By Scott Wheeler
Nov 7, 2019
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
We’re back. If you’re new to The Athletic, here’s the deal: Three times a year, I release my ranking (and evaluations) for every single prospect in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization.
The criteria are simple: To be eligible for the list, the player must be under 23 years old and either drafted by the team or signed to an NHL contract, without having established themselves as full-time NHL players. Players whose rights have expired, or who are signed to an AHL contract (sorry, Justin Brazeau, Hudson Elynuik, Kristians Rubins and Co.), are ineligible.
This installment features 28 players, down from 29 on the most recent list this past summer. That’s because since adding Aaron Luchuk from the Ottawa Senators in the Nikita Zaitsev trade, Egor Korshkov and Dmytro Timashov have graduated from the list due to age, and in Timashov’s case, promotion to the Leafs.
Overall, the quality of the Leafs’ prospect pool remains weak relative to the rest of the league. It’s probably somewhere in the bottom third even with the recent strong play of a select few players this fall. The Leafs’ ability to maximize their new development system with the ECHL Newfoundland Growlers, or to turn the Brazeaus of the world into NHL players, will be vital to sustaining the NHL club’s ongoing need for cheap depth.
1. Rasmus Sandin, LHD, 19 (AHL Toronto Marlies)Sandin showed he belonged during his brief six-game stint with the Leafs earlier this fall, driving possession and contributing without getting exposed defensively, the latter something I felt could happen early on. Back in the AHL, he has picked up where he left off during last year’s playoffs when his game reached new heights. His defensive game still needs a little polish. And while I like his physicality, his positioning off the puck could use some work. I’d also like to see him shoot a little more. His confidence with the puck helps him escape pressure and keep the play going downhill.
2. Nick Robertson, LW, 18 (OHL Peterborough Petes)The good news here is that Robertson leap-frogging Liljegren and Bracco on the list has more to do with his exceptional play than it does with anything wrong they’ve done. I’ve watched a lot of Robertson over the last few months. I watched him play in Plymouth, Mich., for a week at the World Junior Summer Showcase; for another week in Traverse City as part of the Leafs’ prospect tournament, and twice more in person with the Petes to begin the year. During my time watching the Petes, Robertson recorded a hat trick, 10 shots, and a fight.
I’m not being hyperbolic when I say he looked, in all three settings, like an unstoppable force. He wowed USA Hockey staff as he dominated a tournament that included the likes of Kirby Dach and Kaapo Kakko. In quick order he has become one of junior hockey’s most dangerous scorers. I was higher on Robertson throughout his draft year than most — he finished 30th on my draft board while the Leafs plucked him 53rd overall — and yet in hindsight, I was still too low on him. He may not just become an energizing, middle-six forward at the next level, he may become a star. In a 2019 re-draft today, he might go in the teens.
3. Timothy Liljegren, RHD, 20 (AHL Toronto Marlies)Remember when I said Robertson rising to No. 2 wasn’t about Liljegren? Yeah, it wasn’t. Following a lacklustre Maple Leafs training camp where he never really put himself in the conversation for one of the open defence spots, Liljegren has played some of his best hockey with the Marlies. He’s being aggressive and showing some offensive flair on a more consistent basis while continuing to defend well. I still have concerns about his stride mechanics and how his north-south speed would translate at the NHL level, but there’s not a ton else to criticize in his game these days.
4. Jeremy Bracco, RW, 22 (AHL Toronto Marlies)After posting 95 points in 88 games (regular season and playoffs) with the Marlies a year ago, Bracco has continued to produce, particularly as a playmaker, early in his third season of pro hockey. Eventually, he’s going to earn an extended look at the NHL level, where I believe he could be a successful top-nine winger with the right linemates and a dynamic playmaker on a power play. His challenge is that the longer the Leafs wait to give him that look, the less likely he is to get it. In March, Bracco will turn 23. At some point, his age will begin to hurt his trade value. So the clock is very much ticking.
5. Joseph Woll, G, 21 (AHL Toronto Marlies)After a shutout in his pro debut, Woll hasn’t played particularly well since. That’s to be expected, though, for a rookie goalie coming off of an injury (broken finger) that sidelined him through his first training camp with the team. Woll will be fine, and he remains the Leafs’ best hope as a potential replacement for Frederik Andersen, or even as an NHL backup. He’s got the size (6-foot-4 and weighs more than 200 pounds), he definitely has the athleticism and he’s a student of the game who is dialed into the technical elements of the position and is driven to improve.
6. Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, C/RW, 19 (OHL Peterborough Petes)There’s no way of sugar-coating SDA’s season last year: It was bad. Like, really bad. For a player with his skill, particularly as a puck carrier and a passer, he too-often looked pedestrian and ineffective. And while I believe that some of his production this year is a byproduct of playing on a line with two, shoot-first players in Robertson and Coyotes prospect Liam Kirk, you don’t challenge for the OHL lead in assists by accident. It’s absolutely fair to question whether SDA’s game will translate in the pros — I do every time I watch him play — but there’s no questioning his ability to thread passes through seams, or hang onto the puck long enough for a teammate to get open.
I recently asked Petes general manager Mike Oke about SDA’s hot start and whether, despite the huge point totals, he’d like to see him shoot more.
“(Der-Arguchintsev) for the second year at Leafs camp made another positive impression. It’s been a good fit with (Robertson). I think there’s certain areas in the offensive zone where if you’ve got the puck, you have to be selfish and shoot the puck. Just because you shoot the puck, you’re not being selfish for the wrong reasons, you’re contributing to the team and the strategy of getting pucks to the net. Sometimes the best way to do that is to make a pass to the open man, and other times it’s by just getting the puck to the net and having others go real hard for secondary chances.
He’s been much better this year (at shooting). He’s a highly-skilled player. The big thing for him is to just continue to work at both ends of the rink. And we’ve really seen with Sem that he’s done a good job of coming down and back and helping out low and then jumping into the rush as the play exits our zone. Then in the offensive zone, he can get into holes for the puck or find a man who’s in a better position of doing that.”
7. Mikko Kokkonen, LHD, 18 ( SM-liiga Jukurit)Coming off four consecutive seasons performing at a level well above his age group, Kokkonen suffered an upper-body injury at the World Junior Summer Showcase that caused him to miss training camp. He hasn’t looked the same since. The good news is that his low early-season production and rough defensive numbers aren’t truly indicative of his skill. This is a kid who, in his U16 season, led Jukurit’s top U20 junior team in scoring with 26 points in 38 games. Before this summer’s injury, he was being groomed to play a leading role on Finland’s next world junior team. He needs to get healthy and get back on track, though. And fast, because it hasn’t been a good start to the year.
8. Mac Hollowell, RHD, 21 (ECHL Newfoundland Growlers)Hollowell is one of the guinea pigs in the Leafs’ new three-tier development system. And the early results have been encouraging. Hollowell is a unique player in more ways than one. He’s already an NHL-quality skater, he’s dangerous in transition and he shoots right. Those things make him really interesting. But he’s also small for a defenceman. Not just in height and stature, but in strength. Can he overcome that with an active stick and a style that helps him spend more time on offence than defence?
He has already shown he can be one of the best defencemen in the OHL. He’s beginning to show the same is true at the ECHL level and I think he’ll soon be demonstrating the same at the AHL level too. And yet, I’m not sure if that will ever translate to the NHL. Still, I wouldn’t be shocked if he’s a dominant AHL player two or three years from now, and able to step in and help an NHL club.
9. Joey Duszak, RHD, 22 (ECHL Newfoundland Growlers)After struggling out of the gate with the Growlers, something that’s not all that surprising given the disappointment that probably came with his demotion and the change of scenery, Duszak has looked fabulous of late as a threat to create offence from the Growlers’ backend. He’s the kind of player the 2019 Kelly Cup champion Growlers always lacked; they never had a proper power-play quarterback and relied on a defence by committee along with its talented group of forwards. Duszak is too skilled to stay in the ECHL for long and I suspect that both he and the Marlies recognize that. When the Leafs gave him an NHL deal instead of an AHL deal, they did so because there were several teams that were interested in adding him as a college free agent. This time next year when he’s a month into his second and final year of that entry-level contract, I expect he’ll be excelling at the AHL level. I really think there might be something here.
10. Mikhail Abramov, C/RW, 18 (QMJHL Victoriaville Tigres)One of my favourites in last year’s draft, Abramov has continued to take positive steps this season in Victoriaville, where he leads Les Tigres in scoring. Though his numbers don’t yet leap off the page, it’s important to consider that the Tigres are one of the worst, and lowest-scoring, teams in junior hockey this year. In my viewings, I’ve liked that Abramov has begun to look to score more this season. He has always been a crafty puck carrier who can involve his linemates, but he’s also now leading Victoriaville in shots. And while he’s still a long way away from being a finished product, I like that the Leafs bet on Abramov’s talent and skill with a fourth-round pick.