MONTREAL — When the Toronto Maple Leafs brass was interviewing its target prospects, they would pull up NHL video and quiz the kids.
“It was pretty cool. We'd watch a clip from, like, a breakout or something. A significant play would happen. The screen will go black. And they wanted to hear what you thought happened next to try and test how you see the game,” Toronto’s top draft pick Fraser Minten explains.
“It was probably something where I had an advantage over other people — and some of the clips I recognized from watching hockey throughout the season and knew the results already. I think that's kind of an area where I'm good at figuring out what's going on.”
What’s going on with the Maple Leafs’ draft strategy is to find high-ceiling players who think the game as well as they play it.
“Especially with the pace of the game and what we expect from the players in our system, if they can't think the game well, they're just really going to struggle in games but also what we do developmentally,” said GM Kyle Dubas, after selecting five prospects that still need years of seasoning.
“(When) we look back five, 10 years from now, we want to say we unequivocally took the best player available — regardless of whether they made NHL at 23, 24, 27.”
Meet the new hope.
Fraser Minten, C, 38th
When the Maple Leafs traded out of the first round to ditch Petr Mrazek’s contract, they were thrilled Fraser Minten was still on the board at 38.
“That couldn't have worked out better for us,” Trade-Down Dubas enthused. “A little bit of fortune.”
Minten is what Dubas characterizes as an “intriguing” selection.
The Kamloops Blazers centre is highly intelligent, and he should benefit from his club hosting the 2023 Memorial Cup.
“But the other part of it is, he hasn't played at a high level of hockey for that long. And so, he doesn't come from a family that's deeply entrenched in hockey or has a huge hockey background. He's sort of carved his own path that way,” Dubas explains.
Minten is a treat to talk to.
He is a classically trained concert pianist who gets more nervous performing on the keys than on the ice.
“It's such an individual thing. Performing in front of a ton of people on an instrument and you mess up, everybody can hear it. On the ice, you have five guys behind you to catch up for a mistake, and it's kind of fluid. That's how hockey is — there's tons of mistakes and read and react kind of thing. Whereas piano, you got to hit every note or else everyone knows,” he said.
The Vancouver native devours every Canucks game and tries to model his play after Bo Horvat. He’s defensively responsible, a tad chippy, and anticipates the play better than most.
“It's not a chore for me to watch hockey. I like to watch full games,” Minten said. “I'll sit there after practice to watch the four o'clock game, watch the seven o'clock game. Take what I can from that.
“I’m always on the right side defensively and capitalizing to create offence.”
Minten realizes he needs time to grow and must bulk up for the pros. The forward figures he’s still two or three years from cracking the NHL, but he’s already contemplating a GM career when he’s done playing.
“Highly intelligent, highly competitive, knows how to win. In watching him in the playoffs a lot, had a great playoff run. Gonna be the captain there at some point. Just love everything about his game,” said Wes Clark, the Leafs’ director of amateur scouting. “Really impressive kid. Really understands the game and gets it.”
Nicholas Moldenhauer, RW, 95th
You can still see the scar.
It traces from the bottom of the prospect’s left ear, along his jaw, to his chin.
An opponent’s skate blade slashed open Moldenhauer’s face when his Chicago Steel played Team USA’s under-18 squad.
“It was definitely a scary moment,” Moldenhauer recalled Friday, moments after being drafted by his hometown team.
“I think we got through it as a family, not just myself. A lot of people helped me out through it — just making sure I was in the right mental state. Definitely a tough moment, but I think it developed me as a person, and it's going to help me with things moving forward as well.”
Though Moldenhauer already has a Borje Salming look, this Mississauga-born Maple Leafs fan grew up rooting for Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. (Feeling old?)
“I’ve lived in Toronto my whole life, so to be able to be chosen by my hometown is incredible,” Moldenhauer said, after a huge eruption from his supportive family in the Bell Centre stands.
“They were just as excited as me, if not more. We were all happy to be able to share that moment together, and it was just a super cool experience.”
The winger prides himself on his ability to create scoring chances and read off his teammates. He expects to return to the USHL — where he put up 18 goals and 43 points in 43 games last season — before deciding on an NCAA school.
A number of high-end programs covet the forward, which makes Dubas feel comfortable about his development.
“Highly intelligent, highly competitive, loves playing at the net,” evaluates Clark. “He can score, and he can make plays.”
The Maple Leafs believe that scar allowed Moldenhauer to slip down to them at No. 95.
“One of the more gruesome cuts that you'll see to a player,” Dubas said. “I think that impacted his year and impacted his draft slot. Now it's just about continuing to do the work and getting back to the player that he's been, which he showed at the under-18s with Canada, then flying back and playing with Chicago in the playoffs.”
Dennis Hildeby, G, 122nd
There is a sense the general manager is tired of discussing the organization’s spotty history of drafting and developing bona fide NHL netminders.
“It's great to talk about, but we need them to continue to develop and come along and begin to push on to the AHL roster and then to the NHL roster,” Dubas said.
“But Dennis Hildeby from Färjestad was a player that (goalie scout) Jon Elkin identified very early in the year. It's a bit of a different path. He's a bit older, but had a good season this year in the SHL.”
The 20-year-old Swede goaltender has been passed over twice in the draft, but Elkin was so passionate about the potential, Dubas traded his 2023 fourth-round pick to nab the netminder.
The mobile Hildeby stands a towering 6-foot-6 and posted a .930 save percentage in seven games last year.
“I know he’s a little older, but he’ll be in a good place there in Färjestad next year, in a tandem role,” Clark said. “We’ll see what happens after that, but we like what we see.”
Nikita Grebenkin, LW, 135th
A bit of a fifth-round flyer here.
Grebenkin — a 6-foot-2, 19-year-old Russian winger — is expected to take a longer path to the NHL and was already passed over at the 2021 draft.
He scored 17 goals and 47 assists in 58 games with Magnitogorsk’s junior squad, plus 13 points in nine playoff games. He was called up for a single KHL game and has represented Russia at every age group.
“We tried to do as much homework as we possibly could on his situation, what he wanted, and then with where we had him on the list with our pick, the decision was made: ‘Let's pick him,’ ” Dubas said.
The word from Toronto’s eyes overseas: machinelike.
“Machinelike, and he can make plays,” Clark said. “He’ll go and try to battle for a spot there in Magnitogorsk. We'll see what happens here in the next year or two. But? Machinelike. So, we like that. We like the competitiveness.”
Brandon Lisowsky, C / LW, 218th
Toronto’s WHL scouts, Darren Ritchie and Garth Malarchuk, were huge proponents of this 5-foot-9 Saskatoon Blades forward. They pushed to have Lisowsky rated higher than the seventh-round slot in which he was selected.
The Port Coquitlam, B.C., native enjoyed a breakout campaign, scoring 33 goals and 58 points in 68 games. He was also a point-per-game in the postseason.
The Leafs like his competitive streak but want Lisowsky to improve his skating. They’ll take a peek in development camp, which starts July 15, then let Lisowsky continue to hone his game with the Blades.
“Obviously he can score, which is a great attribute to have,” Dubas said. “Hope that it's one of the seventh-round picks that everyone looks back on that turns out well.”