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Maple Leafs’ trade chips beyond the top prospects

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It is no secret that Kyle Dubas has been working the phones in an effort to upgrade the Leafs’ roster ahead of next Monday’s trade deadline and he made headlines just a few weeks ago when he confirmed that Toronto’s top prospects were on the table if it meant adding the right piece.

While the Leafs may lack true elite level prospects, players such as Nick Robertson, Rasmus Sandin, and Rodion Amirov are just below that tier and would hold significant value in the trade market. Moving high end prospects comes with risk, however, as Dubas would be shipping out potentially valuable, cost controlled contributors that carry the potential to be key members of his squad well into the future.

As the deadline approaches and players like Filip Forsberg and Mattias Ekholm are seemingly being taken off the market, a blockbuster deal that would warrant shipping out the organization’s top young talent appears less likely but things can change quickly at this time of year.

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There is also the expansion draft and flat salary cap to consider and acquiring another player with term beyond this season could lead to the Leafs losing valuable pieces of the current roster this summer. If there was ever a year where acquiring a pure rental might be preferable to acquiring a player under contract for multiple seasons, this is it.

Beyond the the top names in the Leafs’ prospect system, the team has managed to build a deep pool of quality NHL prospects in recent years. It is still too early to make any grand conclusions but Dubas and his staff appear to have drafted well, adding a number of valuable assets to the organization since he took over the GM role in 2018.

I enlisted the help of my friend and colleague, Tony Ferrari, and together we compiled a list of what we consider to be the Leafs’ best trade chips beyond the top prospects, draft picks, and current roster players. We teamed up to identify ten players (as well as a few honorable mentions) in the Leafs’ system that could help them acquire the help they seek ahead of the trade deadline, grading their trade value and estimating their arrival as NHL players while providing some insight into why they might be attractive to potential trade partners.

Though these players aren’t likely to be involved as centerpieces in franchise altering trades, the Leafs have several mid-level prospects that will be enticing to sellers and could help push deals over the finish line before the clock strikes 3:00pm on Monday.

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Timothy Liljegren – RHD – Toronto Marlies (AHL)

Value: B      NHL ETA: 2021

We debated whether or not Liljegren, a former first round pick who is still just 21 years old, should be included on this list. He is still a highly regarded prospect in the organization and while his value is likely a cut above the rest of the names you’ll find below, he isn’t quite in the same tier as Robertson, Sandin, or Amirov in terms of trade value. If the Leafs are going to budge on moving one of the top prospects to get a deal done, it feels like Liljegren will be as high as they’ll be willing to go for even the best available rental options.

It seems as though Liljegren has been around forever – perhaps a result of him stepping directly into the AHL with Marlies after being selected in the opening round of the 2017 NHL draft – but he won’t turn 22 years old until the end of the month and still has the potential to be an important part of the Leafs’ future. In fact, there is a good chance that he would already be playing regular NHL minutes if he were on a team that was going through more of a rebuilding or retooling phase and that kind of readymade, young option on the blue line will be attractive to sellers before the deadline.

Pegged as an offensive defenceman in his draft year, Liljegren spent his first couple of seasons in the AHL honing his defensive game. He has taken great strides in his play away from the puck and, in turn, has been able to create more offense in the last couple of seasons. His lack of of agility and lateral movement can still hamper him at times but he has been outstanding at both ends of the ice in limited action with the Marlies so far this season, playing heavy minutes while picking up two goals and six assists through 12 games.

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It feels like some of the shine has worn off Liljegren even though he looks ready to step into the NHL and for that reason, I fear it could be difficult for Dubas to acquire commensurate value for him. There doesn’t appear to be a bevy of available options that would warrant moving a prospect of Liljegren’s caliber but that doesn’t mean Dubas won’t pull the trigger if the right deal presents itself.

Provided Liljegren doesn’t get moved before the deadline, he could see duty for the Leafs down the stretch and into the playoffs if they run into injury troubles on the back end and he will surely compete for a regular spot when training camp rolls around again next fall. – Nick Richard

Topi Niemelä – RHD – Kärpät (Liiga)

Value: B-     NHL ETA: 2023/2024

Toronto traded down from the 44th pick to acquire the 59th and 64th picks from Ottawa at the 2020 draft, allowing the Senators to draft defenceman Tyler Kleven. With their two picks, Toronto was able to snag two players who were rated much higher on virtually every draft board in Roni Hirvonen (59th) and Topi Niemelä (64th).

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Toronto coming away with two players of equal or greater value was nice but getting the best defensive prospect in the deal was the real win. Niemelä has shown time after time that he has a well-rounded game that can complement his partner regardless of their stylistic preference. 

The winner of the 2021 World Juniors Top Defenceman award has taken quite a big step since his draft year last season, helping lead Finland to an unexpected bronze medal finish while leading all defenders in scoring. He isn’t a physical defender by any means but he holds his own in battles all over the ice and has the stick skill to break up plays in space. The ceiling may not be extremely high but he projects to be a solid second-pairing, second powerplay type of defender.

There is potential for him to take another big step for next season which could see his timeline move up a bit and after one more season in Liiga next year, we could see a season in the AHL and he could be NHL ready in two years time. 

The reason that he could be expendable for the Leafs in a trade is that he may be the ‘next guy’ after the ‘Big Four’ prospects in the Leafs pipeline and he plays a role that is a bit similar to that of Sandin, making him something of a redundant asset. That certainly doesn’t mean it will be easy for the Leafs to part with him, defensive depth on the right side isn’t easy to come by. He will be a hot commodity for any team looking to sell a mid-level rental to the Leafs. Tony Ferrari

Filip Hållander – LW – Luleå HF (SHL)

Value: C+     NHL ETA: 2021/2022

The second piece of the trade that saw a first-round pick come to Toronto for Kasperi Kapanen leave town, Hållander is often the forgotten piece because the first-round pick was used to select one of the team’s top prospects in Rodion Amirov. The only problem with that is Hållander is quite a decent prospect himself.

He has progressed quite well in the SHL, racking up just under a half-point per game so far this season. Still just 20 years old, the young Swede has been steadily rounding out his game as he develops against men in his home country. An improved defensive game and an improved goal scoring touch have brought on some more intrigue amongst the scouting world. 

If not for the global pandemic there may have been a role in North America for Hållander with the Marlies but alas, he stuck it out with Luleå and has had some solid success. He is one of the prospects close to actually playing NHL games amongst the Leafs pipeline that they seem willing to deal. His ability to play anywhere in the lineup should give him a path to the NHL and then he will have the opportunity to allow his offensive skill to earn his way up the lineup. 

Hållander has been dealt once already in his young career and it would be unfortunate for him if he was dealt a second time but he could be a decent addition to a trade if a team isn’t quite sold on a package that the Leafs are offering. Hållander alone likely won’t be able to fetch the Leafs a useful piece but he could very well be a player that is a valuable sweetener in a deal, similar to his acquisition by Dubas and company. – Tony Ferrari

Nicholas Abruzzese – C/LW – Harvard University (NCAA)

Value: C+     NHL ETA: 2023

In a year lost due to COVID for many, Abruzzese was recovering from offseason hip surgery and was likely to miss much of Harvard’s season anyway. The Ivy League schools were the first to pull out of the NCAA hockey season as it was. All signs point to good health moving forward thankfully but losing a year for any reason is still a blow.

With that said, the 2018-19 USHL leading scorer took the step into the NCAA with Harvard last season and blew the doors off in a way no one expected. The skilled yet diminutive forward displayed high-level playmaking and incredible passing ability against the older competition and earned honor after honor as a freshman including NCAA ECAC Rookie of the Year and First-Team All-Star, NCAA East Second All-American team, as well as NCAA Ivy League Rookie of the Year and First-Team All-Star. 

There is a lot to like in the former Chicago Steel forward’s game. As mentioned, his playmaking is his calling card but it is the brain that he possesses that will be what gets him to the NHL. He is so adept at breaking down defenses at full speed and understanding where and when to attack an opening. Whether it be with his feet or distributing the puck, Abruzzese seems to have the knack for making the right play at the right time.

Missing a year will likely mean he is delayed a bit in terms of arrival time but he wasn’t a player the Leafs were going to rush as it was. He needs to continue getting stronger and faster because as a 5’9” forward, even with the game getting smaller and faster, he will still need the requisite strength at the NHL level. 

Like many of the Leafs prospects, he will be of higher value to some teams than others. As we stand today, there are still many teams in the NHL that will not touch a forward who may have to rely on their ridiculous skill and motor rather than their ability to lean on a player. As the game gets faster paced and skill-based, Abruzzese could be an interesting addition for a team in a deal. His career likely goes as far as his on-ice intelligence takes him because his skill should play at the NHL level. – Tony Ferrari

Mikko Kokkonen – LHD – Jukurit (Liiga)

Value: C+     NHL ETA: 2023

Having just signed a new deal in Finland with the Pelicans after a season in which he played with Jukurit, Kokkonen is an interesting prospect. He lacks the flash and pizzazz of more offensively inclined prospects such as Sandin or even Niemelä, but Kokkonen is a steady and stable defender.

His hallmark is his strong defensive play and ability to transition the puck. He may not be more than a facilitator at the offensive end of the ice, but he fills out the rest of his game quite well with a quality set of tools from solid mobility to impressive anticipation on the defensive end of the ice. 

Kokkonen could be an underrated trade chip as he fits the more traditional profile of a defender and could entice a team who is looking for a guy that can be a stable presence on the back end rather than provide some flair the way Niemelä or Hollowell could. The World Junior bronze medalist is responsible, safe and intelligent on the ice in all three zones, rarely taking the extra chance. 

His NHL arrival is going to depend on the length of his new contract and where he is at the end of that. A year of AHL seasoning certainly wouldn’t hurt and could come as early as the 2022-23 season but until we know the details of his new deal in Finland, it won’t be certain. He could be pushing for a job at some point in 2023 if all goes well. It will be interesting to see how much of his transitional game and defensive play translate to North America because a spot on an NHL top-four isn’t out of the question and that could make him a valuable trade chip. – Tony Ferrari

Roni Hirvonen – C/LW – Ässät (Liiga)

Value: C+     NHL ETA: 2023/2024

As Tony mentioned, Hirvonen was one of the players selected by the Leafs after a draft day deal that saw them trade down with the Ottawa Senators. The early returns on that trade look quite good for the Leafs, with both Hirvonen and Niemelä impressing at the World Juniors and continuing to progress with their respective club teams in Liiga.

Thanks to smart asset management and strong drafting, the Leafs have added two quality prospects that not only have the potential to help them in the future, but can help them now as key pieces on the trade market.

Hirvonen is a feisty, albeit undersized, forward that can play both center and wing. He has some decent offensive tools as well and can generate offensive pressure with his relentless forechecking ability, while also having the skill to capitalize on those chances. For the season, he has six goals and 15 assists in 51 Liiga contests – solid numbers for a teenager playing in a professional league. He was a clutch offensive performer for Finland at the World Juniors as well, scoring a couple of big goals to help propel his squad to a bronze medal finish.

He is still a couple of years away from pushing for an NHL job but Hirvonen’s versatility and skill set gives him a relatively high floor as a two-way forward at the NHL level. That kind of certainty could prove valuable to rebuilding teams that are looking to add depth to their prospects pools in deadline deals. – Nick Richard

Joey Anderson – RW – Toronto Marlies (AHL)

Value: C      NHL ETA: 2021

Acquired in an offseason deal with the New Jersey Devils, the Leafs see Anderson as a reliable bottom six forward option in the near future. He has already proven capable of competing at the NHL level, suiting up in 52 games with the Devils in the previous two seasons and is currently playing a key role for the Marlies in the AHL.

Anderson is a defensively responsible winger who is difficult to play against and he has some offensive upside as well, netting 15 goals and 19 assists in just 44 AHL games last season. His motor is always running and that effort level in combination with his on-ice intelligence has made him an effective penalty killer, with two of his seven goals so far this season coming while shorthanded.

The Leafs will likely be hesitant to trade Anderson, considering his proximity to the NHL and the fact that they have recently lost two depth forwards on the waiver wire. He would be a seamless addition to their bottom six in case of injury and we all know that teams will are forced to utilize their depth come playoff time.

All that said, the Leafs are looking to add a bit of offensive punch to their forward group. Anderson was acquired in exchange for Andreas Johnsson and the Leafs could flip him for a similar player or include him as the secondary piece in a deal to acquire a more impactful top-six addition. – Nick Richard

Mikhail Abramov – C – Victoriaville Tigres (QMJHL)

Value: C      NHL ETA: 2023/2024

Abramov is a player that has developed nicely since being selected by the Leafs in the fourth round of the 2019 draft. He showed flashes of high-end skill and playmaking ability as a draft eligible, racking up 16 goals and 38 assists through 54 games in his first QMJHL season, but has since grown into a more well-rounded offensive threat.

In his second season, Abramov became a more assertive offensive player and utilized his great shot far more frequently, leading him to more than double his goal total from his rookie campaign. He has great hands and can make plays in tight spaces under pressure, and while he can be tough to check, he is more elusive than he is fast. We saw him be a difference maker as a puck carrier for Russia at the most recent World Junior Championships but he will need to add some explosiveness to his stride to have the same success at the professional level.

Abramov is still a bit of a project and there is a chance he isn’t able to stick at center ice as a pro but the early returns on his development have been encouraging. He possesses high-end offensive vision and instincts that are difficult to teach and that is what drew the Leafs to him in the first place. Those same attributes that made the Leafs take a swing on him at the 2019 draft are the same attributes that will be enticing to rebuilding teams before Monday’s deadline.

Unlikely to be the piece that lands a gamebreaker for the Leafs, Abramov could still hold value for teams that have middle six forward options on the market.

Abramov is already signed to an entry-level contract and is set to begin his AHL career next season. Whether that is in Toronto or elsewhere remains to be seen but he could develop into a legitimate secondary scoring option at the NHL level within the next couple of seasons if everything breaks his way. – Nick Richard

Mac Hollowell – RHD – Toronto Marlies (AHL)

Value: C-     NHL ETA: 2022/2023

The 2018 fourth-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs seems to be a favorite of the management team and he’s become a good friend of resident ‘fun uncle’ Joe Thornton. The thing about Hollowell is that coming out of his draft year, he was touted as a high-flying offensive dynamo and he’s shown a much more reserved and cautious game as a pro, highlighted by his excellent three-zone mobility and transitional prowess.

He showcases the ability to draw in the first forechecker before finding the open man up ice and in motion. He understands what he does best and tries not to play out of his element which isn’t a trait many young defenders have. He needs to get a bit more aggressive in the offensive zone, but there is a lot to like in terms of his long term development. Some aggressive gap play when defending transitions can burn him at times but he has the recovery ability and skating to make up for it.

The thing about mobile defenders who stand at a height under 6’0” is that not every team is willing to take them on. As mentioned with Abruzzese, any trade involving Hollowell will likely require the right team on the other side which limits his tradability. At 22, he also won’t be a prospect much longer so there may only be a season or two of prospect value left to truly mine.

Despite the cult following he’s somewhat developed in Toronto, if he’s involved in a trade, it’s likely as a throw-in that possibly tops up the value while clearing a contract. His highest value may be with the Leafs at the end of the day. – Tony Ferrari

Semyon Der-Arguchintsev – C – Toronto Marlies (AHL)

Value: C-     NHL ETA: 2022/2023

SDA burst onto the scene in his first preseason after being drafted 76th overall in 2018, earning himself an entry-level contract with the Leafs just days after his 18th birthday. The funny thing about progression, though, is that it isn’t always linear and Der-Arguchintsev struggled after being reassigned to Peterborough in the OHL.

A pure playmaker, SDA continued to rack up assists but failed to take the step forward that he and the Leafs organization had hoped he would. He scored just six goals, compared to twelve the season prior, and finished with just 46 points in 62 games. Too often, he deferred to his teammates instead of relying on his own abilities to dictate play and generate scoring chances.

If 2018-2019 was a step back for Der-Arguchintsev, then 2019-2020 was definitely a bounce back campaign for the diminutive Russian. Teaming up with fellow Leafs prospect Nick Robertson, SDA tallied 75 points in just 55 games to propel him into his first full season of professional hockey.

SDA got his feet wet in the KHL earlier this season, playing 17 games for Torpedo, picking up two goals and four assists while on loan from the Leafs. He has since returned to Toronto and has gotten off to a great start with the Marlies, registering four assists in his first three AHL games.

Der-Arguchintsev strikes me as the kind of player that will be more productive as he climbs the ranks and plays with smarter players who think the game at his level and can take advantage of his creative vision. There is a bit of a boom or bust factor with him but he has some unique skills that certain teams will value.

Already showing signs that he can be a productive player in the AHL, SDA is the kind of home run swing prospect that teams might covet in their system as they rebuild, but he would likely be a secondary piece in any significant trade. – Nick Richard

 

Honorable mentions:

Veeti Miettinen – LW/RW – St. Cloud State University (NCAA)

Value: C-     NHL ETA: 2023/2024

Joey Duszak – RHD – Toronto Marlies (AHL)

Value: D+    NHL ETA: 2022/2023

Dmitri Ovchinnikov – C/W – Sibir Novosibirsk (KHL)

Value: D+    NHL ETA: 2024

Filip Král – LHD – Toronto Marlies (AHL)

Value: D      NHL ETA: 2023/2024

William Villeneuve – RHD – Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL)

Value: D      NHL ETA: 2024

(Statistics from EliteProspects.com)