The 2021 NHL Draft was relatively uneventful for the Toronto Maple Leafs who didn’t make any trades and only drafted three players, the fewest since 1968 when they drafted one. Granted, if there was ever going to be a good time to have limited draft picks, this was the year. The class was weak, to begin with, and the COVID-19 pandemic made scouting a nightmare, with limited games or cancelled seasons where judgements had to be made based on the 2019-20 campaign.
With only three picks to work with, the Maple Leafs still managed to draft solid value. One of them even cracked this top-ten list. As Toronto has improved and their high draft picks have graduated to the NHL roster, the number of blue-chip prospects drafted into the organization has decreased. Having said that, they still have a solid crop of players who stand a good chance at becoming NHLers.
10. Mikko Kokkonen (D, Lahti Pelicans, SM-Liiga, 2019 3rd Round, 84th Overall)
Kokkonen had a breakout season in 2018-19 that was strong enough to catch the Maple Leafs’ eye. He finished with 19 points in 56 games for Jukurit of the SM-Liiga and improved his totals over a small sample size in 2019-20 with 10 points in 39 games. However, he took a slight step back offensively in 2020-21 with ten points in 50 games. Once his season ended, he joined the AHL’s Toronto Marlies and produced offensively, finishing with seven points in 11 games.
Having spent his entire playing career with the Jukurit organization, Kokkonen will sport new colours with the Lahti Pelicans in 2021-22. While he may not be a top-two defenseman at the NHL level, he’s about as safe a pick as you can get. He has a high hockey IQ and provides a little bit of everything on the back end, despite not being elite at any one aspect of the game. He also rarely makes mistakes in the defensive zone. His floor is as a bottom-pairing defenseman, and his ceiling should be a top-four defenseman.
9. Veeti Miettinen (LW, St. Cloud State University, NCAA, 2020 6th Round, 168th Overall)
It’s far too early to deem anyone from the 2020 draft class a steal, but Miettinen would be that player for the Maple Leafs. He showed a strong goal-scoring ability in his draft year, finishing the 2019-20 season with 42 goals and 73 points in 52 games for Kiekko-Espoo U20 of the Finnish U20 SM-Liiga.
He spent his entire career in Finland until the Espoo native left his hometown to play college hockey in the United States in 2020-21, where he put himself on the map. Miettinen notched 24 points in 31 games for St. Cloud State, finishing the season as a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award. He has an elite wrist shot, and he’s a threat on the power play. He has the potential to skyrocket on my list if his development keeps rolling, in which case I see second-line potential in Miettinen, but that’s a big if.
8. Mikhail Abramov (C, Victoriaville Tigres, QMJHL, 2019 4th Round, 115th Overall)
A native of Moscow, Russia, Abramov left his homeland to play in the QMJHL in his draft year, and it proved to be a good decision. He made an instant impact on the Tigres, finishing third on the team in scoring with 54 points in 62 games. After scoring 16 goals that season, he kicked it up a notch and finished the 2019-20 season with 35 goals and 76 points in 63 games. He also made the most of a shortened QMJHL season in 2020-21 with 30 points in 25 games and 24 points in 19 playoff games, captaining his team to a QMJHL championship.
Abramov is both an elite playmaker and a lethal goal-scorer, which should help him work his way up the depth charts. Like Miettinen, he has a real chance to shoot up my list once we get to see him play a little more. He’s set to join the Marlies for the 2021-22 season, where he’ll have to prove he won’t fizzle out like many players do after they leave the junior leagues. If he succeeds with the Marlies, I expect him to be an effective middle-six centre in the NHL.
7. Matthew Knies (LW, University of Minnesota, NCAA, 2021 2nd Round, 57th Overall)
Knies is the only player from the Maple Leafs’ 2021 draft class who made my top 10. Like 2016 first-overall pick Auston Matthews, Knies is an Arizona native. He spent this season playing for the Tri-City Storm of the USHL and finished with 42 points in 44 games while serving as their alternate captain. He’s committed to the University of Minnesota for the 2021-22 season.
After news broke that fan favourite, Zach Hyman is all but guaranteed to sign with the Edmonton Oilers, it will be reassuring for Maple Leafs’ fans to know that Knies’ game has been compared to Hyman’s, only he’s bigger and has a better shot. The only reason he’s this low on my list is because of his age. If he finds success in the NCAA, he’ll rise up the ranks in no time. At the NHL level, I see his ceiling being as a high-tier second-line winger and his floor as a third-line winger.
6. Nick Abruzzese (C, Harvard University, NCAA, 2019 4th Round, 124th Overall)
Abruzzese was undrafted in his first two years of eligibility, but he made massive strides following the 2017-18 season, upping his point totals from 36 in 56 games to 80 in 62 games, which undoubtedly caught Toronto’s eye. They were right to trust their gut with this pick, as Abruzzese had a stellar freshman season at Harvard, where he finished with 44 points in 31 games.
Unfortunately, the Slate Hill, New York native was forced to miss the entire 2020-21 season following successful hip surgery in Nov. 2020. It was a setback that he missed a year of development, but he’s still committed to Harvard, where he’ll look to come back even stronger in his junior year. At the NHL level, I expect his ceiling to be as a second-line playmaking winger.
5. Roni Hirvonen (C, Porin Assat, SM-Liiga, 2020 2nd Round, 59th Overall)
Having spent his entire career with the Espoo Blues, Hirvonen switched teams ahead of his draft year to play for Porin Assat. He impressed in his rookie season, finishing with 16 points in 52 games and continued his production in 2020-21 with 21 points in 54 games. He also made an impact for Team Finland at the World Junior Championships with six points in seven games and scored the game-winner with 23 seconds left in the quarter-finals against Sweden.
Some rankings had Hirvonen pegged as a potential late first-rounder, this was a good value pick for the Maple Leafs at no. 59. He’s on the shorter side, at 5-foot-9 and 172 pounds, but he’s a very solid two-way player with a bit of a pesky side to his game. If he pans out, expect his floor to be as a third-line centre and his ceiling to be as a high-end second-liner.
4. Topi Niemela (D, Oulun Karpat, SM-Liiga, 2020 3rd Round, 64th Overall)
Niemela’s offensive totals weren’t anything to write home about in 2019-20, finishing his rookie season in the SM-Liiga with seven points in 47 games. However, he likely received limited minutes due to his age. The Oulu native had an injury-riddled 2020-21 season when he played only 15 games, but he had an incredible World Junior tournament for Team Finland where he was named Defenseman of the Tournament with eight points in seven games. He was the second consecutive Maple Leaf prospect to earn that honour after Rasmus Sandin won it in 2020.
While fans weren’t able to see much of Niemela outside of that tournament in 2020-21, he has the tools to be a steal for a third-round pick. His game is compared to fellow countryman Kimmo Timonen’s, and he could make some noise in 2021-22. At the NHL level, I see his ceiling as a top-four defenseman with power-play ability.
3. Rodion Amirov (LW, Salavat Yulaev Ufa, KHL, 2020 1st Round, 15th Overall)
There’s a big gap between Amirov and the rest of the prospects I’ve named. While he spent most of his draft season in the KHL, he also spent time in the MHL where he created most of his offence, with 22 points in 17 games. He only had two points in 22 KHL games, but he didn’t earn much ice time as a rookie. He became a regular for Ufa in 2020-21, finishing the season with 13 points in 39 games.
Based on his strong two-way game and ability to pile up points, I see a lot of Marian Hossa in his game. He was originally compared to Artemi Panarin, but I like his defensive ability and think he could be as effective in all situations as Hossa was. He’s set to return to Ufa for another season in the KHL, but it could be his last if he improves enough. With the skills he has to offer, I see his ceiling being as a top-line winger.
2. Timothy Liljegren (D, Toronto Marlies, AHL, 2017 1st Round, 17th Overall)
Fans were cheering in the streets when Liljegren fell to the Maple Leafs at 17th overall in 2017. After being pegged as a potential top-five pick, he came down with a bad case of Mono that derailed his draft season. Since then, he’s spent the past four seasons playing for the Marlies, where he’s improved in almost every season. His best offensive effort was in 2019-20 when he put up 30 points in 40 games.
Unlike the other prospects, the 22-year-old needs to be given regular NHL minutes sooner rather than later. If Toronto can’t find those minutes for him, they’d be better off trading him, but I think they would be far better off keeping him. He’s an elite skater, and he’s right-handed, which the organization needs desperately. If he stays in the NHL, his ceiling screams top-four defenseman with power-play quarterback potential.
1.Nick Robertson (LW, Toronto Marlies, AHL, 2019 2nd Round, 59th Overall)
The Maple Leafs didn’t have a first-round pick in 2019, but they might as well have had one by drafting Robertson. One of the youngest players in the draft class, he took a massive step forward offensively in 2019-20, finishing with a whopping 55 goals and 86 points in 46 games. He was added to the Toronto playoff roster in the bubble and scored his first postseason goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
After notching 16 points in 21 NHL games in 2020-21, the Maple Leafs could decide to keep him in the AHL for further development or give him a full-time shot in the NHL. Not only do I think he should play for the big club, but he deserves top-six minutes. A realistic ceiling for him is as a high-end, second-line winger, but he has the potential to be a legitimate top-line scoring threat in his prime.
This list is based on my own insight, and as we’ve seen countless times, top prospects can flop just as much as late-round picks can exceed expectations and become NHL stars. While the Maple Leafs don’t have one of the best prospect pools in the league, they have several players who should be safe bets to make the NHL someday. As the focus will quickly shift to the opening of free agency on Wednesday, these prospects should bolster the team’s future.
What do you think of my list? Who would you rank higher or lower? Let me know in the comments how your top 10 prospects stack up.
Alex Hobson is a third year broadcasting student at Niagara College. He has been writing about sports since 2005 and has been with The Hockey Writers since October of 2020. He covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, World Juniors, and the NHL Entry Draft, and is also part of the Maple Leafs Lounge Podcast, presented by THW. For interview requests or any other inquiries, you can follow Alex’s social media pages listed at the bottom of his articles like this one.