The next wave of future Maple Leafs is beginning to take shape
Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
By Nick Richard2 months ago
Competitive windows come and go in the NHL. Bad teams reload with premium draft picks and hope those players eventually lead the way to the top of the mountain. Key pieces of winning teams start to age, their abilities inevitably decline, and the descent to restarting the cycle begins. The teams that are able to keep those competitive windows open the longest do so with a combination of shrewd personnel decisions and, perhaps more importantly, strong drafting and development.
Following several years of being a punching bag for the rest of the league, the Leafs shifted gears in their competitive cycle with the arrival of promising youngsters like Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander. Over time, those players have grown into superstars and made the Leafs into a perennial contender.
But that star-studded core that also includes captain John Tavares and long-time Leaf Morgan Rielly has been supplemented mostly through trades and free agency over the years, leading to a rotating cast of complementary players rounding out the lineup. That’s a tough way to build a team and sustain success from year to year.
There are mitigating factors at play, of course. Young players take time to develop, and the Leafs haven’t had many premium picks in recent years, as they’ve routinely finished near the top of the standings while shipping out valuable draft capital in the pursuit of playoff success. Mitigating factors aside, the fact remains that the Leafs have failed to integrate cheap, young talent into their lineup and changing that will be crucial to sustaining success and ensuring Toronto holds onto “contender” status.
Since John Tavares signed with the Leafs in the summer of 2018, the Leafs have only drafted three players who have played NHL games for them: Nick Robertson, Nick Abruzzese, and Matthew Knies. Those three have combined to play just 45 regular season games to this point, but Knies and Robertson appear primed to bolster Toronto’s roster this season, representing the first wave in what the Leafs hope will be a steady pipeline of homegrown contributors.
At this stage, Knies looks like a lock for the opening night roster and figures to start out in a prominent role alongside Tavares. He shouldn’t be expected to light up the scoreboard as a rookie, but he has already proven capable of contributing at the NHL level and should be a solid source of secondary scoring as he continues to develop.
Things are a bit murkier for Robertson, given the amount of time he has missed due to injuries, the Leafs’ salary cap crunch limiting their roster flexibility, and the emergence of Noah Gregor, who is well on his way to parlaying a PTO into a roster spot.
The most likely, and perhaps best, thing for Robertson might be to start the season playing big minutes for the Marlies, readying himself for when the injury bug inevitably bites the big club. Still just 22 years old, staying healthy and getting consistent game reps are the biggest things for Robertson, but he will factor into the Leafs’ lineup at some point this season, and no one should be shocked if he takes his opportunity and runs with it.
Knies and Robertson might be the ones knocking on the door and ready to contribute right now, but there is more help on the way.
2022 second-round pick Fraser Minten and the 28th overall pick from this past summer’s draft, Easton Cowan, have both been turning heads at training camp and through the early part of the preseason. They’re ticketed to return to their respective junior clubs for the regular season, but their strong play has left a lasting impression and convinced the Leafs to extend their stay at camp.
Cowan started strong at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament, where he was consistently the best Leaf on the ice, and has carried that momentum into his first NHL training camp, continuously “stacking up good days,” in the words of head coach Sheldon Keefe. In his first taste of NHL preseason action, Cowan was once again the best Leaf on the ice, and Keefe had to restrain himself from playing the 18-year-old too much. He finished with a goal and an assist while firing four shots on goal in almost 17 minutes of ice time, including a shift that saw him draw a penalty in the final minute of regulation. He even earned a look in overtime, jumping over the boards for Matthews with the game on the line.
Keefe turned to the youngster once again in Wednesday’s preseason tilt against Buffalo, and while it was a quieter outing for him, he still managed a primary assist on a late powerplay goal off the stick of Conor Timmins. More importantly, Cowan continued to look like he belonged.
He processes the game at an impressive rate for such a young player, and his speed allows him to capitalize on the strong reads he makes on both sides of the puck. With the puck on his stick, he attacks open space and gets into the dirty areas around the net. He has also shown an ability to play a give-and-go game at a high pace, leaving defenders with little time to react. Cowan is tenacious in puck pursuit and hasn’t looked out of place against bigger, more physically mature opponents either. He has shown a willingness to engage physically, even landing a big hit on the forecheck against Buffalo, but he also knows when to back off and take away passing options in the middle of the ice.
Cowan has impressed in a big way and taken great strides towards shedding the “reach” label already, but the reality is that he still requires plenty of development at the junior level in order to reach his full potential. It will be another year or two before he is a legitimate candidate to make the Leafs’ roster, but the encouraging thing is that he has already shown plenty of reasons to believe he will get there.
Minten hasn’t popped quite the way that Cowan has, but he has been impressive in his own right. Like Cowan, he has built off of a strong showing in Traverse City and continued to earn Keefe’s praise through the early days of training camp.
Minten was bumped up the lineup against Buffalo on Wednesday, skating on a line with fellow prospect Roni Hirvonen and the newly acquired Max Domi. He took advantage of the opportunity and was one of Toronto’s most dangerous players throughout the contest. Minten’s refined two-way game was on full display as he routinely aided in retrieving the puck and moving it up ice to generate pressure in the offensive zone. He was strong on the puck and used his size along with his crafty stick to help free up contested pucks, and he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.
He hasn’t found the back of the net in the preseason just yet, but Minten is expected to do plenty of scoring as he leads the charge for the Kamloops Blazers this season. He managed to pot 31 goals and 36 assists in just 57 games last season despite seeing his role diminish as the Blazers loaded up on veterans for the postseason, and he will have an opportunity to improve on those numbers with many of those veterans turning pro.
Minten is also a strong candidate to make Canada’s roster for the upcoming World Juniors, where he will get to showcase his skills against the very best in his age group. He has the versatility to be used anywhere in the lineup and provide his team with solid minutes in all situations, and he could play a big role in Canada’s pursuit of gold.
Ultimately, that seems like the role Minten is likely to fill for the Leafs someday. He may never be a top-six offensive driver, but he has enough offensive ability and hockey sense to become a responsible, complementary piece with elite players, and his strong two-way game gives him a high floor as a solid depth contributor. Depending on how things go for him this season, he could even push for a job in the Leafs’ bottom-six as early as next season.
While the likes of Knies, Robertson, Cowan, and Minten have claimed most of the headlines throughout the preseason, they aren’t the only up-and-comers who could find their way into the Leafs’ lineup in the next year or two.
They’ve flown under the radar a bit, but Toronto’s second and third-round picks from the 2020 draft, Topi Niemelä and Roni Hirvonen, have looked serviceable in their first NHL camp. They are set to embark on their first full AHL seasons, and with both players having a wealth of pro experience from their years in Liiga, they could play their way into spot duty when injuries arise later this season.
2021 fifth-rounder Ty Voit was injured in the Traverse City tournament, but he is also set to begin his pro career with the Marlies this season. He is fresh off an outstanding season that saw him finish second in OHL scoring with 105 points in 67 games, but he will have to prove that he can overcome his lack of size and strength at the pro level. If he can do that, there is no doubt that Voit has the pure offensive ability to push for NHL minutes down the road.
Ryan Tverberg, chosen in the seventh round of the 2020 draft, is joining the Marlies this season as well. He signed his entry-level deal with the Leafs last spring after two-and-a-half impressive seasons at the University of Connecticut, and though he doesn’t represent the same offensive upside as some of these other players, his fast-paced, energetic style of play could land him in the conversation for a bottom-six role before too long.
None of these players are going to be taking minutes from Matthews or Marner any time soon, but for the first time in a long time, it finally feels like reinforcements are on the way. The Leafs don’t necessarily need any of them to turn into the face of the franchise, but if they plan on keeping their window of contention open through Matthews’ prime years, they do need to hit on some of these draft picks to supplement the core they have in place.
There are no sure things when teams step up to the podium and swing away on draft day, but it appears the Leafs are finally starting to rack up some hits, and the hope is that it leads to a few runs.
(Statistics from EliteProspects.com)
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