The 2020 Maple Leafs Top 25 Under 25 began this year with a shorter than usual list of eligible players, and now that the voting is closes, we can reveal the unranked prospects. Last year 13 players were unanimously unranked.
The year before, we had 14:
This year there is only seven, but if you consider that the Leafs have six draft picks in rounds six and seven, the list really is its usual size. Late-round drafted players don’t get ranked by anyone much until they’ve had a year to do something impressive. Ages 19 and 20 are usually where players like these get overrated as they seem better than most of the rest of their junior teams. To be drafted at all makes you better than most junior hockey players in any country. But that’s easy to forget.
After a couple of years, the shine wears off these players and they drop back down again. But with a lot of late rounders the Leafs choose, they never get ranked. This year’s unranked is mostly returning favourites from past lists of those no one has ever voted for.
The 2020 Unranked Players
Nikolai Chebykin and Vladimir Bobylev
I’m linking these two players together because they have become curiously paired up, moving from team to team in Russia together, culminating in a trade last December where the pair of them went from Salavat Yulaev Ufa to Traktor Chelyabinsk. They both play mostly on the farm teams of the parent KHL clubs.
They are four months apart in age, and in a few weeks both will be 23. Chebykin was drafted in the seventh round in 2016 as a 19-year-old and Bobylev (or Bobylyov) was taken in the fifth round, also 19.
Chebykin has 13 KHL games played and 141 in the VHL where he scores at less than .5 points per game. Bobylev has 36 KHL games played and 106 in the VHL where he scores at an even lower rate.
Chebykin is likely the better player, but the light between them is minimal and they’ve settled in very firmly as role-players in the VHL who have enough of a tool set to be used as a replacement-level callup in the KHL.
That means they could both play at the low end of the AHL spectrum, or be stars in the ECHL. The Maple Leafs gave both players serious chances, and for a seventh round pick, Chebykin was obviously better than most, but they are unlikely to ever leave Russia, and they’re now looking to crack the lineup of a KHL team that was tied for last in their conference this year.
If they weren’t on indefinite rights, we’d have forgotten they even existed, but Chebykin’s hot junior scoring rate in the MHL, and Bobylev’s decent showing in Canada in the WHL led a few people to think they were better than they were for a short time.
Vladislav Kara and Semyon Kizimov
I’m linking these two together because they’ve become linked in my mind. They have had similar paths in Russian hockey, and Kara is definitely better than our first two unranked prospects. Kizimov seemed to be following along, one year behind in age, until he hit some kind of wall this year.
Kara was drafted in the fourth round in 2017 as a 19-year-old and Kizimov in the seventh in 2018, making Kara 22 and Kizimov a still tantalizingly young 20.
Kara seems to be on the cusp of breaking into the KHL full time as a depth player with some scoring ability. He’s held back more by how good his team is and how willing they have been, prior to the new hard salary cap, to buy in talent to try to win the cup. He’s too good for the VHL, but only marginal in the KHL — the same thing we see here with AHLers who we’re sure are stars in the making, but they don’t always have what it takes to make it.
Kizimov was right behind Kara until this past year when his shooting % went on vacation. He was gearing up to a better showing in the playoffs, but that never happened. He’s got a bigger problem than Kara, in that the club he grew up in has no KHL team, so there’s no easy way out of the VHL. He’s also currently without a contract for next year, so he’s likely trying to rectify that problem and find a team where he can develop and maybe crack the big club.
Kara could likely play AHL hockey very well, but the motivation to do that can’t be high when he’s in sight of a real cup run in the KHL. Kizimov is a little more of a mystery given his age and his bad season.
If you just said, “Who?” sadly you’re not alone. Whether it’s the generic Irish name or the fact he was drafted in the same year as fellow generic Celt Ryan McGregor, he never made any impression on Leafs fans. McGregor is gone, his rights expired, and he was signed to an ELC by Arizona last spring. O’Connell was drafted in the seventh round in 2017, and plays NCAA hockey, so his rights will be held by Toronto for a couple more years.
O’Connell is a defenceman, and put that together with him playing for Ohio State and he’s well off the radar of a fandom largely fuelled by goal video clips. Additionally, he’s averaged 30 games played in his two NCAA seasons, and that’s not much to be making an impression with.
However, he is only 21, and that’s young in the NCAA — he was the fourth youngest player on his team this year. On the other hand, two of those younger players are also defenders, one of whom played more games. With no power play time, he’s not going to get points, and without points, we’re all left not really sure who this guy is or what he brings to the table even in Ohio. Not without digging a lot deeper than is usual, unless you happen to be really into NCAA hockey and the Leafs.
I almost paired Greenway up with O’Connell because they have a lot of similarities, but Greenway’s story is a little different, beginning with the fact he lives in the shadow of his more famous brother Jordan.
Greenway was drafted in 2016 in the third round, and is one year older than O’Connell at 22, but he only has 20 more games played in the NCAA after taking a year out of college in 2018-2019 to go back to the USHL. He then moved to the University of Maine this year and managed to be tied for first in scoring on his team for defenders with 10 points in 34 games.
In much the same way O’Connell is a mystery to all but actual NCAA fans, Greenway seems to be back on track, and that’s about all we really know about him. As of now, his rights expire next summer in August, so by then the Leafs will have more than enough information to make a decision.
None of those six players have ever been ranked in a T25 list, and for all of them, there’d be more buzz about them now if they were really destined for big things.
The story here is one of higher hopes and a longer fall fuelled by injury. Räsänen was drafted in the second round in 2017, and he’s very tall, leading to the reductive argument that he was only drafted for his size. That ignores the reality that he was coming off a very successful year in the OHL at 17, just turned 18. But obviously that prodigious height and reach were part of the attraction for a defence prospect, and he was part of a well-documented trend for the Leafs to draft tall defenders at that time.
With a second good year in the OHL after the draft, our hopes were reasonably high for him and we went from ranking him 23rd to 19th. The caution was fuelled largely and reasonably by his poor skating. He didn’t take up hockey at all until he was 11, and that shows.
Since then, his skating really has improved and absolutely everything else that could go wrong has. He has three goals and five assists since then. Total. In any game, played in any league all added together over two year. The total games played is only 61, a number inflated by at least a dozen KHL games where he was dressed but not played and another handful where he played fewer than five shifts.
The Maple Leafs took a look at him in five unremarkable games for the Marlies, and Jokerit, the KHL team in Finland, seemed to invest a lot in his development, while unable to put him on a farm team that suited him because they don’t have one. He was injured for almost one entire season as well, and just had nothing to offer at the KHL level this year.
He’s moving to the Liiga next year, where he likely should have been since the year after he was drafted, but everyone saw that reach, that tenacity, and a decent set of basic skills, and they thought he was more than the sum of his parts. So far, he’s a guy who peaked at 17.
But he is also 21 years old, and not likely at the true peak of his ability. Is he ever going to suddenly tower over some tiny Swede on the blueline for the Maple Leafs? Probably not, but the range of plausible futures for him is very large, and he needs to play a full season somewhere that fits his level now before we’ll be able to narrow hes future prospects down.
As of now, the Leafs rights to Räsänen are listed as indefinite by CapFriendly because he had moved from Finnish rules to Russian rules by joining a KHL team. The return to the Finnish system next year might change that, but for now, the Leafs have their options open.
And that’s this year’s list of faint hopes. We’ll add to it whenever the draft comes along, and we can be sure we’ve totally learned all these lessons about not believing too hard in someone just because we’ve heard of him.