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TLN’s 2022-23 Midseason Leafs Prospect Rankings: Prospects 15-11
By Nick Richard1 year ago
With the calendar turning over to 2023 and a spectacular World Junior Championships signaling the unofficial halfway point in the hockey calendar, it’s an excellent time to reassess the Leafs’ prospect pipeline. There have been some standout performances by players throughout the system and underwhelming starts for others, leading to some noteworthy changes from TLN’s most recent prospect ranking in the offseason.
We got things started on Monday by profiling a few players who just missed the cut, and the countdown of the organization’s top 20 prospects began on Tuesday as we worked our way down from 20-16. If you missed either of those articles, you can catch up on them here:
Rounding out the back half of this countdown was difficult, as there isn’t necessarily a ton separating most of the players in the 10-20 range. When prospects share comparable upside or potential, I place a greater emphasis on NHL proximity or projectability, favoring players with clearer paths to the NHL. While there is a lot of nuance that goes along with that, it is the main thing that separated this group of players from the ones ranked below them.
While I have consulted TLN colleagues and others who are familiar with the Leafs’ prospect pool, these rankings are purely my own. Following the criteria from past TLN Prospect Rankings, only players who are under the age of 24 and have played fewer than 42 NHL games are considered “prospects.” As a result, players such as Mac Hollowell, Joseph Woll, and Joey Anderson weren’t considered. 2020 first-round pick Rodion Amirov has also been excluded, as the primary focus remains his health and well-being as he continues to undergo treatment for a brain tumor.
15 | William Villeneuve | D | Toronto (AHL)
6’2″ | 184 lbs | Shoots: R | Drafted 2020 round 4, 122nd overall
Villeneuve was a big-time offensive producer in junior, leading the Saint John Sea Dogs as well as all QMJHL defensemen with 58 points in 64 games during his draft year. The Leafs called his name in the fourth round of the 2020 draft, but despite his impressive counting stats, the pick still seemed like a bit of a reach. At the time, there were concerns about his game projecting to the pro level, mostly due to his questionable decision-making and below-average skating ability.
There was a concerted effort on Villeneuve’s part to improve those areas of his game in his draft+1 year, and while he did make some positive strides, the added focus on his defensive play led to diminished contributions in the offensive end. His final year of junior hockey in 2021-22 is where it all started to come together for Villeneuve, however. He nearly matched his point totals from his draft year but became far less of a liability defensively, leading the Sea Dogs with an impressive mark of +60. Now, we all know that +/- has its limitations and should be taken with a grain of salt but going from -5 in his draft year to +7 in 2020-21 before jumping all the way to +60 last season speaks to the changes he made in his style of play.
Now in his first full season with the Marlies, Villeneuve is still adjusting to the pace of pro hockey, but he has shown enough to believe that he could eventually grow into a viable NHL option. Through 23 games in mostly a depth role, he has managed a goal and seven assists – respectable production for a rookie defenseman in the AHL.
The skating is still a work in progress, but Villeneuve has been efficient moving the puck in transition, and for the most part, he has avoided the glaring mistakes in his own end. He has also become more calculated in his decision-making with the puck, making fewer panicked plays and taking the safe route more often than he did in the past. Villeneuve should still be considered a long-term project, but he has looked solid through the first few months of his professional career, and most importantly, he has shown notable improvements in the weakest areas of his game.
14 | Dennis Hildeby | G | Färjestad (SHL)
6’6″ | 234 lbs | Catches: L | Drafted 2022 round 4, 122nd overall
Despite being passed over in the draft a couple of times, Hildeby was a player the Leafs clearly prioritized on day two of the 2022 draft. Not only did they trade into the fourth round to select him, but they wasted little time signing him to an entry level contract – a rare occurrence for a netminder picked anywhere in the draft.
In hindsight, it seems a bit strange that nobody took a chance on a 6’6″ goaltender who posted back-to-back seasons with a .911 SV% in the Swedish junior league, but the Leafs were all too happy to land him in the fourth round after he posted a .931 SV% in 12 junior league games and matched that with a .931 SV% in his first seven appearances in the SHL in 2021-22.
Much like their other overaged selection from the 2022 draft, Nikita Grebyonkin, Hildeby has provided encouraging early returns on the Leafs’ investment. Toronto loaned him back to Färjestad in the SHL for the 2022-23 season, and though he has received limited playing time, he has shown that last season’s audition wasn’t simply a flash in the pan. After a couple of rough outings to start the season, Hildeby has been lights out, owning a 1.90 GAA and .930 SV% through 11 SHL games. He has outplayed starter Matt Tomkins by a fair margin, but Tomkins is still receiving the bulk of the starts.
At 6’6″ and over 230 pounds, Hildeby covers a lot of net. He is very strong positionally, as well as technically, and moves fluidly in his crease, especially for a big man. His height helps him to track play at a high level, and though he is rarely caught out of position, he also has great athleticism to make desperation saves when the situation calls for it. At this point, it’s a matter of getting more reps and showing that he can play at a high level consistently.
Already under contract with the Leafs, there is a chance we could see Hildeby with the Marlies next season. A lot of that will depend on what happens with Erik Källgren and Joseph Woll, who are both pending restricted free agents who will eventually need to clear waivers to be assigned to the AHL. Hildeby will be 22 years old before the beginning of next season, so he is a little further along in his development than some of the Leafs’ other goaltending prospects and could be knocking on the door to the NHL in the next couple of years if all goes according to plan.
13 | Filip Král | D | Toronto (AHL)
6’2″ | 198 lbs | Shoots: L | Drafted 2018 round 5, 149th overall
A late-round pick from Kyle Dubas’ first draft at the helm of the Leafs, Král has been on a slow and steady climb to the fringes of the Leafs’ roster. He spent a couple of seasons with Spokane in the WHL after being drafted, topping out at 12 goals and 37 assists in 53 games during his final season of junior hockey.
Král was signed to an ELC and loaned back to his native Czechia during the pandemic riddled 2020-21 season. He suited up for 48 games with Kometa Brno in the top Czech pro league, netting an impressive 21 points, before getting into 10 games with the Marlies to finish the campaign. Last year marked his first full season with the Marlies and another positive step in his development as his role grew over the course of the season. A significant portion of his production came over a stint that saw him earn AHL Player of the Week honors, but he still managed to finish with a respectable 21 points in 58 games.
His performance last season set him up well for training camp this past fall, and he made enough of an impression to earn an early season call-up when injuries mounted on the Leafs’ blue line. He only got into a pair of games and was heavily sheltered, but he didn’t look out of place against NHL competition. Since his return to the Marlies, he has dealt with injuries that have limited him to just 10 AHL games this season, so he will be looking to get back on track in the second half.
Král plays a well-rounded game, effectively retrieving pucks in the defensive zone before making a strong first pass to start the breakout. He isn’t the prettiest skater, but he navigates the ice well enough and actually maintains good gap control in defensive transition. Král has an active stick that helps him to break up entries or disrupt passing lanes for the opposition, but he can still get into trouble when forced to defend the cycle for too long. He probably isn’t going to produce much offense at the NHL level, but his strong two-way game gives him a chance to grow into a reliable third-pairing guy.
It has been a while since the Leafs got much in the way of NHL contributions outside of their first-round selections, but Král – along with another player who will appear on this list later on – represents the first wave of Dubas picks that could help flip that narrative.
12 | Ryan Tverberg | C/W | UConn (NCAA)
5’11” | 180 lbs | Shoots: R | Drafted 2020 round 7, 213th overall
Having already made 11 picks in the 2020 draft, it was a bit surprising when the Leafs traded back into the seventh round in order to select forward Ryan Tverberg out of the OJHL. Credit to the Leafs’ amateur scouting department for identifying him and to the front office for making it happen, because Tverberg has grown into a solid NHL prospect over the last few years.
Tverberg’s draft+1 season was a strange one. He had planned to play in the BCHL after having committed to Harvard but the pandemic shut down the BCHL and forced Harvard to cancel their winter sports programs for the year, leading Tverberg to recommit to the University of Connecticut. He joined UConn for the second half of the 2020-21 season and made an immediate impact, tallying four goals and three assists in 14 games. Despite the limited sample size, his play at the collegiate level even earned him an invitation to Team Canada’s selection camp for the 2021 World Juniors.
Since then, Tverberg has only gotten better while taking on a prominent role for the Huskies. As a sophomore last year, he led the Huskies with 14 goals in 36 games and finished one point back of the team points lead. This season, he has shifted to playing center more frequently and is once again leading the offensive charge for his club with 10 goals and 10 assists in 22 games.
There are still questions regarding Tverberg’s ability to produce at the pro level, but his style of play raises his floor as an NHL prospect. It all starts with his motor as he provides consistent energy and tenacity, which helps facilitate his offensive game in the NCAA. Tverberg has good straight-line speed that he uses to get in on the forecheck and lay the body, but he can also be a threat off the rush with his ability to beat defenders to the outside. He also protects the puck well despite his average size and causes his fair share of havoc in the middle of the offensive zone. There are just a lot of traits to his game that project well to the NHL, even if he likely tops out as a third-liner.
Tverberg is about to turn 21 and finish up his junior season of college hockey, so he could be a candidate for an entry level contract later this spring, but don’t be surprised if he opts to return for his senior season and continue his development at UConn.
11 | Alex Steeves | W | Toronto (AHL)
6’0″ | 196 lbs | Shoots: L | Signed as undrafted free agent, March 2021
The Leafs signed Steeves as an undrafted free agent in 2021 after he put up 15 goals and 17 assists in 29 games during his junior year at Notre Dame. The signing came with little fanfare but less than two years later, Steeves is knocking on the door to the NHL.
Steeves’ first pro season didn’t get off to the start he had hoped for, as he suffered a shoulder injury at development camp that put him behind the eight ball and forced him to miss the beginning of the season. He hit the ground running after his recovery though, and earned his first NHL call-up after just 12 games with the Marlies. He would go on to play most of the season with the Marlies, scoring 23 goals and 23 assists in 58 games.
Now in his second season with the Marlies, Steeves has been one of the club’s most productive players through the first half of the schedule. In 33 games, he sits second in team scoring with 12 goals and 19 assists but has had to watch as players like Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, Joey Anderson, and even Bobby McMann have earned NHL looks ahead of him.
In theory, Steeves seems like a great fit for the Leafs’ fourth line. He competes hard every shift, and improved mobility has helped him become a more disruptive force on the forecheck. He consistently gets to scoring areas around the net, and his shot has been a legitimate weapon against AHL goaltenders. The biggest things holding him back are some of his decisions with the puck on his stick and a tendency to try and do too much on his own at times.
Steeves is probably best suited as a complementary scoring option who can aid in puck pursuit at the bottom of an NHL lineup, and he could probably step in and play that role tomorrow if needed. He doesn’t present much upside beyond that, but his proximity to the NHL is enough to place him on the fringes of the Leafs’ top 10 prospects.
|St. Cloud State
(Statistics from EliteProspects.com)
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