Ranking the Maple Leafs’ top assets ahead of the NHL trade deadline

The Leafs will surely look to add some pieces as they gear up for the playoffs, but who will be sacrificed in the process?

Trade season appears to be finally upon us, and the Toronto Maple Leafs are once again in the thick of things.

Monday’s blockbuster trade involving Bo Horvat removed the most notable trade target from the market as the All-Star centre was traded to the New York Islanders in a three-player deal. Despite that, with the March 3 trade deadline fast approaching, the hot stove will likely remain scorching hot over the next several weeks.

The Maple Leafs are expected to be one of the busier teams across the National Hockey League leading up to the deadline. While general manager Kyle Dubas doesn’t possess much cap space — just $1.13 million in LTIR relief pool — he’ll be looking to provide some help up front and on the backend for his club.

Even with Horvat no longer available, there are still a handful of intriguing skaters available, with the Maple Leafs reportedly tied to forwards Ivan Barbashev, Ryan O’Reilly, Timo Meier, Max Domi and defencemen Jake McCabe and Vladislav Gavrikov.

The Maple Leafs are poised to make waves in the playoffs, but are their trade assets valuable enough to make a splash at the trade deadline? (Getty Images)
The Maple Leafs are poised to make waves in the playoffs, but are their trade assets valuable enough to make a splash at the trade deadline? (Getty Images)

Acquiring any of these players will come at a price — some steeper than others — and may test Dubas’ willingness to surrender his most valuable trade chips. So with that in mind, let’s rank Toronto’s top-five assets ahead of next month’s trade deadline.

1. Matthew Knies, LW

2022-23 Stats: 17 goals, 30 points (28 NCAA games)

Knies, selected in the second round by the Maple Leafs in 2021, is widely regarded as the franchise’s top prospect and has garnered plenty of attention league-wide over the last few seasons. But could the 20-year-old be available for the right price?

Toronto was reluctant to include Knies in any potential trade proposals a season ago, and understandably so, as he tallied 15 goals and 33 points in 33 games during his freshman campaign with the University of Minnesota, earning BIG10 All-Rookie Team and Second All-Star Team honours.

As impressive as the left-hander was in 2021-22, he’s been even better this season, notching 17 goals and 30 points in 28 contests while skating alongside fellow top prospects Logan Cooley and Jimmy Snuggerud on the Gophers’ top line.

At 6-foot-3 and 209 pounds, Knies is the most NHL-ready prospect in Toronto’s pipeline, but he is also the player everyone else wants. That doesn’t mean Dubas should be in any rush to trade him, though.

The Phoenix, Ari., native — who remains unsigned — appears poised to make a significant contribution at the highest level of competition, possibly as early as this season. And for a cap-strapped team like the Maple Leafs, adding a player of his calibre to their roster would be invaluable.

But if the front office has an opportunity to acquire a top-six forward, one that isn’t a rental, parting ways with Knies may become necessary.

2. Topi Niemelä, D

2022-23 Stats: Six goals, 12 points (42 Liiga games)

The Maple Leafs are extremely thin on defence in the minors, with the top tier of their prospect system consisting of talented forwards. There is, however, one standout among the group: Topi Niemelä, a third-round selection from 2020.

Niemelä was considered a fringe first-rounder before slipping to Toronto at 64th-overall and has climbed the organization’s prospect board as a promising two-way blueliner. He broke out offensively during the 2020-21 World Juniors, scoring two goals and eight points en route to winning a bronze medal and being named the tournament’s top defenceman.

The 5-foot-11 righty continued his offensive dominance with Kärpät last season, posting 10 goals and 32 points in 48 games, setting a new Liiga record for most points in a season by an under-20 defenceman. Better yet, his scoring prowess didn’t compromise his defensive impact.

The now 20-year-old hasn’t been as effective in 2022-23, with six goals and 12 points through 42 contests, but has been shuffled down the depth chart following a few veteran offseason additions. He remains a difference-maker on defence, though.

Similar to Knies, the Maple Leafs likely won’t be willing to trade Niemelä at the deadline unless it’s for an impact performer who is under contract beyond this season.

3. Fraser Minten, C

The Maple Leafs' first pick in the 2022 NHL Draft, Fraser Minten has quickly established himself as one of the top prospects in the team's system. The Vancouver native has made a big leap in his third WHL season on a loaded Kamloops Blazers squad, putting up 23 goals and 45 points in 35 games this season after registering 20 goals and 55 points in 67 games a year ago.

The 6-foot-1, 190-pound forward is a strong three-zone player who reads the game at an advanced level, which earned him an entry-level contract — and praise from John Tavares and Sheldon Keefe — after an impressive training camp with the big club that got cut short after he suffered a wrist injury.

“His game isn’t even about points. Like he’s so good 200 feet. Like relentless work ethic. He’s so reliable and his hockey IQ is off the charts," Blazers assistant GM Robbie Sandlan told The Athletic's Scott Wheeler in January. "He just gets things and he just plays such a rounded, kind of pro-style game already. I feel like his game is just going to go to another level, I really do.”

It seem unlikely that Dubas would be willing to part with Minten at the deadline, but with his combination of size and smarts he will certainly be coveted by rival GMs.

4. 2023 first-round pick

Are the Maple Leafs prepared to part with another first-round selection, especially with only five picks — four if Arizona uses its pick swap — available this season? Perhaps. After all, they haven’t shied away from doing so in the past.

Toronto has made eight total draft selections over the previous two seasons, with their most recent first-round pick coming in 2020 (Rodion Amirov), courtesy of the Kasperi Kapanen trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Before then, management traded away a first-rounder in consecutive campaigns.

Dubas traded out of the first round during last summer’s draft, attaching his selection with Petr Mrázek ($3.8 million cap hit), sliding back 13 spots to select Minten, who’s already considered a top-five prospect in Toronto's crop.

The Nick Foligno trade in 2021, however, blew up in the worst way as Toronto surrendered a first and two fourths in exchange for 11 games of Foligno before he suffered a season-ending injury and ultimately signed with the Boston Bruins the ensuing offseason.

The team also traded its 2020 first-rounder to Carolina in the Patrick Marleau salary-dump trade and its 2019 first-rounder to Los Angeles in the Jake Muzzin deal. Given their poor history, they’ll probably aim to be more cautious with this year’s first-round pick.

5. Pontus Holmberg, C

2022-23 Stats: Five goals, 13 points (32 NHL games)

Now it’s time to dive into a few of Toronto’s big-league assets, starting with Holmberg, who’s impressed during his rookie campaign with the Buds.

At 23, the 5-foot-10 lefty has executed the little things while providing efficient defence, earning respect from head coach Sheldon Keefe. He doesn’t make flashy plays, though he has rarely been a liability on the ice and has acted as a reliable playmaker, creating numerous scoring chances for his teammates.

The problem, however, is that Holmberg will be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights this summer, joining Ilya Samsonov and Joey Anderson. And with less than $12 million in projected cap space for next season, the Maple Leafs could be in a tight spot to retain the young centre.

In an ideal world, Holmberg signs an extension with Toronto this summer and opens the 2023-24 campaign as a prominent bottom-six forward. There is no question he’d receive considerable trade interest from across the league, though.

As someone who could help a team in the present and future, Dubas may have to seriously consider trading the sixth-round selection from 2018.

6. Pierre Engvall, LW

2022-23 Stats: 10 goals, 18 points (49 NHL games)

Engvall, an impending unrestricted free agent, is likely to command a raise from this season’s $2.25 million cap hit next summer and could potentially price his way out of Toronto. Even so, the 26-year-old could be a valuable acquisition for someone who can afford his next contract.

The 6-foot-5, 214-pound winger has grown his craft since debuting in 2019-20, registering 10 goals or more in consecutive seasons, including this current one. He has also assumed increased even strength and power play responsibilities, averaging 13:10 of ice time since last season versus 11:56 over his first two campaigns.

Progress has also been made on the faceoff dot, with Engvall winning a career-high 51.9 percent of his attempts this season, an increase of almost 10 percent from 2021-22.

Most importantly, subtracting Engvall’s contract from Toronto’s payroll would create additional financial flexibility for Dubas, likely allowing him to pursue multiple second-tier players or one marquee target at the deadline.

Honourable Mention

Nick Robertson, LW

2022-23: Two goals, Five points (15 NHL games)

Robertson would’ve likely been one of the Maple Leafs’ most valuable trade chips this season if not for a season-ending injury.

The 21-year-old, plagued by numerous injuries throughout his young career, made an impact at the NHL level earlier in the campaign and displayed his offensive potential on a nightly basis. His most notable moment, of course, came when he notched the overtime game-winner against his brother, Jason, and the Dallas Stars.

Teams are permitted to trade injured players, although it rarely happens these days, meaning it’s probably a safe bet that Robertson will still be a Leaf when he arrives for training camp next fall.

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