NHL Draft: Leafs' biggest needs, top prospects

The Toronto Maple Leafs will look to their top prospects, like forward Matthew Knies, to help get the team over the hump and finally put together a deep playoff run. (Getty Images)
The Toronto Maple Leafs will look to their top prospects, like forward Matthew Knies, to help get the team over the hump and finally put together a deep playoff run. (Getty Images)

The Toronto Maple Leafs have a star-studded, and cost-heavy roster. Elite players like Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander, and Morgan Reilly are exciting to watch and difficult to defend, but because of the price tag attached to these players, the development of prospects on cost-friendly contracts for Toronto is crucial. It finally looks like Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren have established themselves as NHL worthy, but there are needs in Toronto’s forward group, and in net. Picking late in the first, and with no second-round pick, Toronto won’t fill their immediate needs at the draft, but they do have some intriguing prospects.

Top Prospects

Topi Niemela, D - Looks to have taken a significant step forward in his development this season. Niemela activates into the rush and finds openings from the blueline, whether it’s distributing to a teammate or a shooting lane for himself. One knock against Niemela in his draft year was a tendency to give the puck up under pressure. His play in Liiga this season, which resulted in 32 points in 48 games, was far more consistent, but he’ll need to continue to make safe decisions while balancing his offensive risks as he progresses toward the NHL.

Matthew Knies, F - Perhaps no prospect within the Maple Leafs’ organization personifies the type of player Toronto needs more than Knies. He’s big, drive to the net, and loves to finish his hits. Knies however, is returning to the University of Minnesota for another season. He’s likely to join the Leafs at the end of his NCAA season and could provide depth and energy for the playoffs. He played for Team USA at the Olympics, and was named to USA’s World Junior team last season, Knies is a big game player.

Nick Abruzzese, F - Unlike Knies, Abruzzese decided to leave school this season and join the Leafs. The Harvard captain is an elite thinker. He sees the game at a professional level and reads his opponents well. Unless Toronto needs the affordable nature of his contract, Abruzzese is most likely headed to the AHL’s Toronto Marlies where he will get to play in all situations. He did get into nine games with the Leafs to finish the season and gained the experience of being with the team in their opening playoff round.

Ready To Step In

After missing significant time due to injury this season, Nick Robertson returned to score 28 points in 28 games with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies but had only a single goal in 10 games with the Maple Leafs. Robertson needs top-six minutes, and there is no room in that role at the NHL level. Robertson and the Leafs need to find a solution, namely Robertson playing a two-way game in the bottom six with opportunities to move in and out of top lines. Another potential fit in Toronto this season is Pontus Holmberg, who since the 2021 playoffs has been on a tear in the SHL. His rapid rise earned the 2018 sixth-round pick a contract with the Leafs. There will be a battle between several forwards to steal a roster spot this season at training camp, and given Toronto’s cap constraints, it would not be surprising to see Holmberg earn an audition.

One To Watch

When healthy, Rodion Amirov is undoubtedly one of Toronto’s best prospects, but how he recovers from a brain tumor will determine if hockey remains part of his future, or if health takes precedence. An elite skater, Amirov has top-six talent written all over his game. With the puck on his stick, a few strides is all it takes for Amirov to separate himself, or often, find himself around defenders. While he focuses on getting healthy, Toronto will provide support and wait patiently, and the rest of the hockey world will cheer for a full recovery. In the OHL, Sarnia Sting forward and 2021 fifth-round pick Ty Voit had a breakout season and the Leafs will closely watch his development next season to gain a better understanding of his ceiling as a prospect.

Needs At The Draft

Toronto has selected the same type of player over and over at the top of the draft in recent years. Typically, skilled, offensive players who aren’t overly physical. While it has worked out in bringing along elite talent, it has not translated to playoff success. If he’s still available, a physical player like the USNTDP’s Rutger McGroarty would be a perfect fit to fill the organization’s desire to remain skilled but become harder to play against. Sizeable Quebec Remparts forward Nathan Gaucher would be another option available for the Leafs. Toronto still has a group of forwards moving into the lineup, so taking another stab at a defender could also be on the horizon for the Leafs. Later in the first round, there will be no shortage of options in players like Seamus Casey, Ryan Chesley, Lian Bischel, Calle Odelius, Tomas Hamara, and Matties Havelid as viable picks.

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