As I noted in a recent post, the Toronto Maple Leafs are similar to other NHL teams in that they build their roster in several ways, including free agency, trading current players for others, and through the NHL’s annual Entry Draft. During the 2019 draft, the team entered without a first-round pick; however, general manager Kyle Dubas was able to add six young prospects to the Maple Leafs’ talent pool.
In my last post, I reviewed the team’s first three draft picks of the 2019 draft – Nick Robertson (a second-round pick at 53rd overall), Mikko Kokkonen (a third-round pick at 84th overall), and Mikhail Abramov (a fourth-round pick at 115th overall). In this post, I want to review the final three Maple Leafs picks during the 2019 draft.
Specifically, during the fourth round, the team had a second draft pick and used it to choose Nick Abruzzese (124th overall). In the fifth round, the team chose Mike Koster (146th overall); and, the team’s final pick was the seventh-round choice of Finnish right-handed defenseman Kalle Loponen (204th overall).
Last season’s progress made by Robertson, Kokkonen, and Abramov suggests that Maple Leafs’ general manager wisely judged talent. But, how did he fare with his final three 2019 choices – Abruzzese, Koster, and Loponen?
2019 Draft Pick #4: Nick Abruzzese
Nick Abruzzese is a 20-year-old center, who just finished his rookie season with the Harvard Crimson. During the 2019-20 season, he scored 14 goals and 30 assists (44 points) in 31 games. That scoring led the entire Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC), and Abruzzese was named ECAC Rookie of the Year on March 19.
During the 2018-19 season, Abruzzese played for the Chicago Steel and led the United States Hockey League (USHL) in scoring with 51 assists and 80 points in 62 games. He also did well in the postseason, when he averaged over a point-per-game by scoring 7 goals and 14 points in 11 games.
That Abruzzese could lead the 12-team Ivy League Conference in scoring is impressive. No rookie at Harvard had scored more points than the Maple Leafs draft pick since former NHL left-winger Ted Donato (who’s from the Boston area and played for the Bruins) became the coach. As well, Harvard has produced a number of current NHL players including, as Maple Leafs fans know, center Alex Kerfoot. (And, for movie trivia fans, in Erich Segal’s 1970 romantic movie Love Story, Ryan O’Neill played for the Harvard Crimson as well.)
In short, drafting Nick Abruzzese in the fourth round of the 2019 draft was a win for the Maple Leafs.
2019 Draft Pick #5: Michael Koster
Michael Koster was drafted in the fifth round (146th overall). The 18-year-old left-shot defenseman spent 2018-19 in the Minnesota High School League and won the Reed Larson Award as top senior boys’ high school hockey defenseman in Minnesota. During that season, Koster scored 19 goals and 29 points in 24 games before he finished the season with the Tri-City Storm of the USHL. There, Koster added another four assists and six points in 15 regular-season games.
This season with the Storm, Koster was injured early in the season, which required him to miss games. As a result, his scoring was down to three goals and 18 points in 37 games when the USHL suspended play for the season – his third with the team. It wasn’t the season Koster hoped for, but he’s committed to the University of Minnesota next season.
Koster has leadership experience and captained his high school team for two seasons. It might be too early to tell how he’s progressing but that he was named to the U.S. Junior Select Team ahead of the 2019 World Junior A Challenge in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, a few months ago was a positive statement about his play.
In short, it was a season where Koster was injured and didn’t play to past performances.
2019 Draft Pick #6: Kalle Loponen
The Maple Leafs didn’t have a sixth-round pick – the organization then selected Finnish right-handed defenseman Kalle Loponen in the seventh round (204th overall). During the 2018-19 season, the then 17-year-old played against much older players in the second-tier of Finnish hockey and scored 12 points (4 goals and 8 assists) in 30 games. He also represented Finland at the IIHF Under-18 World Championship.
Although Loponen is small for today’s defensemen at 5-foot-11 and 187 pounds, he’s a physical player who throws his body around. His strength is the power play, and he has a strong slap shot.
Unlike the Maple Leafs second draft pick in 2019 Mikko Kokkonen, fellow Finnish player Loponen chose to come to North America to play and skated this season with the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves (coached by former NHL veteran Cory Stillman who played with six NHL teams, most notably the Calgary Flames). In 56 games with the Wolves, Loponen scored 6 goals and 24 points.
However, Dobber Prospects notes that many of Loponen’s points come on the man-advantage which likely won’t translate to higher levels. So the word remains out on Loponen’s potential.
In short, we don’t know enough yet about how Loponen’s game might transition to higher levels.
Grading the Maple Leafs 2019 Draft So Far
As I noted in my earlier post, the past season’s play of Robertson, Kokkonen, and Abramov suggest that the Maple Leafs did well at the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. All three of the team’s first three choices in the draft had strong 2019-20 seasons.
My review of 2019’s final three draft choices is less convincing. However, in total, the Maple Leafs’ draft philosophy seemed to work. In total, the team picked three forwards and three defensemen. All these young players seem hard-working players with good puck control. As a group, they are smaller, which seems to be the kind of player general manager Dubas chooses to build a team around.
Over time, a philosophy of drafting skill over size might help the Maple Leafs find some good prospects in the later rounds. That’s good because low-round draft picks seem to be what the team has left. Currently, each of the 2019 picks seems to have some skill that might give them a legitimate shot to make the NHL.
From all I can tell right now, 2019 was a good draft year for the Maple Leafs.