The NHL is almost back: prospect tournaments are wrapping up, NHL players are arriving in their respective cities and Winnipeg, informal skates are plenty. With this time of the year comes the eternal questions of “is [insert prospect here] ready for the NHL?”
For the top prospects, the answer is sometimes yes, but often no. In general, the prospects that make their way into the NHL are older bottom liners who squeak in ahead of the odd veteran. Prospects need a few years to mature and hit some percentage of potential they might’ve had when they were 18 before they can see a chance to make that jump.
I think, with the Leafs organization, there’s a very stark divide between the prospects who can make the NHL and the prospects who still feel a long way away. Part of that comes from a minor disinterest in prospects who play in faraway distant lands like Kelowna or Växjö because we don’t see them on TV very often, if at all. The other part feels like it comes from the Toronto Marlies being so close, and thus, the prospects feeling much closer to the NHL. We see the good/bad and we build our opinions on said good/bad showings.
The PPP Top 25 Under 25 Toronto Maple Leafs prospect rankings also brought to light this divide. Specifically when it comes to who gets ranked above someone else when the two are in completely different phases of their development. For example, Rasmus Sandin ranked between Andreas Johnsson and Alexander Kerfoot. Or Timothy Liljegren right behind them, but in front of Travis Dermott. That all seems quite arbitrary, so how about we clear it all up in a nice pyramid.
Introducing, my 2019 Maple Leafs Prospect Pyramid!
I have split my group of players into six tiers (one through five, then “The Rest”) like is customary in the work of founder, Steve Dangle.
Please note in Dangle’s video, he called Nick Robertson a defenseman. He has since been corrected by plenty of people. Please feel free to pile on :)
However, I have made an update, splitting my pyramid in two: the Pros and the Juniors.
The pros obviously include the AHL and ECHL prospects, but also those kids playing in the top tier of their European leagues. SHL, Liiga, KHL, etc. Those prospects play against men on a nightly basis which gives them as much qualification as an AHL prospect.
The juniors are everyone else. CHL, USHL, NCAA, MHL, and the various U20 and U18 teams in Europe. These prospects play against their peers, and unless they’re top-10 picks, aren’t going to seeing the NHL until they get some time in the minor pro leagues. Third round phenoms like Brayden Point aside, of course.
Generally, I’ve taken the players who have played NHL games out of this exercise. That means Dermott, Johnsson, Kapanen, Kerfoot, Trevor Moore, Nic Petan, Frederik Gauthier, Ben Harpur, and Jordan Schmaltz.
Beyond those nine players, I also took out Ilya Mikheyev, Teemu Kivihalme, and Kasimir Kaskisuo. Mikheyev is 25 and likely going to make the Leafs out of camp. Kaskisuo is also 25 and in hockey terms not a kid anymore.
As for Kivihalme, I’ll be honest I forgot to include him when I made the pyramid at school before erasing it and setting my rankings in stone. He’s 24 and a relative unknown to pretty much everyone. I don’t know enough about him to provide capable analysis of him so I’m leaving him out. If I had to put him somewhere, I’d say he goes at or near the top of the Tier 4 crowd, but that only comes from limited viewing from the prospects tournament.
- No one
- No one
When Steve made his first Prospect Pyramid, he put Auston Matthews in the first tier alone. Ever since, he has stuck to the idea that only the franchise players go in the top tier. That’s where Jack Hughes, and Kaapo Kakko would be if they were in the Leafs organization.
- Timothy Liljegren, 20, RD, Marlies
- Rasmus Sandin, 19, LD, Marlies
When Steve did his first pyramid, he also had Nylander and Marner on their own in this tier. Now, Sandin and Liljegren aren’t quite at the level of those two puck possession phenoms, but I’m not leaving two tiers empty, okay. I don’t know how Liljegren suddenly lost his top-four defenseman pedigree last season. It was probably the power play points. I also don’t know how Sandin suddenly became a top-pair ceiling prospect last season. It was probably power play points.
The most realistic projection for these two Swedish defenseman is likely somewhere in the Leafs’ top-four within the next two or three seasons. It won’t be this season, but that’s okay because these two are both still very young for defenseman. Unlike some in their age group, these two have the opportunity to develop an all-around game in the AHL rather than the NHL. It’s safer down there.
- Nicholas Robertson, 17, LW, Peterborough Petes, OHL
When I wrote about Robertson before the draft, I worried that the majority of points were coming off odd-man rushes and on the power play and not because of puck possession or zone time through good puck retrieval and transition play. Hence why I compared him to Bracco.
I have since been proven wrong after getting to watch Robertson play on a roster that doesn’t get absolutely shelled every night like the Petes did last season in the prospect tournament. He has that feistiness, work-ethic, and awareness I worried didn’t exist previously.
With his speed, skill, and surprising strength in puck battles, his ceiling could be as high as a top-six player once he spends that time getting out of junior and into the AHL. Katya remarked during one of the games that Robertson should be in the AHL next year and not in the OHL. Unfortunately, we’re just going to have to wait for him to turn 20 (or make the NHL) before we see that happen. There’s a chance he gets traded from the Petes — who have been losing players faster than a sinking ship gains water — before the season is out. I just hope he goes wherever is best for his development.
- Ian Scott, 20, G, Marlies/Growlers
- Joseph Woll, 21, G, Marlies/Growlers
- Mikko Kokkonen, 18, LD, Jukurit, Liiga
Until further notice, Scott and Woll are on even footing when it comes to where they stand as prospects. Woll has one year on Scott, but beyond that, not much separates the two young and promising goalies. Both excelled in their respective categories and are making the jump to pro hockey. The ECHL isn’t an awful league to develop in as a goalie. The shooters are generally of the same calibre. If anything the defense is worse, which means more work for the prospect that gets sent down there.
Kokkonen spent his age-17 season playing against men in the Finnish Liiga, he was drafted in the third round (second Leafs pick in 2019) and he’s going to be one of Finland’s defenseman in the World Juniors either this December or next year. There’s a lot to be excited about when it comes to Kokkonen and I think he has as good a chance as any to be a real player one day.
- No One
There’s a bit of a chasm between Robertson and the field when it comes to junior prospects.
- Jeremy Bracco, 22, RW, Marlies
- Egor Korshkov, 23, RW, Marlies
- Pierre Engvall, 23, LW/C, Marlies
- Mason Marchment, 24, LW, Marlies
- Adam Brooks, 23, C, Marlies
This tier contains four players who won’t be top scorers in the NHL one day, but have been very capable AHLers the past few seasons, and one player who is the definition of boom or bust.
First on Bracco, if he can play defense this season (this includes being trusted in those situations by the coach) then I’ll be much higher on him in 12 months time. Last season, he had to be used as a silver bullet to help a below average Marlies team win more games than they should’ve, but it didn’t help him develop in the areas where he needed to improve. It didn’t help him get to the NHL. If that all-offense, no-defense tactic is what he’s going to be in the AHL, he’s probably going to end up staying there. In the NHL you need to know how to play defense and he needs to learn that at 22/23.
As for the other four, I could see them all join the Leafs in the next year or so as a depth or complimentary piece. Engvall and Marchment are gritty fourth liners, Brooks does everything a center needs to do in a good, but not great, way, and Korshkov is a big playmaker who looked great in the prospect tournament and has room to grow as he gets acclimated to the North American ice. They can all play defense, play a role, and pitch in enough on offense that you don’t worry about them.
- Kalle Loponen, 18, RD, Sudbury Wolves, OHL
- Filip Kral, 19, RD
I was on the fence when it came to putting Loponen in the third tier, but he’s still a young defenseman who is moving to a new league on a different sheet of ice this year. Observing that transition will say a lot about his development next summer.
Kral put up a lot of points in his D+1 season with Spokane. He put up a 61% GF% at even strength in 47 games, and 22 of his 36 points came at even strength. He put up similar numbers last year and grew an inch between seasons.
The fact that both these players showed well last season in the leagues they were in separates them from the players below. If they can keep putting up strong numbers at even strength, their transition to the AHL — and hopefully the NHL — will come easier than the others who have to currently play catch-up.
- Mac Hollowell, 20, RD
- Joseph Duszak, 22, RD
- Jesper Lindgren, 22, RD
- Aaron Luchuk, 22, C
- Dmytro Timashov, 22, LW
- Pontus Holmberg, 20, C
On the right-handed defensemen first, I have all three bunched up right now. I don’t think any of them have properly played against AHL competition yet — they were all quite sheltered in their respective stints — but this season we should start to see some separation among them. Early viewings probably put Lindgren at the bottom of the pack — he hasn’t exactly shown that he can keep up yet. I don’t expect these guys to realize a ceiling higher than a third pair so they stay in the fifth tier for now.
People forget Aaron Luchuk in the Cody Ceci for Nikita Zaitsev trade, but he’s a 22-year-old center from Belleville that didn’t have the best rookie season in the pros but showed quite well in games against the Marlies. He had a three-point night in February last year in Toronto so he’s not a total bum. He’s an interesting project for 22, which is ironic since I see Timashov going in the opposite direction despite them being approximately the same age.
As for Holmberg, he played in the SHL as a teenager and was a very good fourth-line center for the Swedish World Juniors team last year. He’s not going to light up the world but he plays a very smart defensive game. If he can develop that side of his game and throw in some offense as well, he could very well be a Frederik Gauthier (but one that was actually taken in the sixth round).
- Riley Stotts, 19, C
- Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, 18, C
- Nicholas Abruzzese, 20, C
- Mikhail Abramov, 18, C
- Mike Koster, 18, LD
So in this group we have two relatively new prospects and three very new prospects.
Last year, Stotts and SDA struggled for offense. Both had believable reasons for struggling — Stotts was stuck behind an overager on a one-line team, and SDA was tasked with all the defensive minutes on an awful Petes team — but I still think they’re on the back foot a year out from moving into the AHL.
Abruzzese was the USHL equivalent of an overager and unsurprisingly put up a lot of points. Abramov put up a lot of assists in the QMJHL, he only had 18 primary points at even strength last year within 54 total points in 62 games. I thought he was quite overwhelmed in the prospect tournament over the weekend, which is concerning. That said, it’s only a preseason tournament, so take it with a grain of salt. We don’t do a good enough job of covering American junior prospects so I don’t have much on Koster beyond his boxcars.
I’m not going to list everyone in this tier because they frankly have a very long shot to the NHL, yes that includes Eemeli Rasanen and Martins Dzierkals. If you’re interested in the list, you can find them all in the Cap Friendly Reserve List.
Which tier is the most absurd?
This poll is closed
All of them are perfect