Earlier today I read an interesting article in The Athletic about Ryan Hardy. No, not the fictional Ryan Hardy from The Following played by Kevin Bacon, I mean the current GM of the USHL Chicago Steel Ryan Hardy.

Now, he is the GM of the best team in the USHL - the Chicago Steel. He is very young, but a lifelong hockey guy and seemingly up-and-comer with unconventional opinions. That general profile might remind you of another 34-year-old, young GM of a certain Toronto NHL team.

In that Athletic piece, he sounds off on a few issues in which he is outspoken, including on drafting guys who get overlooked by various scouts and teams:

“One thing about evaluating drafts, and this is something that I think we’ve had a lot of success with, there are so many players that are overlooked. I think of players like Gunnarwolfe Fontaine, Jimmy Dowd or Mathieu De St. Phalle last year, and Nick Abruzzese is probably the signature version of these. If you look at the (Toronto Maple) Leafs’ system, you probably say of unsigned players, Nick Robertson is one and Nick Abruzzese is two and time will tell if that changes, but that’s where he’s kind of seen. But some teams, 20 teams probably last year, would have said, oh, we’re never going to have that kid on our list. It’s his third year of eligibility and he’s small. But then when you look at him, like, yeah, he’s not tall and he’s quote-unquote, old, but I don’t think he shaves. His body is that of a child. We get so hung up on these, oh, this is where their birth year is, and this player is in his first year of draft eligibility, so he’s younger. But really like the biological age and even like their training age, they’re so different.

A young, smart hockey guy talking about overlooked, smaller, and overage players who go undrafted earlier in their pre-draft careers may also remind you further of Kyle Dubas. Someone who is not afraid to go after the likes of Abruzzese, or other smaller/overage players who maybe took longer to develop.

With that said, and with the pandemic keeping me inside a lot, I decided to look at the list of the top point producers in all three CHL leagues and find the guys who went undrafted last year. I’m looking for any diamond in the rough, though not necessarily just guys who are small.

Players Connected to the Leafs

All of the players in this group were invited by the Leafs to attend their 2019 development camp during the off-season, and who had good to great years back in the CHL.

Xavier Simoneau: QMJHL, Center, 5’7” and 176 lbs

I actually wrote about Simoneau back in January. He is the top point producer of this group with 89 points in 61 games for Drummondville in the QMJHL. That was good for 5th in the whole QMJHL, and led his team by a wide margin. In fact, the second-best total on his team was that of Isiah Campbell (also in this article) with 60 points in 63 games. That’s a 29 point difference.

Even the year before, Simoneau was above a PPG player with 57 points in 55 games, despite being behind the likes of Joe Veleno and Maxime Comtois. Despite that, he went undrafted last year likely due to being a 5’7” center with good but not otherworldly numbers. The Leafs clearly liked him enough to see him up close in their development camp, and then he went out and had a great year. He might be worth a look in the mid-to-late rounds if he’s still on the board.

Marc-Antoine Pépin: QMJHL, Left Defense, 6’4” and 182 lbs

Pépin was not only invited to their development camp, the Leafs actually invited him to their main NHL camp in Newfoundland. I wrote about him in more detail after that happened, wondering what the Leafs saw in an undrafted defenseman who had only played in 23 QMJHL games in his career to that point.

The fact that he only really cracked the QMJHL late in his draft year should make it no real surprise that he did not get picked. However, as I wrote last year there may be reason to think he’s a bit of a late bloomer as well despite being 6’3” (at the time). For one, he was a true beanpole at only 168 lbs — now he’s listed at 6’4” and 182 lbs, so he seems to still be growing and filling in.

FC Hockey wrote a short profile about him in February:

Despite ups and downs during the year, Pépin could be a very interesting option as an overager come June. He is a puck-moving offensive defenseman who showed the ability to control the action and create plays offensively using his excellent offensive instincts and poise on the attack. He’s a smooth skater who uses his good agility and vision to find skating lanes and lead the breakout. He has an excellent mobility, showcasing smooth turns with the puck, effortless edge work and quick pivots. His stops & starts, acceleration and overall quickness are all average at best, but he displayed a decent top speed in transition thanks to his powerful stride. He takes some risks on the breakout, but he is confident in his ability and he handles pressure very well. He always keeps his head up to find passing lanes and open space to exploit. He stays calm and composed in possession of the puck no matter what, helping him take good decision and find plays under pressure. He is very offensive-minded, always looking to jump on the attack and privileging potential counterattack to his defensive positioning.

The rest of the profile notes that he is still a bit lacking in more defensive elements, such as gap control, awareness in his own end, and so on. For what it’s worth, Scott Wheeler saw the same good and bad in him at their development camp last year. That is likely what’s been holding him back, but also might be part of his “late bloomer” development. The Leafs clearly liked what they saw in him, and I was fascinated by his story enough to follow him closely for the whole season. I’ll be curious to see if the Leafs roll the dice on him with one of their six picks in the 6th and 7th rounds.

Tye Kartye: OHL, Center, 6’0” and 185 lbs

Kartye is someone who I noted was an undrafted forward who was invited to the Leafs’ development camp, but did not really write anything about him. He was ranked 173rd for the upcoming draft by NHL Central Scouting back in January, so he does have some late-round buzz about him. He did more than double his first OHL season, going from 24 to 53 points in 64 games. It helped that he got more of a role on a team in transition. Where the year before the Greyhounds were tied for third in the OHL, this year they were sub-.500 and tied for sixth last.

I can’t find any reliable scouting reports on him, but comments from random people online seem to indicate he is a smart two-way player who doesn’t have as much offensive upside. Take that for what it’s worth, but that’s about what you would expect from an undrafted forward pegged as a potential late round pick. Still, he did have a big jump in this season, and he is a Soo player so I think we all know he’s all but a guaranteed Dubas pick.

Nathan Staios: OHL, Left Defense, 5’10” and 178 lbs

Son of former NHLer and former Leafs’ player development adviser Steve Staios, Nathan was listed last year at 5’9” and 168 lbs. That’s not exactly a recipe for a high draft position, especially for a defenseman.

Now listed an inch taller and 10 pounds heavier, suddenly it doesn’t seem quite so ridiculous does it! If he winds up growing some more, we might be seeing another late bloomer on defense who does have some offensive skill from the blueline — putting up 41 points in 60 games with Hamilton and quarterbacking their powerplay. Despite his size and more offensive profile, some have noted that he plays a pretty solid two-way play, physical competitiveness, and overall game.

He’s another potential player for the Leafs to roll the dice on with one of their many late-round picks. If he adds another inch, matures physically and improves his offense and defense some more, that’s amore.

Players Who Are Less Connected but Maybe Sorta Connected to the Leafs

This group is a pair of players who played on teams the Leafs were likely already following closely.

Billy Constantinou: OHL, Right Defense, 6’0” and 185 lbs

Billy has a great name and a hell of a journey in the OHL despite only just turning 19. He was drafted into the OHL by Niagara in 2017, traded to Kingston in his second season, then traded from Kingston to the Soo Greyhounds after only eight games this season.

Despite being undrafted, he had some buzz to his name going into last year’s draft. He was ranked 67th overall by Scott Wheeler, and was routinely named as one of the best undrafted players.

However, there seem to be two reasons for Billy being passed over at the draft. First, and maybe most prominently, seems to be in the raw-ness of his game. He is an uber-offensive defenseman with weird skating mechanics but good speed and agility. However, as you probably expect, there is some question about how good he can be without the puck. He also seems to already have the same sort of stigma on his offensive game that Jake Gardiner had, with turnovers and risky passes.

Second is that, while he had good numbers with a strong Niagara team, his numbers dropped when traded to a terrible (as in last-place-drafted-Shane-Wright-first-overall terrible) Kingston team. Being on a bad team hurt his offense and seemingly put more focus on his weaknesses on defense.

However, after a strong start with Kingston and a trade to the Soo Greyhounds, Billy went silly and finished tied for third on the team with 53 points in 60 games. The fact that Billy is a right-shot defenseman, a hot offensive defenseman prospect, and played for Dubas’ home team, has got the conspiracy theorist in me going.

Brooklyn Kalmikov: QMJHL, Left Wing, 6’0” and 163 lbs

Kalmikov was drafted to the QMJHL 15th overall by Cape Breton, and had a strong rookie season as a 16 year old with 36 points. His next season, during his draft year, was a step back with only 29 points. After 33 games this season with only 23 points, he was traded to the Victoriaville Tigres where he joined a line with Leafs’ prospect Mikhail Abramov.

Victoriaville was starved for offense, with Abramov being a one-man offensive army more than doubling his next closest teammate in points. At one point he had more goals than the next closest teammate had in points.

Then came Kalmikov, who put up 14 goals and 16 assists for more than a PPG page in 28 games as an 18 year old. Now, considering Abramov’s season we can attribute some of his success to being given an opportunity on a bad team with one good teammate. However, what little scouting you can find on him note that he is a fast forward, smart with the puck, and has quick feet. It could well be that he is also a late bloomer who was finally given a chance to succeed on a new team, and with his chemistry with Abramov could be worth a 7th-round flyer.

The Leafs will likely have seen a lot of him as they followed Abramov’s progress, so we’ll see if they came back impressed with his new linemate come draft/development camp time.

Luke Toporowski: WHL, Left Wing, 5’10” and 179 lbs

Toporowski is a giant compared to Simoneau or Oksentyuk, but still a bit undersized compared to others. After managing 49 points in 67 games during his draft year, he hadn’t scored enough to really make up for the lack of size and make himself a hot commodity. This year, however, he came on hot and heavy.

Let’s break his season into two halves of the calendar, the 2019 portion and the 2020 portion. In 2019, he played 34 games and had 25 points. Still not great. Despite that, he was getting some love. In fact, midway through December Kevin Papetti of PPP and MLHS remarked: “He’s in his D+1 year, and the WHL numbers aren’t really there yet, but the Leafs should spend one of their million 7th round picks on Luke Toporowski.”

Then when the calendar flipped to 2020, he played 28 more games and had 35 points while averaging 3.75 shots per game. So, his numbers might be there now. On top of which, Toporowski is apparently a quite rambunctious young man. Here’s a rather colourful scouting report on him:

He is undersized physical player who also plays a hard heavy style. Smart, aggressive and  a disruptive forechecker who maintains balance and stays with the puck. Creates turnovers because of his style and his questionable stick work, as he is one nasty piece of winner. Keeps his stick on the ice in the scoring areas, and attacks the crease fearlessly hard. Keeps ticking after he has taken a licking too. Will pivot and explode with the puck towards the net in one motion. Makes good breakouts out of his end with crisp passes and plenty of mustard. Think of your favorite smaller NHL pot-stirrer…

I don’t know, a guy who has that edge, fearless, high-tempo on offense looking at his shot totals and starting to see his production show up on the stat sheet... I’m with Kevin, I’d love to see the Leafs take a good look at him in the draft. As a teammate of Filip Kral, a Leafs prospect who they drafted and just signed to an ELC, they might have seen a lot of him too.

Players Overlooked Because They’re Smol and/or European

Yevgeni Oksentyuk: OHL, Left Wing, 5’7” and 157 lbs

Oksentyuk is a smooooooooooooooool winger from Belarus who put up 18 points in 49 games in his home country’s professional league in his draft year. Perhaps not so surprising that he was not drafted.

However, he did put up 6 points in 5 games for Belarus at the U18’s and seemed to have skill to offer. This year, he came to North America and played for Flint, an OHL team that also often gets overlooked due to the mess of drama within the team itself and the city in recent years.

All the little Belarusian did is lead Flint in points with 78 in 58 games and averaged more than three shots per game. Not only that, but only 15 of them came on the powerplay — giving him more even strength points (63) than even Xavier Simoneau (61) in fewer games played. Here’s a scouting report written in January 2020:

He is a smaller winger but he doesn’t play like one. He invites physicality and generally sets the tone himself. He isn’t afraid to work the puck to the dirty areas of the ice and win puck battles. He is a relentless forechecker and is impressive along the boards considering his size. Oksentyuk is a puck retrieval machine.

His offensive game is dynamic, unpredictable and consistently dangerous. He has a big shot but can sometimes have a hard time hitting the net. The volume of shots that Oksentyuk takes helps in that regard but working on hitting the net with consistency will be key. His vision is solid and he often makes passes that most players don’t think about making. With that creativity comes mistakes, however. The young Belarusian doesn’t lack for effort, often making up for those mistakes with a furious back check to, at a minimum, break up the play going the other way. Yevgeni Oksentyuk is an interesting prospect who teams will look at to play a middle-six skilled pest role. He has the potential to be a 60-point player with an edge. He will need to get physically stronger but a team willing to bet on that skill-tenacity combination could end up being a big winner.

Oksentyuk seems like the perfect recipe for a guy to be overlooked. Small, a winger, and played in a smaller foreign country not typically thought to be a hockey powerhouse where probably no one ever saw him. Coming to the OHL likely got some people looking at him now, and though he’s still very short and light (almost 20 lbs lighter than Simoneau despite being the same height) his offensive skill seems like a good gamble for one of the late round picks. He’s also a Dan Milstein player, who we know as the agent to Ilya Mikheyev and other Russian players with or connected to the Leafs in the past and present (wiggles eyebrows).

Yaroslav Likhachyov: QMJHL, Right Wing, 5’10” and 170 lbs

The season before Yaroslav came to the QMJHL for his pre-draft season, he had 14 points in 10 international games for Russia. He was taken 17th overall in the 2018 CHL import draft and had some hype around him as he was seen as a potential first round pick. But then he struggled through a rookie season with only 24 points in 57 games on Gatineau, a bad team whose leading scorer had only 51 points in 68 games.

After a disastrous season that led to him being completely undrafted, he was traded to Blainsville where he had a coming out party of sorts. In 60 games, he finished 2nd on the team in scoring with 62 points and averaged 3.6 shots per game.

Now, let’s talk about why he may be overlooked. What’s interesting to me is that he was one of the youngest players in the draft last year. His September 2nd birthday put him less than two weeks away from only being eligible for THIS year’s draft. So his progression, while not being so remarkable as Nick Robertson’s, is similar in that you see a big step forward between his draft year and his Draft+1 season. If he was only eligible for this year’s draft, he would likely be getting more hype than he is now.

Here’s a scouting report from Future Considerations that talks about his exciting qualities but glaring flaws:

Likhachyov is a flashy and skilled offensive forward. The Russian winger is not a dynamic player, but he is most certainly an exciting one. With his incredible hands, he can dangle anybody and it’s just so seamless. He is easily one of, if not the most skill 2019 eligible prospect of the QMJHL. He has a great vision and creates a lot of scoring chances for his teammates by attracting the opponent with quick dangles to then feed his linemates in the slot. His wrist shot is above average, but he uses it with so unpredictability that he sometimes surprises goalies. He has an above average speed, but some great edges and quick turns. The knock on him, though, is his very poor strength. He sometimes gets blocked on his stickhandling moves simply because of his poor upper body strength and he will rarely get involved along the boards. He often cheats on zone exits and he is not very involved in the defensive play, either. Likhachyov has a very high ceiling, but he will need to improve his strength and involvement defensively.

Him lacking strength as a very young draft-eligible player is exactly the kind of thing that Ryan Hardy was talking about. He had skill, but he wasn’t the tallest (also not the shortest) and was very under-developed physically. Combine that with the Russian factor and the QMJHL factor, and you can see how his draft stock fell so hard.

But what if he was born two weeks later, and was eligible for this year? We’d see he struggled in his first season in North America, but came back with a PPG season in his draft year. We’d see him more mature, physically and otherwise, and taking a big step forward after a fresh start with a new team. It seems like this is exactly the kind of player you take with a later round pick.

Extra fun fact: he played with Mikhail Abramov on Team Russia in the past.

Yegor Sokolov: QMJHL, Right Wing, 6’4” and 240 lbs

Sokolov, no relation to the Toronto Personal Injury Lawyers, is the oldest player on this list. He’s also reportedly a very nice young man. He is still draft-eligible for 2020, but he has actually been passed over twice already. He’s also not a small boy like many others on this list, as even in his draft year he was 6’4” and more than 220 lbs.

To me, this might be a case of what Ryan Hardy talked about where teams are less willing to admit a mistake or take a previously undrafted guy when he shows just as much promise as a later round pick.

I’m going to link to a Canuck’s Army profile piece on Sokolov from 2018 to show more depth about why he went undrafted originally (WARNING: LOTS OF GRAPHS). He came to the QMJHL in his draft season and finished second on the team in points with 42 in 64 games. As for why he wasn’t drafted, the TL;DR is basically - he started very strong, hit a wall, got buried lower in the lineup down the stretch. As you might expect from someone young and big, his skating was also a concern. Funnily enough, after his poor rookie year he was invited to the Leafs development camp in 2018.

The next season, he did add 30 goals but was still under a point per game with 57 in 68 games. Maybe not too surprising that he went undrafted again. But this past year was his breakout, as he led Cape Breton with 92 points in 52 games (46 goals and 46 assists), finished 3rd in the QMJHL in points, and 1st in goals despite playing 11 fewer games than 2nd place.

He reminds me a bit of Justin Brazeau, but maybe with even more upside. Brazeau had his big breakout when he was a year older than Sokolov is now. And if skating is still the biggest concern for him, the Leafs have some history working on players like that. He might not be small, but in his case the late blooming development could be other areas such as skating, footwork, and physical coordination to make the most out of his larger size.

I’d love to take a flyer on him, we do need another tall giraffe to replace Marchment and Engvall on the Marlies.

Pavel Gogolev: OHL, Left Wing, 6’1” and 179 lbs

Gogolev is in the same boat as Sokolov — he’s been passed over the draft twice already, but is still eligible for 2020. Unlike Sokolov, it seems like Gogolev’s issue was as much about getting an opportunity as anything else.

He started his OHL career in Peterborough as a 16-year-old, and in his draft year as a 17-year-old the Petes had the 3rd worst record and missed the playoffs. The next season, in 2018/19, he was traded to Guelph in the Ryan Merkley tradem where he really seemed to hit his stride — he scored 9 points in 8 games before breaking his ankle and missing most of the rest of the regular season. He returned in time for Guelph’s Memorial Cup run, with 10 points in 24 playoff games.

This year was his big breakout, finishing 6th in the OHL in points and 4th in goals despite being on the fourth lowest scoring team in the league. He was a one-man offensive machine for Guelph, taking more than 4.3 shots per game and adding 31 powerplay points. Here are the point leaders for Guelph to drive home that point:

  1. Gogolev — 96 points
  2. Hillis — 83 points
  3. Uba (also on this list) — 58 points
  4. Stevenson — 43 points
  5. Ralph — 35 points

His breakout year is enough to put him 105th overall on NHL Central Scouting’s midseason draft rankings this year. He’s another guy who does seem to have some skill, and might be worth a shot with a later round pick.

Here’s a brief scouting report of him ahead of last year’s draft:

There’s no doubting Gogolev’s skill. He’s adapted well to the North American game. He skates well, is aware of the play around him and can get it to the net with pace. Gogolev was injured shortly after being acquired by Guelph and played in just eight regular season games for the Storm, but was a significant contributor when healthy. As a draft re-entry passed over already, he is projected as a late-round pick.

Players with Huge Steps Forward

These are players who were not drafted because they had very poor years in their draft year, but who exploded with huge breakouts this year.

Gage Goncalves: WHL, Center, 6’1” and 170 lbs

First of all, this kid has an A+ name. However, after scoring only 1 goal and 15 points in his draft year, it’s not surprising that Goncalves went undrafted. What maybe is surprising is how bananas this season was, as he had 71 points in 60 games — finishing 2nd on the team with a higher points per game than the team leader. The NHL’s Central Scouting rankings at midseason had him in the 90’s for North American skaters, putting him in the mid-to-late round range.

So where did this breakout come from? At 6’1” and playing as Everett’s top line center, he’s got the height. But you can see some signs of a late bloomer.

First, there’s a matter of opportunity. According to this profile by Everett’s local paper, Goncalves began his WHL career as a winger, rather than a center, and played lower in the lineup. Then there’s an issue he reportedly had with weight and muscle, being described by his coach this season as 165 lbs — you can imagine he was even thinner the season before.

“I think what it is, is that Gage is a smart, smart player,” Silvertips head coach Dennis Williams said. “His hockey IQ is very, very high. … And Gage is a really competitive player. He’s probably 165 pounds out there, but he’ll compete with everyone.”

The Mission, British Columbia, native, along with speed and skills training in the offseason, tacked on 10 pounds to help with the physical battles required to play the 200-foot game at center.

So, his rookie year he started further down the lineup as a rail-thin winger. Next season he packs on some more muscle and the team moves him to their #1 center, and suddenly he’s off and running. What I think will interest the Leafs is that the first trait that his own coach uses to describe him is “smart”, something we know the Leafs like in their players. But he also has skill, as evidenced by his Forsberg-ian shootout goal:

This seems like a strong case of a late bloomer coming into his own all at once, and maybe with some more room to develop. I’d love the Leafs to take a shot at him later in the draft.

Alex Cotton: WHL, Right Defense, 6’2” and 183 lbs

You’ll look at Cotton’s EP page and note that he is a) a right shot defenseman, b) not small at 6’2” and c) had 20 goals and 67 points in 63 games with more than 3 shots per game. That will all get you excited, and wondering how the hell he went undrafted last year??

Well, because he only had 11 points in 54 games the year before, on a team with Calen Addison running the top pair and powerplay unit. That’s why. It’s also worth noting that 31 of his 67 points came on the powerplay on a unit that included Calen Addison and Dylan Cozens. So, take the raw point totals with a grain of salt.

Still, he did also see his shot pace and even strength production take a big jump as well, and has been noted to be a smooth skater with a booming slapshot from the point. Wait a minute... tall, defenseman, big jump in points, PP slapshot, played on Lethbridge...

[Rips off his mustache]

WHO LET ANDREW NIELSEN BACK IN HERE! Out! Get out, we already ruined your career!

Okay, seriously though, a tall right shot defenseman who has some offense to his game is nothing to sneeze at. He didn’t fluke his way to ALL of those points, he had to be good enough to be put on that PP unit after all. He has a sneaky little wrist shot from the point that reminds me of Cody Franson a bit. For a late round pick? Why not, I’d take a shot at him.

Players Who Interest Me

These are players who caught my interest during the time I was researching for this article. They’re the longer of the long shots, but could be interesting as 6th or 7th rounders.

Ben McCartney: WHL, Left Wing, 6’0” and 185 lbs

  • 2nd on the Brandon Wheat Kings in points, with more PPG than the player ahead of him
  • Increased his point totals from 41 in 67 games to 61 in 61 games.
  • Scouting report: “High character winger with a high tempo North-South game that he plays with edginess and commitment. Always opportunistic and smart in the attack zone, he is a good wall player and plays strong on the puck. Defensively sound, he plays with balance but his skating will need to improve.”
  • A late bloomer physically, growing 2 inches and 30 lbs since his rookie WHL year.
  • Ranked 136th by NHL Central Scouting in their midterm rankings of North American skaters/

Nathan Larose: QMJHL, Right Defense, 6’2” and 198 lbs

  • I made sure to check that this wasn’t Nielsen with a French accent, we’re good.
  • He played on some baaaaaaaaaaadd Saint John teams — they finished dead last his rookie year, and 2nd last his draft year.
  • Part way through his draft year he was traded to Cape Breton where he started to come into his own.
  • This year, he put up 17 goals and 37 points in 51 games — the best point-per-game pace of the team’s defense, but only 11 of those points coming on the powerplay.
  • Not just a goal scorer, he can flip some stretch passes too:/

I think there is something to be said for drafting more overagers than teams tend to do already. Once you get past more of the sure things in the first round, it really becomes more difficult to find “sure” things. They’re all just lottery tickets, even if you try and make as much of an educated guess as you can.

The thing is, it’s so hard to project a teenager when they are still growing and maturing — both physically and mentally. There are some guys who will, for one reason or another, not look good when they’re still 17 but who take big steps forward in development. Maybe they get taller, stronger, faster, or develop their skills better. This will happen all the time, so it makes sense to still pick a guy who is eligible in the draft when you have more information on how they will develop — especially if they have already progressed past a lot of guys who were picked in the mid to late rounds, but who had worse years.

This is by no means the definitive list of undrafted prospects who are still draft eligible this year. I originally had 24 names to include on this list from just the CHL but it was, uh, already pretty long. It also doesn’t include any players in the USHL or NCAA (like Gunnarwolfe Fontaine) or in Europe (like Linus Nyman).

So, we’re all stuck at home, let’s argue angrily about who our preferred diamond in the rough is!

Which of these undrafted prospects do you want the Leafs to roll the dice on the most?

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