At this point, Minten is in a neck-and-neck race for "top prospect" status in the Maple Leafs' system with Easton Cowan. While Cowan has been putting up dazzling highlights and gaudy point totals, Minten was making Toronto's NHL lineup out of training camp and then bouncing from one of the worst teams in the WHL to the very best.
Minten doesn't have the same point totals, which may (and does) lead some to comment that his season has been disappointing. And yet... there are reasons I keep coming back to him and thinking that Cowan hasn't yet surpassed him. So let's get into that.
STATS & CONTEXT
Minten has had a very adventurous season, playing on four different teams this season. He started with the Maple Leafs in the NHL to start the season in October, playing in four NHL games and being scratched for a couple of others before some roster needs and lack of usage led to him being sent back to junior on October 27th. He didn't get into a game with his previous team, the Kamloops Blazers, until November 3rd.
Kamloops was not at all what they had been during Minten's first two seasons, where they were one of the top teams in the league. But all of their best players, outside of Minten himself, turned pro after their Memorial Cup run last year. As of now, after trading their few good and older players away, Kamloops now sits dead last in the WHL.
Minten played 7 games for Kamloops before being traded. He had 10 points in 7 games, but was also playing a ridiculous amount. At one point he was averaging 34 faceoffs taken per game – 10 more than the next closest player in the league. That's a testament to how much Kamloops was relying on him at that point, and how many minutes he was playing in all situations – top powerplay, top penalty kill, top line at even strength, when trailing late, when holding a lead, when going for the win in overtime, etc.
In late November, Minten was traded to the Saskatoon Blades. At the time they were among the league leaders in the standings, and they've really taken off since then. In his 15 games since he joined the team, they've gone 12-1-2. As of now, Saskatoon sits at the very top of the WHL standings by 8 points. They have strong goaltending and strong defense, with the league's best goals against and enough skilled snipers to get by. Minten fits perfectly with them to be honest, both the defensive side of things but also giving them a bit more skill and sniping at center. In those 15 games, Minten has scored 8 goals with 18 total points in 15 games.
Again, it may not seem like a lot of points, but he's really taken off since returning from the World Juniors. In Minten's six games with Saskatoon before the world Juniors, Minten had 5 points in 6 games and averaged 2.7 shots per game. In the 9 games since returning from the World Juniors, he has 13 points and averaged 3.8 shots per game. He's been trusted more and more and become the defacto 1C despite not playing with their best wingers, as Saskatoon has tried to balance their top two lines.
Speaking of the World Juniors, Minten made their roster and was used as one of their top players at even strength. It was a disappointing result for Team Canada, and Minten caught some flack for getting so much playing time despite only putting up 3 points in 5 games. His tracking data doesn't look as strong overall as Cowan's was, but Minten was also relied upon a lot more when it came to line matching on their top line as a winger, rather than his natural position at center.
The reason why Minten has always gotten so much playing time in all situations is because he's simply an excellent all around player. He may not be that flashy, but honestly at this point I think that's not because he doesn't have the skill to be flashy – I think he does and he can – but because he focuses more on doing other things that help his team win.
Minten does the dirty work, he backchecks, he plays responsible positionally as a two-way center. They're not the things that will help him get points at a very high rate, but they are the things that will lead to a coach playing you more and more. These are the things we saw in pre-season when he won over Sheldon Keefe, and what won over Team Canada's coaching at the World Juniors when they played him on the top line.
Mitch Brown, whose tracking work I use a lot to reference a prospect's strengths, had an interesting thread earlier this week on "off puck assists".
Later in the thread he lists some of the CHL players he's tracked in recent years who had the best performance in these "off puck assists", and Fraser Minten is one of them – Easton Cowan is too, so Toronto clearly has a type and it's players who already show they can impact the game in ways that become important in the NHL. It's not just about the pointz.
But let's talk Minten's skills, because like I said I think he's proving that he has plenty of flash – maybe not at the same elite level of the true top prospects, but enough to carry him to success at the NHL when you take his other strengths in mind.
Let's start with his calling card as far as offensive skills: his shot. He has a wicked snipe and a pretty darn good one-timer too, but generally speaking he'll rely on his excellent wrist shot to beat goalies from distance. It's one of the main reasons why his usual position on the powerplay is up high at the point, where his shot is a threat even at that distance.
But the other reason why Minten plays at the point on the powerplay is because he is a dual-threat with the puck on his stick. He is capable of dangling around defenders, or making some slick passes across the ice or down low to set up dangerous scoring chances for his teammates. Again, he may not be a truly elite playmaker but he has good vision of the ice and anticipation for where his teammates will be.
But there's more to Minten's game than just shooting or passing it from the perimeter. In fact, he's hardly a perimeter player outside of his specific role on powerplays. At even strength, he is a hard worker along the boards and down low, and is an aggressive forechecker and puck hound. He is very capable on the cycle, where he can use his size, physical play and in-tight stick handling to get the puck out front. His "playmaking" in these scenarios is more creating chaos through his power game than by pure creativity and skill.
But when the situation calls for it, Minten is capable of putting it all together and just wowing you. One underrated element of his game is his transitions, where he can combine some solid skating and puck handling to find the seams and get the puck into the offensive zone with control.
So what are the next steps for Minten? He was juuuuuuuuuust about good enough to stick with the Leafs in the NHL this year, but wasn't fully ready and Toronto had other lineup decisions to make due to injuries and the cap. So in theory, you'd think one more year of development, physical growth, skill refinement, experience, and all that good stuff would make him almost a lock to be a full time NHLer after this season. But it's a bit more complicated than that.
First, after this year Minten can turn pro and join the Marlies. That's still a good challenge for him where he can practice and develop directly under the supervision of Toronto's skills coaches and development staff. It's not like the choice is between the NHL and junior again. Toronto also isn't the business of just handing a young guy a job in the NHL – they will assuredly make moves in the off-season to make their NHL roster as deep as possible, and it will be up to Minten to take a regular roster spot right away.
The transition to the NHL on a full time basis is extremely difficult. It's not just adjusting to the level of skill and pace, but also the physical grind of playing a few times a week rather than mostly on weekends. While Minten may be able to play in the NHL, it may not be the best for his development or for the Leafs' NHL roster. If there are any elements of his game that need to be/can be improved still, he could see some more time in the AHL at least to start with. I'm thinking of things like making sure his skills are as refined as possible so he is better able to contribute at the NHL level offensively, rather than just being a grindy low-point bottom six center.
But honestly? I would bet that he follows in the footsteps of Matthew Knies and sticks in the NHL for most if not all of the season. He has the same kind of strengths as far as his off-puck play, and even if he would have more responsibility as a center he's also more likely to be a bottom six guy rather than a top six supporting winger like Knies. The more I watch him down the stretch this season, the more I'm seeing the complete package as NHL ready.