In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll take a look at two Maple Leafs’ prospects – Dmitri Ovchinnikov and Mac Hollowell. Second, I’ll suggest why I believe Auston Matthew might be on the cusp of winning the Rocket Richard Trophy for goal-scoring.
Item One: Dmitri Ovchinnikov Is Rising Up Maple Leafs Depth Charts
Kyle Dubas obviously trusts both his scouting staff and (in this case) his Russian connections. As a result, he has traded down during NHL drafts to go after young players who might be higher on his list but who he feels might have been missed by other teams. Not this time. Instead, Dubas traded a couple of later picks to move up the draft so the Maple Leafs could select Dmitri Ovchinnikov in the fifth round (137th overall).
That move is looking like a wise choice. Last season, Ovchinnikov had a great season when he scored 24 goals, 31 assists (55 points) in 54 games with Sibirskie Snaipery Novosibirsk in Russia’s MHL. This season, playing with the same club, he’s done even better by scoring 13 goals, 22 assists (35 points) in 22 games. The MHL is Russia’s U20 league, similar to junior hockey in North America.
The 5-foot-10, 161-pound, 18-year-old Ovchinnikov has dominated other Russian U20 players, but he hasn’t yet had much chance to play at the KHL level. The young forward had one call-up to the KHL but mostly sat on the bench for five games with Sibir Novosibirsk and didn’t score a point.
He’s probably too good for where he is and might not yet be good enough to take that next step – or not quite trusted enough. However, if he keeps producing like his is, he’ll soon be in a KHL line-up. There isn’t much left to prove where he is, and after sitting on the bench during his KHL call-up, when he returned to the MHL, he put up a five-point game against Reaktor. Perhaps, similar to young Nick Robertson, it might suggest Ovchinnikov has some fire in his belly – which isn’t a bad thing at all for a young player.
What makes Ovchinnikov interesting is his offensive flair. He seems to be a well-rounded offensive player who also plays defense. He beats defenders with speed and puck-handling and he has a reputation for making great passes. For his size, he’s strong in high-traffic or high-danger areas and can both create chances for teammates and finish himself.
In short, Ovchinnikov is attractive now and has the skills to be productive at the next level. He might be a long-term project for the Maple Leafs organization; but, with every twitter video that emerges from Russia, it’s easy to see there are a lot of offensive tools in his toolbox. Because Sibir is a KHL team without a VHL affiliate, Ovchinnikov might keep working on his game in the MHL.
Item Two: Mac Hollowell Is Dominating Play in Finland
Mac Hollowell is simply one of the best skaters in the Maple Leafs’ organization. Last season the 22-year-old Niagara Falls native played 34 games with the Toronto Marlies. This season he was loaned to TUTO in Mestis, the second-highest hockey league in Finland. There, he’s at a point-a-game pace with two goals and four assists in his first six games.
I have to admit that, personally, Hollowell hasn’t been on my radar and I’ve only recently been following his play. Now, I’m not sure how I missed him. His speed and ability to handle the puck while skating are great skills. Now that he’s playing so well in Finland, I’m wondering how the confidence he’s gaining there might translate into a chance to place himself centrally into the organization’s future vision. I don’t think he’ll make the Maple Leafs roster out of training camp, but he might become an injury call-up during the season.
A review I read recently specifically noted that Hollowell “has a fantastic understanding of the spacing of the game and has shown this off at multiple levels. His skating and hockey IQ has translated well at the AHL level and currently in Europe (with TUTO hockey).”
Furthermore, Hollowell’s ability to skate through traffic to bring pucks from his own zone fits how the Maple Leafs want their defensemen to play. That said, his game needs work and at times he’s struggled defensively. Because he’s smaller, he often relies on his skating to anticipate plays rather than working to win physical puck battles.
Perhaps the most critical assessment is the review’s note that “he’s a nonchalant defender” who needs “to increase his urgency without possession if he wants to defend successfully against professional grown hockey players.” [My emphasis on grown, because it suggests the reviewer believes Hollowell doesn’t yet match up well against bigger players.]
Still, all these issues seem fixable with coaching, more developmental experience, and perhaps gaining strength. When a defenseman is only 22 years old, there’s still time to grow and improve. Hollowell looks like a good bet to become a strong third-pairing defenseman with the potential of an NHL future.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
It’s tough not to look ahead at the 2020-21 regular season and anticipate how the Maple Leafs might do. A great mailbag post today by Sportsnet’s Luke Fox contained a question about Auston Matthews’ season.
I agree with Fox that this might be Matthews’ season to become elite. I predict that the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy is within his grasp for two reasons. First, I think he’s grown and matured as a player. I’ve written about his transformation both as a player and as a person since his almost-disastrous offseason prior to the 2019-20 season. He’s really good and he’s getting better. Second, last season’s competition might not be as strong.
Last season’s co-winners Alex Ovechkin and David Pastrnak can’t be ranked as highly. First, Ovechkin is 35 years old. Second, Pastrnak is rehabbing from off-season hip surgery and will miss the first part of the season. That Torey Krug has moved to the St. Louis Blues and won’t be feeding Bruins’ forwards the puck any longer hurts the Boston Bruins’ power play, which might depress Pastrnak’s scoring.
As Fox points out, Matthews is already “sharpening his blade” practicing with Connor McDavid in Arizona. And, if there is a Canadian division – which seems a safe bet – the only Canadian club ranked in the NHL’s top 14 in goals against for 2019-20 was the Winnipeg Jets, which ranked 10th. That likely means that an all-Canadian division will be exciting for fans because it will be high-octane offence. With Matthews hitting his prime seasons, that might add up to something special.
Let’s hope we soon see.