Looking back at the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 2019 draft
Photo credit:© John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
By Kyle Cushman1 year ago
Over the course of this week, I’ll be looking back at each of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ four draft classes under the tenure of GM Kyle Dubas, reviewing how the selections were viewed at the time, how they have panned out to date, and noting what talent they missed out on (if any) in the immediate picks following.
Today, we continue on by reviewing the 2019 draft class for the Toronto Maple Leafs. This was the first time in nine years that the Leafs did not have a first-round pick, so the pressure was on Toronto’s staff to find some gems with the later picks they did still hold.
Toronto had six picks during the 2019 draft, and while none have become full-time NHLers just yet, we will be getting to the first two prospects that have actually made their NHL debut in today’s article.
2nd Round, 53rd Overall – Nick Robertson, LW, OHL
At the time
Heading into the 2019 draft, @Nicholas Robertson was an interesting prospect to keep an eye on. While he was consistently ranked inside the first round by public rankings, including those released by the likes of Craig Button, Sam Cosentino, Chris Peters, Corey Pronman, Cam Robinson, and Scott Wheeler, Robertson’s lack of size meant he was a prime target to fall down draft boards.
This was all but confirmed when Robertson was ranked just 42nd on Bob McKenzie’s consensus ranking prior to the draft.
Sure, enough, Robertson’s name was not called during the first round and would have to wait until Day 2 to be drafted. But as the selections started to come, Robertson continued to fall and fall. Once an unlikely prospect to still be available at the Maple Leafs slot at 53rd overall, sure enough, he was still on the board as the Leafs went on the clock for the first time at the 2019 draft.
While Robertson’s on-ice goal share results were nothing spectacular, he was consistently involved in both even strength and powerplay scoring as a draft-eligible. His high shot rate indicated goal-scoring upside, even if his 5-foot-9 frame left you questioning whether he would have the physical tools to make it at the professional level.
In the three years since being drafted, I can’t think of many prospects who have had an up and down rollercoaster of a development cycle than Robertson.
As a DY+1, Robertson absolutely torched the OHL, scoring an insane 55 goals in just 46 games.
Factoring in his September 11, 2001 birthday as well, Robertson was just days away from not even being eligible for the 2019 draft and having to wait until 2020. If Robertson was in fact eligible for the 2020 draft instead of 2019, he would have been a candidate to go in the top 10. For context, @Jack Quinn went 8th overall to Buffalo in 2020 after scoring 52 goals in 62 games in the OHL. Robertson, who is only a week older than Quinn, scored three more goals in 16 fewer games.
After the highs of his DY+1 season came multiple lows. He got in the Leafs lineup during the bubble playoffs but didn’t look ready for NHL action (although he did get his first playoff goal). Then came another NHL opportunity in 2020-21, where he was injured early in the season and upon returning at the AHL level, wasn’t quite as dominant as one was hoping.
This year, which under normal circumstances would’ve been Robertson’s first introduction to professional hockey, started about as bad as it possibly could’ve. After a great season opener with the Marlies, a fluke play saw Robertson break his leg, which would keep him out of action for multiple months.
After the chaos that has been the past two years, Robertson finally began to settle in as a professional at the end of the Marlies season. He was legitimately dominant, scoring at a 40-goal pace with 16 goals and 28 points in 28 AHL games.
Some prospect fatigue is beginning to set in with Robertson, but it’s vital to remember that he is still only 20 years old and in a normal development cycle, 2021-22 would’ve been his first professional season. In just about every way, Robertson has outplayed his draft slot to this point, and he should push for legitimate NHL minutes come to the start of the 2022-23 campaign.
Did they miss on anyone?
As a second-round pick, we’ll look at players drafted in the five picks following Robertson at 53rd overall.
Simply put, no. Sure @Brett Leason has played 36 games in a depth role for Washington already, but no prospect taken in the five picks, even the 10 picks, following Robertson have shown the same level of upside and ability that he has.
It obviously remains to be seen who becomes legitimate NHL players from the 2019 draft, but Robertson still looks like a home run selection at this spot for Toronto.
3rd Round, 84th Overall – Mikko Kokkonen, LD, Liiga
At the time
@Mikko Kokkonen has one of the strangest development paths I’ve seen.
He made his debut in the top professional league in Finland at just 15 years old, setting the record for the youngest player in league history. His scoring rate as a DY-2 player in the Finnish junior league exceeded that accomplished by @Aleksander Barkov and was just shy of the mark set by @Mikko Rantanen. In case you forgot, they are both forwards, not defencemen like Kokkonen.
Kokkonen was a regular in Liiga by the time he was a draft-eligible, scoring 19 points in 56 games. Despite his resume and solid production in his draft year, Kokkonen was not seen in the group of top talents for the draft. Scott Wheeler was the lone ranking I came across that had him as a first-round prospect, while Bob McKenzie’s consensus ranking had him as a third-round prospect at 67th.
While he was a prospect that didn’t quite have high-end potential, Kokkonen was seen as a “high floor, low ceiling” type due to his strong defensive play. When the Leafs made the selection at 84th, it was received as a good pick, a solid value play in the third round.
Kokkonen has, for the most part, been the same player year over year in the Liiga for about four years now.
He made the move away from Jukurit prior to 2021-22, where he had played top minutes and was tasked with heavy defensive usage. Kokkonen had consistently produced positive results relative to his teammates, playing a fair bit on his off side as well, but I was excited to see what he could do upon moving to a better team in Lahti.
This excitement was only enhanced when Kokkonen finished the 2020-21 season with the Marlies on an amateur try-out, where he scored seven points in 11 games.
Unfortunately, things took a dip for Kokkonen despite the promising signs from his AHL stint. He went extended periods without recording a point, finishing the year with just 10 in 50 games played. His scoring rates remained similar as Kokkonen played a more of a second pairing role in 2021-22, while his on-ice results relative to his team took a nose dive.
Still, I’m interested to see what Kokkonen is in North America. His AHL stint was much better than anticipated in 2020-21 and having signed his entry-level contract, Kokkonen will be a full-time Marlie in 2022-23.
Did they miss on anyone?
As a third-round pick, we’ll look at players selected in the 10 picks following Kokkonen at 84th overall.
Washington’s @Aliaksei Protas played a depth role in 2021-22, scoring nine points in 33 games as a rookie. He hasn’t put up incredible numbers at lower levels but looks to be a solid depth option for the Capitals into the future as a 6-foot-6 centre.
Carolina prospect Dom Fensore was a favourite of mine at the time, as most undersized but highly skilled defencemen are. Taken at 90th overall, Fensore enjoyed a breakout year at Boston University, scoring 31 points in 35 games. He enters his senior season with the Terriers in 2022-23 having recently been named captain.
Ottawa’s @Viktor Lodin is also worth mentioning, coming off of two strong years in Sweden and similar to Kokkonen, had a great stretch of games in the AHL to the year that resulted in him getting his NHL debut.
While he was taken 11 picks after Kokkonen, I’m going to break my parameters by mentioning @Jordan Spence as the big one the Leafs missed out on. Spence didn’t play a ton for Los Angeles this year, suiting up in 24 games, but destroyed the AHL and managed to break into the Kings playoff lineup for three games. He’s a smaller offensive defenceman, but he looks to be blossoming into a potential impact player.
4th Round, 115th Overall – Mikhail Abramov, C, QMJHL
At the time
A decent two-way centre who was primarily a powerplay scorer, @Mikhail Abramov was seen as a potential mid to late-round pick and that’s exactly the range he went in.
Making the jump to the QMJHL without even playing MHL games over in Russia, it was impressive to see Abramov have such a strong year. While most of his scoring came on the man advantage, Abramov did show some potential as more of a goal scorer with his shot generation and low shooting percentage in his draft year.
Abramov rose up Leafs prospect rankings prior to 2021-22 with his excellent play in the QMJHL. He fulfilled the goal-scoring potential he showed as a draft-eligible, more than doubling his goal output in his DY+1 season as he became a legitimate top scorer in the league.
That continued into the COVID-shortened 2020-21 campaign, where now the captain of his Victoriaville Tigres squad, helped the team to their first QMJHL championship in 19 years.
Heading into 2021-22 and his first season a professional with the Marlies, Abramov was one of the prospects I was most interested to watch. He consistently produced solid two-way results in the QMJHL and emerged as a dual-threat offensively by the end of his junior career, but as a slight centre listed at 6-foot-0 and 161 pounds, I wondered what the learning curve would be like.
When @Adam Brooks and @Michael Amadio were lost on waivers to start the season, Abramov was thrust into a top-six centre position without much of a safety net. Outside of a strong stretch of play in December, it was a lot more sink than swim for Abramov as an AHL rookie. He finished the season with 28 points in 66 games, a decent total but not quite what I had hoped for entering the year.
Abramov has fallen a bit in my Leafs prospect rankings, but there are still signs of optimism. His assist rate was solid but a lack of shot generation was compounded with an even lower shooting percentage. If he is able to create more chances for himself and gets a bit more shooting luck, his overall numbers will rebound to the level I was hoping to see heading into 2021-22.
Did they miss on anyone?
As a fourth-round pick, we’ll look at players selected in the 11 picks following Abramov at 115th overall, as Toronto also had another pick within the 10 after 115th.
Even with Abramov faltering in his first year as a professional, nobody in the group after him stands out…except for the other prospect drafted by Toronto.
4th Round, 124th Overall – Nick Abruzzese, C, USHL
At the time
@Nicholas Abruzzese was a bit of a surprising pick at the time. As a double overage prospect playing in the USHL, it’s not exactly common to see prospects in the same boat as Abruzzese was back in 2019 be on NHL radars.
Abruzzese did have a stellar offensive year in the USHL, it must be said. He led the league in scoring with the Chicago Steel, more than doubling his offensive output from the year prior.
Still, as an undersized forward (listed at 5-foot-9 and 161 pounds) with poor defensive results and a high shooting percentage, Abruzzese was a fine swing to make, but in the fourth round, it felt a bit high for him at the time.
All Abruzzese has done since being drafted is put up points.
Entering the NCAA with Harvard at the same age other prospects are playing as a junior, Abruzzese had no trouble making the jump to the higher level. He immediately became one of the top scorers in the nation, leading his conference in scoring with 44 points in 31 games. He landed on All-Star Teams, earned Rookie of the Year in the ECAC, and proved the Leafs were smart to gamble on him despite his advanced age.
Then came COVID and a cancelled season at Harvard. Abruzzese used this time to undergo hip surgery that would’ve kept him out for an extended period, and he didn’t miss a beat upon returning to action in 2021-22.
Abruzzese didn’t hit quite the same highs he did in 2019-20, but he again scored above a point-per-game and earned a spot on the American Olympic team. Come to the end of the season, he signed his entry-level contract with the Maple Leafs and appeared in nine games to finish the year, scoring his first career NHL goal in the final game of the season.
He is two years older than his companions from this draft class, and as such has an accelerated timeline, but Abruzzese has ticked off every box to this point. Up next is the AHL and if he can be a top player for the Marlies in 2022-23, more NHL minutes will be around the corner.
Did they miss on anyone?
As a fourth-round pick, we’ll look at players selected in the 10 picks following Abruzzese at 124th overall.
Abruzzese’s strong play at the NCAA level makes him a tough prospect to beat in this range of the draft, but New Jersey’s Arseni Gritsyuk and his breakout year in the KHL edges him out. With 16 goals and 28 points in 39 games during the regular season, plus another 10 points in 13 playoff games, Gritsyuk emerged as one of the top young talents in the KHL. Two years younger than Abruzzese as well, Gritsyuk is looking like an excellent pick for the Devils.
5th Round, 146th Overall – Mikey Koster, LD, USHS
At the time
A prospect that dominated the high school ranks during his draft year, Mikey Koster had a small 15 game sample at the USHL level with Tri-City in which his results were a bit all over the place.
He had solid on-ice results that were roughly on par with his teammates, while his scoring rates are skewed very or low based on his smaller sample.
An undersized, puck-moving defenceman, it was going to be tough to get a true read on Koster until he became a regular in the USHL and later the NCAA.
Koster has consistently impressed me since making the jump to the NCAA with the University of Minnesota in 2020-21. He’s played a lower, third pair role given Minnesota’s bevy of talented blueliners, but has had strong results while also playing on his off side.
In the few games that we saw Koster get a chance on the top pairing back in December 2020 when Minnesota sent multiple defencemen to the World Juniors, Koster thrived, scoring multiple points, quarterbacking the powerplay, and playing big minutes en route to big wins over Michigan.
Koster hasn’t quite gotten that consistent shot higher in the lineup, but once he does, I think he’s a breakout candidate.
Did they miss on anyone?
As a fifth-round pick, we’ll look at players selected in the 10 picks following Koster at 146th overall.
Koster hasn’t broken out yet, but neither has anyone from the group after him. Aku Raty had a solid year in Finland with 22 points in 56 games which likely puts him as the clubhouse leader, but I’m a big fan of Koster’s game and truly think given the opportunity, he’ll turn some heads.
7th Round, 204th Overall – Kalle Loponen, RD, Finland
At the time
As you would expect with a seventh-round pick, Kalle Loponen was a long-shot prospect. His nine points in 18 games at the junior level were nothing to write home about, though Loponen’s 12 points in 30 games in the Finnish second tier were an intriguing total this late in the draft.
Loponen’s development path has taken him a bit all over the place. He came to North America in 2019-20 to play in the OHL, where he was a strong powerplay quarterback with minimal even-strength results. He then returned to Finland but went back to the junior level rather than looking for a regular spot at the same level he was drafted out of or even higher.
He was great in the U20 league, winning the top defenceman award, but it was a step back rather than a step forward in terms of the competition Loponen was facing.
This year, Loponen played a regular role in Finland’s top league for the first time and really struggled. Quarterbacking a powerplay is his best skill set, but received little opportunity on the man advantage. At even strength, there wasn’t much happening, and Loponen finished the season on loan to the second-tier pro league, where he had some promising results.
The Leafs have Loponen’s rights until the end of 2022-23, but unless he takes a big jump, I doubt he remains in the organization past June 2023.
Did they miss on anyone?
As a seventh-round pick, we’ll look at players selected in the 10 picks following Loponen at 204th overall.
One name stands out far above the pack at the end of the 2019 seventh round, and that player is Calgary prospect @Dustin Wolf. Despite a .936 save percentage in his draft year, nobody was willing to spend a draft pick on Wolf until Calgary took him four picks from the end of the entire thing.
The reason? His 6-foot-0 frame. Despite being undersized, all Wolf has done is stop pucks. He made the transition to the professional ranks this year with Stockton and was excellent, posting a .924 SV% that far exceeded the results of his backup.
Wolf will have to overcome his lack of size at the NHL level, which will be the hardest step to take, but he dominated the WHL and has started to do so in the AHL as well. Especially factoring in Toronto’s lack of higher-end goaltending prospects knocking on the door, it would’ve been really nice to take the swing on the small goaltender with their last pick of the 2019 draft.
Be sure to come back tomorrow as we move on to the 2018 draft for the final look back of the series!
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