Minten was an interesting pick by Toronto when they selected him 38th overall in the 2022 NHL draft. He was a bigger forward than Toronto has taken during Kyle Dubas' time here, outside of Matthew Knies. He didn't scream offensive skill or a "swing for the fences" kind of pick.
Minten also was somewhat of a reach, depending on whose rankings you trust. He was a big but lanky center in the WHL who was under a point per game, which is not usually the hallmark of a near first round pick. What he did have was a late surge in his development, running at a point per game down the stretch and into the playoffs. His final draft rankings didn't necessarily rise close to where Toronto took him, but they all almost universally called out his improvements late in the year.
When I wrote a post-draft profile about Minten after watching his later season and playoff games, here's what I said:
I can see some skill and projection in Fraser Minten. He became a pretty effective playmaker, he has a good shot, he can skate well, and he has that “hockey IQ” that makes him more effective than his raw skill may lead you to believe, both offensively and defensively. But if you put a gun to my head and said I had to guess his most likely outcome as of now, I can’t see the potential to become more than a good third line center in the NHL who can play in all situations. And that’s good to have, don’t get me wrong.
That’s exactly the same thing I thought when Knies was drafted, I was underwhelmed at first. I watched a bunch of his games in the USHL towards the end of the season, when he was supposed to be playing his best hockey of the year as well. He looked just kinda... okay. But we all know how that turned out. Knies showed incredible improvement across the board in summer exhibitions and in the NCAA.
So then I think, maybe they see more to come from his game. Maybe he’ll get a bit bigger and stronger, refine his mechanics, get more playing time and turn into a better player than I’m seeing. Maybe he makes a big leap in his development that I am more skeptical about now. Knies did it, after all. So did Robertson and Niemela.
Did Fraser Minten take a big leap in his development this year?
In a way, yes he did. His biggest areas of improvement came where he honestly needed it the most. However, I would not rate his overall development to have improved as dramatically as we've seen from the likes of Matthew Knies or Nick Robertson. There are a couple of reasons that I think are behind that, however.
First, Minten if anything seemed to have less of an opportunity this year than he did last year. He at least started out playing a bit more even strength, sometimes playing on the wing of the top line. He also got a lot more time on the powerplay with the top unit. He had a huge spike in his point production early in the year as he worked magic with Logan Stankoven. The two would fire cross ice passes across to each other while the other would rip the shot past the moving goalie. Pretty much all of his spike in production came on the powerplay, to the point that quite a few scouts publicly commented about his low percentage of even strength points.
But that powerplay and overall playtime was taken away in the second half of the season, as Kamloops loaded up for a Memorial Cup run. Minten got dropped down to center the third line, and his linemates was a mix of physical checkers or younger wingers. He was also bumped down to the second powerplay unit as his role was replaced by top prospects like Olen Zellweger and Ryan Hofer. On the flip side, Minten was still heavily used as one of their top penalty killers. Minten's point production, as a result, dipped in the second half.
The second issue, which coincidentally happened a bit before all those trades happened and his role was decreased, is injuries. Minten didn't miss a significant amount of games, but had three different mini-stints on the injured list. First was a bit of a broken face after he was in a fight, making him miss a couple of games and forcing him to wear a full face shield when he returned. He wore the shield for close to a month. Then he had two stints missing a few games here and there with injuries that were not visibly obvious or made public, at least that I saw. He actually missed the entire first round of the playoffs from an undisclosed injury. And for those who remember, Minten was looking good in the pre-season with the Maple Leafs' camp before a wrist injury delayed his start to the WHL season by a few games.
With Kamloops eliminated in the WHL playoffs, they will get a pretty lengthy break before they return to host the Memorial Cup. That may prove to be a boon for Minten to rest his body.
The unfortunate part of both these issues is that right before it, Minten started playing his best hockey of the year. In his real hot stretch, when Stankoven and Bankier were both at the World Juniors and Minten got a lot more minutes, Minten continued his torrid powerplay production while also showing big improvements at even strength – even if the points didn't come for him at 5v5.
Here's a quote from Mitch Brown at EP Rinkside:
In recent weeks, Minten is carrying the puck more in transition, attacking the inside more regularly, and getting open in the slot with more success. The result has been a massive uptick in both shots and scoring chances. His expected goals per 60 has risen from a relatively average 0.99 to 1.85, a rate better than 95 percent of CHL forwards in a given season.
This matches what I saw when I was watching Minten's games in that time. He really took over for Kamloops while their roster was more depleted. I was expecting him to continue to look as good even as he got bumped back down the lineup when Stankoven and Bankier returned, and they loaded up at the trade deadline. But instead, the injuries and the lower playing time combined to sap that excitement.
How did Minten improve this year?
Overall, Minten's point production improved in a big leap. He had 12 more points while playing in 10 fewer games. Those 12 extra points came all from the powerplay, so overall his even strength point production remained the same.
The big increase for Minten came from his much improved shot, and all the skills needed to get the opportunity to shoot from dangerous areas. I said in his post-draft profile that while I liked his shot, it was a big area of improvement. Last year it looked like he could either get his wrist shot off quickly and accurately, or really rip it hard... but not both. His harder shot had a much longer and bigger/more obvious wind up. This season he showed a much quicker release, even when the shot was heavy and accurate. He also added some additional tricks like curl and drags to evade defenders.
He also showed an improved slap shot/one timer, in that he did it at all. I can't actually remember if I ever saw him do it last year in the games I watched of him. He still didn't use it much, and preferred to use his wrist shot most of the time. But there were a few occasions when Minten absolutely blasted it. You can add it to his toolkit where the situation calls for it.
The other really important area for Minten's improvement was chaining together his individual skills. He has above average skating. He has shown good (but not elite) stick handling in close, and some skill and deception with the puck. The big thing he added late last year was the give and go to facilitate chances, especially off the rush on transitions.
His problem was using them all together in a series of plays. Doing so would help him break down the defense with much greater consistency, especially at even strength. I think one of the reasons why his powerplay production soared while his 5v5 production stayed about the same is due to a lack of consistency here. On the powerplay he has more room and his skills can still work in isolation. He can solely rely on making a pass or making a shot and make good plays that can lead to goals. But that doesn't work as well at even strength.
And it's worth noting something that the Leafs talked about with Minten in the off-season. He is relatively new to hockey, as a top prospect. I believe they said he started playing high level hockey as a 14 year old. The Leafs thought that meant he may be a bit later in his developmental leaps. He did show some improvement in this area this year, the problem is that it was inconsistent.
But the question is whether there is another reason why he never really linked those offensive skills together consistently at 5v5. Because he clearly can, and did so more and more when he was given a more important role. That stretch in January where he played more is when he really showed he could put it all together. His overall game looked so much more dangerous as a result. But when he was bumped down to a third line center, it seemingly disappeared. Pure coincedence? Due to nagging injuries or lack of real-game practice? Or was it also because he was asked to or just subconsciously played safer as a third line checking line center?
In an interview with the Athletic, Minten hints at the latter at least being part of the problem:
“At 5-on-5, I’m a little more passive at times, playing on the defensive side and ensure that I’m playing a safe, responsible game and making sure there isn’t a lot coming the other way,” said Minten.
The good news is that Minten is very likely to be Kamloops' top center next season. They are due to lose a lot of their top players to the AHL after this season, including Stankoven, Bankier, Hofer, and Zellweger plus Daylan Kuefler are all likely to move on from the WHL after this year.
That opens up the top line center spot for Minten, to play with whoever else remains of Kamloops' top forwards. With Minten already an assistant captain this season, he's got a good chance of being the full captain next year while playing on the top line, top powerplay unit, and top penalty kill. If he was more willing to link all his skills together and play more aggressively on offense when he was The Guy this year, we should see it happen a lot more next year. Combined with his physical play, defensive ability and smart off-puck play, and he could see a much bigger season next year in terms of points and scouting reviews.
Next season will be fascinating for Minten. In addition to likely being the top center, he could be in the conversation to join Team Canada for the World Juniors next year. There is also a chance that Kamloops uses next season to rebuild, and Minten gets traded at the deadline to a contender for another deep run.
And that will be a lot of fun to watch.