Prospect Mailbag: Leafs Prospect Roundup
Photo credit:Steven Ellis/The Leafs Nation
By Nick Richard15 days ago
Rather than sticking with our usual formula for the Leafs Prospect Roundup, where we recap what Toronto’s up-and-comers have been up to over the past week, we decided to switch things up this week and take questions on the Leafs’ prospect pool from our followers on Twitter.
We got a lot of great questions, so thank you to everyone who contributed. Let’s get to it!
From @mic_mazz: What can we realistically expect from Matthew Knies at the NHL level based on his play at the University of Minnesota thus far?
The Matthew Knies hype train started gaining steam early last season when he stepped in as a freshman for Minnesota and made an immediate impact. His play since then has done little to slow that hype train, but it’s important to manage expectations.
There simply aren’t a lot of players who step directly out of the NCAA and into prominent NHL roles. That’s not to say it isn’t possible for Knies to hit the ground running, but there is likely to be an adjustment period as he begins his pro career. The biggest hurdle that Knies could be facing in that adjustment period, at least this season, is that he will be left with very little runway if he does indeed sign to close out the NHL season. Minnesota is a juggernaut who have been ranked #1 in the country for most of the season, and if they make it to the Frozen Four, the Leafs will have just three regular season games remaining by the time Knies can sign his entry level deal.
There are reasons to believe that Knies could step in and give the Leafs solid minutes should they need him this season, however. Topping the list is his physical makeup and willingness to use his body to create advantages in almost every situation. He is unlikely to be overmatched physically, even at the NHL level, and he has the puck skills to make plays out of those contested situations. Knies is also a strong transition player who can do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of driving play to the offensive end.
The most likely outcome if Knies signs is that he gets into two or three games to close the regular season, probably in a bottom-six role, before serving in a depth role for the postseason.
From @TL96__: Why haven’t the Leafs let Nick Robertson just dominate in the AHL before penciling him into the lineup? I feel like this is just stifling his potential.
I would argue that they did let Robertson dominate in the AHL, albeit for a short stint. He missed a large portion of the 2021-22 season after breaking his leg in just the Marlies’ second game of the season but came back to score 16 goals and 12 assists in just 28 games as a 20-year-old. That’s a 41 goal, 30 assist pace if Robertson had played all 72 games for the Marlies last season – a season that would have been his first in professional hockey under normal circumstances.
The biggest thing stifling Robertson’s development is his continued injury troubles. Here’s hoping 2023-24 brings better fortune for the Leafs’ 2019 second-rounder because he has shown some enticing potential when healthy.
From @murrayforvezina: Who’s a prospect in the system that you see as a potential breakout candidate for next year?
I’ll give you a couple of answers here. My first answer is Fraser Minten, the Leafs’ first pick from the 2022 draft, who is already having a strong draft+1 season. The main reason I’ve pegged him as a breakout candidate and someone who could climb even higher in the Leafs’ prospect rankings is that he is playing on a stacked team that has loaded up as the season has progressed, pushing Minten down the lineup in favor of more experienced WHLers. He has still been productive while showing off the strong two-way game that helped draw the Leafs to him on draft day, and I expect him to take another step forward in a more prominent role for Kamloops next season.
My second answer is a bit less obvious: William Villeneuve. The first-year Marlies’ blueliner has put together a strong season, playing key minutes for one of the AHL’s best teams and putting up decent numbers in the process. Villeneuve was an offensive dynamo in junior, but concerns over his defensive game and mobility persisted. While there is still work to be done in those areas, he is significantly ahead of where I expected him to be in his first season of professional hockey and I think he has set a strong foundation to build upon next season.
From @_ForeverSad__: Do you think Niemela plays for the Marlies next season, maybe even when is Liiga season ends? Could the Leafs have felt confident to trade Sandin cause Niemela isn’t that much younger?
The expectation is that Niemelä will make the trip across the pond whenever his Liiga season comes to an end, but Kärpät is currently holding down a playoff spot, so it will depend on how much of the AHL schedule is left by the time their postseason run comes to an end. He hasn’t been nearly as productive this season as he was a year ago, but he has continued to put up strong underlying numbers, and he is probably owed a bit more on the scoresheet than the 17 points he has registered so far in 2022-23. At the latest, Niemelä will begin his North American career next fall when he attends his first NHL training camp.
As for the Sandin trade, I don’t think Niemelä’s status factored into that decision much, if at all. In my opinion, the Sandin trade was simply a matter of asset management and cashing out on a redundant asset while it still held legitimate value. I wrote about that last week, and you can check it out here:
From @SteitzerJon: Am I right or wrong to still love Roni Hirvonen despite a down year?
Absolutely not. Hirvonen’s offensive production certainly didn’t jump off the page in the first half of the season, but context is important. HIFK have struggled to create offense all season long, but the production has picked up in recent weeks, particularly for Hirvonen. He has now established new career-highs in goals with 15 and points with 28, and half of those points have come in his last 21 games.
Beyond that, Hirvonen is an easy player to like. He’s a diligent worker in all three zones, he gets into the dirty areas offensively, and he competes hard on every shift – especially for a smaller player. I think the speed of the AHL game will be something he has to adjust to, but his small-area skill should help with that transition.
From @PraagAryaMD: Hey Nick, How’s 2023 going for you man? Curious if we have any speedy, good transition players that are NHL-ready or could be soon. What are the highest-end prospects in the Marlies’ system at any position? I’m certain our goalies are good but thoughts on forwards and defense?
First off, I’m good – thank you for asking! I hope you are as well.
Outside of the Marlies’ we have already seen called up to the Leafs at various points this season, there isn’t a lot of NHL-ready talent on the Marlies’ roster. Nick Abruzzese is probably next in line, but I wouldn’t say the transition game is a standout strength of his. Out of the guys we have seen come up from the Marlies, I think Bobby McMann would bring the most to the transition game. He isn’t an elite handler, but he skates well and plays in straight lines – opening himself up to carry the puck with speed through the neutral zone.
Semyon Der-Arguchintsev probably has the highest upside out of the current Marlies and he is also a strong transition player due to his strong four-way mobility and exceptional puck skills. However, his off-puck game still has a long way to go before he is in consideration for regular NHL duty. Look for the Marlies to receive an injection of higher-end talent next season, with the likes of Matthew Knies, Topi Niemelä, Roni Hirvonen, and Ty Voit beginning their North American pro careers.
From @loomx93: What do you think happens with Dennis Hildeby? Can’t play in the AHL until he’s 24 I believe, so it’s either SHL or NHL which makes it a bit odd that they already signed him to an ELC.
So, I learned something in the process of taking these questions. The new transfer agreement between the NHL and SHL stipulates that any player drafted out of the SHL beyond the first round must be offered back to their SHL club before being assigned to the AHL, up until the age of 24.
The signing of Hildeby was a bit odd at the time, given he had just been chosen in the fourth-round days earlier, and that stipulation in the SHL/NHL transfer agreement only makes it more curious. That the Leafs opted to sign him immediately leads me to believe that they’ve had an open line of communication with Färjestad regarding their plans for him. In the end, it will be up to his club team whether they want to allow him to begin his AHL career. Still, with the number of netminders already vying for playing time in the Marlies’ crease, perhaps the Leafs feel the SHL is the best place to continue his development for the time being, regardless. A situation to watch over the summer, to be sure.
From @FilipeDimas: Goalie prospect tier list, please and thanks.
From @InsideLeafs: Between Peksa, Akhtyamov, and Hildeby, who do you think sees NHL ice first?
These two questions are similar enough that I decided to answer them together.
Joseph Woll now has a few years of pro hockey under his belt and may not qualify as a prospect in the traditional sense for much longer, but he remains the clear frontrunner among up-and-coming netminders in the Leafs system. He has had a tremendous season, both for the Marlies and in limited action with the Leafs, showing signs of reaching the potential the Leafs saw when they selected him early in the third round of the 2016 draft. Depending on how the Leafs’ goaltending situation shakes out in the offseason, Woll could figure into the backup role for the big club more regularly next season.
Keith Petruzzelli is probably next in line, simply due to the fact that he is already playing AHL minutes. He has shown flashes of being a quality pro netminder, but he has been plagued by inconsistency and has a long way to go before he is considered as a viable NHL option. Petruzzelli’s size and pedigree should give him lots of time to figure it out.
Hildeby is next on the list, due in large part to the fact that he is older than both Akhtyamov and Peksa, and he has played at a higher level than both of them as well. Add in his projectable 6’6″ frame and impressive athleticism, and there’s a lot to be excited about with the 2022 fourth-rounder. He has also performed well against SHL competition over the last two seasons, making his potential NHL timeline a little clearer.
I had Akhtyamov and Peksa neck and neck on my list of top Leafs prospects to begin the season, and after strong starts for both, Akhtyamov pulled away and established himself as the superior prospect. He had a stellar season in the VHL, leading the league with a .943 SV% in the regular season before posting an even more impressive .952 SV% in a six-game opening-round loss in the VHL playoffs. Akhtyamov doesn’t have the impressive measurables that Hildeby does, and he still hasn’t cracked the KHL, but he certainly improved his stock in 2022-23.
Peksa had a solid VHL season in his own right, and his path to KHL playing time could be easier than Akhtyamov’s. Neither player is under contract for next season but it seems likely that they will either re-up with their current clubs or pursue other KHL options.
From @Matt06121981: Which college guys/Marlies on AHL deals get signed between now and next year?
The obvious answer here is Matthew Knies – at least that’s what Leafs fans are hoping. Signing him would fill the Leafs’ last available contract slot, so if they were to sign any of their other college prospects like Ryan Tverberg or Veeti Miettinen, it would have to wait until the new league year begins on July 1st. They could, however, have those players close out the season playing for the Marlies on amateur tryout agreements if they are ready to turn pro and then sign them to their entry level NHL contracts in the summer. Outside of Tverberg and Miettinen, Knies’ teammate at Minnesota, Mikey Koster, is a dark horse to earn a contract.
We’ve seen a handful of players, such as Justin Holl and, more recently, Bobby McMann, parlay AHL contracts into NHL deals and find their way to the NHL. The best candidate on the Marlies roster to follow that path is defenseman Noel Hoefenmayer. Arizona opted to let his exclusive signing rights expire after drafting him in the fourth round of the 2017 draft, despite the fact that he put up 82 points in 58 games in his final year of junior hockey.
Hoefenmayer split time between the AHL and ECHL the last two seasons, but he has been a full-time Marlie in 2022-23 and earned an All-Star selection earlier this season. His booming shot has proven to be a weapon from the point, and he currently sits fourth in Marlies scoring with 11 goals and 23 assists in 52 games – good for twice as many points as the Marlies’ second-highest scoring defender.
Now 24 years old, Hoefenmayer has worked his way up through the ECHL and developed into an impactful AHL player. Questions about his mobility and reliability in the defensive end remain but he has probably done enough to earn an ELC and continue his development with the Marlies.
(Statistics from EliteProspects.com)
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