November 31 in 31: Toronto Maple Leafs

Hayden Soboleski

2020-11-26

The 31-in-31 Offseason Series is an annual event here at DobberProspects! Every day in November we will be bringing you a complete breakdown of a team’s draft and insights into their off-season movements thus far. Following this up, the December 31-in-31 Series will dive into every team’s prospect depth charts with fantasy insights and implications for the upcoming seasons. Check back often, because we plan on filling your hockey withdrawal needs until the season begins!

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Toronto entered the off-season with playoff disappointment once again and as a result, we’ve seen plenty of change. The locker room will feature many new faces in both big and small roles. The vibe isn’t all negative though, because, at the end of the day, the club still sports one of the most potent offenses in the league and will have expectations to finally make a long playoff run. With a cap crunch in place, many returning and incoming players accepted bargain deals to stay in town and be a part of the solution, which is always a positive sign for an organization. And on top of all of this, the Leafs entered the Entry Draft with a first-round-pick and plenty more after that to keep the cupboards stocked as the quest for a championship continues.

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DRAFT RECAP

Round 1, 15th overall: Rodion Amirov, LW

Amirov is a highly-skilled two-way winger who is already amid his second KHL campaign, despite recently turning 19-years-old. He doesn’t have elite hands or speed, but he’s smart and talented enough to move the puck from end-to-end without issue. He recently represented Team Russia at the 2020 Karjala Cup and was named the top forward of the tournament. He could stand to put on a few pounds and gain some foot speed, but he’s got all the tools to be a great play-driver against top competition. He could push for a spot on the Leafs as soon as 2022, depending on the outcome of his current KHL contract extension negotiations. He will play a big role for Team Russia at the upcoming WJCs.

Round 2, 59th overall: Roni Hirvonen, LW

In the second round, the Leafs picked Hirvonen, another draftee already playing against men. He’s a smart two-way center, developing with defense in focus. That being said, he has a knack to reach high-danger areas and make smart plays focused on high-danger opportunities. He should continue stewing in Liiga for a few more years before we see him as a North American pro.

Round 3, 64th overall: Topi Niemela, RD

Niemela is a modern-day “defensive” defender. He’s smart and can break up plays with ease, but has enough skating and puck skills to smoothly transition the play out of his own end himself or with help. He is most effective with the puck on his stick, but still has some maturing to do, both mentally and physically as a 163 lb, 18-year-old. Like the first two picks above, he is already playing professionally (and like Hirvonen, in Liiga). He is great value in the third round but is still a slow-cooker.

Round 4, 105th overall: Artur Ahktyamov, G

Ahktyamov is a 6-2 netminder, who put up outstanding numbers in the MHL in his draft year and prior. So far in 2020-21, he’s been split between the MHL, VHL, and top-tier KHL and is showing well considering his carousel of work. He isn’t a particularly calm or technical goalie, but his numbers in the lower levels leave little to prove, so we will wait patiently to see how he fares against tougher shooters once he earns more KHL time. Like most goalies in the draft, don’t hold your breath, but the upside is there. He is on Team Russia for the upcoming WJCs but won’t see much action behind Askarov.

Round 4, 122nd overall: William Villeneuve, RD

Villeneuve is one of the highest-upside picks of Toronto’s draft. The QMJHL defenseman (now the captain of St. John) loves to join the rush and puts up impressive point totals. Despite his love to join the play, however, he needs more speed and a more efficient stride if he’s going to play big minutes at the pro-level. As well, he has little to no physicality and his defensive game leaves a lot to be desired. He will have his biggest role so far this season and it will be fascinating to see if he will continue to try and outgun his opponents, or if he will focus more on finer defensive details.

Round 5, 137th overall: Dmitri Ovchinnikov, C

The Leafs traded up to this position in order to take Ovchinnikov, which means they clearly like what they see. He has a lot of raw talent but can sometimes try and do it all himself, rather than properly utilize his teammates and support. He had a strong draft year, starting in the bottom-six and ending up at the top of his MHL lineup. Now fighting for a KHL role in 2020-21, his minutes are small and he’s already sustained at least one undisclosed injury that kept him out of action. He can be a bit too reckless given his slight frame. Another long-term project.

Round 6, 168th overall: Veeti Miettinen, RW

Miettinen’s height (5-9) is likely the reason he fell further than expected in the draft. He’s got a great shot and goal-scoring is always valuable, but so far it’s only been shown in a relatively low-tier league. He transferred from the Finnish Jr. league to play North American NCAA hockey for 2020-21, but has yet to begin as St. Cloud State’s season is delayed. He has higher raw talent than his draft position would indicate.

Round 6, 177th overall: Alex Rindell, RD

An offensive defender, whose bread and butter is a big shot from the point. He’s not exactly a prime example of defense in his own zone. Like Villeneuve, he’s a relatively poor skater, who will need lots of work to make it to the pro-level. Still, he seems to be sticking in the top Finnish league and producing as a 20-year-old, which isn’t a bad thing at all.

Round 6, 180th overall: Joe Miller, C

Another small prospect at 5-9, who may have fallen in the draft as a result. He’s coming out of an easier league in the Minnesota high school circuit, so his draft year stats of 59 points in 25 games requires a grain of salt. He’s got a great shot and is at the young end of the draft class, so there is lots of time to grow. He’s playing in the USHL for 2020-21 and is committed to the University of Minnesota after that.

Round 7, 189th John Fusco, RD

A second-year draft-eligible defenseman that was originally going to Harvard for the 2020-21 campaign, but is now playing in the USHL due to the Ivy League’s shutdown. Like Miller, he put up decent points in high school hockey.

Round 7, 195th overall: Wyatt Schingoethe, C

Another player at the young end of the draft. He took a big step production-wise in the USHL in his draft year and is back for one more campaign before heading to the University of Denver in 2021-22. He’s already a big kid (5-11, 201 lbs), so he could be physically ready to jump into the NCAA in a meaningful role.

Round 7, 213th overall: Ryan Tverberg, C

Another big producer from a low-level league. He spent his draft year in the OJHL and was supposed to be heading to Harvard alongside Fusco, but has had to change his plans. He’s transferred to the BCHL for 2020-21 and will head to the University of Connecticut next year.

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OFFSEASON MOVES

RE-SIGNED: Travis Dermott, Ilya Mikheyev, Jason Spezza, Martin Marincin, Denis Malgin

IN: TJ Brodie, Mikko Lehtonen, Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, Jimmy Vesey, Zach Bogosian, Alexander Barabanov, Joey Anderson, Travis Boyd, Filip Hallander, Aaron Dell, Michael Hutchinson, David Warsofsky

OUT: Kyle Clifford, Tyson Barrie, Cody Ceci, Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, Jesper Lindgren, Pontus Aberg, Kasimir Kaskisuo

Unsurprisingly, the re-signings all came on cheap deals. Mikheyev filed for arbitration, but settled in advance for 1.645M for two-years, eating up a top-nine spot. Spezza re-upped at 700k to remain a solid bottom-six and PP2 contributor. Dermott took a surprising discount at 874k for one-year, essentially to prevent himself from being traded away. He should slot in on the third-pairing, despite the tough competition. Marincin also signed a cheap deal to keep the role of designated injury fill-in. Malgin is back as well but will be hard-pressed to be more than a 13th or 14th forward.

The biggest excitement came via trades and free agency. Action item number-one for GM, Kyle Dubas, was clearing cap space to re-sign the back end. Wingers Kapanen and Johnsson were moved out for the 15th-overall-pick (Rodion Amirov), prospect Filip Hallander, bubble prospect Joey Anderson, and AHL defender David Warsofsky. Prospect Jesper Lindgren was also moved out as a piece in the Kapanen deal. Quick notes on the newbies:

– Anderson is close to NHL-ready but the logjam in front of him may mean one more AHL campaign. He signed a team-friendly three-year extension, so he will be tried out in blue and white soon.
– Warsofsky is unlikely to be more than an AHL piece.
– Hallander is a 20-year-old with legitimate middle-six NHL upside, but won’t be getting an audition for another year or two.

With some cap space now available, the Leafs went to work in free agency with all eyes on the back-end. Toronto landed a bonafide top RHD in TJ Brodie at five-million for four years. A slight overpayment, but he’s exactly what critics have wanted for years: a defensively-capable blueliner who can match up against top opponents. The Leafs also picked up a Stanley Cup champion in Zach Bogosian for the right-hand side. Add in the reigning KHL Defenseman of the Year, Mikko Lehtonen (a lefty that can play either side and should handle PP2), and the back end has gotten much better on paper.

The forward corps needed some spots filled with Kapanen and Johnsson out the door, and Dubas opted for some veterans to fill the voids. Joe Thornton comes on a 700k deal, which will probably get paid off in jersey sales alone. He won’t see more than third-line minutes, but there are zero downsides to having a player of his caliber and character in the room to play bottom-six minutes and rack up powerplay assists. Wayne Simmonds probably won’t crack the special teams, but has a role in the bottom-six. KHL signee, Alexander Barabanov, isn’t as big as Simmonds but he’s just as strong of a forechecker and will also bring some energy to the bottom-six on a cheap ticket. Jimmy Vesey was a Maple Leafs target when he signed with the Rangers out of college several years ago, but he hasn’t lived up to the hype since then. He slots in as a probably-solid bottom-six winger out of the gate but his roster spot is not locked in by any means. 27-year-old Travis Boyd is an interesting depth pivot piece, who has been perfectly fine in his NHL stints so far. He’s likely to rotate in and out of the press box, rather than be a full-timer.

Finally, in the crease, Michael Hutchinson returns alongside Aaron Dell to serve as the third and fourth-string goalies in the organization. AHL netminding was weak in 2019-20, so some proven veterans enter the fold, and Hutchinson will fill the requirement of a goalie to expose in the expansion draft. The NHL starting duo is not in question.

Amid the turnover above, the following players moved on to new homes as free agents:
– Tyson Barrie (EDM)
– Cody Ceci (PIT)
– Kasimir Kaskisuo (NSH)
– Kyle Clifford (STL)

Overall, the Leafs got deeper on the back end, both with proven veterans and top-end talent from the KHL. Upfront they are equally deep on paper but downgraded on upside. The newcomers Vesey, Simmonds, Barabanov, and Thornton have lower scoring upsides than Johnsson or Kapanen but are still very good fits for the roles they will play.

This depth will cause pipeline delays. As mentioned above, Joey Anderson is an NHLer on most teams but will be fighting for a small role. Top prospect Rasmus Sandin doesn’t have an obvious spot available on the blueline, despite an impressive audition last season, which means there certainly isn’t one for Timothy Liljegren (whose tryout was less impressive). Nick Robertson looked like a surefire NHLer in the 2020 playoffs but will still have to prove himself to stick in a top-nine role. Given the strange season ahead, he might have an alternative home. Capable depth piece Pierre Engvall has been touted as trade bait within a year of signing his contract extension, thanks to the sheer number of cheaper depth options now available to the club. Yegor Korshkov and Adam Brooks look miles away from a role after getting cups of coffee last year. It is a good problem to have, but surely frustrated a few fantasy owners

A full analysis of what this does to the depth chart will come in next month’s 31-in-31 series.

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Thanks for reading. Check me out on Twitter @soboleskih for up-to-date Maple Leafs coverage and prospect news!

Hayden Soboleski

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