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Minten’s push for a roster spot, Grebyonkin & Lisowsky lighting the lamp: Leafs Prospect Roundup

Fraser Minten (Steven Ellis/The Leafs Nation)
Photo credit:Steven Ellis/The Leafs Nation
Nick Richard
8 months ago
Fraser Minten has been the story of Leafs training camp, and it’s starting to look like he could remain a focal point when the regular season gets underway.
When asked about Minten following Saturday’s preseason finale in Detroit, head coach Sheldon Keefe seemed hopeful that the Leafs would be able to find a way to keep their 2022 second-rounder on the roster to begin the regular season.
After the Leafs traded Sam Lafferty to Vancouver on Sunday, that road appears to have been cleared.
Lafferty is a useful bottom-six forward who brings speed and physicality, and the Leafs surely would have liked to hang onto him as a depth piece, but shipping out his $1.15 million cap hit solves both of the issues Keefe cited when asked about Minten making the opening night roster.
Not only is there another open spot on the roster, but the Leafs will now have the flexibility to carry an extra skater, even after presumably signing camp invite Noah Gregor (who just so happens to provide a lot of the same elements as Lafferty) for around league minimum. That flexibility could be key in the final decision to keep Minten on the roster, as carrying an extra forward would allow the Leafs to have Minten remain with the club without having to run him out there every single night as he gets acclimated to life in the NHL, but his play has certainly warranted a spot in the lineup.
Coming into camp, the 19-year-old Minten wasn’t even a consideration to make the roster. The hope was that he would have a strong camp before heading back to Kamloops to be a go-to guy for the Blazers and earn a spot on Canada’s World Junior team, but he continued to stack up strong performances in the preseason and earn the praise of the Leafs’ bench boss.
Minten hasn’t necessarily wowed with flashy offensive plays, but his refined two-way game has been on display throughout the preseason. He hasn’t looked overwhelmed defensively at any point and has helped to drive play with intelligent tracking and relentless effort on the forecheck. He and fellow top prospect Matthew Knies, in particular, seemed to develop some chemistry as the exhibition schedule wore on, routinely frustrating opposing defenders with their tenacity and puck pursuit.
Managing expectations is important for any young player, never mind one who was drafted in the second round a little over a year ago, but the outlook for the Leafs’ forward group changes significantly if Minten is actually able to give them solid minutes down the middle when the real games get going this week. It would keep William Nylander on the wing where he can ride shotgun alongside either Auston Matthews or John Tavares and ensure they aren’t relying on David Kämpf to provide more than he can handle.
Whether or not Minten is capable of filling that role right now is one thing, but the Leafs also have to consider what is best for his long-term development. He had a strong season in the WHL in 2022-23 but was more of a complementary piece on a stacked Kamloops team that loaded up for a run at the Memorial Cup and was expected to play a much more prominent role for the Blazers this season.
Is it more beneficial for Minten to learn on the fly and take his lumps at the NHL level with a team that is clearly in win-now mode, or would he be better served going back to Kamloops, where he would likely serve as the team’s captain and first line centre?
Ultimately, it will probably come down to whether Minten can continue to contribute against real NHL lineups when the games start to matter, and it appears he has earned the opportunity to show the Leafs that he can do just that.

Notes from the rest of the prospect pool:

  • Speaking of Knies, we won’t be talking about him as a prospect for much longer. He came into the NHL with a bang last spring, showing in the postseason that he could be a difference-maker for the Leafs, and has carried that through his first training camp and preseason. He played with a variety of linemates throughout the preseason and was consistently one of the Leafs’ better players each time out, finishing with two goals and three assists in six exhibition contests. He is a lock for the opening night roster and figures to be a key part of the Leafs’ lineup in his rookie season.
  • Nick Robertson was the star of training camp last season, eventually making his way to the Leafs’ roster before a shoulder injury ended his season. He hasn’t been nearly as impressive in this year’s preseason, but the Leafs have indicated a desire to create opportunities for their young players, and the Lafferty trade means there is still an outside chance for Robertson to remain with the Leafs as their 12th or 13th forward. As much as the Leafs would love for Robertson to force his way into the lineup, the ideal spot for him to do that might be with the Marlies. He doesn’t require waivers to be sent down, and for a 22-year-old who has played just 82 total games over the last three seasons, playing big minutes in the AHL is the best way for him to get back on track with consistent reps. Robertson’s statistical profile says he should be an NHLer – he just has to stay healthy long enough to show it.
  • Easton Cowan turned heads in his first NHL camp and should be heading back to the London Knights brimming with confidence. After a strong second half and stellar playoff run with the Knights last season, Cowan has continued on an upward trajectory with his impressive play at the Traverse City Prospect Tournament and throughout the NHL preseason. He will step into a prominent role upon his return to London and will be looked to as a primary offensive contributor while playing down the middle more frequently than he did last season. Cowan might be a year or two away from breaking into the NHL, but the Leafs have to be thrilled about what they’ve seen from their 2023 first-rounder so far and excited about what he might be able to do with a larger role in London.
  • Nikita Grebyonkin is back with Metallurg this season and has started to settle in with his new/old team. Following a four-game stretch that saw him go without a point, Grebyonkin broke out of his mini-slump in a big way this past week. He tallied a pair of assists in a 3-1 win over Neftekhimik on Wednesday and followed that up with a hat trick in a 6-3 victory over Salavat on Friday. Grebyonkin exploded onto the scene to win the KHL’s Rookie of the Year award a season ago, and he has continued to impress with six goals and three assists in 16 games so far this year.
  • Artur Akhtyamov put himself firmly on the prospect map with eye-popping numbers in the VHL last season, and he has continued to impress in the KHL this season. Injuries in Kazan’s crease have afforded him an opportunity, and he has taken the ball and run with it. Akhtyamov’s most impressive outing of the season came on Sunday when he stopped 46 of the 47 shots he faced in a 2-1 win over Admiral. The win brought his record to 3-3-0, and he now owns a 2.32 GAA to go along with a .930 SV% in seven appearances at Russia’s top level this season. It’s hard to say how long Akhtyamov will remain with the big club, but he may just force their hand if he continues to play as well as he has.
  • 2022 seventh-rounder Brandon Lisowsky had a big season for Saskatoon in the WHL last year, and he is off to a scorching hot start as he looks to earn an entry-level contract with the Leafs this season. After posting a hat trick against the Edmonton Oil Kings on Wednesday and notching another pair of goals against Regina on Saturday, Lisowsky has six goals and three assists in his first six games of the 2023-24 campaign. His size and lack of elite skating ability make his pro projection a tricky one, but Lisowsky’s pure goal-scoring ability should be enough to entice the Leafs to get his signature on a contract by season’s end.
  • Mike Koster was drafted by the Leafs in the fifth round of the 2019 draft and emerged as an important piece of the Minnesota Golden Gophers’ blue line last season. His 29 points in 40 games were more than he had registered in his first two seasons combined, and he showed that he could defend against opposing teams’ best players despite his lack of size. Koster was named a co-captain ahead of what will be a crucial year for him, with his exclusive signing rights expiring next summer, but unfortunately, his quest for an entry-level contract will be put on hold after a routine collision in practice resulted in an injury that will keep him out for at least the first month of his senior campaign.
  • A pair of Leafs prospects faced off to begin their NCAA careers as Michigan and Providence split a two-game set over the weekend. 2022 third-rounder Nick Moldenhauer lined up at right wing on Michigan’s second line and was held without a point, while 2023 fifth-round pick Hudson Malinoski notched a goal and an assist in a losing effort for Providence on Sunday. Malinoski is an intriguing prospect who has missed significant development time due to a freak off-ice injury a couple of years ago, but he is already showcasing his offensive skill set at the collegiate level.
  • The 2022-23 season was Mikko Kokkonen’s first full year in North America, and he never seemed to gain his footing under former Marlies coach Greg Moore, playing in just 36 AHL games while also spending time with the Newfoundland Growlers in the ECHL. Things are off to a much better start for the 2019 third-rounder this season after his preseason performance led to Sheldon Keefe calling him the “surprise of camp.” Not known for his offensive output, Kokkonen has shown confidence moving the puck and activating to join the attack while maintaining his defensive responsibilities. He has been particularly impressive on the penalty kill, where he’s done well to box out opposing forwards and block shots from dangerous areas. Kokkonen is likely ticketed for the AHL ahead of Monday’s roster deadline, but he has left an impression on the Leafs’ coaching staff and could find his way to the NHL roster at some point this season. He probably tops out as a defence-first, third-pair guy, but the Leafs would happily take that with their lack of prospect depth on the blue line.
  • Like Lisowsky and Koster, 2020 sixth-rounder Veeti Miettinen is looking to earn an ELC with the Leafs before his exclusive signing rights expire next summer. He got off to a good start this weekend as St. Cloud State took on St. Thomas, registering a goal and two assists while firing nine shots on goal in an overtime loss on Saturday. He was held off the scoresheet in Sunday’s 1-0 victory, but it was still a positive opening weekend for a player who has stagnated a bit since an impressive freshman season. If Miettinen can continue to be a driving force for the Huskies, he could make it an easy decision for the Leafs next spring.
 
Statistics from EliteProspects.com

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