As we continue to march our way through the TLN prospect rankings, I thought I’d take a moment to ask some of the contributors on the site, who their darkhorse prospect is for being a solid NHL player. As we head into a week with the top five prospects being showcased, I figured now would be as good a time as any to look back at some of the favourites we’ve covered (or haven’t covered.)
Earl Schwartz: Kristians Rubins
After we ranked him 18th in the TLN prospect rankings I’m not sure Kristians Rubins is considered a dark horse, but I will take any opportunity to stan Rubins. There was a time where the Leafs had an abundance of large D prospects, I remember the picture of Rasanen, Gordeev, and Middleton towering over Barb Underhill. Then it turned out they were actually not very good, and the Leafs best D prospects were undersized. At 6’4″ and 220 lbs Rubins diversified the Marlies blue line, but he also makes plays with the puck. He did figure skating as a kid and it shows, he’s such a smooth skater for a big man. When you see a 6’4″ D joining the rush like Morgan Reilly it creates a lot of chaos for the opposing forwards trying to backcheck, and creates more space on the attack. Rubins was a bit of a late bloomer and spent some time developing at a lower competition level, but to me it says something that he becomes a top 4 D on every team he plays for. Whether it’s the WHL or ECHL or Latvian national team, he earns the trust of his coaches and seems to constantly improve. He’s also fluent in 4 languages! I think Rubins can become a solid bottom pairing D for the Leafs, and his skating will allow him to chip in more offence than the average #5 D.
Nick DeSouza: Mac Hollowell
My darkhorse prospect in the Leafs pool is Mac Hollowell. Not only is Hollowell one of the smallest players in the organization but he’s also one of the best overall skaters in the whole organization. Hollowell’s ability to break pucks out of his own zone and navigate through traffic makes him a clear fit for how the Leafs want their defensemen to play. He has a fantastic understanding of the spacing of the game and has shown this off at multiple levels. His skating and hockey IQ has translated well at the AHL level and currently in Europe (with TUTO hockey). In contrast, defensively he has struggled at times. He’s small and tends to rely on his skating to anticipate play rather than winning physical puck battles. He’s a nonchalant defender and will need to increase his urgency without possession if he wants to defend successfully against professional grown hockey players. It’ll take time to work on this portion of his game and I think he could make strides with the Leafs player development staff. At 22, there’s still some time to improve and as a result, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s an every-day third-pairing NHLer in the future.
Ryan Hobart: Axel Rindell
Though he’s fresh to the organization, my dark horse prospect right now is Axel Rindell. Scoring the way he does as a defender at his age in the Finnish Liiga is special. I think he has a real chance to surprise people as his development continues.
Nick Richard: Dmitri Ovchinnikov
My darkhorse Leafs prospect, Dmitri Ovchinnikov, is becoming less of a dark horse with each game he plays and each highlight that makes the rounds on twitter. Kyle Dubas has gained a reputation for trading down in the draft to acquire additional assets, but he bucked that trend this year in exchanging a couple of later picks to move up and select Ovchinnikov in the fifth round following a season in which he put up 55 points in 54 MHL games. Through the early part of this season, the young Russian is showing all the offensive flair that made him so attractive to the Leafs in that range of the draft, and has plenty of room to grow as one of the youngest players in his class. He has been straight up dominant in the MHL, Russia’s U20 league, and has posted 13 goals to go along with 22 assists in just 22 games. He has yet to receive much opportunity in the KHL but if he continues to produce the way he has in the junior ranks, Sibir will only be able to keep him out of their lineup for so long.
Ovchinnikov is a well-rounded offensive threat who plays the game at a high pace, while understanding his defensive responsibilities. He can beat defenders with speed and creative dekes, while creating lanes to complete difficult passes to teammates. He is willing and able to navigate traffic to take the puck into high danger areas and finish chances himself as well, but his ability to create space and opportunities to make plays for his teammates is what will make him productive at the next level. He doesn’t have a lot left to prove in the MHL, but he is still barely 18 years old and will have to continue working towards a regular role for his KHL team. He is a long term project, but there are projectable offensive tools that could make him a viable NHL option in the coming years
Scott Maxwell: Semyon Der-Arguchintsev
Semyon Der-Arguchintsev has always been a fascinating prospect for me because of how much hype he got initially, only to follow it up with a disappointing draft +1 year, and then have a really good final year in the OHL. He’s performed well in the KHL so far, so he’s shown that his ability to play at the professional level is certainly there. I think he has the raw skill and hockey IQ to definitely have a good shot at becoming a solid bottom six player down the road, and I think his pre-existing chemistry with Nick Robertson might actually help his chances of sticking around if he ever gets a shot to play at the level. He has similar upside to Jeremy Bracco, but Bracco’s lack of success with the organization also shows that SDA’s chances of not making the NHL are just as strong. His size will be a huge detractor for people if he makes it, but when have we ever had an undersized skilled player that was unanimously loved on this team. He’s only 20, so he’s still got plenty of time to develop, but I’m very curious to see how it pans out.
Nick Barden: Nick Abruzzese
It’s the player who’s name I can finally spell correctly — Nick Abruzzese. After an incredible sophomore year with Harvard, it doesn’t look like he’s slowing down. 44 points in 31 games is one of the best stat lines in the entire NCAA and the Maple Leafs are lucky to have selected him in the fourth round of the 2019 draft. Unfortunately, Abruzzese is currently recovering from off-season surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left hip, which will keep him out until March. It won’t stop him from being his best and eventually a player who I think will be important to the Maple Leafs. His deceptiveness, hockey IQ and passing abilities are all what make him a great player. And if he adds more to his repertoire, every other team will wish they grabbed him before the Leafs.
Jon Steitzer: Vladislav Kara
It took all my will power to not change the rules for myself and allow myself to consider Denis Malgin a prospect and declare him a future top nine regular for the Leafs, so instead I’m going to really go out there and suggest that Vladislav Kara is slowly developing towards what could be a decent third line forward. Between our writers and our readers the consensus is that Kara is a D level prospect in the organization, and his inability to have a foothold in the KHL at 22 probably confirms that assessment isn’t far off.
That said, Kara has been improving every year, or at least he was until this season, and while it seems odd to be holding out hope, I think suddenly at 25 we might think there is something in Kara worth packaging into a Leafs uniform. There have been small flashes of brilliance, but a lot more silence, which isn’t completely out of the ordinary when it comes to depth players in Russia.
All signs point to him being a name we can probably forget, but something about him makes me refuse to. So he’s my darkhorse. For the record, I didn’t even have the heart to put him in my top twenty rankings, so if he succeeds, he’ll be proving me both right and wrong.
Here are the prospects we ranked last week:
The final five start tomorrow. The suspense of who they are is probably lacking, but I’m sure the order will provide some intrigue.