It was a busy week yet again among Toronto Maple Leafs prospects, this time both on and off the ice. Standout performances, season debuts, call ups, and even trades are ahead on this edition of the Leafs prospect roundup.
Nick Abruzzese | LW | Harvard (ECAC)
601 days after his last competitive game, Nick Abruzzese finally hit the ice again for the Harvard Crimson.
Harvard’s hockey team did not play a single game during the 2020/21 season due to COVID, leaving Abruzzese with no place to play. Too old to return to the USHL, as teammate John Farinacci did, and not wanting to turn pro just yet, as teammate @Jack Drury did, Abruzzese instead used the cancelled season to have surgery on his hip.
Missing an entire season of development, not only from games but from skill development and skating, has been a serious concern for Abruzzese. Drafted as a double overage prospect in 2019 out of the USHL, he’s already 22 years old with just one season of NCAA hockey under his belt. For context, he was born a couple of months after @Timothy Liljegren, who has played four years in the AHL already.
Given his advanced age and the time he missed, Abruzzese needs to prove his freshman campaign wasn’t a fluke and the missed time has not impeded his development. After two games last weekend, granted against lesser competition, he looks like he hasn’t missed a beat.
He scored a goal in Harvard’s 9-3 season-opening victory over Dartmouth before recording three assists against Bentley the following night. He also registered nine shots on goal through the two games.
With the likes of Matt Coronato and Sean Farrell joining the Crimson this season and giving them more scoring options, watch out for another big year from Abruzzese.
Kristians Rubins | LD | Marlies (AHL)
He was only called up for about eight hours, but it was still an important day for @Kristians Rubins. This marks the first time Rubins has been on the Leafs active roster during the regular season. He spent a few days on the taxi squad a season ago but never made his way to the active roster.
This may seem irrelevant, but consider Rubins’ journey to get to this point.
Rubins joined the Leafs organization in 2018. Not as a draft pick. Not on an entry-level contract. Not even on an AHL contract. No, Kristians Rubins was signed out of the WHL by the Leafs ECHL affiliate, the Newfoundland Growlers.
His unique combination of size (listed at 6’5) and skating ability has made Rubins one of the more intriguing projects in the organization. He showed a rapid progression in his first and second seasons, as he upgraded to an AHL contract just two months into his time with the Growlers and earned an ELC at the end of the 2019/20 season.
After a disappointing 2020/21 season, Rubins has come back this year on a roll. He was fantastic for Latvia at the Olympic qualifiers, parlaying that performance into a spot on the Olympic roster as part of the three preliminary players. He’s taken hold of a spot on the Marlies top pairing already, matching his three-point output from a season ago in just six games.
That’s what makes Rubins recall so notable to me. Three seasons ago, he was making his professional debut on an ECHL contract. On Thursday, the Leafs showed that he’s their top recall on defence. His first NHL stint may have only lasted eight hours, but don’t be surprised if Kristians Rubins becomes the first Latvian to suit up for the Maple Leafs later this season.
Alex Steeves | LW | Marlies (AHL)
Despite being an undrafted free agent signing, @Alex Steeves has quickly grabbed the attention of Leafs fans.
After introducing himself to the fanbase with a dazzling performance at development camp, one that earned rave reviews from Hayley Wickenheiser, Steeves suffered an injury in the first game of the Traverse City rookie tournament. This forced him to miss Leafs training camp and the start of the Marlies season, but he came back with a bang last weekend.
Debuting at 2LW for the Marlies, Steeves recorded an assist in his debut before potting two eye-catching goals the following nights. Mix in the 10 shots on goal and +4 rating as well, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Steeves bumped up to that first line slot as soon as this weekend.
Back in March, I wondered why the Leafs hadn’t been more active in the NCAA free-agent market. @Joey Duszak had been their only NCAA free agent signing over the previous four seasons, despite using numerous draft picks on American-based prospects. Well, the very next day, Toronto announced the signing of Alex Steeves.
Toronto has often brought in NCAA free agents on AHL contracts, but seldom have they committed an ELC. Since 2016, only Kasimir Kaskisuo, @Trevor Moore, and Joey Duszak had been brought into the organization on ELC’s straight out of college. Clearly, they liked what they saw in Steeves, not only bringing him in on an ELC but also convincing him to leave Notre Dame prior to his senior season.
Statistically, Steeves presented a profile out of Notre Dame that caught my attention. Of his 15 goals a season ago, 14 of them came at even strength. 25 of his 32 points came at even strength.
In fact, he recorded a point on 36.2% of Notre Dame’s even-strength goals, a stat known as involvement percentage. This was best in the entire Big 10, no player was relied on more by their team to score at even strength than Steeves with Notre Dame. And yes, that includes @Cole Caufield with Wisconsin (32.5% involvement percentage).
While his two goals in the AHL have come on special teams, I’ll be keeping an eye on whether Steeves’ ability to score at 5v5 will translate to the professional ranks. That’s a tough characteristic to find and could really separate Steeves from the rest of the Leafs forward prospects around him.
Braeden Kressler | C | Flint (OHL)
It was a strong week for the two Leafs prospects locally based in the OHL.
Starting with my guy Braeden Kressler, he tallied a goal, three points, five shots on goal, and a +5 rating across three games with the Flint Firebirds.
Kressler was signed by the Leafs as an undrafted prospect out of development camp and rookie tournament, a move I heavily advocated for. It’s still early, but Kressler is beginning to show he was worth at least a late-round swing by some team in the 2021 Entry Draft with five points through the first seven games.
The short version: Kressler is a tenacious player who showed the makings of more scoring ability at camp than his 18 point rookie season in the OHL would suggest. With five points through his first seven games, Kressler’s potential scoring ability is starting to turn into actuality.
Ty Voit | RW | Sarnia (OHL)
Speaking of 2021 draft-eligible OHLers beginning to break out, 2021 5th round pick Ty Voit is doing just that.
To nobody’s surprise, Voit has been an offensive catalyst with the Sarnia Sting. After missing the first game of the season, Voit has scored three goals and eight points in six games to lead the team in scoring. While Sarnia dropped both games against London and Owen Sound last weekend, Voit still found the scoresheet with a goal, three points, and seven shots on goal.
After being selected in the fifth round, much of the conversation surrounding Voit revolved around the sentiment that if he had been able to play in his draft season, there’s no way he would have been available that late in the draft. Again, it’s still very early, but so far he’s backing up those claims.
Axel Rindell | RD | Kärpät (Liiga)
Following an atrocious stretch for all parties involved, Axel Rindell is finally moving on from the Jukurit organization. Last weekend, Rindell was “traded” to Kärpät, where he will join Topi Niemelä for the remainder of the season.
While technically a loan, for all intents and purposes this move is a trade. Rindell’s contract with Jukurit expires at the end of the season, so the loan takes him through to the end of his current contract. Going to Jukurit in this transaction is New York Islanders prospect Aatu Räty and Veli-Matti Tiuraniemi, both of which are also loans.
This is a huge move for Rindell’s career. Simply put, Jukurit is not a good team and Rindell’s development was suffering. As a puck-moving defenceman who wants to rush the puck up the ice, Jukurit did not have the players around Rindell to allow him to play his game the same way he had the two previous seasons.
With Kärpät, the quality of teammate excuse goes out the window. A contending team in Finland, Kärpät provides a place where Rindell will be able to just go out and play his game. No player has been on-ice for more goals against than Rindell with 22, though much of that is down to his astonishingly low 0.837 on-ice save percentage.
The move to Kärpät gives Rindell a chance to reset, brush aside the bad luck, and look to find his groove again. I’m excited to see what he’s able to do the rest of this season.
Notes from the rest of the prospect pool
Marlies and Growlers
- How about Timothy Liljegren this week? He’s taken the opportunity presented to himself and has looked strong. When @Justin Holl eventually rotates back into the lineup, I’m fascinated to see whether it will be @Travis Dermott or Liljegren that sits.
- I’ve been a fan of his for a while, but remember the name, @Filip Kral. He’s flown under the radar as a Leafs prospect, but he had a strong year in the Czech Republic and has a history of excellent transition metrics from his time in the WHL. With an extensive rotation on the blueline, he’s the only Marlies defender to have played in all seven games.
- @Petr Mrazek’s return means the Marlies crease gets a whole lot more congested. I wonder who’s the odd man out this weekend between @Michael Hutchinson, @Joseph Woll, and @Erik Kallgren.
- It was an off week for the Newfoundland Growlers as they make the trek back out east for their first home game in over 600 days. The arena shenanigans have been frustrating, but I’m just happy Growlers fans will get to see their team again.
- Speaking of the Growlers, it took Keith Petruzzelli just two starts to earn himself ECHL Goaltender of the Month for October. He allowed two goals on 72 shots in his two games for the Growlers and should be the starter going forwards. He’s technically not a Leafs prospect as he is under contract with the Marlies, but you can read between the lines.
- Ryan Tverberg, AKA your favourite prospect you don’t know about yet, continued his hot start to the season with an empty-net goal and a secondary assist in a win over Dartmouth. The electric winger is up to four goals and nine points through seven games with UConn.
- Nick Abruzzese wasn’t the only Leafs prospect getting in on the action for Harvard last weekend. A 2020 sixth-round pick, defenceman John Fusco also found the back of the net for his first collegiate goal.
- It’s been a tough transition to the NCAA for Wyatt Schingoethe. On a veteran-heavy team he’s been buried on the fourth line and didn’t help his case this week, taking two penalties. He remains without a point.
- Roni Hirvonen and Topi Niemelä will be representing Finland at next week’s Four Nations Cup. A U20 tournament, the duo will be significant pieces for Finland both at this tournament and in December for the World Juniors. Dmitry Ovchinnikov and Vyacheslav Peksa were not named to the Russian roster for the tournament.
- Pontus Holmberg will represent Sweden at the Karjala Cup next week. Sweden has not won the tournament since 2015.
- Another week, another two points for Niemelä. That’s 16 points in 18 games, unheard of results for a 19-year-old defenceman in the Liiga. He’s going to be a monster at the World Juniors.
- Dmitry Ovchinnikov played over 10 minutes in the KHL for the first time early in the week, only to see his ice-time dip back to the five-minute range the following game. His frustrating situation with Sibir continues.
- Artur Akhtyamov was pulled after allowing three goals on 11 shots in his only action this week, dropping his VHL season totals to a .892 save percentage and a 2.89 goals-against average. After a few good games in a row, Akhtyamov has now been pulled in his last three starts. Not the season he was looking for as veteran Ilya Golubev begins to push for more game time.