World Juniors: Maple Leafs’ Lack of Prospects a Sign of Sacrifice

The 2023 edition of the World Junior U20 Championship to this point has gone off without a hitch — that is, aside from the handful of upsets that have seemingly overtaken the group stages early on.

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Still the tournament is off to a great start with a number of NHL prospects leading the charge and some 2023 NHL Draft eligibles making noise for their respective countries. While most NHL clubs have a horse in the race when it comes to this tournament, the Toronto Maple Leafs have no current prospects in the tournament for the first time since 1982 — a span of 40 years.

Fraser Minten Toronto Maple Leafs
Fraser Minten, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Now, there’s a number of ways of looking at this, especially after the Americans left OHL star Ty Voit off their final roster. Firstly, the Maple Leafs were so close to having a prospect in the tournament had Voit been considered for the U.S. team. Or, you could see it from the standpoint that the Maple Leafs lack of representation comes from their lack of draft picks over the past few years — at least in the first three rounds.

Related: 2023 Guide to the World Junior Championship

Some might consider these sacrifices made by a club that has been a perennial first-round exit for the past six seasons. Regardless of how you look at it, here’s a look at how the Maple Leafs were left without a single prospect in this year’s U20 tournament.

Maple Leafs’ 2020 Draft – The Last Big Haul

The organization’s 2020 NHL Draft may have been their last major haul. They grabbed notable names like Rodion Amirov in the first round, Roni Hirvonen in the second round and Topi Niemelä in the third round. It was a draft that saw the Maple Leafs make 12 selections over the seven rounds, including one in each round.

While we all know the health concerns around Amirov, both Hirvonen and Niemelä played for their country at the World Junior tournament on multiple occasions with Niemelä even being recognized as the tournament’s top defenceman in 2021, earning bronze in 2021 and silver at the 2022 tournament.

Both players aged out this time around and weren’t able to return with Finland to the tournament being held in Moncton and Halifax leaving the hopes of the Maple Leafs having representation at the tournament on the shoulders of their more recent prospects.

Maple Leafs’ 2021 Draft – The Ty Voit Snub

Fast forward to the 2021 NHL Draft and the Maple Leafs had just three selections with only one of those picks coming in the first three rounds. The team took Matthew Knies in the second round, 57th overall, before selecting Voit at 153rd overall in the fifth round and Vyacheslav Peksa at 185th overall in the sixth round.

As mentioned, Voit didn’t even get the call for the American squad, while Knies hit the age of 20 as well and became unavailable to his country for the U20 tournament. The lack of picks, which we will get to in a moment, play a large part in the Maple Leafs not having a representative at the World Juniors in 2023.

What’s more is that the team only had the one selection in the first four rounds in 2021, which certainly doesn’t help the case of having a top-end player from any country when it comes to this best-on-best set-up.

Maple Leafs’ 2022 Draft – Gaining Some Traction

This past year, the Maple Leafs rebounded with five selections over the seven-round draft. Still, no first round pick and just two of those picks came in the first three rounds with Fraser Minten going 38th overall in the second round and Nicholas Moldenhauer going 95th at the tail end of the third round.

Minten was added to Team Canada’s summer camp earlier in the year, but was passed on by a team that had more than 10 returnees from the summer when Canada won a gold medal.

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Moldenhauer was up against tough competition to even get an invite to the Canadian camp and their fourth-round pick Dennis Hildeby was an overager when the Maple Leafs selected him 122nd overall in 2022.

So what happened to the picks that could’ve been? Where were they traded — and when — for the Maple Leafs not to have any representatives at this year’s World Junior Championship? Here’s a look at the sacrifices made.

When the Maple Leafs Landed Nick Foligno

On April 11, 2021, the Maple Leafs moved their 2021 first-round pick, their 2022 fourth-round pick which they eventually got back and their 2021 fourth-round pick to the Columbus Blue Jackets and San Jose Sharks, respectively. The move was to acquire Nick Foligno and Stefan Noesen for a run in the playoffs.

Noesen played just one game for the Maple Leafs in the regular season and ended up heading to Carolina the following season. As for the main acquisition, Foligno, he played seven games during the regular season with four assists and four playoff games after suffering an injury.

Related: Maple Leafs’ Draft Picks That Got Away

Clearly a trade the Maple Leafs brass would like back considering the Blue Jackets used the first-rounder to select Corson Ceulemans with the 25th overall pick.

When the Maple Leafs Landed David Rittich

The same day the Maple Leafs landed Foligno, they also acquired David Rittich from the Calgary Flames for their 2022 third-round pick. The Flames used it to take Aidan Thompson with the 90th overall pick and retained 50 percent of Rittich’s contract.

On the other side of the trade, Rittich played just four games for the Maple Leafs going 1-1-1 with a 2.72 goals against average (GAA) and .888 save percentage (SV%).

Now, surely we can’t pretend to assume Thompson would’ve been a World Junior star, but the fact is the Maple Leafs moved another top three-round pick for a mediocre acquisition.

Among moving other picks in the Mark Giordano trade and the Ilya Lyubushkin trade, maybe the toughest one to swallow came in July 2022.

When the Maple Leafs Traded Petr Mrazek

On July 7, 2022, the Maple Leafs moved Petr Mrazek and his mistake-of-a-contract to the Chicago Blackhawks along with their 2022 first-round pick as a salary dump, in exchange for the second-round pick the Maple Leafs would use to select Minten.

Petr Mrazek, Toronto Maple Leafs
Petr Mrazek, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

While Minten is proving to still be a reputable pick, the Blackhawks used the first-rounder to take Sam Rinzel 25th overall in 2022 and it was another first-round selection the Maple Leafs had to move to shed salary from a contract they signed.

Surely it’s not the end of the world for a team to not have a representative at this best-on-best tournament, but it is a compliment to have prospects competing for gold year in and year out. That said, the Maple Leafs do have five picks in the upcoming 2023 NHL Draft — and have yet to move their first-round pick. But there’s still time for that to change.