The Toronto Maple Leafs headed into the 2022 NHL Draft in familiar territory as the 2021 NHL Draft, with only three picks in the seven rounds to work with. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, as they were able to draft their top prospect in Matthew Knies in the second round last season, but it’s still less than ideal to have such a thin draft capital regardless of what the circumstances are.
In the end, general manager (GM) Kyle Dubas was able to turn three picks into five. The first move was trading down 13 spots in order to trade Petr Mrazek’s contract to the Chicago Blackhawks. Then, Dubas traded down in the third round and acquired a fifth-round pick in the process, and also traded a fourth-round pick next season in exchange for a fourth-round pick in this class. While the Maple Leafs didn’t add a brand new Juraj Slafkovsky or a Shane Wright to their prospect pool this season, they did add a couple of prospects with intriguing potential.
My rankings are based on multiple factors including age, recent production, and overall potential. Without further ado, here is my take on the Maple Leafs’ top 10 prospects heading into the 2022-23 season.
10. Ryan Tverberg (LW, University of Connecticut, NCAA, 2020 7th round, 213th overall)
Ryan Tverberg is possibly one of the quickest risers on the Maple Leafs’ prospect depth chart since he was drafted in 2020. The pick used to acquire him was done in a similar fashion to the team’s fourth-round pick this season, as in, the team traded a seventh-round pick in 2021 for a seventh-round pick to select Tverberg in 2020. Usually, a GM will only do that if there’s a specific prospect they want, and evidently, they got their guy in this case.
So far, it’s looking like Dubas may have been onto something with Tverberg. The Richmond Hill native just completed his first full season for the University of Connecticut, finishing with 14 goals and 32 points in 36 games. The 20-year-old winger also got some looks at Team Canada’s training camp ahead of the 2022 World Juniors but came just short of the final cut. If he reaches the NHL level, his floor is likely a bottom-six checking winger, with his ceiling being a second-line winger with the ability to contribute on the power play.
9. Nick Moldenhauer (C/RW, Chicago Steel, USHL, 2022 3rd round, 95th overall)
He may only be ninth on my list right now, but I would say that Nick Moldenhauer has the best potential to jump on the Maple Leafs’ prospect board. The Maple Leafs have strong ties to the Chicago Steel, with newly-promoted assistant GM Ryan Hardy and 2019 fourth-round pick Nick Abruzzese both coming from the organization, so it’s not a shock that the Maple Leafs went back to a team they were familiar with to select him.
The Toronto native finished the season with 41 points in 43 games but had a tougher go in 2021-22 than most of his draft class. After losing 15 pounds due to an undisclosed illness in the summer of 2021 and missing the start of the United States Hockey League (USHL) season, Moldenhauer returned, only to suffer a terrifying skate laceration on his face. The 5-foot-11 winger can play centre as well as the wing, and while his plans for next season are unknown as of yet, he could be a prime breakout candidate this season and could jump into my top five next year. If he makes it to the NHL, I see his ceiling as a middle-six winger with strong offensive upside.
8. Alex Steeves (LW, Toronto Marlies, AHL, Undrafted)
The Maple Leafs signed Alex Steeves as an undrafted free agent following the end of his junior year with the University of Notre Dame, fresh off a 32-point campaign through 29 games. He had a strong showing at training camp prior to the 2021-22 season, and while he didn’t make the team out of camp, he wasted no time making a case to be the first player up in the event of an injury. In his first full professional season, he tallied 46 points in 58 games, and even earned a three-game look at the NHL level, picking up one assist.
The one aspect of his game that Steeves has going for him more than other prospects is his speed. He was far and away the fastest player on the Marlies, and he didn’t look out of place in his few games with the Maple Leafs. Last season, they signed an abundance of NHL players to round out their depth including Michael Bunting, David Kampf, Nick Ritchie, and Wayne Simmonds, so there was never really much of an opportunity for him to secure a full-time roster spot. I would expect him to have a better shot this season, and at minimum, get more than three games at the NHL level. In terms of his ceiling, I see him as an energetic third-line player with the ability to take reps in the top six.
7. Nick Abruzzese (C/RW, Toronto Marlies, AHL, 2019 4th round, 124th overall)
Nick Abruzzese is another prospect who jumped up the depth chart much quicker than people may have anticipated. The Maple Leafs drafted him as an overage prospect in 2019, and he immediately had a breakout season for Harvard in 2019-20 before the season was canceled due to COVID-19. Hip surgery forced him to miss the entirety of the 2020-21 season, but he wasted no time getting back to doing the things that initially piqued peoples’ interest in 2019-20. He finished the 2021-22 season with 33 points in 28 games for Harvard and celebrated with an entry-level contract, nine games with the Maple Leafs, and his first NHL goal in the final game of the season.
Abruzzese is sort of like Steeves in the sense that his ceiling may not be overly high, but he makes this list because he’s already had a taste of the NHL and could make an impact in the Maple Leafs’ lineup sooner than some of the other prospects. I’m extremely interested to see how he fares in the American Hockey League (AHL) this year, and a full season in the minors should do him good for his development. As for his ceiling, I see him in a similar position to that of Steeves. Likely a third-line player, but definite potential to make an impact in the top-six as well. Expect him to be one of the first people up when the Maple Leafs look to the AHL for call-ups in 2022-23.
6. Roni Hirvonen (C, HIFK, SM-Liiga, 2020 2nd round, 59th overall)
Roni Hirvonen was acquired alongside the pick that turned into fellow Finn and World Junior teammate Topi Niemela in another trade-down move in 2020, and so far, it’s looking like a good one for the Maple Leafs. Although he didn’t take much of a step forward in 2020-21 relative to his draft year, he played well enough to keep his name in the conversation of Maple Leafs’ top prospects. He also had a strong 2021 World Junior tournament, finishing with six points in seven games and scoring the game-winning goal in the quarter-final against Sweden.
This season, Hirvonen took a step forward and finished the season with 26 points in 46 games for HIFK of Finland’s top pro league. He will have a chance to showcase himself at the upcoming 2022 World Juniors in August since the original tournament was postponed after only two games for most teams. He will likely be wearing the “C” for the Finns and will have a bigger role than he did last season, so he’ll be worth keeping an eye on at the tournament for sure, especially considering he’s likely still a year or two away from coming to North America. If his development goes smoothly, I see his ceiling as a middle-six centre with possible top-six potential on the wing.
5. Fraser Minten (C, Kamloops Blazers, WHL, 2022 2nd round, 38th overall)
The newest member of the Maple Leafs’ top five prospects, Fraser Minten was the player that made the Maple Leafs comfortable moving down to 38. The 6-foot-1, 185-pound centre spent the 2021-22 season playing for a stacked Kamloops Blazers team that featured the likes of Dallas Stars second-round pick Logan Stankoven and Buffalo Sabres prospect Mats Lindgren. He spent most of the season in a sheltered role, starting as a third-line centre for the club and eventually working his way up to the second-line centre role with some occasional reps on the first line. He finished the season with 57 points in 65 games along with 16 points in 17 playoff games.
While the Maple Leafs didn’t take a flashy name like Brad Lambert or Jagger Firkus in the first round, the Minten one looks like it could be a great one for the Maple Leafs. Dubas made a note to single out Minten’s hockey IQ, and he brings a strong two-way game along with some sneaky offensive upside. He’s also physical for a centre, and seeing that the Maple Leafs have virtually no prospect depth up the middle, he will fill a massive need in the team’s prospect pool. Lots of outlets have his ceiling as a third-line checking centre, but I think there’s more for him to give offensively, and I could see him capping off as a second-line centre in the NHL.
4. Pontus Holmberg (LW, Vaxjo Lakers, SHL, 2018 6th round, 156th overall)
I’ve been a fan of Pontus Holmberg ever since the year after they drafted him, and now it seems we’re going to see what he’s truly made of, as he has steadily gotten better each year since the Maple Leafs drafted him. He had a good season in 2020-21, putting up 23 points in 45 games, but it was the 2021 Swedish Hockey League (SHL) playoffs where he really shined. He tallied 14 points in 14 games en route to an SHL championship and earned playoff MVP honours along the way. It’s also worth noting that the goaltender on that team was current Maple Leafs goaltender Erik Kallgren.
Last season, Holmberg took yet another step in the SHL, finishing the 2021-22 campaign with 41 points in 46 games, good for second on his team in scoring. Then after his team suffered an early exit from the playoffs, he joined the Toronto Marlies and tallied four points in six games. The 23-year-old winger signed a two-year entry-level contract around this time last year, and while nothing has officially been confirmed yet, it’s more than likely he’ll play for the Marlies this season. He could even find himself in the same group as Steeves and Abruzzese as the “next man up”. I think his ceiling is as a second-line forward in the NHL, but a middle-six forward with strong defensive capabilities is probably a safer bet.
3. Topi Niemela (D, Karpat, SM-Liiga, 2020 3rd round, 64th overall)
Boy oh boy, is Niemela ever a fun prospect. As I mentioned earlier on, he came in the move to trade down at the 2020 NHL Draft along with Hirvonen, and at the time, the Maple Leafs drafted him mostly because of his advanced defensive game and hockey IQ for his age. So when he put on a clinic at the 2021 World Juniors to take home defenseman of the tournament with eight points in seven games, eyes and ears started to perk up a little bit. Then, when the Finnish blueliner exploded for 32 points in 48 SM-Liiga games this season, talk of him being a top prospect began.
Niemela is still far enough out of an NHL job that I don’t feel comfortable ranking him as the top prospect in this organization, but it’s safe to say that his step forward in 2021-22 increased his chances at a role with this team down the road. He’s likely going to spend at least the next year or two in Finland, but having signed his entry-level contract two months ago, I’d have to imagine the Maple Leafs will be looking to get him over to North America sooner rather than later. As for his ceiling, I see him as a future top-four defenseman with power play and penalty kill abilities.
2. Nick Robertson (LW, Toronto Marlies, AHL, 2019 2nd round, 53rd overall)
It feels weird to say this is a do-or-die season for a prospect who was only drafted three years ago, but considering how quickly Nick Robertson developed in the Maple Leafs’ system, that’s pretty much where he’s at. He responded to his draft year performance by tallying a whopping 55 goals and 86 points in 46 games, and with no OHL season due to COVID-19, Robertson was given an exception to get a head start with the Marlies. He impressed there, putting up 16 points in 21 games in his rookie AHL season, and continued to impress in his sophomore campaign with 28 points in 26 games.
The one worry about Robertson’s game is his durability. as he’s suffered injuries each year he’s been directly in the Maple Leafs’ system, which has likely prevented him from getting some more looks in the NHL. This season, however, they could have a gaping hole on the left side of John Tavares and William Nylander, and if Robertson can’t secure a spot, it might be wise for the Maple Leafs to trade him while his value is high. Having said that, I still think he’s got a future in Toronto, and if he sticks around, I see him as a high-octane second-line winger with 20-25 goal potential.
1. Matthew Knies (LW, University of Minnesota, NCAA, 2021 2nd round, 57th overall)
Simply put, Knies is the type of prospect Maple Leafs fans have been dreaming of drafting for a while now. When they selected him in 2021, the numbers weren’t all that promising. He was coming off a 45-point season through 44 USHL games in 2019-20, so when he finished the 2020-21 season with 42 points in 44 games, people saw it as a step back. What they may not have known, however, is that COVID plus other factors derailed the start of his 2021-22 season. He struggled early on but finished the season strong with 29 points in his final 23 games.
Fast forward a year, and Knies easily looks like he could have been a first-round pick. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound winger had an impressive freshman season for the University of Minnesota, tallying 15 goals and 33 points in 33 games. He has a very nice shot to go along with some sneaky speed for his size, and a solid physical game as well. His motor has been compared to that of former Leaf Zach Hyman, and his play last season was impressive enough to the point where there were talks of him joining the Maple Leafs at the end of the 2021-22 season. He has the tools to be a top-six winger at the NHL level, but with the right development, I could definitely see him assuming a role on the left side of the top line someday.
It’s hard to be optimistic about the draft when you sacrifice your picks for assets in hopes of a deep playoff run each year, only to be let down seven games in. But knock Dubas all you want, his draft classes since he took over GM duties look promising, and should be given a chance to flower before the abilities of him and his scouting team are questioned. Knies, Niemela, and Robertson all look like they could become regular NHLers someday, and the rest of the prospects I listed certainly don’t lack potential.
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What do you think of my list? Who do you agree and disagree with? Who cracks your list? Leave a comment below and let me know.
Alex Hobson is a third year broadcasting student at Niagara College. He has been writing about sports since 2015 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 Sticks in the 6ix Podcast, presented by THW. He also makes weekly appearances on THW’s Maple Leafs Lounge Roundtable. 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.