• Arlen Dancziger

Leafs' Top 10 Prospects 2022

With the Traverse City Prospect Tournament and another season just around the corner, it's time to take stock in the cupboard. The Leafs have depleted their prospect pool with seemingly unnecessary trades in recent years (Marleau, Plekanec), but still have a few players with legitimate NHL potential. Here are the top-10 Leafs prospects:

Bottom Tier
10. Mikko Kokkonen (LD)
Drafted: 3rd Round, 84th Overall, 2018
Last Season: 1 G, 14 A in 58 Games in Liiga

Kokkonen's stats might not blow you away, and his game won't either. But he is the kind of calming presence on the back-end that every team needs. He doesn't have any panic in his game, whether offensively or defensively. He has a great stick and elite gap-control. He has the potential to be a fifth or sixth defenseman at the next level.

9. Fraser Minten (C)
Drafted: 2nd Round, 38th Overall, 2022
Last Season: 20 G, 35 A in 67 Games in WHL

A late-bloomer from the WHL, Minten's game isn't flashy by any means. He plays a smart, two-way game, and seemingly is always in the right spot. He's a good passer, but needs to get better with the puck to make an impact in the NHL. I didn't love this pick at the draft, as it seems the Leafs were betting on their development program to improve Minten's skills, rather than picking a player with better skills. Regardless, he projects as a depth option in the NHL with the potential to reach a third-line centre role.

8. Dennis Hildeby (G)
Drafted: 4th Round, 122nd Overall, 2022
Last Season: 1.93 GAA, .931 SV% in 7 Games in SHL

While he was an absolutely off-the-board pick when the Leafs traded up to select him, the pick makes more and more sense the when you look into it. At 6'6", and 234 pounds, Hildeby has NHL-ready size. He moves well for a big man, and never gives up on a play. He has a very calm crease presence, and very refined angles, which are probably the two most important things to look for in a goalie prospect. He's already 21 years old, which can be looked at as a positive or a negative, but he looks like a future backup goalie with potential to develop into a starter.

7. Nick Abruzzese (LW)
Drafted: 4th Round, 124th Overall, 2019
Last season: 9 G, 24 A in 28 Games in NCAA

After a successful college career, Abruzzese signed a contract and finished the season with nine games for the Leafs. He managed to find the net for his first NHL goal, but was extremely sheltered in a fourth line role. He possesses great vision and hockey I.Q., and has average speed and size. He doesn't stand out enough at anything to be a legitimate game-breaker in the NHL. He works hard off the puck and has the potential to steal a spot on the third line this year or next. Otherwise, he could be a career fourth liner or ply his trade overseas.

6. Alex Steeves (LW)
Last Season: 23 G, 23 A in 58 Games in AHL

An undrafted signing in 2021, Steeves had an impressive first season in the pro ranks. He can simply put the puck in the net, even though his shot isn't elite by any means. He's smart and tenacious, with quick feet and a high top speed. He might not ever reach the top-six in the NHL, but he has a chance to be a secondary scorer at the next level. Look for him to push for a roster spot this season or next, potentially on the third line. The Leafs might have found an undrafted gem.

Middle Tier
5. Nick Robertson (LW)
Drafted: 2nd Round, 53rd Overall, 2019
Last Season: 16 G, 12 A in 28 Games in AHL

There's no doubting Robertson's skills. He has an elite shot, capable of beating NHL-calibre goalies from anywhere in the zone. He's speedy, he has great offensive instincts, an elite motor, and is tenacious on the forecheck. With this description, you would think that he's a lock to be an NHL star. But there are definite question marks about his game. He is noticeably undersized, and while that might work for players like Johnny Gaudreau, Robertson seems to get pushed around too often. He was definitely rushed into the NHL too early, and while I hope he can prove me wrong this year, I have trouble seeing him stick in the NHL this season or next. If he does, he has 30-goal scorer written all over him.

4. Rodion Amirov (RW)
Drafted: 1st Round, 15th Overall, 2020
Last Season: 1 G, 2 A in 10 Games in KHL

While his numbers might not be eye-popping, there's more to Amirov than the stats. Firstly, he was diagnosed with brain cancer last year and had to take time off from professional hockey. That being said, he trained throughout his treatment process, which is a testament to his character and willingness to succeed. He has an above-average shot, elite offensive instincts and I.Q. and plays a responsible two-way game. He projects as a top-six winger, with secondary scoring abilities, and there's no reason to think he won't reach that potential.

3. Roni Hirvonen (C/LW)
Drafted: 2nd Round, 59th Overall, 2020
Last Season: 9 G, 17 A in 46 Games in Liiga

Another player whose stats don't tell the whole story, Hirvonen has been a rock throughout his years in Finland. He plays a smart, grindy game, and although he's only 5'9", he's stocky and reminds me of Brendan Gallagher. He gets to the greasy areas and works tirelessly to will his team to victory. He has great leadership qualities, and captained the 2022 Finnish World Junior team, coming within inches of winning the title. He has underrated vision and puck skills, which could see him land a spot as a shutdown third line centre or second line winger in the future. He could be the type of player whose true value shines in the playoffs.

Top Tier
2. Topi Niemela (RD)
Drafted: 3rd Round, 64th Overall, 2020
Last Season: 10 G, 22 A in 48 Games in Liiga

Niemela had about as good a season as a 20-year-old defenseman could in a very competitive league. At times he led his team, and the league in scoring among defensemen. He didn't have the same outstanding showing at the World Juniors as he did in 2021, but played a key role on the top pairing and top power play unit. He almost scored the tournament winning goal, if it weren't for Mason McTavish's unbelievable save. He has elite vision, passing, and can put the puck in the net as well. He's mobile and defends well for his age. He projects as a second pairing defenseman at least, and could form a devastating duo with Morgan Reilly in the future. Expect him to make the jump to North America at the end of the season in Finland and possibly get into some NHL games.

1. Matthew Knies (LW)
Drafted: 2nd Round, 57th Overall, 2021
Last Season: 15 G, 18 A in 33 Games in NCAA

There aren't many players with Knies' scouting profile. At 6'3" and 205 pounds, he already has an NHL-ready body. He has a heavy shot, soft hands, and a relentless motor. He has underrated vision, puck protection, and offensive instincts. With all of these tools, Knies is destined for a significant role on the team, as early as this season. He might not ever reach the point totals of other superstars, but teams know how valuable someone with his skill set is (think Josh Anderson and Tanner Jeannot). He will be back in Minnesota for the NCAA season, but upon its conclusion, he is expected to join the Leafs for the playoff push. He might just be the last piece in the puzzle they need to compete for a cup.

Honourable Mentions:

Joseph Woll (G), Nick Moldenhauer (C/RW), Pontus Holmberg (C/LW), Joey Anderson (RW), Artur Akhtyamov (G), Vyacheslav Peksa (G), Curtis Douglas (C)

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