Alex Steeves is a lot of things to the Maple Leafs and to us as fans. He’s a measure of the reputation of the new Maple Leafs who can land sought-after free agents, even Americans. He’s a reminder of the value of taking a long look at the NCAA players who go undrafted. He’s a reminder to us as fans that the draft isn’t the only way to get good players. He’s the kind of player the Leafs have to hope pays out for them as they need to spend draft picks in trades. He could make the career of the scouts that championed him if he makes the NHL. He’s a walking symbol of the plan that the Maple Leafs put in place where the development money they spend outside the controlled player salaries has to make the salary structure of the team work.

No pressure, though, but he has to play some hockey too.

The Player

Steeves comes from New Hampshire, not the hottest hotbed of USA Hockey, but a place with access to good kids teams. However, it is possible that his early teen years spent playing for the New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs kept him off the lists of potential draft prospects that ultimately get you high on the NHL’s Central Scouting lists later on. No one on any of his teams prior to the USHL has an NHL contract but him.

At nearly 23, it’s tempting to expect too much from a player. The ages from 21 to 24 are where expectations ramp up for us voting on prospects, and that’s a difficult thing to keep reasonable since we all tend to hope a little too hard when they’re younger. Of all the drafted players on NHL deals that Steeves shared the ice with in the USHL and at Notre Dame in the NCAA, only Eeli Tolvanen and Tyce Thompson have set foot on the NHL ice. Most of them are still in school. He’s not an old man.

Steeves is also a reminder to T25 voters and readers that we really get things wrong on players new to the team. He went unranked last year as he finished 26th with a ranking of 24.7 on one 25th, one 24th and two 21st place votes.

With not much to look at but scoring rates, he looked good, but not as impressive as his natural comparator Trevor Moore had in the NCAA. Now that he’s had an AHL season a few NHL games, and we’ve all figured out how he plays, we all voted for him this time.

Steeves’ AHL season was an obvious success, and he had 23 goals and 23 assists in 58 games. He was nearly always the right wing, not a centre, and he played most games with Joe Blandisi, a former NHL drafted prospect who has been in the AHL since hitting free agency. The Marlies centre depth is illustrated fully by Blandisi’s tenure as the 1C for much of the season. Steeves’ left wing was often Nick Robertson, and that makes his box cars make sense, since Blandisi had only 29 points in his 43 games played.

Steeves saw enough power-play time to account for eight goals and nine assists, so that has to figure into our analysis of his play. Power play time is a sign the coach thinks you’re good, but it’s also how an average five-on-five offensive player on a team weak in talent can look better than he is. Steeves does have a very high rate of Shots on Goal per Game, a necessary metric in the AHL. His is over three, which puts him in the category of very busy offensively. I usually rate that as more important than points when judging the AHLers.

Steeves is also fourth on the team in Even Strength Primary Points per Game with .41, behind Nick Robertson (.71), Brett Seney (.52) and Josh Ho-Sang (.47).  But for the whole AHL, he’s outside the top 50. Part of that could be that near the end of the year, Steeves and Blandisi were the third line with a rotating cast of left wingers not named Robertson.

This is classic Marlies player development, and my goodness, does it make the Marlies fans angry. But from the point of view of developing a player who might be able to make the jump to the NHL at 24 or 25, it’s absolutely necessary.

Alex Steeves is not going to be a top six winger with power play time in the NHL. He needs to be playing a game that works in a bottom six role, where his offensive ability — good, but not great — is the value added. Points with a player like Steeves are the mini bottle of passion fruit liqueur on the 40 ouncer of the cheapest vodka at the LCBO, tasty, but you can’t make Caesars for a crowd with it.

If Steeves can convert on a career as a junior and NCAA player, where he’s usually been one of the best players on his team, to an NHL career as a role player, he’ll need to stop zipping around with NRob and start really working the PK minutes. We should likely expect that to be how he begins this AHL season. It’s worth noting that most successful depth NHLers did used to be the top player on their teams, and were often centres who converted to utility wingers. Steeves’ biggest competition for an NHL job this year is Pontus Holmberg or Joey Anderson, not Nick Robertson, and it’s possible he can best those players at their strengths, whereas he’s never outshooting Robertson.

The Votes

We may have overcorrected from our mistaken voting last season. We might be seeing the Marchment effect in action here, where we don’t want to discover we’ve really misidentified someone in a few months. Steeves and Voit over 3.5 ranking points higher than number 14, William Villeneuve, so the number 12s are the official list’s big line between the real rankings and everyone else.

Alex Steeves Votes

Josh - Smaht Scouting13
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Polak12
Weighted Average13.22
Highest Rank9
Lowest Rank16
Spread in Votes7

Everyone voted for Steeves, and everyone had him in their “bottom of the potential impact players” range, which does seem like a sensible view of him. His rocket up the rankings has been partly driven by the overall decline in value of the Leafs U25 cadre as the top players age out and few high draft picks are added in. We didn’t get absolutely carried away.

Take a minute and imagine the roller coaster of emotions we’d have experienced over Steeves if he’d been drafted in 2018. It’s entirely possible we’d only be coming around now to thinking he might be a good depth forward. He was ranked 86th on the NHL SC list of North American skaters four places below Semyon Der-Arguchintsev his first year. He easily could have been that Leafs pick.

dhammm: Alex Steeves is a likable prospect: great speed, the Leafs’ staff evidently believes in him, and he carried over his scoring touch from his last season in NCAA to his first season in the AHL. Despite his adequate seeming production at the pro level in his D+4 year, several NCAA players have walked this path before and not made it in the NHL, but I am choosing to be optimistic. Based on his first pro season, I think he has a future as fast forward depth. What more could I have asked for from an unsigned NCAA prospect otherwise?

Brigstew: I think he can play a serviceable fourth line guy filling in for injuries if needed. Not sure about being better than that, but he’s fun in the AHL.

TomK421: Steeves is in the borderline 4th liner, AAAA guy tier for me and I hate ranking these guys. I’m sure he’d be fine but I don’t get excited for “fine”.  It would be nice if he could show me up and win a job in camp though as we really need to have some waivable depth forwards this year.

Hardev: Believe it or not, but Steeves played behind SDA for most of the season on the Marlies. SDA was pretty much consistently a top-six centre, whereas Steeves played a checking role in the middle six at centre and on the wing, and earned a few NHL games for his effort. This is actually a pretty bad comparison because if SDA is an apple (get it, assists) then Steeves is an orange: A direct forward with speed and tenacity. The style of hockey Steeves plays can get one into the NHL quickly, as shown by his example. He will be a competitor for a fourth line/injury replacement job alongside Abruzzese, Holmberg, and Robertson. It’s just hard to be so good that the team is willing to put someone on waivers for you in camp.

Is Steeves going to make it?

For a cup of coffee, sure130
He’ll play more games than Freddie Gauthier231
He’ll have one good year at 26 and some other team will sign him as a free agent133
He’s the future captain of the Marlies22
I’m an optimist, he’s going to play for the Leafs for 10 years50