Training camp is just over a month away, but the Toronto Maple Leafs’ rookie camp may steal the show. Those tryouts let the young guys beat each other up for a chance to advance to the full-team training camp. The Hockey Writers Head of Prospects and Draft Coverage, Peter Baracchini, recently update his Maple Leafs’ top prospect list. He predicts an offensive battle, but his list also indicates a shortage of defensive talent.
Who is Number 1?
Baracchini, a regular in the Maple Leafs Lounge, was asked about his list during a recent episode of the show. Most noticeably, there is not a number one prospect, rather a 1A and a 1B. “It is odd,” admitted Baracchini, “I’ve always gone 1-2-3-4, but in this case, I just had to give it as sort of like a mini tie.” The players he is referring to are Nick Robertson and Rodion Amirov.
An injury in his first game last season cost Robertson his NHL roster spot. It is impossible to predict if he would’ve stayed with the club all season, but that setback certainly didn’t help. Barracchini has him in the 1A spot after the second-round pick in the 2019 draft, registered 16 points in 21 games with the Marlies.
Still, his performance in the Ontario Hockey League two years ago has prospect watchers waiting for this guy’s arrival. “Nick Robinson’s got the speed, he’s got the hands, he’s got the shot. We’ve seen it so many times! He scored 56 goals with the Peterborough Petes in 2019 despite missing games with a broken finger. Then he went to the World Junior Championships,” said Baracchini. Robertson put up five points in five games for Team USA at that tournament.
But Baracchini believes Robertson has company at the top spot. “Rodion Amirov has taken major strides. He’s got a solid two-way game. He’s great on the forecheck in the backcheck, but his skill and patience and speed.” Amirov is Toronto’s first-round pick from the 2020 draft, a pick they acquired by sending Kasperi Kapanen to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“Earlier this month, he had the puck, and he was just dancing around the whole entire team, and he set up his teammate for a goal. That to me just solidified him as not just a second overall prospect, but he is a first overall or top prospect in this system.” But, Amirov has suffered an upper-body injury and is off the ice for at least a month.
Top Defenseman in the System
Timothy Liljegren grabbed the number three spot on the list, making him the top defenseman. This may be cause for concern. Liljegren was selected in the first round way back in 2017. He has only appeared in 13 NHL games and is a minus four. In 148 AHL regular-season games, he has registered 73 points and is a plus-two. But he wasn’t drafted to prop up the Marlies, and without a breakthrough soon, he will be lost in the system.
Toronto has drafted several defencemen, and they are right on Liljegren’s heels according to Baracchini’s top ten list. Two players from Finland, both taken in the 2019 draft, will be pressuring Liljegren for ice time. Topi Niemela is number four and Mikko Kokkonen is number ten.
Matthew Knies May Surprise
Jumping on the list is a kid Toronto selected just a few months ago in the draft’s second round. Matthew Knies, chosen 57th overall, is number seven on the prospect list. It’s not to downplay Knies, but his high ranking could be viewed due to Toronto’s watered-down farm system. However, Baracchini doesn’t see it that way, “I think they found a diamond in the rough,” said the prospect watcher.
In his draft year, Knies missed a lot of the first part of the season with Covid and seemingly fell off the radar for several teams. Nevertheless, Baracchini is convinced Toronto’s scouting staff found a solid player, “he’s got a power forward body, but he’s got so much skill. He’s got that two-way mentality. He’s got a really great shot… he is Zach Hyman but with better hands and a better shot.” However, Knies will not be competing for NHL time this season. He has committed to the University of Minnesota for one more year.
Keep an eye on the Maple Leafs Lounge Twitter feed for Peter’s Prospects. He will be updating the list as we approach training camp. These lists inform readers who to watch for, but all the previous statistics and accolades mean nothing when the puck drops at training camp.
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Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.