Last week we conducted a review of the contributions from each player on the Toronto Maple Leafs roster from this past season. We also suggested some options for the team to change its look going forward. The purpose of the analysis was to provide readers an inside look at the year-end process teams go through as they reassess their group before the draft and free agency.
The next important date on the calendar is the annual NHL Pre-Draft Combine, which will be held next week in Buffalo from May 30 to June 4. In attendance will be top prospects from around the globe who have completed their seasons, and NHL clubs will have the opportunity to learn more about those players' past accomplishments, their families, outside interests, schooling and injury history. It’s a fascinating process meeting the players in this forum and watching how they carry themselves throughout the week. It is undoubtably a stressful time for each and every one of them.
With this in mind, we'll close out our off-season lookahead coverage of the Toronto Maple Leafs with a dive into their draft and prospect outlook. In recent years, the Leafs have implemented a specific strategy building out their prospect pool. Kyle Dubas wants the Leafs to be a puck possession team that plays with skill and speed and there has been a clear emphasis on this strategy when analyzing their selections:
It’s interesting to note the Leafs had 18 picks combined in the 2019 and 2020 drafts and then just three picks in 2021. Heading towards the 2022 draft in Montreal, the Leafs again hold only three picks. They won't have a lot of opportunities, but it will be important for them to hit on some of these picks.
With change possible to occur this summer, perhaps some opportunity will be given to their top prospects in the system, or they could be used in trade. What do the Leafs already have to work with in terms of prospects? Here are some up to date reports on the players in their pipeline:
Matthew Knies (FWD)
In my opinion, Knies is their top prospect. He brings a power game and is a big body who attacks with speed. He was one of the top producing shooters at the University of Minnesota and brings influence below the hash marks, goal line, and along the boards. In time he has a chance to become the power scoring forward the Leafs are currently lacking.
Knies has the potential to be a home run pick from the second round of the 2021 draft because he doesn’t just produce offence, he plays a detailed game away from the puck and can be used in key defensive zone scenarios.
Forecast: Top 6 Forward
Topi Niemela (D)
A transitional defenceman who has the skill to be a power play quarterback. He isn’t a heavy defender, but he’s smart and knows how to keep opponents at bay and win back pucks with a quick stick and sound positioning. He’s an efficient player who can be trusted in a variety of roles.
Forecast: Bottom Pairing defenceman
Roni Hirvonen (FWD)
He’s small in stature, but is a tenacious competitor and a leader. His approach to the game is similar to that of Brendan Gallagher in Montreal, but unfortunately not with the same kind of offensive upside. Hirvonen has potential to provide energy and kill penalties.
Forecast: Fourth Line Forward
Ryan Tverberg (FWD)
I really like this pick. Anytime a seventh-round selection gets your attention it’s a positive for the scouting staff. Tverberg is being used in all situations at the college level with UConn and producing offence. I don’t look for him to get any bigger than he is. His height and weight has not changed since being drafted in 2020. His points per game average increased from 0.54 in his freshman year to 0.89 his sophomore year so he is trending up.
Forecast: Middle 6 Forward
Joseph Woll (G)
He is signed for three more years and still only 23 years of age. It generally takes goalies longer to develop into NHL puck stoppers, so Woll still has a chance to make a mark with the Leafs. He was thrust into spot duty this season and won some games, with a shutout over the New York Islanders on November 21 being the highlight. His numbers are not eye opening at the AHL level, but he has good size and crease presence.
When down in the butterfly he sits tall and takes up net. His lateral push and ability to find pucks in traffic are average-plus. The biggest concern is his propensity to allow a puck to go through him. His timing stopping shots along the ice between his legs is an area that requires attention as well.
Forecast: Backup Goalie
Alex Steeves (FWD)
Produced at the AHL level in his first full pro season with 23 goals and 46 points in 58 games and even got a cup of coffee with the big team. Steeves scored eight of his goals on the PP with the Marlies. He’s a competitive player who will work for his ice.
Steeves has traditionally played the middle, but the Leafs used him on the wing when he was recalled. He has a chance to open some eyes at training camp and compete for a job with the big team.
Forecast: 13th Forward
Joey Anderson (FWD)
There’s much to like about his game. He has a quick release and generally keeps himself above the play and doesn’t get caught out of position. Anderson will also work the boards and go to the crease looking for rebounds and tips. My biggest concern is his Point A to Point B game isn’t real fast. He has a powerful stride, but it’s deep and he lacks much glide. The result is a player who can’t maintain a high rate of speed for extended periods of time. He’s only 23, but other prospects are catching up to him and on the verge of going past him in the organization.
Forecast: 4th Line Forward
Pontus Holmberg (FWD)
He bounced around this year between Vaxjo in the SHL (Sweden), the Swedish Olympic team, and the Marlies. His element is offence, but he's more of a playmaker than a shooter. Pontus has a bit of an unusual stride. His first three steps out of the gate are sound, but he doesn’t have a long push in open ice so he’s more quick than fast. It will be interesting to see how his game translates to North America at the highest level. He scored four points in the six games he played with the Marlies this season.
Forecast: 4th Line Forward
Filip Kral (D)
I’m not convinced Kral is a full-time NHL prospect, but he does have positive qualities. He reads the ice well and knows when to join the rush as an extra layer. He outlets responsibly when he has time and at the AHL level he produced some secondary offence (3G-18A-21PTS). I’m concerned about his stature and ability to handle weight in the defensive zone. He competes, but if players get an edge on him he has a difficult time recovering to push them off the play. He’s 6-foot-1, 171 pounds, so an extra nine pounds of muscle would go a long way. He’s a two-way defenceman by definition.
Forecast: 7th Defenceman
Nick Robertson (FWD)
The timing could not have been worse for Robertson to break into the pro game. He arrived fresh out of the OHL via Peterborough and was almost immediately earmarked for potential greatness. Looking back it’s easy to see he needed more time to develop.
As of today, he is still a player I’m on the fence with. He needs to play within the top-nine forwards and, at worst, see time on the second PP unit because his element is offence. When he is on his game, he is a competitive player who is more of a distributor than a shooter. The concern I have is with his durability.
He has had nothing but bad luck when it comes to the injury bug. At 5-foot-9, 162 pounds, and with his approach to the game, it’s a bit of a double-edged sword. On one hand I applaud him for the way he gets after the game. I also give him massive credit for working his way back this season and adding more jump to his stride. But I have seen him struggle with injury for as long as I have been scouting him. He needs to have a full year of playing to his identity and staying in the lineup.
Forecast: He’s either a middle-six forward who plays second-unit PP, or he’s the 13th forward.
This list of prospects isn’t going to bring people out of their seats anytime soon, but there are a few who could have a significant impact.
• Matthew Knies is an “A” grade talent.
• Topi Niemela looks like he could run the second unit PP down the line.
• Joseph Woll has enough quality in his game that he could end up being a full time NHL goalie who can give the team games when the starter needs a rest.
• Nick Roberston remains a bit of a wild card in my opinion. He’s only 20 years old and he’s a character kid. Hopefully he can stay healthy. Which brings me to Rodion Amirov (20th overall in 2020). Sometimes life is bigger than the game. Fingers crossed Rodion continues to make strides and not only beats and overcomes his brain tumour diagnosis, but also then goes on to live a healthy and strong life. It will make for a great story when he works himself all the way back and someday has a chance to don an NHL jersey.