Welcome back to Top Shelf Prospects, the column that brings you the next crop of professional hockey players. As we go through the summer of 2023, each day our LWOS Prospects Writers will bring you a look at one NHL team’s top prospects or other topical article. Be sure to bookmark the site, follow Ben Kerr, Kyle Pereira and Frederik Frandson on Twitter, and spread the word for the site that will bring you analytical and critical profiles and scouting reports! You can find all the articles here as well as our extensive NHL Draft preview. Today, we look at the 2023 Toronto Maple Leafs Top Prospects.
For those wondering, the cut-off for what is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 50 NHL games played (including playoff games) or is 25 years old. These are not hard or fast rules though, and we may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
2023 Toronto Maple Leafs Top Prospects
1.) Matthew Knies
There were never really any doubts about who the top Leafs prospect was going to be, as Matthew Knies is one of the best offensive prospects in the NHL. After being taken in the second round of the 2021 NHL draft, Knies has experienced a meteoric rise. During his season with the University of Minnesota, he had 75 points in 73 games. This earned him an instant contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs where he was a great asset to the Leafs playoff run. A playoff run that sadly ended due to a concussion in the second round. However, his performance makes him one of the early favourites to take the Calder Trophy this upcoming season, as he is expected to make the team out of camp.
Knies style offers a very unique and powerful brand of hockey. It’s a combination of strength and size with an almost endless amount of finesse. He uses his 6-foot-3 frame to shield the puck away from defenders and win battles along the boards. Getting the space he has an extremely heavy shot and a great vision to make the most of it. In many ways, he is the perfect prototype scoring power forward. There aren’t a lot of flaws and he is a near-impossible player to defend. With Knies in the lineup, the Leafs look poised to make another push toward their first cup since 1967.
2.) Topi Niemelä
Along with one of the more unique and better offensive talents in the NHL, the Maple Leafs also have one of the best two-way defensive prospects in the world. After spending his career in the Finnish Liiga, Topi Niemelä is looking to make a name for himself in the AHL. Last season he got a taste of it during the AHL playoffs and looked stellar. During the seven games, he had five points and was often the best player on the Marlies. This season will be his first full season in North America and expectations are high. While he isn’t expected to make the NHL out of camp, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Niemelä called up to the NHL later this season. A callup that could cement Niemelä as the steal of the 2020 NHL draft.
Topi Niemelä combines an elite hockey IQ with both smooth skating and defensive reliability. While Niemelä isn’t the flashiest player in the world, he might be one of the most intelligent. He reads the game at such a high level and always seems to be in the right place to make the best play available. His positioning is fantastic and does so many smaller details to perfection. It can sometimes seem like the puck just magically ends up on his stick defensively due to his positioning before he flawlessly moves the puck up ice. A way to describe Niemelä is that he lets the puck come to him, by being where the puck is heading, rather than chase it around. The only slight weakness is that he is an undersized defenceman. However, with his skating and intelligence Niemelä looks poised to become a truly special prospect in the making.
3.) Fraser Minten
One of the greatest risers on this list this season is Fraser Minten. While he was seen as a very effective player, who has a lot of versatility and a high floor, the ceiling was lower than other prospects in the system. However, this season Minten found a way to raise that ceiling. During his season with the Kamloops Blazers, he put up 67 points in 57 games. A staggering improvement from his draft year, showing signs of a sudden offensive potential previously unaccounted for.
His strength still is in his defensive game, as he is an excellent defensive centre. He positions himself well in his own zone and uses his body well to force attackers to the outside. Similar to Niemelä his defensive awareness allows him to intercept passes and break up attacks. On top of that, his skating is quite good for a 6-foot-2 forward. Once again it’s nothing flashy but extremely effective.
What he added offensively was the same non-flashy but effective style of play. Most of his goals come from being around the net. He gets tip-ins and rebounds or opens himself up for a one-timer, where he has a sneaky good shot. The shot itself has a good amount of power behind it. It doesn’t look spectacular at first but it’s quite unique and is tricky to deal with. His handling of the puck improved but the finesse still needs a bit more work. The improvements Minten made this season hint at a ceiling far greater than just a big checking line center.
4.) Roni Hirvonen
Roni Hirvonen is one of the more difficult-to-project players in the Maple Leafs system. On one hand, his potential and skillset are extremely apparent. On the other, he has never been tested in North America. So far he has steadily developed in Finland and this season will be his first in North America. A season that will be telling for his overall translatability into the NHL. Especially the far more physically demanding North American style of hockey, as he is an undersized forward who recently suffered a concussion. Given his above-average skating and speed, this could be a worry in the future.
However as mentioned, the overall upside of Hirvonen’s game is great. He is another highly intelligent player, with strong offensive playmaking and strong hustle. His motor is great, and he is an excellent leader as he leads by example. He’s not super flashy, but with his IQ he tends to make the effective play in almost any situation. The lack of flashy plays isn’t due to a lack of skill on Hirvonen’s part. He is a very nifty player with great hands and a dangerous shot to make him more than just a passer. The reason he doesn’t use it more often seems to be due to his style of making the sensible play over the more spectacular. A style that could see him be a breakout player this season in the AHL.
5.) Nick Robertson
The story of Nick Robertson’s time with the Toronto Maple Leafs has been a sad one. Not because of a lack of skill or hard work from the young forward but due to the most untimely injuries imaginable. When he came into the NHL during the 2020 NHL playoff bubble he took the NHL by storm by being one of the best players in the Leafs play-in round. The skies seemed like the limits and then injuries happened. In the AHL he has touched the league, only to come up to the NHL and get either hurt or looked scared to get hurt.
Hopes seem to be that he might finally be past his injuries and is getting back to shape. Questions are if it will be too late for his time with the leaf as his spot on the roster might have been filled already. If he does stay in Toronto and does stay free of injuries he could be exactly the type of player to take Toronto to their first cup since 1967.
His offensive qualities with great movement, skating and quick hands make him such a strong offensive dynamo. His upside is spectacular and his shot is the stuff of nightmares for goalies. The release is both quick and deceptive and comes off in a very unique way, making it really hard to read. In the Leafs system, Robertson is up there with the big four in terms of his offensive upside. The question now becomes if he will get one more chance to stay healthy and show it in Toronto.
6.) Ty Voit
Ty Voit is another late rounder, who has had a strong development since getting drafted by the Leafs. Last season he dominated the OHL putting up 105 points in 67 games, which was a 25-point increase from the previous season. Now he will be moving to the AHL, where Voit will get his first test in professional hockey. The physicality and speed will be increased and should test the slightly undersized forward’s translatability and true potential as a player.
While the stats are great, and he had a good amount of success this season, some of his glaring issues still remain. His quickness leaves some to be desired and he tends to be a perimeter player without the greatest off-the-puck movement. His vision is great and he can pass the puck well, but he relies heavily on teammates to get open for him. Something he had this season in the OHL. The overall creativity and offensive upside are hard to ignore and he does read the game well when he has the puck on his stick. Voit’s creativity is up there with Mitch Marner, but the question is if that is enough in the NHL without the same quickness and mobility as Marner. The answer should come within the next few seasons in the AHL.
7.) Easton Cowan
Another player who has been compared to Mitch Marner after he was drafted a few months ago is Easton Cowan. Similar to Voit, Cowan is a creative playmaker on the smaller side, who has a sky-high ceiling, but also a low floor. Last season he played his first season with the London Knights and he is expected to get more of a role on the team this season. Especially after having a great playoff performance where he put up 21 points in 20 games.
The best strength of Cowan is his playmaking, as he sees the ice at an extremely high level. Something he does well in both zones is being able to intercept passes while finding the right pass across offensively. He also has a great work ethic and his motor seems to never stop. His legs are constantly moving which makes him a frustrating player to play against. Adding this to his creative mind and quick hands there is a lot to enjoy with Cowan. The main concerns are the lack of size, strong skating and top-end speed. Those areas do bring questions to his translatability into the NHL, and it will be interesting to see how Cowan answers them in the future.
8.) Nick Moldenhauser
Nick Moldenhauser has been another strong riser within the Leafs prospect pool during the past year. The past season was great for Moldenhauser, who put up 75 points in 55 games for the Chicago Steel. This season he will be playing at one of the best college programs around at the University of Michigan. This a huge step up for Moldenhauser, whose pro-style should do him well in the NCAA.
Despite not being the biggest forward at 5-foot-10, Moldenhauser is a really great puck protector and doesn’t shy away from contact. He battles really well, and with excellent balance and skating mechanics, he is good at keeping the puck on his stick. His offensive instincts are solid, and especially in tight spaces he is able to move the puck well. His shot is quick with a good amount of power and with his high work rate, he plays a nice 200-foot game. However, the overall skill with the puck isn’t as refined as it needs to be. The passes could do with more creativity and thought behind them. While Moldenhauser’s overall instincts are good, his hockey IQ leaves a bit to be desired. He can easily become a bit too stationary in his approach, but if this improves the Leafs have another solid middle-six forward in their system.
9.) Ryan Tverberg
One of the true underdogs on this list has to be Ryan Tverberg. In 2020 he was drafted in the 7th round by the Leafs. Three years later he signed a three-year entry-level contract with them. While the road to the NHL still has a long way to go for Tverberg, his steady progression in the NCAA has helped him go much further than expected. Last season he finished his time with the University of Connecticut, where he put up 30 points in 35 games. Now he will join the Toronto Marlies in the AHL for his next test and step towards the NHL.
The reason Tverberg has made it this far and already exceeded his draft position is his hard work. He has persevered and given it his all to make it this far. Tverberg is willing to play in any role and situation and with his great hockey sense he is able to adapt quickly. He has grown into a lot of roles during his time in the NCAA, making him a versatile prospect for the Leafs. The top-end skill and high ceiling aren’t eye-catching and the raw talent is very raw. He won’t be the top producer on any team, nor will he be the flashiest. That isn’t to say he isn’t crafty, but it’s not his main feature. He’s a loveable underdog, who due to his hard work has put himself in the position to maybe one day wear the Maple Leafs jersey in the future.
10.) Nikita Grebenkin
The last player to make the top ten is Nikita Grebenkin. The Russian winger was taken in the fifth round of the 2022 NHL draft, and last season had his coming out party in the KHL. During a loan spell to Amur Khabarovsk, he had 26 games in 45 games. For a teenager in the KHL that is beyond impressive, and the Leafs might have found a hidden gem in Russia in the fifth round.
Grebenkin plays with great speed and overall playmaking skills that are brilliant. Offensively he plays with a strong mix of skill and size as he has been adding a lot of muscle to his previously more lanky frame. He protects the puck better and has matured his game, which was what earned him the chance in a greater role in the KHL. Even his contract situation isn’t terrible, as he is currently in his final season of it. He is still a project and needs a few years to learn to adjust to North America when he joins the Leafs organization, but the potential of Grebenkin is very intriguing.
Sleeper pick (Round 4 or Later): Vyacheslav Peksa
One of the real weaknesses of the Leafs prospect pools is their goaltending depth. Their best goalie in the system is Vyacheslav Peksa, who this offseason signed a contract with the Leafs. He will spend another season in the VHL where he has enjoyed a ton of success throughout his time in Russia. Giving him one more year in familiar surroundings could help him mature and become more used to being a starter before making the move to North America after the season. Peksa is a prospect to watch, as his development could mirror other superstar Russian goalies who have taken the NHL by storm over the past decade.
In the System: Toronto Maple Leafs Prospects
The Leafs time to win the cup is now. Last year they got closer than they have been in almost 20 years, and after a turbulent off-season, the plan seems to be simple. This year and the next few will be all-out pushes for the cup and that will be costly for the prospect pool. However, the cleaver and intelligent drafting of Kyle Dubas might be exactly what gives the Leafs the extra step needed to win. They have a lot of really high-ceiling players coming up in the next few seasons that could offer the push needed to take the Leafs to the next level. Especially players like Knies and Niemelä. From there it’s more so lottery tickets, but all it might need to take is for one to hit to win the ultimate prize.
Main Photo Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports