Toronto Maple Leafs reserve list check-in: Which players will the team sign?

Photo credit:Kalle Loponen (Steven Ellis/Daily Faceoff)
Steven Ellis
10 months ago
So, we’ll cut to the chase here.
The Toronto Maple Leafs currently have three players whose rights are about to expire on the team’s reserve list, according to CapFriendly.  For Kalle Loponen and Josh Pillar, the Leafs have until June 1, 2023 to sign a deal, or else they’ll become UFAs. In Ryan O’Connell’s case, the team has until August 15.
The reserve list requirements differ by league: European players have a longer leash, with Russian players on KHL deals staying on the list indefinitely. College players are held onto until their senior year is over. For CHLers, they have two years before they’re entered back into the NHL Draft. Otherwise, they’ll be free to sign wherever once the free agent market opens up.
If a team hasn’t signed a prospect at this point despite having significant time to do so, it definitely makes you think they won’t be signed. And in these three cases, I doubt any actually do sign NHL contracts, but could be value options in the minors.
So, let’s look at three names of note this year:

Kalle Loponen, D (KooKoo, Liiga)

This is the one player I could see earn something from the Leafs – and even then, I’m not convinced. The second-year pro took bigger steps in his game this year, scoring twice and finishing with 11 assists. Loponen played just over half the season, so they’re respectable numbers for a U-22 defenseman in a league has challenging as Liiga.
At 22, there’s still significant room for improvement, but after scoring at every other level, I’d like to see him make the trek over to the Marlies and fight his way up the lineup. There are flaws – he’ll often over-pinch and has to scramble to make up for it – but there’s raw talent there. At this point, though, Loponen is far down Toronto’s depth chart, so if he is signed, he’ll have to really find something that makes him unique in some regard.

Ryan O’Connell, D (Michigan Tech, NCAA)

After four years at Ohio State University, O’Connell had one more chance at a national title with Michigan Tech as a fifth-year defender. The season ended on a sour note, with MT falling 8-0 to Penn State in one of the NCAA regionals late last month. From an offensive standpoint, O’Connell had just three assists, the worst totals since his freshman campaign in 2018-19. A seventh-round pick in 2017, O’Connell wasn’t known for his scoring prowess, potting two goals and 28 assists in 152 games. Instead, he played a safe, shutdown-aware role that made him difficult to play against.
At this point, I don’t think there’s a case to sign O’Connell. The Leafs have good defensive depth right now and could even sign Noel Hoefenmayer from the Toronto Marlies if needed. I think O’Connell tops out as a shutdown AHL defenseman, and that’s fine. He was a long shot to ever receive a contract, but they might still get some value out of him in the system. So we’ll see, but don’t expect him to receive an NHL deal from the big club.

Josh Pillar, C (Saskatoon, WHL)

The 21-year-old forward had a quiet fifth season with the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades. He was limited to just 28 regular season games due to a knee injury, a step down from his 37 points a year ago. He recorded just one goal against Regina in the Blades’ first-round WHL series and has generally been shut down over the past few weeks. As a whole, it doesn’t look like Pillar has what it takes to be an NHLer in the near future, and thus doesn’t make sense to offer an entry-level contract to.
The good news? There might still be value for him with the Toronto Marlies. Pillar is a good skater – mechanically, more than top speed – and can drive the play when he’s on his game. Scouts definitely saw some potential early on, but he had to spend this year playing catch-up. A start in the AHL, or even with Newfoundland in the ECHL, could give him an opportunity to rise up the ranks and potentially become something. As a depth AHLer, there’s value here, and his strong defensive play could come in very useful.
For now, though, I can’t see him becoming an NHLer.

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