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Maple Leafs prospects from recent drafts are shining in a big way

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Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Hobson
3 months ago
The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t exactly been known as a prospect hotbed in recent years. This is to be expected. When you have a team that’s been consistently in the playoff hunt for the past eight years, you’re going to have to part with prospects and draft picks to improve your team. Gone are the days of the Leafs having double digit amounts of picks with more than one in each round, but if you look at recent draft classes, that hasn’t seemed to hamper them all that much. 
Between 2021 and 2023, the Leafs have selected a total of 11 players. Three in 2021, five in 2022, and three in 2023. For context, they selected 11 players in 2016 alone. One area that Cup contenders need to have success in if they want to maintain success is drafting good players beyond the first and second round, and despite the multitude of picks in the early stages of their rebuild, the Leafs didn’t hit on all that many prospects outside of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. In fact, only four players drafted between 2015 and 2017 are playing for the Leafs right now; Matthews, Marner, Joseph Woll, and Timothy Liljegren. 
This isn’t the most pressing issue – the Leafs got their core players locked up early and have done a decent job at filling out the depth with free agent signings, but anytime you can fill out your depth with cheap, homegrown players, you should take that opportunity. And in a positive turn of events, ever since the Leafs grew more liberal about dangling their high picks and prospects, they’ve been doing a far better job at hitting on their draft picks. Or at least, the players selected are showing far more promise. 
Let’s start with the 2021 draft. I don’t have to tell you about the impact that Matthew Knies has had on the team so far. He rapidly progressed from gamble pick, to college standout, to late-season addition, to first line winger in the span of only two years. It was evident from the first time Knies stepped on the ice that he belonged in the NHL, both physically and mentally. He recorded four points in seven playoff games this past spring, was on the ice for pretty much every single big goal they scored in the first round against Tampa Bay, and has nine points in 17 games this season. His strong play has earned him a promotion to the top line with Matthews and Marner, and it doesn’t look like anybody will be taking his place anytime soon. 
Forward Ty Voit, who was the Leafs’ fifth round pick in 2021, has progressed to the point where he might be the Leafs’ best raw playmaking prospect in the system. The Leafs managed to catch him at a point where there wasn’t much of a sample size to work with, given the lack of a 2020-21 OHL season, and it’s looking like it might pay off. In 2022-23, he had a whopping 81 assists and 105 points in 67 games for the Sarnia Sting, but a shoulder injury has kept him out of game action to start what would have been his first AHL season. 
The Leafs’ third and final pick in 2021 was goaltender Vyacheslav Peksa, who’s fresh off a 2022-23 season with Bars Kazan of the VHL, which is essentially Russia’s version of the AHL. He finished the year with a save percentage (SV%) of .920 and a goals-against average (GAA) of 2.34, outshining his record of 13-19-6. He started the 2023-24 season with the ECHL’s Newfoundland Growlers due to the Leafs’ surplus of goalie prospects and looks like a decent trade chip if nothing else. 
Moving on to 2022, Leafs fans were treated to a little glimpse of what to expect from Fraser Minten, their second round pick that year. Coming into training camp with zero expectations of making any case to make the team, the Vancouver native stepped up and outperformed just about everybody in training camp. His performance forced the Leafs to send Sam Lafferty, a more-than-capable depth forward out of town to make room for him. He didn’t stick with the team, but he demonstrated definite potential to be a strong two-way middle six forward, and has seven points in six games since being named Captain of the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers.
Nick Moldenhauer, a Toronto native drafted in the third round in 2022, is settling into his role on a stacked University of Michigan team, with eight points in 14 games to date as a freshman. Another goaltender in Dennis Hildeby, drafted in the fourth round, is off to an excellent start with the Toronto Marlies. The hulking Swede has a record of 3-2-1 with a .941 SV% and a 1.51 GAA. He’s posted numbers like these in every league he’s played in to date, and looks like someone who could be ready for NHL action sooner rather than later. 
Drafted in the fifth round of 2022 was Nikita Grebyonkin, a 6-foot-2 Russian forward who was a year older than anyone else in his draft class. He put his name on the map with an impressive rookie campaign for Khabarovsk Amur of the KHL last season recording 26 points in 45 games as a 19-year-old, and it’s been more of the same in 2023-24. He has 15 points in 33 games so far this season, and if his production continues, one might wonder how long it’ll take for him to earn an entry-level deal. Even Brandon Lisowsky, their seventh round pick in 2022, has turned into somewhat of an underrated goal-scoring prospect. He has 13 goals and 25 points in 22 games for the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades so far in 2023-24. 
Nobody really knew what to expect when it came to the 2023 draft – Kyle Dubas was always very involved with the draft during his tenure as GM, so when he left and Brad Treliving took over, it was unknown what direction they were going to go in. Treliving opted to let head of scouting Wes Clark run the draft the same way they would have if Dubas was there, kicking things off with the first-round selection of Easton Cowan. 
The Cowan pick instantly garnered criticism, given he wasn’t projected to go until the late-second to early-third round. Despite the criticism, he immediately got to work at proving his doubters wrong. The blue-collar Mount Brydges native was one of the final training camp cuts and already has half of the points he had in 2022-23…in 52 fewer games. Finishing last season with 53 points in 68 games, Cowan is already up to 27 points in 16 games on the season good for 11th in league scoring despite playing 5-6 less games than most players. At this point, both he and Fraser Minten look like they should be locks for Team Canada at the World Juniors.
Drafted in the fifth round in 2023 was Hudson Malinoski, a Saskatchewan native who had one of the bumpiest roads to get to where he is today. I won’t get into it here, but I will say that it involves a near-death experience. You can read the full story for yourself here. Either way, it’s safe to say he’s been a step behind most people his age when it comes to his development. The 19-year-old has seven points in 13 games to start his freshman NCAA season with Providence College. 
To wrap things up, Leafs’ 2023 sixth round pick Noah Chadwick has probably taken the biggest step forward of anybody not named Easton Cowan. The 6-foot-4 defenceman was drafted for his sturdiness, defensive instincts, and his underrated puck-moving ability. That aforementioned puck-moving ability has come to fruition in 2023-24, with 17 points in 21 games so far, a stark difference from his 20 points in 67 games last season. And not all of it is puck-moving – six of those 17 points are goals. Taking a step forward is one way to put it, but being only three points off of your total from the year before in 46 less games is very impressive. 
I’ve only covered the 2021-2023 drafts in this article, but the emergence of players like Pontus Holmberg, Nick Abruzzese, and Ryan Tverberg in recent years along with undrafted prospects like Alex Steeves and Bobby McMann on top of everybody I listed is a strong indicator that the Leafs’ prospect system is in a much, much better place than it has been in recent years. It’s obviously too early to say if all of these were good picks, but it’s sure looking that way so far. 
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