For all the Leafs get memed for constantly acquiring players with some kind of connection with the Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds, recent years have established a pretty strong relationship with the Chicago Steel in the USHL. They hired their former coach to the Marlies. They hired their former GM as assistant GM, mostly to manage the Marlies’ roster. And Noelle Needham, who was hired as an amateur scout by Toronto, wound up joining the Steel as assistant GM.

In that time, Toronto has also drafted three players who played on the Steel. First was Nick Abruzzese in the fourth round in 2019, next they drafted Joe Miller in the sixth round in 2020, and this year they selected Nick Moldenhauer in the third round. They’ve also signed numerous former Steel players to AHL deals.

On the one hand, that does seem a bit ridiculous to rely so much on players and team staff just because they come from one particular team. On the other, part of the reason why is because the staff share similar vision for how to build a team, and those former players exemplify the players they want to fit that team philosophy. After all, they were the ones to first draft/sign/play those players to begin with.

And that philosophy is usually based on looking for hidden gems among younger teenagers. That often means smaller but skilled and smart forwards. If they’re not the most skilled, at least in terms of flashiness or obvious skill, they make up for it with solid two-way play and intelligent positioning, awareness, and instincts.

Which perfectly summarizes Nicholas Moldenhauer.

The Player

Rather than go too deep into who Moldenhauer is as a player, I will refer to what I wrote in my deep dive into him after the draft. You can click the link to read it if you haven’t already, and if you have it makes for a nice refresher.

But if you don’t want to, here’s the TL;DR: Moldenhauer does not have any true standout skill, but is solid across the board to the point that he doesn’t have any major weakness. His skating, shooting, passing, and puck handling all profile as very good, and could be above average at the pro level in the future — but that remains to be seen. Some of them, like his skating, is borderline elite to me, but that’s a very hard skill for me to assess. His best skill that is admittedly hard to notice is his intelligence. That’s what helps him make the most out of his other abilities, even if they aren’t the best you’ll see for his peers.

Moldenhauer has a very good awareness of where other players are on the ice, and has a great ability to anticipate how a play will develop. Offensively, that means he is good at reading defenses to identify weak areas, and knows where his teammates are/where they’re going to set them up for a good scoring chance. Defensively, it helps him intercept passes, break up plays, and be an annoyance.

Moldenhauer will be a bit of a longer project. He has not announced any commitment for his future in an official way yet, but he has basically said he’ll be returning to Chicago for his D+1 season. He will very likely be one of their top players in all situations, playing on the top even strength, powerplay and penalty kill units. Chicago will be losing most of their top six to the NCAA, but will be revamping with a lot of highly touted, younger prospects. I would suspect Moldenhauer winds up being one of the assistant captains, maybe the outright captain, leading the younger team.

After this season, he’s said he will be picking an NCAA school to join for the 2023/24 season. So we can likely expect he won’t be signing an ELC or making the jump to the Marlies for at least two seasons after that, maybe more. That would give him an estimated time of arrival to the AHL of 2025/26 season at the earliest. Most NCAA prospects, unless they are the top first rounders, don’t finish their NCAA careers after only two seasons. Even Nick Abruzzese, who only joined the NCAA when he was a year older than when Moldenhauer likely will, stayed for three seasons (including the one he lost due to the pandemic).

The Votes

Only one voter did not rank Moldenhauer at all, and that was elseldo — which is weird because Moldenhauer never played for the London Knights. All of the voters who did rank Moldenhauer had him within their top 20 — his lowest rank was 19th, his highest was 10th.

Nicholas Moldenhauer Votes

Josh - Smaht Scouting15
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Polak11
Weighted Average17.00
Highest Rank10
Lowest Rank19
Spread in Votes9

I had him ranked 16th behind older prospects who already had their breakout seasons at higher levels, like Tverberg in the NCAA or Steeves in the AHL. I’ll want to see him have a dominant year (assuming normal health) in the USHL over a full season, continuing to improve on where he left last season off where he finished red hot. I’ll also want to see a good NCAA freshman year after that, before I really start buying into his NHL chances as an impact player. I do think he has a good chance of doing it, but I’m more cautious of him as a junior player who missed so much time due to his injuries and illnesses.

Here’s what the other voters had to say:

dhammm: Moldenhauer looks like one of those smaller sample size bets with a weird backstory the Leafs like to make from the NHL level (e.g. Boyd, Bunting, Gaudette) to any number of draft picks going back to 2016. Both Byron Bader’s and Patrick Bacon’s prospect cohort success models like Moldenhauer especially where the Leafs took him and suggest that he has a good shot to make the NHL in a meaningful capacity.

TomK421: Love a good comeback story, I’m also a sucker for shiny new toy syndrome so I almost certainly have him ranked too high. I really like his skill set though and he sure did go on a tear to end the season. I’m really excited to see how he does next year where he looks like he’ll be a top line guy for our definitely unaffiliated minor league team in Chicago.

Hardev: I’m very hopeful for this third round pick and I think there’s some good opportunities to potentially see him in international tournaments down the line. He was on USA’s U18 team, so that puts him on the right track to reach the U20 camp. He scored a lot, Brigstew’s scouting report on him earlier checked a lot of boxes for me. This is definitely where the list shifts from outside chancers to excitable prospects.

Where do you think Moldenhauer will be in five years?

Debuting for the Leafs214
Developing with the Marlies197
Dominating in the NCAA26
Dropping his rights as a prospect with the Leafs70