For the record, I like the idea of putting prospects into tiers – or a "prospect pyramid" if you will – a lot more than I like putting them into pure rankings. You don't get a lot of context or nuance with regular rankings, and to me you learn a lot more about the person making the rankings and what they think rather than of the players themselves.
And it's the mid-season break, so what the hell else are we gonna talk about? I already put out a bunch of prospect reports on specific players the past two weeks. But let's look at the bigger picture and mark the progress of everyone compared to each other...
Tier One - Elites
This tier is for the cream of the crop, the true blue chip prospects that you look at without any doubt that they will become future stars. They aren't just playing in the top six or on the top pair, they are the drivers of those lines/pairs. As a goalie, they're no doubt number on starting goalies year in, year out.
This is your top prospects like Matthews and even Nylander or Marner to a lesser extent. Others may distinguish two tiers between those, but the Matthews-level tier would be so rare that it makes no point to me to have it separated. Toronto will only have one Matthews for the next few decades, probably.
But even without breaking it up into more tiers, Toronto has no current prospects at this level in my eyes.
Tier Two - Very Goods
These are your players who may not be perennial all stars, but are very good players. They may have an All Star nod at their peak, but generally will be the solid supporting players in the top six, the top four defensive pairs, or good but not great starting goalie. The Chris Kunitz to Sidney Crosby, the Zach Hyman to Auston Matthew or Connor McDavid.
For me, there are three Maple Leafs prospects in this tier and only one of them may be a bit of a surprise. This is in no particular order:
Easton Cowan – The highest drafted prospect Toronto has had since Rodion Amirov (sigh), Cowan was a surprise pick that I fully admitted I had some skepticism about. I think I did add the caveat that if he had an immediate Knies-esque huge leap forward in his development I'd be all aboard the hype train, and damn if that isn't what happened.
Cowan is the top forward in the OHL by points per game. His tracking data is sterling. He made the World Juniors as a D+1 which, while not extremely rare, is still uncommon for a country like Canada. Best of all, what's driving his success in junior is pro-ready skills and habits, and he just keeps getting better. I'm not sold on him being a tier one level player just yet, but that's not detracting from him or how far he's come. It's also not impossible to me that he winds up in that top tier eventually, I just wouldn't say it's his most likely outcome right now.
Fraser Minten – He may not have the explosive point production that Cowan does, but Minten has some other things going for him. He's a natural center, where Cowan (to me) can just sort of fill in at times kinda like Alex Kerfoot did. He has size that helps a lot as a pro, he plays a physical (but not in a bad way) game, and he is stronger defensively.
Honestly, at this point I am guessing Minten will wind up as a very good 3C to spread out some depth or he will wind up as a 2C that plays the responsible game while his wingers are something like Tavares and Willy running wild offensively. Minten has some good supporting skills when it comes to off puck play, but also has some strong dual-threat ability with the puck to finish their passing or set them up for their own chances.
Nikita Grebyonkin – I love me my Greb, and have since I started watching him in the pre-season after he was drafted. The pace of his point production has dropped slightly compared to last season when he won the Rookie of the Year award, but he's making up for it by improving in a few very important ways. He's adding more weight and muscle, he's more explosive as a skater and is stronger on his feet physically, his shot has come a long way since last season giving him more tools to work with offensively, but he still is a menace off the rush and the cycle. His production seems way more sustainable this season, especially considering his average ice time is a good chunk lower.
Grebyonkin is not a stellar defensive player, but he can be disruptive in deflecting passes and creating turnovers that can lead to rush chances. I still believe he could wind up as an effective penalty killer, it's mostly down to him committing to a consistent effort level without the puck. He is developing a Knies-lite ability to get the puck off the boards and into the middle of the ice, and can be a menace in front of the net with some nifty mittens to elude sticks in tight spaces to boot. He's not really elite in any one area, but has become a solid all-around forward in just about every way you can be. He may only just in this tier, but I've come to buy into him as a Knies-like role who can play in the top six.
Tier Three - Good Role Players
This tier, to me, is about the players who are still good but a clear step down from the others. You can tell they still belong in the NHL, but they'll likely bounce around several teams playing a specific role that ties into their limited strengths. Think Calle Jarnkrok, Max Domi, Travis Dermott, or for goalies your good backups that stick around despite not the best stats.
Of all the tiers, I am the least confident in the players I have here among Toronto's prospects. It may be easy to understand why.
Ryan Tverberg – Tverberg has speed, a good shot, and is a hard worker. He doesn't shy away physically, but he doesn't have the size or strength to really exert his will in that regard. I can see him being an energy/role playing bottom six guy that is sort of a poor man's Engvall or Mikheyev, using his speed to create havoc on the forecheck and create rush chances. If he wants to get a regular NHL spot, he's going to have to become one of the following: very good defensively and/or at driving play at 5v5, a very good penalty killer, a very good second PP unit producer. Him being used at center by the Marlies can also help if he can stick there. 25 points in 23 games in his first full AHL season is good for 4th in points per game for players his age or younger – only behind three top prospects in Kent Johnson, Logan Stankoven and Mavrik Bourque.
Topi Niemelä – Arguably the best (for now) defense prospect in Toronto's very shallow system for defense prospects. Niemelä is a good puck mover. He's a good skater, though most of that comes from his agility rather than his speed. He's been productive for his age in the AHL – he's 18th overall among all AHL defensemen, and bumps up to 6th among those his age or younger. But he's not so dominant where you can see he is a clear NHLer just from his offense. His other problems that I've talked about before are still present – his defense is all finesse, and he's still not strong enough physically to be that effective in his own end. He can quarterback a powerplay, say on a second unit, but his future would be much more certain if he could become an effective penalty killer. I can see it as a possibility, but he'll need to make those improvements over the next year or two.
Noah Chadwick – Chadwick is a similar kind of defenseman as Niemelä when it comes to his offensive ability, but his issues are completely different. Again, his offense is not so overwhelmingly good that it seems like enough to carry him to the NHL. He rates out very well for a junior when it comes to his transitions and his defense, but his game will be hampered by his skating issues unless he can improve it enough. Speed is not the main problem, it's his foot speed and how awkward and slow his pivots can be when he has to change direction. He has more runway to work with, however, that for now I'm still buying in on the offense-size combination where he can become a useful bottom pair guy that can pitch in on special teams.
Dennis Hildeby – Our first goalie! Boy did he have a lot of Leafs fans believing we found The One after he roared out of the gate with the Marlies in his first season in North America. At one time he had one of, if not the top save percentage in the league. He was called up by Toronto as a backup while Samsonov was waived and Woll was hurt, but since returning to the AHL has gotten shelled. He's still sort of young, especially for a goalie, and has time to develop before we can begin writing him off. Hell, Woll was two years older than Hildeby is now when he had his AHL/NHL breakout season last year.
Tier Four - AHL/NHL Tweeners
These are the players you may see pop up on an NHL roster for a few games every season or so. Some of them may have a small fandom that loudly bangs the table insisting that they're better than X player on the fourth line that they don't like! But they just don't quite have what NHL teams want or need to fill out their roster. They're lacking offensive skill at a high enough level to make them usable in a middle six role, they're not dominant powerplay specialists, and they're not trustworthy enough on defense or a penalty kill.
Alex Steeves – Great AHL numbers (career 0.84 points per game in 156 AHL games), but nothing is really that exciting or sexy about him as a prospect anymore. He's 24 years old, and he's running out of runway. He could maybe play a depth role on a bad, rebuilding team and that might be where he tries to go once his contract with Toronto runs out. But if he can't beat out Holmberg for an NHL call up, he's going to have a tougher time once Cowan, Minten, and Grebyonkin start turning pro.
Nick Moldenhauer – Has some interesting skills, but he's not that fast or that offensively skilled yet. I've seen him look great as a really good supporting offensive driver in junior and to a lesser extent in the NCAA this year, but I've yet to see anything that would convince me he'll be better than a Steeves or an Abruzzese.
Hudson Malinoski – Has a really good shot, is a good skater and forechecker, and can play well as a reliable center in the NCAA. I see him as similar to Tverberg in his profile, but not as good – not as fast, not as physical, arguably a better shot but that's about it for pure skills. I could see him maybe turning into a Kampf kind of fourth line center, but he'll have to learn to be better defensively and on the penalty kill.
Joe Miller – You know, I always want to say that Miller can be something real and I was real tempted to sneak him into the next tier up. He just gets it done, first in junior and now in the NCAA. He may have been just a passenger to two higher rated prospects last season to carry him, but he's on an awful Harvard team now bereft of quality talent like last season but he's chugging along with 10 goals and 19 points in 19 games. He is the clear offensive leader and I was not expecting him to produce so well without a good supporting cast. Toronto's coaches and managements have called him out, positively, in recent rookie camps and I can see why. He's listed as 5'10", so not as small as he was listed when drafted, but he is still pretty slight and it would help a lot to pack on some muscle. He is willing to fight for pucks, but his effectiveness in that area will only decrease at higher levels without added strength. The problem is that players his size who aren't also elite skaters just don't work out in the NHL. Miller is shifty but not a burner. While I think he gets the most out of the skills he has, I have questions and concerns about his projection.
Nick Abruzzese – He's older, and a nice story, we all know he has some skill as a playmaker. But he's got that same size-skating issue that Miller does, and is arguably more of a perimeter player. At this point, I ask myself: if Toronto needed to call someone up from the Marlies, how many other forwards would I choose before I got to Abruzzese? The list is not just one or two, and that's indicative to me.
Ty Voit – Maybe a future Abruzzese, Voit certainly fits the type as a smaller uber-playmaker. Voit may have a higher level of skill, and may be a bit of a better skater but he has even more of a problem holding up to physical play. He's suffered numerous injuries since being drafted from getting drilled – while being smaller makes that a bit worse, the problem is also compounded by him not having the best awareness or skating to elude checks like that. And this is as he already plays more on the perimeter as a playmaker. It's hard to really rate him right now or project him a few years down the line when he's barely played since turning pro. I'm open to moving him up if he can get and stay healthy and look as good in the AHL as he did during his tune up in the ECHL, but until then I'll keep him down here.
Roni Hirvonen – Hirvonen is in a similar place as Voit. Both are smaller, skilled forwards who were not drafted that high but had some hype, but who have dealt with constant injury problems since trying to join the Marlies. Hirvonen had a brutal concussion suffered during their rookie camp, and then in his second AHL game suffered a serious eye injury. Between the injuries and his father passing away in 2023, it's been a rough year for Roni and there's no one else on the team that I'm rooting for more. That said, it's hard to know where he is in his development when we've barely seen him play. I'll keep him here while watching him now that he's finally returned to play on the Marlies again.
Brandon Lisowsky – A couple of months ago, I would have had Lisowsky in the bottom tier below even this. I had said in a prospect report on him early in the season that he was scoring at the same rate as he always had – good, but not really that close to the elite level among his peers. But I hadn't really seen any expansion or improvement in other areas of his game, so I was of the mind that I wouldn't even sign to an ELC after this year. But now that I've started watching him more, since Minten was traded to his team and they played on the same line a lot, I have noticed more to his game finally. He's playing well off the puck, forechecking hard, chasing down puck carriers to try and steal it back, and at least threatening physically even if he doesn't have the size to knock guys around. He looks a step faster too. His offense still isn't any dramatically better, but I've seen enough for now to barely have him in this group.
Mikko Kokkonen – Kokkonen finished last season probably as a complete afterthought for most people. He had finished his first season in North America, where he spent some time injured, and the rest split between the Marlies and Growlers. But he had a stellar pre-season camp with the Leafs, looking like arguably their best defense prospect and a dark horse to get some NHL time if they needed a call up. He's not an exciting defenseman and doesn't really have a major standout skill or ability – he's not huge or a brilliant skater, he's not an offensive star or defensive whiz. He's just quietly effective, and makes good, smart plays. Jury's out if he's good enough to really stick in the NHL, which is why he lands in this group.
Artur Akhtyamov – He finally got an extended look in the KHL thanks to injuries to the starting and backup goalie for his club, and put up some impressive performances in that time. Once the other goalies got healthy, he was punted back to the VHL where he doesn't really have much left to prove. Hoping he'll be in North America full time next season – Woll will assuredly be one of their main NHL goalies, and Petruzzelli will be an RFA that they may or may not re-sign. I'll want to see Akhtyamov have a Woll or Hildeby-like breakout in the AHL before I bump him up a tier.
Tier Five - The Rest
This tier speaks for itself. It's all the rest of the prospects that Toronto has drafted or signed who I do not expect to be with the organization beyond whatever time limits their contracts or rights allow. They're all just guys at whatever level they're playing in outside of the NHL, and if you can't be better than just a guy before the NHL you sure don't have much of a chance of even sniffing the NHL. There are a lot of names in this group, some perhaps more noteworthy than others who may have a surprise in store for us in the future, but since I'm filling this out right now I'll safely say that – to me – I'm not seeing "it" in any of them.
If you've got any differences in opinion from me, let me know in the comments!