across 14 games a year ago.
At one point, Akhtyamov experienced a four-game stretch in which he was pulled in each start. Recently he has started to turn a corner, posting a save percentage above .900 in seven of his last eight appearances. Playing in a top KHL team’s organization, Akhtyamov will need to be that good for a long stretch to push himself into the conversation for KHL games.
Joe Miller is in the midst of a breakout season with the Chicago Steel in the USHL. Electing to return to the USHL for his Draft +2 season rather than go to the NCAA, Miller is third in league scoring with 33 points through 25 games. Even more impressively, he’s in the midst of a 12 game point streak in which he has 25 points.
Drafted as the youngest eligible player in the 2020 draft (his September 15 birthday is the draft cutoff), Miller was limited to a bottom-six role with the Steel a year ago. His 18 points in 40 games made him an easy prospect to forget about, especially as a sixth-round pick. Outside of a few games on the second line, Miller has become a top-line player for Chicago and a catalyst offensively in 2021/22. Moving from centre out to the right-wing, his vision and playmaking have meshed extremely well with 2023 top prospect Adam Fantilli.
A diminutive winger listed at 5-foot-9 and 146 pounds, the big test for Miller will come next year when he does make the jump to the NCAA. He recently switched his commitment from Minnesota to Harvard, where he will potentially be the third Leafs prospect on the team. Don’t be surprised if Miller continues to climb this list by season’s end with his current form.
It’s been a rollercoaster of a season for Axel Rindell. Remaining with Liiga bottom feeder Jukurit to start the year, Rindell was being leaned on to do too much and his game was suffering. He had just five assists in 16 games, was a -11, and had begun to commit numerous errors.
The struggles in a pivotal year, his exclusive rights with the Leafs expire in the summer, resulted in a mid-season trade to Kärpät. Things started very well for him with his new team, scoring eight points in his first four games. Since that hot start, however, Rindell has just one point in nine games and has dropped down the lineup.
Now on the third pair, the clock is ticking for Rindell. He is 21, turning 22 in April, and will become a free agent in the summer. His production in Finland has stagnated since being drafted as an overage prospect in 2020. He’ll have until the end of the Liiga season and likely an amateur try-out with the Marlies to round out the year and look to earn an entry-level contract.
An overage goaltender who had been a backup in the Russian junior league with a .909 save percentage was not where I expected the Leafs to go with their final pick of the 2021 draft. Vyacheslav Peksa, drafted at the recommendation of then Marlies goaltending coach Jon Elkin, has put together a very strong year with Irbis Kazan in the MHL.
Peksa has taken over as the starter with Irbis and has been lights out, posting a .935 SV% through 33 games. Consider that he had a .909 SV% in 17 games as the backup last season, it’s been a dramatic improvement from Peksa through his Draft +2 campaign. It’s unfortunate Kazan has such strong goaltending depth, including the aforementioned Artur Akhtyamov, which has prevented Peksa from getting into any VHL games.
He’s carried the load for Irbis, playing in 33 of 38 games, and has kept them in the playoff hunt despite the team’s lack of scoring. Again, goalies as voodoo and hard to project, so we’ll need to see Peksa do it at higher levels before he starts to rise up the rankings.
I’ve been a big advocate for the Leafs to sign more undrafted prospects out of development camp and was quite happy to see them add Braeden Kressler prior to the start of the season. That being said, it has been an underwhelming Draft +1 start with the Flint Firebirds.
Kressler is back playing centre, starting the season on the top line and coming out of the gates well with five points in Flint’s first six games. Following that strong start came a five-game pointless streak, though, and a drop down the lineup. With just 11 points in 20 games, Kressler is ninth on Flint in scoring and was listed as their third-line centre in their most recent game.
When you look at how good Rangers first-round pick Brennan Othmann has been with 36 points this season, it’s disappointing that Kressler wasn’t able to hold down that 1C position. I still like the tenacity he brings but I expected a fair bit more production early this season coming off of a strong showing at Leafs development camp and the rookie tournament.
Drafted as an overage prospect out of high school, John Fusco simply hasn’t played enough high-level games for me yet. He played a half-season in the USHL last year, scoring 12 points in 20 games with Sioux City, which was his first experience at a level higher than US high school.
This year, Fusco has begun his collegiate career with Harvard. As a top team with numerous strong options, there has been quite a bit of rotation among the defensive group. Fusco has played games as a seventh defenceman but also up in the top four. He has one goal through eight games, which came in the season opener. Listed at 5-foot-11 and offensively minded, we’ll get a better read on Fusco as the year goes along and he becomes more comfortable at this higher level.
I don’t like to punish players for being injured in my rankings (see Robertson and Amirov at the very beginning). That being said, you reach a point where you can no longer justify keeping a player higher on the list, and that time has come for Ian Scott.
Due to persistent injuries, Scott has been limited to just three full games since the beginning of the 2019/20 season. He missed that entire 2019/20 season after undergoing hip surgery, played minimal games last year coming back from injury, and has not played at all in 2021/22 after being injured yet again in the Maple Leafs preseason.
In the games Scott has actually played since turning professional, the results have been lacklustre. He stopped 24/28 in his lone game for the Marlies in 2020/21 and struggled in his two games on loan to Wichita of the ECHL, allowing seven goals on 45 shots.
Scott had put up disappointing numbers in his junior career before breaking out in his final year with Prince Albert in the WHL, posting a .932 save percentage in 49 games en route to a WHL championship in 2018/19. But that was three seasons ago and Scott turns 23 in January. It’s difficult to justify ranking higher than this just simply given his inactivity and how long ago those good results came.
I really hope Scott is able to come back in the back half of the season, go down with the Newfoundland Growlers, and get his career back on track.
Kalle Loponen is finally in the midst of his first full season in Finland’s top league, to mediocre results. His four points in 29 games with KooKoo are underwhelming, to say the least. It is important to note that Loponen has been a powerplay specialist at the junior levels but hasn’t received that opportunity with KooKoo this season.
The positive is that Loponen is playing in a tough league as a U21 defenceman and doing so regularly. His ice-time has fluctuated over the season, but coming in at an average of 13:54 per game is nothing to scoff at. The negative, though, is that he’s been caved in during those minutes. His 43.4% Corsi-for is worst on KooKoo among regulars, a significant margin away from KooKoo’s team Corsi of 48.2%.
After a disappointing Draft +1 season with Waterloo of the USHL, Wyatt Schingoethe has made the jump to the NCAA with Western Michigan this year. On a veteran-heavy team in a tough conference, the opportunities have been incredibly slim for him. He’s been limited to just eight games in a fourth line or 13th forward role, failing to score his first point so far.
Schingoethe is the youngest player on Western Michigan’s roster so there’s still plenty of time for him to carve out a role for himself over the coming years, but needless to say, it has been a lacklustre time for Schingoethe since the Maple Leafs drafted him.
A strange situation with Vladislav Kara’s rights in the KHL kept him out of game action for the first few months of the season, but he’s back playing games and excelling. Kara has 10 goals and 13 points in 11 games with Yugra Khanty-Mansiysk of the VHL, Russia’s equivalent to the AHL.
That kind of production would usually have a prospect much higher on the list…except Kara is already 23 years old. A fourth-round pick as an overage prospect in 2017, Kara has been a strong scorer at the VHL level but has yet to make that ultimate step to the KHL. He had an opportunity last year with Severstal Cherepovets but failed to make much of an impression, being sent down and later traded after scoring three points in 17 KHL games. At this point, it’s hard to see Kara becoming anything more than a bottom-six KHLer.
Semyon Kizimov made the move to Gornyak-UGMK over the offseason, marking the first time in his professional career that he wasn’t with the Lada Togliatti organization. It’s been a successful move for himself as he’s scored a career-high 10 goals and 18 points through 31 games this season in the VHL.
Similarly to the aforementioned Vladislav Kara, though, Kizimov’s solid production comes a bit too late in his progression to be of any real consequence. He turns 22 in January and has failed to score anywhere near a point-per-game rate in the Russian second tier, let alone do well in the KHL. In fact, Kizimov has only played four career games in the KHL, all coming at the beginning of the 2020/21 season with Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod.
Unfortunately, someone’s gotta be last.
Ryan O’Connell is in his Draft +5 season. He is 22, turning 23 by the end of the season in April. He has been at most a third pair defenceman on an unremarkable Ohio State team. The points aren’t there, and neither is the time-on-ice.
O’Connell ranks one spot lower than Kizimov simply because he’s one year older.