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Minten & Cowan crack Canadian WJC roster, Niemelä nets OT winner: Leafs Prospect Roundup

Easton Cowan (Steven Ellis/Daily Faceoff)
Photo credit:Easton Cowan (Steven Ellis/Daily Faceoff)
Nick Richard
2 months ago
The annual World Junior tournament is a staple of the holiday season for many hockey fans, and Canadian Leafs fans will have a little extra skin in the game as they cheer on their country this year. For the first time since 2019, when netminder Ian Scott made the cut, the Leafs will have a pair of their prospects in Fraser Minten and Easton Cowan representing Canada in their pursuit of World Junior gold.
Minten and Cowan will be the first Leafs skaters to suit up for Canada since Mitch Marner and Travis Dermott back in 2016, and at least early on, it looks like both players will be playing prominent roles for the Canadian squad. Through the early days of practice, Cowan has been skating on the left side of a first line that features fellow first-rounders Conor Geekie and Matt Savoie. Minten has been skating alongside projected first-overall pick Macklin Celebrini and Halifax Mooseheads standout Jordan Dumais.
Cowan and Minten both offer elements of versatility and defensive utility, which likely played a large part in them making the team in the first place, and they figure to move around the lineup while contributing on both special teams units. With Minten’s refined two-way game and Cowan being a consistent shorthanded threat in the OHL this season, it was a foregone conclusion that they would be leaned on for penalty killing duty, but they’ve been getting power play reps as well. Minten did a lot of damage with the man advantage in the WHL last season and figures to man the left half-wall on the top unit, while Cowan is in line to start on the second unit.
Minten’s spot on the team was all but sewn up coming into the season, but Cowan’s rise has been somewhat unexpected. After his selection in the first round last summer left some bewildered, he has continued to exceed expectations at every turn. He turned heads and looked like he could hang with the best in the world during his first NHL training camp, he has been absolutely dominant in the OHL this season, and now he will be striving to make an impact on junior hockey’s biggest stage.
While it’s important not to put too much stock into a short tournament where anything can happen, the 2024 World Juniors should offer a glimpse at what a pair of future Leafs could bring to the team in the coming years.

Notes from the rest of the prospect pool:

  • The Leafs put a beating on the Penguins on Saturday night, and it was sparked by Matthew Knies. It felt like we were watching him come of age as he opened the scoring and proceeded to drop the mitts for his first NHL scrap, ultimately finishing with the Gordie Howe Hat Trick. Knies has taken up a lot of space in the Leafs Prospect Roundup over the last couple of years, so a proper send-off only seemed fitting. Consider this Knies’ graduation from the Leafs’ prospect ranks.
  • Nick Robertson’s ascension hasn’t been nearly as smooth, and he hasn’t had as many signature moments as Knies has had this season, but it appears that he has finally established himself as a full-time NHLer as well. There are still some concerns with his defensive game, but he has limited mistakes and made some impressive plays in his own zone while helping to drive offence on the Leafs’ third line. With an assist in each of his last two games, Robertson now has three goals and six assists in 17 games this season, putting him on pace to finish with 13 goals and 25 assists in 71 games – quality production given his limited role. He will have to continue to earn the trust of the Leafs’ coaching staff, but he has proven to be an effective player for them so far in 2023-24.
  • Topi Niemelä’s offensive output has increased in recent weeks, and he extended his goal-scoring streak to three games with the overtime winner against Hartford on Sunday. With a pair of goals over the weekend, Niemelä is up to five goals and 10 assists in just 21 games. He has adjusted well to the North American game and is looking more comfortable with each passing game. The 2020 third-rounder will have to continue to add strength in order to hold up against bigger, stronger opponents but his defensive instincts and offensive skill have him trending toward becoming an NHL blueliner in the coming years.
  • Dennis Hildeby had another strong outing in his only start last week, stopping 32 of 34 shots in an 8-2 win over the Providence Bruins. The win brought him to a record of 6-3-2 to go along with a sparkling 1.82 GAA and .929 SV% through 11 appearances. That save percentage is good for third-best among all AHL goalies with at least 10 games played so far this season. The Leafs will surely try to remain patient with the 22-year-old netminder, but with Joseph Woll on the shelf for the next few weeks and Ilya Samsonov struggling mightily, his dominant run with the Marlies could eventually land him in the conversation for spot duty with the big club.
  • Alex Steeves has been torching the AHL this year, and he extended his point streak to a franchise-record 15 games this past week. He tallied two assists against Providence on Friday and added another helper against Hartford on Sunday, bringing him to 11 goals and 12 assists in just 18 games. Steeves has done everything he can to earn another look at the NHL level, but with Bobby McMann performing well, he will probably have to wait for another injury to open up a spot for him on the Leafs’ roster. In the meantime, other teams will be keeping tabs, too.
  • Nick Abruzzese has flown under the radar a bit, but he is another player who has been leading the offensive charge for the Marlies so far this season. With a pair of helpers against Providence on Friday and a goal and an assist against Hartford, he has put together three consecutive multi-point efforts and is now up to 20 points in 23 games for the season. Though he is already 24 years of age, this is just Abruzzese’s second professional season, and his continued upward trajectory could make him an intriguing part of a trade package.
  • Mikko Kokkonen earned the praise of Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe during training camp back in September, and he has carried that momentum back to the Marlies after a rough first season in North America a year ago. He has been lining up on the Marlies’ top pairing alongside Niemelä, acting as a steadying defensive presence, but he is starting to get rewarded on the scoresheet as well. Kokkonen picked up a goal and an assist against Providence on Friday and now has four points in his last four games.
  • Brandon Lisowsky has been on fire for Saskatoon in recent weeks, and he added to his offensive totals with five more points in two games this past week. Now riding a six-game point streak, the 2022 seventh-rounder is up to 18 goals and 21 assists through 33 games. He is on pace for a similar goal output as last season, but he has become a more diverse offensive threat and is creating more chances for his teammates than he has in the past. Lisowsky seems like a fairly safe bet to earn an entry-level contract in the next few months.
  • Noah Chadwick’s breakout campaign continued this past week as he added a goal and two assists in three games. He is becoming a player to watch in the Leafs’ system, standing 6’4″ and already with 24 points in 30 games on Lethbridge’s blue line this season. Mobility is still an area of concern for Chadwick, but he has taken strides to improve that part of his game, and it has helped to unlock his offensive ability. He is still very much a long-term project, but he has more than earned a passing grade to this point.
 
Statistics from EliteProspects.com
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