One of the interesting changes to the Top 25 Under 25 this year is how many players are on the eligibility list via free agency, not the draft. Including some of those recent free agent signings, there are nine new players on the list this year, and that’s a neat trick considering a few weeks ago the Leafs had three draft picks.
From oldest to youngest, here’s the nine new faces:
Maple Leafs to sign Victor Mete and Jordie Benn: Confirmed
Mete was drafted by the Montréal Canadiens in 2016 in the fourth round. He is considered small for a defender, and he shoots left, which limits the jobs that are open. In an unusual move for a fourth-round pick, he was put into the NHL straight out of junior. He’s not the only young player the Canadiens of that era threw in the deep end. After years where they weren’t happy with him, but didn’t trade him and did extend him, they lost him (seemingly intentionally) on waivers to the Senators. The Sens played him for a season and a half, and then didn’t qualify him.
That’s not a stirring history for a player the Leafs have now signed as depth, and yet, Victor Mete has the second most NHL games played of anyone in the T25 this year.
Maple Leafs sign Max Ellis to an ELC
Ellis was signed in the spring to an NHL contract that begins this season. He joined the Marlies at that time as an NCAA graduate, who did two years at Notre Dame partly because of some trouble sorting out his freshman year eligibility.
He is 22, a right-shooting winger, and he’s about the same size as Mete. He only played in two games on the Marlies, so we can’t really do much but guess about him based on his college career and the fact that undrafted NCAA players almost never make the NHL.
Maple Leafs sign Curtis Douglas to an NHL contract
Douglas has the other size problem in hockey. He’s so tall, that’s all anyone notices, and they either assume he’s a goon or that he can’t skate. He was signed last spring as well, after a full season on the Marlies. He is 6’9” and at least 200lb, and he’s a left-shooting forward who played centre in junior hockey. He had a good junior career and was drafted in the fourth round in 2018, almost exactly where Mete was taken two years earlier. His rights were allowed to expire, and first the Senators and then the Leafs tried him out in the AHL.
He appears to be a well-liked player by the Leafs and their latest development project. Like Ellis, he’s local to Toronto.
Maple Leafs sign Dennis Hildeby to an ELC
Just drafted, and about to turn 21, Hildeby is older than Nick Robertson. He is a goalie with a career that looks a little like Erik Källgren’s start in Sweden, with some excellent junior play and a move to the SHL on a top team where starts were hard to get.
Hildeby is returning to the SHL this season, and it’s worth noting that he has to. Because he wasn’t drafted in the first round, and his rights were held by his club team, he is NHL or Europe, no AHL, not unless his Swedish team were to cut him loose, and they aren’t likely to. They are likely to play him a lot more, so it seems like a good move regardless. Expect him in the AHL in the spring if the timing is right.
He is a test of the Leafs new approach with goalies, and we saw a taste of it at development camp, where the goalies were not used in skater drills; rather, some local practice goalies were brought in. The prospect goalies had their own camp on a separate ice pad.
Maple Leafs sign Braeden Kressler to an ELC
Kressler was signed by the Leafs in October of last year, after the draft where he was not selected, and before the regular season started. This is the short window that allows undrafted players who aren’t old enough to be free agents to be signed, and it’s fairly unusual to see players signed in that period. Most teams assume they can just draft them the next year if they want them.
Kressler has a very light history in the OHL. He missed an entire year to Covid, of course, and his two seasons bracketing that one are incomplete due to injuries. He has a very effective playoff run last year, however. But he’s very hard to get a handle on.
He is local-ish, from Kitchener, and is exactly the 5’9” forward you expect to go undrafted at 18 while being judged worth a gamble on an NHL contract.
Toronto Maple Leafs select Nikita Grebenkin 135th overall
Grebenkin was just drafted at 135th overall out of the MHL. He’ll get called a mystery box, because Russian players always do, but there’s a lot more book on Grebenkin than there is Kressler. He has two full MHL seasons with good to great points, and a steady volume of goals. He’s clearly the setup man, though. He’s come up through the junior ranks in his club, and always contributes meaningfully in points.
Drafted at 19, he’s 6’2” and if his listed weight of 183 lbs is accurate, likely has some physical development to come. He is a left-shooting right wing, which is always intriguing. The wingers who play the offside are usually doing it for specific offensive gains in their playing style, although it might just be an opportunity issue.
It’s much easier for a Russian junior to get a roster spot in the KHL now, so he might get some time on the big club. Of course, almost all the top goalies are gone, many of the top skaters as well, and the league is well below the AHL in quality. How that’s going to affect development is the actual mystery.
Getting to know Maple Leafs prospect Brandon Lisowsky
Lisowsky was drafted very near the end of the draft this summer, and yet he looks like a bit of a draft steal. He’s a small forward, of course, to go so late. He’s a left-shooting left wing, who plays in the WHL.
I think he’s a steal because you almost never see someone who scored 33 goals so deep in the draft. Of the non-goalies taken after him, only Alexis Gendron, taken by the Flyers, comes close with 30 goals scored, and he’s of a similar size.
A draft steal in the seventh round could very well mean he’s a player who will one day do well in the AHL, and likely should have been taken in the fourth round, but no seventh-round pick is ever wasted.
Getting to know Maple Leafs prospect Nicholas Moldenhauer
Moldenhauer was taken in the third round this summer, and he is an average build centre-winger who shoots right. He missed some time with a freak injury last season, so his games played is a bit light. He is a local guy, from Mississauga, but he looks like he’s heading to the NCAA, perhaps next season. However, he’s not listed on anyone’s roster for this season yet, so that remains to be seen.
Getting to know Leafs top 2022 pick Fraser Minten
Minten was the youngest and highest drafted prospect taken this summer. He’s also the youngest player on our T25 list. He turned 18 just a few weeks ago, and is a bit on the tall side at 6’1”, and he is a left-shooting centre in the WHL.
He has the classic profile of a Dubas pick. No, not short and zippy, but a player who had some kind of superficial setback that makes his points totals look bad. Because of the type of player he is, and the one after the other drafting of Knies and Minten, they will get compared to each other a lot, but Minten has a lot of time to grow into his game, and he may take longer to really shine than Knies has.
Those are your nine new faces, ranging from the youngest to the fourth oldest player on the list.