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Leafs Prospect Mailbag: Answering all of your prospect questions heading into the trade deadline
By Kyle Cushman1 year ago
Welcome to the first Toronto Maple Leafs prospect mailbag of the year!
Today, Nick Richard and I (Kyle Cushman) will be answering all of your questions on the Leafs’ system. We’ve got everything from who to watch going into the deadline, when we can expect to see the Leafs top prospects make their NHL debuts, and even a quick look ahead to the 2022 Entry Draft, plus a whole lot more.
Without further delay, let’s get into it.
What prospects are on the hot seat for the trade deadline? (@thelifeofalvo)
Kyle: Based on everything we’ve heard so far, it seems like the Leafs are very reluctant to move any of their top prospects. This makes sense, as Toronto will need players on entry-level contracts to step into the lineup in the next couple of seasons and contribute. The most likely prospects to move are those in that second tier, the ones who other teams still like but you are more willing to give up.
In Toronto’s case, I think the second tier prospect sellers will be after is Roni Hirvonen. The Leafs have multiple other forward prospects and Hirvonen brings a lot of traits that should make him an intriguing prospect for sellers at the deadline. He’s still only 20 years old but has multiple years playing against professionals under his belt. He’s got international pedigree, having captained Finland at the 2022 World Juniors. Hirvonen is undersized and isn’t the most fleet of foot, but has strong two-way results and plays with some tenacity. I think he’s a prospect Toronto would be willing to part with for the right piece and that an acquiring team would be very interested in.
With Amirov now sidelined indefinitely, does that change the Leafs willingness to trade prospects versus picks? Should it change what they are willing to trade? (@danwass)
Nick: Let me start by saying that @Rodion Amirov’s health and wellbeing supersedes any hockey related implications. The main priority is ensuring that he continues to receive the best possible medical care so that he can get back to living a normal life.
All that said, it certainly does change the equation for the Leafs. For the time being, Amirov is strictly a human being rather than an asset to a hockey team and that is how I believe the Leafs will operate moving forward. By all accounts, the club was already hesitant to subtract from the top of their prospect pool in order to make an addition ahead of the deadline and the Amirov news will only make them more reluctant to do so. The Leafs’ preference should be to hold onto players like Topi Niemelä, Matt Knies, and @Nicholas Robertson because as Kyle already alluded to, they’re going to need cheap contributors sooner rather than later. Maintaining their current pipeline and using future picks to get their business done should be the play, but that might be easier said than done.
Which Leafs prospect could they afford to part with, assuming Dubas looks to make a deadline splash? (@montyford22)
Kyle: No prospect in the Leafs’ system is truly untouchable. It would have to be the right player with the right term for the Leafs to consider moving their top pieces. The Leafs will be much more willing to move their first-round pick at the deadline, as their prospects are much closer to contributing at the NHL level than a draft pick.
Okay, enough with the non-answer. *If* Toronto were to move one of Robertson, Knies, or Niemelä, Robertson is the one whose skillset overlaps the most with what Toronto already has and might be one “they can afford to part with”. There are no other prospects in the organization like Knies, while Niemelä is Toronto’s top defensive prospect by a significant margin.
That said, I would be very reluctant to let go of Robertson given his incredible offensive tools and remarkable work ethic. But if I have to pick one, it’s Knies and Niemela that are the more unique pieces in the system.
Is Matt Knies in the conversation as the Leafs’ top prospect? After his smooth transition as a freshman and Olympics, there might be a case in what is a deep top-five for the Leafs. (@PBaracchini)
Nick: I think Knies is definitely in the conversation and it may depend on the way you value upside vs. floor, or traits in his game that make him unique to the rest of the Leafs’ prospect pool. There’s a pretty clear distinction between the Leafs’ top four prospects and their second tier of upcoming talent but let’s take Rodion Amirov out of the conversation for now and hope that he returns to full health before we discuss his potential as a hockey player.
Nick Robertson is an outstanding shooter with a great work ethic but there are still obvious hurdles in his way of translating those skills to the NHL. Topi Niemelä has a lot of potential as a two-way defender who can run a powerplay but he is still somewhat undersized and his ultimate NHL role is still more of a projection. Knies, however, already has a lot of traits in his game that should help him find success at the NHL level and even though he may not have the same raw upside that Robertson or Niemelä have, his base of skills gives him a pretty safe floor as an NHL player. That’s not to say that he lacks upside because he has been on a steady upward trajectory for a while now but he should be able to carve out an NHL role even if he doesn’t grow into a big-time offensive producer.
If I had to guess which of those three players had the best chance of becoming an impact NHLer, it would be a bit of a toss-up. If I had to say which one was the safest bet to become a regular NHL player, Knies is the easy choice. For those reasons, I think it’s definitely fair for him to be in the conversation as the top prospect in the organization.
Did the Olympic performances from Abruzzese, Holmberg, or Knies move them up or down on your rankings at all? (@NickDeSouza_)
Kyle: The Olympics were a great, unique opportunity for these three prospects, but it’s still just a small sample of games in a strange environment. None of Nick Abruzzese, @Pontus Holmberg, or Matt Knies had an incredible enough or poor enough performance to move them up or down my rankings explicitly from the Olympics alone.
I will note that while most of the attention went to Knies, it was Abruzzese that I was most impressed with. Despite his younger age, I expected Knies to be able to handle playing against professionals given his physical stature. With Abruzzese, I was much more interested to see how he would handle the tougher competition and he passed with flying colours. He generated dangerous chances consistently for the United States, both with his playmaking but also as a shooter.
I was already higher on Abruzzese, having him 5th in my rankings in December compared to 8th in our overall TLN rankings from the summer. His performance wasn’t enough to move him into the top four, but he’s solidified his spot at #5 for me.
Thoughts on Nick Robertson’s game in transition and away from the puck. (@NickDeSouza_)
Nick: Robertson is a capable puck carrier but I wouldn’t say it’s a strength of his game. He can occasionally weave around checks with the puck on his stick but he is more effective in transition when he employs a give-and-go style. Robertson has solid puck skills and decent vision, allowing him to string pass receptions into lateral moves or quick return passes. He sometimes struggles with his routes in transition when the rush breaks down but he usually makes a positive play when the puck comes to him, provided he doesn’t try to do too much.
Away from the puck is probably the biggest area of focus for Robertson, not so much defensively but in the offensive end. He works hard off the puck on the defensive side but has done a better job of letting things come to him when his team is in possession rather than chasing the play like a mad man every single shift. Continuing to refine that part of his game will help unlock his goal-scoring upside but he already displays strong positioning, recognizing when he is F3 on the forecheck and patrolling high in the zone or cutting off the top in defensive zone coverage at even strength.
Robertson’s abilities with the puck on his stick are what make him such an exciting prospect but it is his continued progress away from the puck that will help him realize his potential.
Who is the prospect that you’re most excited about and one that others may not be paying enough attention to? (@KwnStorm)
Kyle: It’s hard not to be pumped about Topi Niemelä. He’s putting up historic U20 numbers in Finland right now as a right-handed defenceman. When he was drafted, Niemela was touted as a modern defensive defenceman with fringe second pair upside. Since then, he’s taken his offensive game to a completely unexpected level, scoring at both 5v5 and as a powerplay quarterback in one of the top five professional leagues in the world. His defensive results have slipped a bit this year, but the sky is the limit for Topi Niemela at this point. Given the lack of true top-four quality right-handed defencemen in the NHL, Niemela is easily the one I’m most excited about.
In terms of an under the radar depth prospect, Mikey Koster is one that has me intrigued. He’s fantastic in transition, consistently breaking the puck out with control even while playing most of his NCAA career on the right side as a left-handed defenceman. Koster has been limited to the third pair with Minnesota but I could see him breaking out once he gets more of a chance higher in the lineup. The few games he got on the top pair at the end of 2020 (due to Minnesota’s top defenders being at the World Juniors) were superb and have me waiting to see if he can do it over a larger stretch when he gets the opportunity.
Nick: I’m probably most excited about the potential and likelihood of what Matt Knies could provide to this team in the coming years but as far as under the radar prospects go, goaltender Vyacheslav Peksa probably deserves a bit more recognition.
Drafted in the sixth round of the 2021 draft, Peksa has arguably been the top goaltender in the Russian junior league this season. Through 53 games so far in 2021-22, he is sporting a 1.76 GAA and a .938 SV% – stellar numbers for any level. The next step will be important for him as he looks to replicate his success at the VHL level next season but he has done just about everything Leafs’ management could have hoped for to this point.
Who’s the biggest boom-or-bust prospect in the system? (@kyle_nw)
Kyle: This one is pretty straightforward for me. @Semyon Der-Arguchintsev is like the definition of a boom-or-bust prospect. His playmaking and vision are elite today, but the rest of his game lags behind pretty significantly. His defensive results are some of the worst in the AHL this season, let alone on the Marlies exclusively. Der-Arguchintsev will either figure out the other parts of his game to become an impact playmaker in the NHL while dominating on the powerplay or not make it at all. It’s hard to picture a middle-ground for a player with his skillset.
Nick: I think that SDA has a very worthy claim to this honour but I’m going to go in a different direction. Recently signed 2020 fifth-round pick @Dmitry Ovchinnikov is one of the more intriguing prospects in the system but he is still one of the biggest unknowns due to his lack of playing time above the Russian junior level. His offensive talents are obvious when playing in the MHL and they’re also evident in his point totals but it remains to be seen whether he will be able to adjust and make use of his offensive abilities when he begins his North American pro hockey career.
Update on Kristians Rubins’ season since his call up to the Leafs? (@kilpatrick2479)
Kyle: The Marlies’ defence has seen a significant amount of rotation this year. Just like every other defender on the team, @Kristians Rubins has played up and down the lineup, even getting a couple of games on his off-side. Overall, he’s had a fine season. Rubīns will never have much offensive production, so don’t read much into his lacklustre totals there. His defensive results haven’t been anything amazing but aren’t bad either, with a slightly above average goal share at 5v5.
Rubīns is what he is for the most part. He’s a good defensive defenceman with size and mobility that isn’t much more than a depth defenceman at the NHL level. Depending on what roster moves Toronto makes over the offseason, he’s a good candidate to be on the Leafs’ roster in 2022/23 as their extra defenceman.
Ryan Tverberg: What do we have here? Is he just on some heater, too good for his league or making an actual leap? Haven’t paid this much notice to a 7th rounder in a while. (@p_evans)
Kyle: Ryan Tverberg projects as a bottom-six forward at the next level that can provide a ton of energy to the game. He brings speed and tenacity every shift, plus some solid offence. He seemingly gets just as much joy laying an opposing player out as he does scoring a goal.
In terms of the level of competition, Tverberg is playing in Hockey East with UConn, a notable conference in the NCAA. It’s not like Tverberg is playing against weaker competition, by any means. Production at this level indicates a prospect worth paying attention to, especially one doing so as a sophomore.
His rise has been amazing to watch. Tverberg was on few radars coming into the 2020 Entry Draft, having played his draft year in the OJHL to maintain NCAA eligibility. He began his time at UConn at the beginning of 2021, performing well in a bottom-six role, but his emergence this season has blown all expectations out of the water.
A seventh-round pick out of the OJHL making Team Canada’s selection camp for the World Juniors less than two years after being drafted is basically unheard of, yet that’s exactly what Tverberg accomplished back in December. He’s still clicking at just under a point-per-game 29 games into the season.
Tverberg’s in store for some regression, as he’s shooting 22.8% this season. Still, he’s taken a step up the ladder to establish himself as a notable prospect in the Leafs’ system. He jumped inside the top 15 in my Leafs prospect rankings in December and will likely stay around that slot for the next iteration.
Any information on Wyatt Schingoethe? (@VinceRusso5)
Nick: Unfortunately, there really isn’t a whole lot to say about Wyatt Schingoethe at this point. His USHL production declined significantly last season and he hasn’t carved out much of a role in his freshman season at Western Michigan, playing under six minutes per game.
Schingoethe won’t turn 20 until August so the book isn’t closed on him by any means, but he has a steep uphill climb to put himself in consideration for an entry-level contract.
We saw Rubins and Steeves get called up early this season. Who else do you see the Leafs call up and give a chance to play? Asking this regarding prospects we haven’t seen in the NHL yet. (@out_sid_e)
Kyle: I don’t see any more NHL debuts with the Leafs the rest of this season. @Joseph Duszak and @Mac Hollowell are the only two players with the Marlies that have yet to play in the NHL that I can see as potential call up candidates, but Toronto has far too many options on defence for them to realistically see NHL action this year.
You’ve got the seven regulars (excluding @Jake Muzzin for the time being), plus the likes of @Alex Biega, @Carl Dahlstrom, and @Kristians Rubins ahead of them on the depth chart. There’s just too much depth to see either one play for the Leafs this year, unless they explicitly want to give them a look.
Which prospects do you see legitimately battling for a roster spot next season? (@Matthew_a1634)
Kyle: Nick Robertson is the safest bet here. @Ilya Mikheyev is as good as gone in the offseason and @Alexander Kerfoot is a strong sell high candidate to create some cap flexibility. The Leafs will have at least one left-wing position to fill, possibly more, and Robertson will be gunning for those spots.
Heading into 2022/23, Robertson will have two partial seasons under his belt at the AHL level. He’ll be making under $800k on the cap as well. He’s a solid candidate for top-nine minutes next year in the NHL, assuming he can stay healthy and finish out 2021/22 on a high note.
Nick: As Kyle said, Robertson is probably the most likely but I still think there could be a place in the Leafs’ lineup for @Joey Anderson at some point. He’s getting up there in age for a “prospect” but he is enjoying a very strong season for the Marlies and depending on how things shake out for Toronto in the offseason, he could be an easy plug and play candidate on the fourth line at a $750k cap hit. If he continues to produce the way he has for the Marlies while playing a responsible two-way game, he could eventually force the Leafs’ hand.
What is the timeline for Niemela and Knies? Ty Voit and Roni Hirvonen? (@ThatHockeyFan01) + How long until we see Knies and Abruzzese with the Marlies? (@Beer_Gurouche)
Kyle: Let’s combine these and keep this one short and sweet. Here’s a rough timeline for each of the prospects mentioned, assuming health and a linear progression. Keep in mind, health and a linear progression rarely happen, so take this with a grain of salt:
Given the team’s cap crunch, a goalie on a league-minimum deal would be extremely helpful. How close are the Leafs goalie prospects to NHL action and how would you rank their goalie pool against the rest of the league? (@GhostOfGrabo)
Kyle: The Leafs recently signed @Joseph Woll to a three-year extension for this exact reason. If he develops into a backup within that time frame, then you have an extremely cheap backup that frees you up to spend money elsewhere. If not, then Woll simply remains with the Marlies while receiving one-way pay. A low risk, high reward move for the Leafs and a smart financial decision from Woll.
Woll has had strong moments in his time with the Marlies but ultimately has not put together a full season. He was a sub-.900 goaltender in each of his first two seasons with the Marlies. This year he’s improved, posting a .905 save percentage but in just nine games due to his time with the Leafs and a recent injury. Woll might be ready to take over the responsibilities as the third-string netminder, but under no circumstance should he be relied on as an NHL backup just yet.
Woll remains waiver exempt in 2022/23 and will almost certainly return to the Marlies next year. This is when he needs to cement himself as a top AHL goaltender that can push to become Toronto’s backup the following season. He’ll be 25 years old and require waivers at the beginning of the 2023/24 season. If Woll is to become an NHL goaltender, this is the timeline I would expect.
As for other options in the system, @Erik Kallgren is already 25 and a fringe depth option. Long term, Artur Akhtyamov and Vyacheslav Peksa have posted intriguing results in Russia but are still multiple years away from being remotely considered an NHL option. Within the next three seasons, Joseph Woll is the only prospect goaltender pushing for NHL time with the Leafs.
Is William Villeneuve in the NHL in 5 years? (@OneTMLForMePls)
Nick: The Leafs clearly believe in @William Villeneuve’s potential as they signed to an entry-level contract this past fall. Like any mid-round pick, however, Villeneuve is no sure thing.
He has taken positive steps in his skating technique and play away from the puck but a couple of disjointed QMJHL seasons during the pandemic haven’t exactly been ideal for his development – or anyone else’s for that matter. Villeneuve is still working to improve his mobility while striking the balance between playing a responsible game and putting his offensive skills to work.
The odds say that the deck is still stacked against Villeneuve becoming an NHLer but a lot of development can happen once he enters the AHL and is under constant guidance from Toronto’s development staff. If he maximizes his potential, he could one day be an NHL regular but I wouldn’t go ordering any Villeneuve Leafs jerseys just yet.
Do you think the Leafs should send some of their more raw prospects to Newfoundland? (@AceofSpace_)
Kyle: The Leafs *have* used the ECHL for their raw prospects, it’s just been that those prospects are primarily signed to AHL contracts rather than NHL contracts. In 2019/20, NHL signed prospects Joey Duszak and Mac Hollowell both played the first half of their rookie professional seasons in the ECHL with the Growlers. Upon establishing themselves at that level, they were then called up around midseason and played the rest of the season with the Marlies.
I think this is the blueprint for NHL prospects heading to the ECHL for the Leafs. Instead of playing as a rotational piece in the AHL while trying to adjust to the professional game, go down to the ECHL to play a ton and gain some confidence.
This season there haven’t been any NHL prospects that have spent time with the Growlers, but that’s mainly because there aren’t any candidates to do so. @Pavel Gogolev is the only one signed with the Leafs that I can see as benefitting from time with Newfoundland, but his hot 13 games last season probably keep him on the Marlies roster.
Looking to next year, I think we see one or two NHL-signed prospects with the Growlers again. Dmitry Ovchinnikov hasn’t played much above the MHL level and going straight to the AHL will be a big jump in competition. He could see time with the Growlers as early as this year. I can see William Villeneuve getting the “Duszak/Hollowell” treatment as well.
Not sure if Keith Petruzzelli is considered a Leafs prospect but this man deserves some love. (@StefanSchroete2)
Keith Petruzzelli absolutely deserves some love. His .927 SV% with the Growlers is second among ECHL goaltenders with a minimum of 15 games played, he’s been a stud all season long.
Technically, Petruzzelli isn’t a Leafs prospect. As his contract is with the Marlies, Petruzzelli is an NHL free agent and could sign an entry-level contract with a team whenever he wanted. Technicality aside, Petruzzelli is a Leafs prospect for all intents and purposes. He’s in the organization and working with development staff the same way someone who is officially Leafs property would.
It was a surprise to see Petruzzelli sign an AHL contract rather than an NHL contract in the first place. He was a Detroit third-round pick in 2017 and was coming off of back-to-back strong seasons with Quinnipiac in the summer. Given his NCAA resume and elite performance this year with Newfoundland, Petruzzelli is definitely a candidate to sign in the offseason, although he does have another year remaining on his AHL contract.
2022 ENTRY DRAFT
If the Leafs opt to keep their first-round pick this year, who are some prospects that would be interesting in that range? (@ThatHockeyFan01)
Nick: First off, don’t get your hopes up. If the Leafs do indeed manage to hang onto their 2022 first-rounder, here are some players I like in the late-first/early-second round range:
David Goyette – Smooth skating, offensively skilled centre having a nice year for Sudbury in the OHL. Not sure if he sticks in the middle when he turns pro but he can impact the game in transition as well as on the scoreboard.
Jack Hughes – Not quite the same offensive flair that the other Jack Hughes possesses but he can make plays and doesn’t hurt his team away from the puck. Maybe not the most exciting prospect in the class but he looks like a future NHLer.
Tristan Luneau – Big bodied, right-handed defenceman playing for Gatineau in the QMJHL. Not exactly an offensive dynamo but he moves the puck well, has an increasingly heavy point shot, and seems to have a good understanding of his defensive responsibilities.
Owen Beck – One of the more well-rounded forwards in the first couple of rounds of the draft. Skates well, has good hands, and can shoot the puck, but his two-way game makes him a pretty safe bet as a third-line centre, even if he doesn’t reach his offensive ceiling.
Matthew Poitras – Similar to Beck but maybe a bit more cerebral whereas Beck plays a bit more of a straight-ahead style. Sneaky good at stealing pucks and taking advantage of opposing mistakes but would like to see a bit more production down the stretch for Guelph.
You’re drafting the 2022 class for Toronto. What specific positions, styles, or potentials are you targeting to turn an already great Leafs pool into something even better? How confident are you that Dubas will follow suit? (@NHLFoley) + I know, I know, BPA, but what does the Leafs prospect pool lack and who should they draft (Defence?/Centres?/Goalies?)? (@BriGrey)
Nick: I’m going to answer these two questions as one because they kind of go together.
Under Dubas, the Leafs have mostly taken swings on high-upside picks at the draft. Even if their chances of ultimately reaching the NHL might be lower, going for a potential impact player over someone you believe has a safe NHL floor but tops out as a depth player is a sound philosophy that I agree with in most cases.
As it stands, the Leafs’ prospect pool is comprised mostly of players with a lot of raw potential who are varying degrees away from being penciled into a future roster spot. With that in mind, it may be time for the Leafs to start putting just a bit more stock into players with more clear NHL projections to supplement their current core and whatever prospects they already have that do reach their potential. I’m not saying they should go out and draft a Tyler Kleven over a Topi Niemelä by any means but if there is a player available who clearly projects to fill a spot in your NHL lineup in the coming years, that should be given more consideration given the current state of the pipeline.
I’ll never argue with taking the best player available on the board but the Leafs would be foolish not to realize that their organizational depth chart at center is pretty thin after Auston Matthews and John Tavares. It’s almost never a good idea to draft for position but if the choice comes down to two players and one plays a position of organizational need, such as center, then that is the direction I would choose to go.
As for goaltenders, I’m a proponent of taking a flyer on a netminder in just about every draft, given you have the resources. That’s where the problem presents itself for the Leafs this season and after selecting a goaltender in each of the last two drafts, I suspect they’ll utilize their limited draft capital elsewhere.
Now, all of that is just what I would be thinking heading into the draft but history tells us that Dubas and his staff will use the draft to try and add as much high-end potential to the system as possible.
That does it for the first TLN prospect mailbag of the year! Thanks for reading, and be sure to catch our Leafs prospect roundups every Monday morning to stay up to date on every prospect in the organization.
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