In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs’ News & Rumors, I’ll explore what I think has been a new way of drafting for the team. That new strategy has been made possible by the emergence of 2021-draft-pick Matthew Knies.
As I look at what happened with the Maple Leafs during the 2022 NHL Entry Draft, the ability of the team to trade down is connected to the growth of Knies on the hockey scene. In part, as a result of thinking differently than they had in previous draft years, Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas was able to comfortably move goalie Petr Mrazek and his salary-cap burden to the Chicago Blackhawks.
Item One: Did Matthew Knies Change the Way the Maple Leafs Draft?
I might be very wrong, but I think that last year’s choice of Matthew Knies as the 57th pick of the 2021 NHL Entry Draft helped shape the moves that the Maple Leafs made this year at the 2022 NHL Entry Draft. Really, last year about this time, who knew much about Knies? A year later, the Maple Leafs seemed to hit a home run with the 6-foot-3, 210-pound youngster from Phoenix, Arizona.
Over the past year, Knies has turned some eyes. He skated his first season with the NCAA University of Minnesota Golden Gophers; and, he’ll return there for this season. The 19-year-old Knies scored 15 goals and added 18 assists (for 33 points) in 33 NCAA games last season. Along the way, he helped the Golden Gophers reach the semifinals of the Frozen Four tournament.
But he wasn’t finished impressing. Knies also played on Team USA’s world juniors; and, more exciting for him, played with the American Olympic team at the Beijing Winter Games. Pretty heady for a 57th draft choice in the 2021 Draft.
That matters because the Maple Leafs traded down from No. 25 to No 38 to divest themselves of Petr Mrazek’s contract. The team then chose Fraser Minten. The word on Minten is that he might just be a Knies clone. While not quite as big as Minten, he’s a power-forward type who plays a physical game.
Prior to the Knies pick in 2021, the team always seemed to have chosen a collection of offensively-talented Smurfs. Here’s wondering if what seems to be a home run with Knies might have helped the team think a bit differently about the 2022 draft.
Item Two: What Do We Know about Fraser Minten?
When the Maple Leafs drafted Minten at No. 38, they got what seems to be a talented but a bit of a raw player who projects – right now – to (at best) become a bit of an Ilya Mikheyev-type player. While he might not be as fast a skater – right now – as Mikheyev is, the Maple Leafs’ player development unit is world-class.
There’s a chance that the organization can take a project-oriented approach to find and develop untapped talent. (I note “right now” because I believe the Maple Leafs trust their development program can mature skills with hard work. That means things can change.)
The Maple Leafs picked center Minten with the 38th pick because they were thinking differently than they have in the past. Face it, general manager Kyle Dubas was going to trade down if he had to as a way to move Petr Mrazek. However, one reason the trade worked is that the organization trusts its development system.
Honestly, I didn’t know a thing about Minten before the Maple Leafs drafted him. But I can read. Minten was a bit of a surprise last season. As the No. 74 overall pick in the 2019 WHL Bantam Draft, Minten came from almost nowhere to become a key contributor for a talented Kamloops Blazers team that came one game away from reaching the WHL Championship.
Over the 2021-22 season, he played a total of 84 games (regular season and playoffs), scoring 26 goals and adding 45 assists (for 71 points). Minten’s reputation is that he has great hockey IQ, and that good on-ice sense allows him to make smart plays in all three zones.
Minten plays a 200-foot game, and his two-way skills helped make him a strong special teams player (both on the power play and the penalty kill). He’s reliable defensively and he’s good at forcing attacking players into costly mistakes.
Obviously, Minten isn’t quite ready for prime time. Areas he needs to improve include his faceoff skills and shooting, but (to me) those areas seem to be the kinds of things one can improve with practice, practice, and more practice. Right now, he projects as a potential middle-six NHL player who could play a shutdown role and kill penalties.
Honestly, could the Maple Leafs not use another David Kampf on its roster? Who knows, Minten’s upside might improve with a couple more WHL seasons under his belt. He’ll grow and learn.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
Maple Leafs’ fans have about four more days to wait to see what the team’s brain trust has planned for the starting goalie. A week ago, I was like many others who believed Jack Campbell might be on his way out of town. My thoughts had him heading home to Michigan. But the Detroit Red Wings went with Ville Husso.
I’m starting to think that Campbell might surprise us all and re-sign with the Maple Leafs. I’d like that.