After the 2021-22 season ended in an all-too-familiar way for the Toronto Maple Leafs, with a strong regular season and a first-round exit, they headed into the 2022 NHL Draft with the 25th overall pick. General manager Kyle Dubas then used that pick to offload goaltender Petr Mrazek’s contract, shipping both to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for the 38th overall pick.
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On the forefront, it looked like a bad trade that Dubas ultimately had to make to get out of the contract that he signed Mrazek to the previous summer.
In reality, however, this was a good trade considering the cap space it freed up, as well as the fact that the Maple Leafs felt there would be a player available at 38th who they ranked in the top 15. We’ll get to that player in a second, but after scanning their 2022 Draft class, it would appear that every player the team selected is off to a strong start in 2022-23. This obviously doesn’t mean all of these players will be surefire NHLers, let alone future Maple Leafs, but it’s an encouraging sign to see, especially since they only had five picks to work with.
Fraser Minten (C, 2nd Round, 38th Overall)
The Maple Leafs made the right call getting out of Mrazek’s contract. But at the cost of the 25th overall pick, it was tough to swallow at first with players like Filip Mesar, Jiri Kulich, and Brad Lambert still on the board. However, Dubas and his scouting staff clearly had their eyes on someone else, and they brought that target to light with the selection of Fraser Minten at 38th overall. The 6-foot-2, 192-pound centre was coming off a strong first full season with the Western Hockey League’s (WHL) Kamloops Blazers that saw him record 55 points in 67 games.
The Blazers are off to a strong start in 2022-23, sitting at third in the Western Conference, and Minten is building off of last season and improving alike, with 11 goals and 24 points in 20 games so far. It’s important to note that with Dallas Stars prospect Logan Stankoven and elder Blazers centre Caedan Bankier leading the charge, 18-year-old Minten has mostly been centring the second line. He has two more years of junior eligibility after this season, so he’ll likely get more of an opportunity to showcase his skills as some of his teammates graduate to the American Hockey League (AHL) next season.
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Nevertheless, the Maple Leafs seem to have a good one in Minten. His hockey IQ is among the best in his draft class, he’s already got strong defensive instincts for his age, and the offense has slowly been getting better and better. Combine this with his already-NHL-ready size and he looks like he could, at minimum, be a middle-six centre in the NHL, with his ceiling being a high-octane second-line centre.
Nick Moldenhauer (C/RW, 3rd Round, 95th Overall)
Most young Canadian hockey players go the route of the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) in the years leading up to the draft. Nick Moldenhauer went the less common, but certainly not unheard of route of playing in the United States. Born and raised in Mississauga, Ontario, the 5-foot-10 forward moved to the United States to join the Chicago Steel of the United States Hockey League (USHL) in 2021, and finished last season with 43 points in 41 games, playing on a stacked offensive team that included the likes of 2023 Draft phenom Adam Fantilli and fellow Maple Leafs prospect Joe Miller.
He’s made progress in 2022-23, playing in a more enhanced role with the departures of Fantilli and Miller among others, with 11 goals and 23 points in 18 games so far. He’s set to join the always-stacked University of Michigan next season, and could find himself playing alongside fellow drafted prospects including Florida Panthers prospect Mackie Samoskevich, Winnipeg Jets prospect Rutger McGroarty, and Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Dylan Duke. He’s a long-term project, but will be an exciting one to follow over the next few years.
Dennis Hildeby (G, 4th Round, 122nd Overall)
It isn’t an issue at this very moment with strong performances from Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov to start the season, but one area the Maple Leafs have struggled in for a long time is the lack of ability to draft and develop goaltenders. 2016 third-round pick Joseph Woll is the closest thing to that product, but he can’t find his way around the injury bug and has only played four NHL games. Artur Akhtyamov and Vyacheslav Peksa could both turn into something, but they’re both very far away from seeing NHL action.
To me, this is why the selection of Dennis Hildeby was important. At 20 years old, he was an overager when the Maple Leafs selected him, but the 6-foot-6, 234-pound Swedish netminder is further along in his development, and could be the first member of this draft class to make his NHL debut. He’s the backup goalie to Canadian Matt Tomkins for Farjestad BK of the Swedish Hockey League (SHL), but he’s posted stellar numbers in his limited action with a goals-against average (GAA) of 2.10 and a save percentage (SV%) of .927. He had very similar numbers in seven games last season, and likely isn’t getting more starts just because of his age.
European pro teams are never concerned about developing NHL-drafted prospects, so it makes me wonder if the Maple Leafs will try to bring Hildeby to North America after his SHL season finishes. The team wasted no time signing him to an entry-level contract, so it might be in his best interest for the team to get him closer to the organization and get him some more starts. The Maple Leafs haven’t always had great luck with hulking Swedish goaltenders (see Jonas Gustavsson), so one can only hope this time will be a little bit different.
Nikita Grebyonkin (RW, 5th Round, 135th Overall)
Like Hildeby, Nikita Grebyonkin is another example of the Maple Leafs shooting slightly over the average age for the draft class in an effort to grab players who are closer to being NHL-ready. It’s a bit different in the Russian winger’s case, as he’s only one year older than the majority of it, but with 64 points in 58 MHL games, which is essentially Russia’s equivalent of the CHL, there was reason to believe he may have been closer to getting a crack in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL).
And that theory proved to be true. The Serov native hasn’t been getting regular KHL minutes, but he’s been producing pretty well with the ice time he does get, sitting at nine points in 19 games so far. Like I said before, pro teams in Europe don’t care about NHL-drafted prospects developing, they’re just going to ice the roster that gives their team the best possible chance of winning. So to see the 6-foot-2 winger making the most of his ice time is encouraging, and makes him a prospect worth keeping an eye on over the next few years.
Brandon Lisowsky (LW, 7th Round, 218th Overall)
To cap off the 2022 Draft, the Maple Leafs went back to the WHL to select Brandon Lisowsky, a 5-foot-9 winger with a knack for scoring goals. He made good on his first full junior season, finishing third on the Saskatoon Blades in scoring with 33 goals and 58 points in 68 games. He’s improved on last season so far, second only to Trevor Wong on the Blades in scoring with 29 points in 26 games to date.
You may look at this pick and immediately write it off because he’s under 6 feet tall and the Maple Leafs have far too many of those small, skilled wingers. Regardless of what they have in the system so far, Lisowsky is a picture-perfect example of why you always draft the best player available versus drafting for specific needs, especially in the later rounds. Will Lisowsky carve out a career in an offensive role with the Maple Leafs? Maybe, maybe not. But even if he never plays a game for them, he’s the type of player that the team can use as a trade chip in moves that will help the current team. High-octane scoring prospects are always a point of interest for rebuilding teams, and they carry much more value than need-specific players that never crack the NHL.
Dubas-Led Drafts Are Starting to Flower
Dubas discourse is always fun because you’ve got a side that thinks he’s a glorified accountant who’s never made a single good move, and you’ve got a side that thinks he’s the best thing to happen to the Maple Leafs organization. In reality, he’s a solid GM who’s had some great moves as well as some terrible moves. One area that he hasn’t really been able to thrive in yet, but we’re starting to see more of, is his drafting ability.
He officially started overseeing the draft after Mark Hunter left the organization in 2018, and players from that draft and beyond have slowly started making the NHL. Rasmus Sandin, Semyon-Der Arguchintsev, Filip Kral, Mac Hollowell, and Pontus Holmberg are all products of that draft and have stepped in to help the Maple Leafs in some capacity this season, and although not with the organization anymore, you can also see that Sean Durzi is doing well with the Los Angeles Kings.
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Robertson and Nick Abruzzese have both shown they have the potential to be NHLers, and we’re only going to see more of these players step in and help the Maple Leafs in the future. Not having much to show for from the 2016 and 2017 Drafts outside of their first-round picks has hurt them at times in the past, so it’s nice to see some drafted and developed talent start to seep in. And even if simply making the NHL is a low bar to set, that’s where it is if you look at the lack of homegrown talent from those two drafts. And if the players from the 2022 Draft keep up their current trends, I’d bet we see over half of those prospects help the team in the grand scheme of things, whether it’s on the ice for the Maple Leafs, or through trades to make the team better.