TLN’s midseason Leafs prospect rankings update

Photo credit:Steven Ellis
Nick Richard
6 months ago
The midway point of the season is a natural stopping point for organizations to take stock of where they currently stand while also assessing their future and how to operate moving forward. Are they in a position to add to their team for the stretch run, or should they be sellers? If they’re adding, what assets do they have to work with? And if they’re selling, what type of players should they be targeting? With all that in mind, it is time for an update to TLN’s Leafs prospect rankings.
Our last ranking of the prospects in Toronto’s pipeline came back in August with the offseason coming to a close, and there has been plenty of movement since then. Unlike our offseason edition of these rankings, which was a team effort that unfolded over several weeks, this midseason update is based purely on my own evaluations of the players in the Leafs’ system and how they have performed so far this season.
While there are players on the rise and others who have seen their stock fall over the last few months, the biggest change from our August ranking might be the players who are no longer on the list at all.
Matthew Knies was the unanimous choice as the Leafs’ top prospect in the offseason, and while he is far from a finished product and there have been bumps in the road during his rookie season, he has already established himself as a legitimate NHL calibre player. Joseph Woll landed the second spot behind Knies and took over the Leafs’ starting job before an injury derailed his season. Still, Woll will be 26 years old before next season starts, and he projects to be the Leafs’ number one moving forward. Nick Robertson has been a divisive player among the fanbase, and he has fallen out of favour with the coaching staff at times as well, but he has been with the Leafs for most of the season and has produced well in limited minutes. Whether he carves out a permanent spot in Toronto’s lineup or ultimately ends up elsewhere in a trade, Robertson doesn’t have much left to prove outside the NHL. And lastly, Pontus Holmberg, whose eligibility for this list was debated amongst our team of writers in the summer. He has gotten into less than half of the Leafs’ games so far this season, but he has been with the team for most of the season, and he is already 24 years old with 50+ NHL games under his belt.
That is a lot to subtract from the upper tier of what was already a middle-of-the-road prospect pipeline, but they are all early in their NHL careers with room for growth. The next wave of Leafs prospects isn’t an incredibly deep group, but there is still some intriguing talent in the system, including a couple of players at the top of the list who could factor into the Leafs’ lineup sooner rather than later.

1 | Easton Cowan | C/W | 5’11” | 185 lbs

The Leafs turned some heads at last summer’s draft when they went off the board to select Easton Cowan from the London Knights late in the first round. Projected by most to be chosen closer to the third round than the first, Cowan has rewarded the Leafs’ faith in him in short order. He started strong at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament and carried that into his first NHL training camp, where his speed, tenacity, and intelligence earned him an extended look in the preseason.
Cowan has been one of the best players in the OHL since returning to the Knights in October and even earned an unlikely spot on Canada’s World Junior squad. It was a disappointing tournament for Cowan and the rest of Team Canada, but it hasn’t slowed him down, and he continues to be among the most productive players in the OHL. He plays big minutes for the Knights in all situations and has formed a dangerous shorthanded duo with Flyers prospect Denver Barkey, with whom he is currently tied for most shorthanded points in the league at eight.
It is still very early in Cowan’s development, but he has been trending up significantly since being drafted and could push for a spot with the Leafs as early as next season. The Leafs are going to need cheap contributors, and Cowan’s skill set lends itself well to the pro game. He is a responsible defensive player who competes hard on every shift, his speed makes him a weapon on the forecheck and in transition, and he has the puck skills to capitalize on the offensive chances those attributes help him create. He can be too aggressive trying to make things happen at times, but that’s better than the alternative, and he typically does a good job of balancing relentless puck pursuit with responsible positioning. Another season in the OHL seems likely, but Cowan has surpassed expectations at almost every turn, and no one should be surprised if he forces the Leafs’ hand next fall.

2 | Fraser Minten | C | 6’2″ | 192 lbs

Cowan might have been an even bigger story in training camp last fall had it not been for Fraser Minten. The Leafs’ top pick from the 2022 draft had an outstanding preseason and earned a spot on Toronto’s opening night roster. He played just four games in the NHL before being reassigned to Kamloops in the WHL, but his maturity and refined two-way game left an impression on the Leafs.
Kamloops made Minten their captain, but he played just seven games with the Blazers before he was dealt to Saskatoon. Before he could even get comfortable with his new squad, he was off to the World Juniors, where he was once again named captain of Team Canada. Minten was perhaps miscast at the WJC, however, and played on the wing in an offensive role. He finished the tournament with three points in five games as Canada failed to earn a medal, but he wasn’t deployed in a manner that highlighted his particular skills. Back in Saskatoon and playing down the middle on their top line, Minten has been productive and helped keep the Blades at the top of the WHL standings.
Minten is unlikely to ever develop into an offensive dynamo, but he is mature beyond his years, both on the ice and off. He is a big body who takes care of his own zone, he finishes his checks and makes plays along the wall, his shot is a weapon when he gets the puck in a scoring area, and most importantly, he processes the game at a high rate. Minten’s offensive ceiling may keep him from developing into a top-six forward, but he has an extremely high floor as a reliable NHL centre, and he could take over a full-time bottom-six role with the Leafs to begin next season.

3 | Topi Niemelä | RHD | 6’0″ | 179 lbs

It feels like Niemelä has been in the organization for a long time, but he is still in the midst of his first full season in North America. His offensive production took a hit last year in Liiga after a record-setting season for a U20 blueliner the season prior, but his numbers have rebounded with the Marlies so far this season.
Niemelä has probably been tasked with too much on a poor Marlies team this year, but he has held his own defensively in top-four minutes and has been one of the most productive rookie defencemen in the AHL so far this season. He is a smooth skater more so than a powerful one, and he still needs to bulk up and add strength, but those things can be worked on, and Niemelä possesses other attributes that are difficult to teach. He has always been a proactive defender, reading the play at a high level and taking away options for the opposition, but it is his ability to activate offensively that sets him apart. Niemelä moves the puck efficiently and attacks open lanes in transition, controls the offensive blue line well, and has a quality shot that can beat netminders cleanly.
He isn’t there yet and needs to continue gaining experience at the AHL level, but Niemelä is far and away Toronto’s best defensive prospect, and he should find his way to the NHL before too long. He likely settles in as a two-way puck mover on a third pair, but he still possesses top-four upside as well. A development path similar to that of Timothy Liljegren is a reasonable expectation.

4 | Dennis Hildeby | G | 6’7″ | 223 lbs

Given the Leafs’ goaltending woes so far this season, fans are probably pretty familiar with Dennis Hildeby at this point. The towering 22-year-old netminder is in just his first season of North American pro hockey and has already been called upon to serve as the Leafs’ backup for a stretch of games. Now, a lot of that is a product of circumstance with Joseph Woll injured and Ilya Samsonov struggling mightily to find his game, but Hildeby has played so well for the Marlies that he deserves to be considered for NHL minutes should the need arise.
Hildeby is young in terms of AHL experience, but he is a bit of a unique case after being passed over in the draft multiple times. After double hip surgery and an impressive audition in the SHL, the Leafs targeted Hildeby in the 2022 draft, trading up to select him in the fourth round and immediately signing him to an entry-level contract. He followed that up with another strong season in the SHL last year, and he has been a bright spot for the Marlies as one of the top goaltenders in the AHL through the first half of 2023-24.
Standing at 6’7″ and weighing over 220 pounds, Hildeby is an imposing figure in the crease who covers a lot of net. His height also aids in his ability to track the play around him, and he shows good instincts with his reads, positioning himself well for initial shots. Hildeby is an athletic goaltender with a calm demeanour, showing composure in his crease while maintaining the ability to recover and make reactionary saves on the rare occasions that he is out of position. Goaltenders are difficult to project, and their level of play can be volatile from year to year, but Hildeby has checked all the boxes since being drafted, and it might not be long before he and Woll form the first homegrown goaltending duo Leafs Nation has seen in a long time.

5 | Nikita Grebyonkin | W | 6’2″ | 191 lbs

One round after selecting Hildeby, the Leafs targeted another re-entry player when they chose Nikita Grebyonkin in the fifth round of the 2022 draft. Grebyonkin had nearly doubled his point production from his first year of draft eligibility, but his numbers as a 19-year-old in the Russian junior league still didn’t jump off the page.
He made the jump to the KHL in 2022-23, and after being loaned to Amur Khabarovsk in an effort to find him more ice time, Grebyonkin grabbed hold of a top-six role and went on to win the KHL’s Rookie of the Year award with 26 points in 45 games. He returned to Magnitogrosk for the 2023-24 season, and ice time has been more difficult to come by on a stronger club, but he has still managed to find himself hovering around the top five in team scoring for most of the season.
Grebyonkin is a talented offensive player with the puck skills to beat defenders one-on-one, the vision to find teammates in space, and a knack for getting himself to scoring areas around the net. His skating could still use some work as his choppy stride limits his explosiveness, but he uses his 6’2″ frame well to protect the puck along the boards, and he knows how to get the puck off the wall and into the middle of the offensive zone. If everything comes together for Grebyonkin, he projects as a middle-six offensive winger in the NHL.
Grebyonkin will turn 21 in February, and his KHL contract is set to expire at the end of this season. If the Leafs are able to get him signed, he should get a look in training camp before joining the Marlies or being loaned back to Magnitogorsk next fall.

6 | Ryan Tverberg | C/W | 6’0″ | 190 lbs

Tverberg was a divisive player among our group when we last ranked the Leafs’ prospects, but he is someone I’ve been high on since his freshman season at UConn. He finished his two-and-a-half-year NCAA career with 33 goals and 36 assists in 85 games before signing his entry-level deal with the Leafs last spring.
While he put up respectable offensive numbers in college, and his shot plays at the pro level, it’s the other aspects of Tverberg’s game that give him real NHL potential. He is a tenacious player who puts pressure on the opposition with his speed and compete level, and that has translated to offensive production early in his AHL rookie season. Tverberg is also a versatile player who has lined up both on the wing and at centre for the Marlies, and he has already become a favourite of the coaching staff. He likely tops out as a bottom-six energy player with a bit of scoring touch at the NHL level, but I feel good about his chances of getting there.

7 | Nick Moldenhauer | W | 5’10” | 170 lbs

Moldenhauer has faced his fair share of adversity early in his career, missing ample time due to a mysterious virus and a scary injury after a skate to the face, leading to a difficult recovery in his draft year. He got back on track with a strong season in the USHL last season, and he is in the midst of a solid if unspectacular, freshman season at Michigan.
He has bounced around the Wolverines’ lineup as a freshman, but Moldenhauer’s style of play allows him to mesh well with different kinds of players. He competes hard, makes calculated decisions with the puck on his stick, and he has slick hands that allow him to make difficult plays in tight spaces. Moldenhauer isn’t the biggest player, but he displays good contact balance, and he is difficult to knock off the puck down low. It will be at least another year of college hockey before he is ready to turn pro, and he will need some time in the AHL, but Moldenhauer could develop into a versatile middle-six forward at the NHL level if he can add a step and continue to improve his overall pace of play.

8 | Roni Hirvonen | W | 5’10” | 178 lbs

Hirvonen’s first season in North America hasn’t gone according to plan. First, he suffered a concussion after taking a massive hit in development camp over the summer, and then, in his second game with the Marlies, he took a high stick to the eye that has kept him on the shelf ever since. There has been little news regarding Hirvonen’s recovery, but it is encouraging to see him skating again after rumblings of legitimate long-term concerns stemming from the eye injury.
It remains to be seen exactly when Hirvonen will be ready to return to game action, but it is looking more and more like a lost season for the Finnish winger. Whenever he is able to return, he will be looking to re-establish his place as one of the organization’s top prospects. Hirvonen is a smaller player, and he isn’t a plus-level skater, but his game should translate well to the smaller ice as he gains experience. He makes a habit of getting to the dirty areas around the net where he can make plays in tight spots, he plays with an edge, and he distributes the puck well in the offensive zone. There is still a lot up in the air in terms of Hirvonen’s development, but the 2020 second-rounder has the potential to become a pesky middle-six NHL winger.

9 | Ty Voit | W | 5’9″ | 157 lbs

Like Hirvonen, Voit’s rookie season in the AHL has been a write-off. He missed the first couple months of the season recovering from an injury suffered at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament in September, and after putting up eight points in a five-game rehab stint with Newfoundland in the ECHL, he suffered a shoulder injury in his first game with the Marlies that knocked him out for the rest of the season.
Voit’s raw offensive skill has never been questioned, but the injuries have only amplified concerns about his ability to withstand the rigours of pro hockey at his size. There is a wide range of potential outcomes for the undersized but supremely talented winger. He is a truly dynamic playmaker with outstanding vision and high-end puck skills that could make him a productive NHL winger, but his lack of size and two-way game could also keep him out of the NHL altogether. There is a bit of a boom-or-bust element with Voit, but the upside is legitimate.

10 | Alex Steeves | W | 6’0″ | 196 lbs

Steeves has been one of the Marlies’ top scorers over his first two seasons in the AHL, and he is currently enjoying his best season to date, but the clock is ticking. Now 24, Steeves has yet to break through to the NHL or even earn an extended look with the big club, and he may just be quality organizational depth at this point.
Steeves has shown legitimate scoring ability, at least at the AHL level, and he can be a pain to play against. He is an intelligent player who works hard on every shift, but he doesn’t have great size or separating speed, and his defensive game isn’t a defining attribute for him. Steeves can handle bottom-six minutes at the NHL level in a pinch, so there is value there, but time is running out for him to carve out a regular job with the Leafs.

11 | Noah Chadwick | LHD | 6’4″ | 199 lbs

Aside from Cowan, there might not be a prospect in the Leafs’ system who has raised their stock more than Chadwick this season. Drafted in the sixth round last summer, he has broken out in a big way offensively, earning an ELC with the Leafs in December. Anytime a late-round pick gets signed that quickly, it’s worth taking note of.
Drafted as a bit of a long-term project, Chadwick’s size and intelligence have translated to significantly increased offensive production this season. His overall mobility is still a work in progress, but he controls the offensive blue line extremely well and is always looking to make a play, opening lanes with delays and quick fakes. Defensively, his reach makes him a strong rush defender with the ability to angle oncoming attackers and force them to the outside, where he can disrupt the play with his stick or by finishing his check along the wall. Chadwick is still very much a project, but the Leafs are obviously encouraged by the early returns on the pick.

12 | Artur Akhtyamov | G | 6’1″ | 168 lbs

Akhtyamov was the best goaltender in the VHL (Russia’s second-tier pro league) last season and signed his entry-level deal with the Leafs in the offseason. With a logjam on the goaltending depth chart, particularly in the minors, the Leafs opted to loan him back to his KHL club, and he ended up being an important player for them when injuries mounted early in the season.
After spending the entire season in the VHL last year, Akhtyamov got into 17 KHL games with Kazan in the first couple months of the season and put up impressive numbers. He has since returned to the VHL, and though he hasn’t matched last season’s eye-popping .943 SV%, he has still been one of the top netminders in that league again this season. Akhtyamov isn’t the biggest goaltender, but he moves exceptionally well in his crease and reads the play at a high level while displaying a strong competitive fire. The next step for him is replicating his recent success when he presumably begins his AHL career next fall.

13 | Nick Abruzzese | W | 5’11” | 180 lbs

Abruzzese is similar to Steeves, not so much in terms of play style, but with where he stands in the organization. Abruzzese is also 24 years old and has become one of the Marlies’ key offensive drivers, but it is getting tougher to imagine him breaking through to the NHL with the Leafs.
The hallmark of Abruzzese’s game is his offensive vision and intelligence. He is a creative passer who sees the ice well and is able to complete difficult passes through layers of coverage, but he is not a great skater, and he doesn’t have the size to make up for it. To his credit, his mobility has improved since college, and he has become a more diverse offensive threat, but his game is still based mostly on creating chances for his teammates. He could take on spot duty for the Leafs today, but Abruzzese is starting to look like a career AHLer.

14 | Mikko Kokkonen | LHD | 6’0″ | 200 lbs

Kokkonen has flown under the radar since being chosen by the Leafs in the third round back in 2019, but he turned heads in training camp last fall, earning praise from head coach Sheldon Keefe for his refined defensive game.
Last season was Kokkonen’s first full campaign in North America, and he struggled to the point where he spent some time with the Growlers in the ECHL, but he has bounced back in 2023-24. His game is far from flashy, but he knows what he is and does a good job of playing within the scope of his abilities. Kokkonen can make a good first pass, and he’ll occasionally jump up into the rush, but he is very much a defence-first player who maintains strong positioning in his own end and disrupts plays with an active stick. His ceiling is likely that of a reliable third-pairing guy who can kill penalties, but his floor is higher than most of the other prospects in this range.

15 | William Villeneuve | RHD | 6’2″ | 183 lbs

Drafted on the strength of his offensive game back in 2020, Villeneuve has taken his lumps in an effort to become a more well-rounded defender over the last few years. He has played a big role for the Marlies this season, and while there is still plenty of room for growth, he has shown signs of progression.
Villeneuve is a strong puck mover, and that skill has become a bit more pronounced as he has continued to improve his skating. Improved mobility has also helped him defend better in transition, but he is still prone to poor reads in his own end and often struggles to recover in time. Set to turn 22 before the end of the season, there is still time for Villeneuve to become a viable NHL option down the road, but his offensive game won’t be enough to get him there on its own.

16 | Brandon Lisowsky | W | 5’9″ | 178 lbs

After garnering praise as one of the draft’s best pure scorers in the public sphere, Lisowksky fell all the way to the seventh round before the Leafs scooped him up with their final pick of the 2022 NHL draft. He continued to light the lamp in his draft+1 season, improving upon his totals from his draft year, and he has taken it to another level so far this season.
The late rounds of the draft are always a bit of a crap shoot, but the Leafs identified Lisowsky as having at least one high-end trait, with the hope that the rest of his game could be developed. The shot is legit, and he has improved as a playmaker as well, but he lacks size, and he is more of a shifty skater than an explosive one. Still, Lisowsky’s ability as a goal scorer should be enough to earn him an entry-level contract with the Leafs before his exclusive signing rights expire next summer. Continuing to develop chemistry with Minten down the stretch won’t hurt his chances, either.

17 | Dmitry Ovchinnikov | W | 5’10” | 166 lbs

Ovchinnikov was dominant in the Russian junior league but struggled to earn a significant role in the KHL before coming over to North America full-time to begin the 2023-24 season. He has shown flashes of that offensive skill at the AHL level, but injuries have limited him to just 19 games so far this season.
A beautiful skater with slick hands, the allure of Ovchinnikov is obvious. He is a strong transition player who scans the ice with his head up while in possession, identifying passing options or finding the point of attack efficiently. Ovchinnikov also has a knack for finding open space in the offensive zone, and his shot can beat goaltenders cleanly from quality scoring areas. Until we see more of him at the AHL level, it is difficult to project what he could be, but there is still an outside chance that Ovchinnikov could grow into an offensive contributor at the bottom of an NHL lineup.

18 | Vyacheslav Peksa | G | 6’3″ | 181 lbs

With Akhtyamov dominating the VHL scene last season, Peksa’s campaign received little fanfare, but he was impressive in his own right. Things haven’t gone nearly as well for him during his first season in North America, but it’s fair to attribute some of that to the team in front of him.
Despite his awful numbers this season, there is still reason to believe in Peksa. He has good size for the position, is an above-average skater with great mobility in his crease, and he has great body control when making unconventional saves. This season has been a tough one for him, but look for Peksa to bounce back and make his way to the Marlies next season.

19 | Hudson Malinoski | C | 6’1″ | 184 lbs

As a re-entry player in the AJHL, Malinoski was a bit of a questionable pick in the fifth round last summer, but a deeper look reveals a potential late bloomer for the Leafs’ system. A freak off-ice injury a few years ago cost him significant development time and nearly cost him more than that, but he has been making up for lost time.
Malinoski is a dual-threat offensively with the ability to find teammates through traffic, and he is an effective forechecker, but his shot is his greatest attribute. He needs to clean up his stride to maximize the rest of his skills, but there is projectable pro-level skill there. Malinoski will likely spend two or three more years in college hockey, but he has the potential to climb this list in that time.

20 | Semyon Der-Arguchintsev | C/W | 5’10” | 173 lbs

SDA might not be in the Leafs’ plans, and they might not be in his plans anymore either after he declined his qualifying offer last summer in favour of a return to the KHL, but his rights are still owned by the Leafs, and he wouldn’t be the first young player to return to his home country before taking another shot at the NHL.
His puck skills and offensive talents are immediately obvious when you watch him play, but SDA’s small stature and defensive struggles have limited his impact in the past. The biggest change for him this year is that he is shooting the puck a lot more and finding success with it, making him a more diverse offensive threat and less predictable as a playmaker. Chances are that SDA never returns to play in Toronto, but a more assertive style of play could help him reach the next level should a reunion ever come to pass.
Statistics from EliteProspects.com

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