The complete Maple Leafs prospect rankings, summer 2024 edition

With the NHL Draft in the books and the Maple Leafs annual development camp underway, it’s time for our annual wide-ranging look at the team’s prospect pool.

This summer it’s been all about addition instead of subtraction. None of the players on last year’s list have since graduated to the Leafs, leaving the team’s organizational depth chart chock full of players who might not scream first-line impact players but could nevertheless become valuable secondary contributors lower down the lineup.

But there are multiple players who should graduate soon enough. With the high-priced talent the Leafs have at the top of their lineup, the need to develop and then play young, homegrown players has never been greater.

In this ranking of the top 20 Leafs prospects, players who are 23 or younger and aren’t guaranteed locks to be on the Leafs’ roster in 2024-25 have been ranked. Their 2023-24 teams have been listed along with insight into how they’ve developed as of late and what comes next. As always, rankings are based on my viewings and insight from scouts and various other coaches and players.

I ranked players based on:

  • Their likelihood of becoming a full-time NHL player.
  • Their likelihood of becoming a high-impact NHL player.
  • Their most recent results, which include developmental strides and statistical production if applicable.

As with last year’s summer ranking, prognosticating a young player’s future is incredibly difficult and things can change, so I placed more emphasis on the third criterion. Perhaps this makes this ranking more of a report on whether a prospect’s stock is rising or falling, but it’s also a fair way to assess where their development is.

1. Easton Cowan, F, 19 (London Knights)

5-foot-11 | 185 pounds | Acquired: 1st round, 28th, 2023

Summer 2023 ranking: 6

Cowan’s OHL season was the most impressive by a Leafs prospect since Mitch Marner, also with the London Knights, in 2015-16. Cowan’s game improved in so many facets, be it his responsibility with the puck or his penalty killing. But it was still his high-end levels of energy and competitiveness in the offensive zone that drove him to being named OHL MVP and leading the OHL playoffs in scoring. Cowan looked almost impossible to contain and doesn’t have anything left to prove in the OHL. The Leafs believe they have a special, driven player on their hands. He should be given runway to make the Leafs next season.

“I think he is going to make a push,” Leafs assistant general manager, player development, Hayley Wickenheiser said of Cowan making the NHL next season. “It is always hard to make that jump from junior to the NHL. He has proven everybody wrong at every level. I don’t put it past him.”

2. Topi Niemela, RHD, 22 (Toronto Marlies)

6-foot | 179 pounds | Acquired: 3rd round, 64th, 2020

Summer 2023 ranking: 1

Niemela still ranks high after his first full AHL season because he feels closer to being a full-time NHLer than almost anyone on this list. Sure, given the way he moved from being a productive Liiga player to a capable defender might limit him to being a No. 4 defenceman in the NHL. Niemela wowed the Marlies by working at everything the coaching staff put in front of him and improving his all-round game along the way.

“We have a high belief that (Niemela) can make the jump,” Wickenheiser said.

Niemela will be an NHL player. His intelligence, creativity and drive are all on just such a high level. Yet given the Leafs’ new focus on lengthy defencemen, I wonder if his NHL future is in Toronto.

3. Fraser Minten, C, 20 (Saskatoon Blades)

6-foot-1 | 194 pounds | Acquired: 2nd round, 38th, 2022

Summer 2023 ranking: 2

Minten was in a good spot with the Blades this season as he jumped into a leadership role very quickly. Minten added more offence to his all-round game, but he still needs to add more creativity with the puck to move from a fourth-line centre to a third-line NHL role. He should benefit by playing in all situations in the AHL next season. Even if his ceiling feels low for a player this high up a list, his intangibles — composure and leadership among them — make him capable of wearing a letter for the Leafs down the line.

4. Ben Danford, RHD, 18 (Oshawa Generals)

6-foot-1 | 194 pounds | Acquired: 1st round, 31st, 2024

Summer 2023 ranking: NA

Danford already feels like a pro. He is responsible with the puck and never puts his team in harm’s way. He can wear opposing teams down with his patience, physicality and detail-oriented stick and body positioning. Danford will eat pucks and play through pain in a way that makes him a natural leader. Sure, a little more offence next season in the OHL might help. But he still has all the hallmarks of the kind of defenceman the Leafs covet every season.

GettyImages 2068301643 scaled e1720216064423

The Leafs’ goaltending pipeline looks much more promising after Dennis Hildeby’s decisive rookie AHL season. (Gavin Napier / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

6-foot-7 | 222 pounds | Acquired: 4th round, 122th, 2022

Summer 2023 ranking: 5

The Leafs’ goaltending pipeline looks much more promising after Hildeby’s decisive rookie AHL season. Blending impressive athleticism for a big man and the kind of stoicism most teams want in a goalie, should Hildeby continue his upward trajectory as the Marlies’ full-time starter this season, NHL starts aren’t out of the question in 2025.

6. Nikita Grebenkin, 21, F (Metallurg Magnitogorsk)

6-foot-2 | 192 pounds | Acquired: 5th round, 135th, 2022

Summer 2023 ranking: 16

Everything changed for Grebenkin in his second full KHL season. He finished third among players aged 21 and under with 41 points in 67 games. Grebenkin is a driving, straight-line player who executes with the puck. To do so consistently against men was the reason for his ascent on this list. When you add in a newfound physical edge, he looked more and more like a player with a possible NHL future. Grebenkin is a unicorn in the Leafs system.

“He’s shown he’ll fight a couple times this year. He’ll go into the tough areas. He’s a bit of an atypical skilled Russian player in that he has a real edge to him, which is something that’s really unique,” Wickenheiser said.

7. Artur Akhtyamov, 22, G (AK Bars Kazan/Neftyanik Almetievsk)

6-foot-1 | 168 pounds | Acquired: 4th round, 106th, 2020

Summer 2023 ranking: 11

A remarkable season for Akhtyamov: his .921 save percentage in 17 KHL games as a young player was one thing. But the way he consistently shut down shooters in the VHL playoffs en route to a championship and being named playoff MVP with a .932 save percentage through 21 postseason games was the real feather in his cap. Akhtyamov possesses athletic movement and an excellent glove hand to produce highlight-reel saves. I’d like to see him settle his game down just slightly, but knowing the athleticism is there should nevertheless help him with the Marlies this season. The Leafs’ goaltending future might be in a really good place.

8. Roni Hirvonen, C/RW, 22 (Toronto Marlies)

5-foot-10 | 178 pounds | Acquired: 2nd round, 59th, 2020

Summer 2023 ranking: 4

Calling Hirvonen’s season a trying one would be an understatement.

He lost his father suddenly before the season. He then suffered an eye injury that put the future of the highly-skilled and pesky forward’s career in doubt.

“You were just praying his vision would improve. I could see the pain, stress and uncertainty of him asking ‘Am I going to have a hockey career?’” Wickenheiser said.

Hirvonen ended up playing just 37 regular-season games. Calling it a lost season might be harsh, but no one is running from the fact that he didn’t show the steps in his development you would hope for in a standard season. Nevertheless, the team’s belief in his NHL future never wavered.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever met a mentally tougher athlete. He is absolutely nails. That would bury a lot of athletes, but he’s got no quit,” Wickenheiser said. “He’s a real pro.”

On the ice, you see that in his detail-oriented game and the tenacity he shows — both physically and while defending — from shift to shift. His brain and foot speed too should help him become an NHL player.

9. Noah Chadwick, LHD, 19 (Lethbridge Hurricanes)

6-foot-4 | 201 pounds | Acquired: 6th round, 185th, 2023

Summer 2023 ranking: 25

Chadwick was one of the prospects on this list whose game made serious leaps this season. Seen as a raw draft pick, the Leafs quickly inked Chadwick to an entry-level contract, which is a rarity for a player taken in the sixth round. Chadwick went from 20 points in 67 games in his draft season to 56 points in 66 games last season. Chadwick was given the keys as Lethbridge’s No. 1 defenceman and ran with it: His range and vision allowed him to break through opposition forwards and move the puck in intelligent ways. The organization loves his maturity and how dedicated he is to improving. Physicality isn’t part of Chadwick’s game yet, but adding it will be a focus of his final WHL season, where he’s expected to play in all situations.

10. Nicholas Moldenhauer, F, 20 (University of Michigan)

5-foot-10 | 170 pounds | Acquired: 3rd round, 95th, 2022

Summer 2023 ranking: 3

It took time for Moldenhauer to feel comfortable and therefore confident and effective in his first NCAA season. He hit his stride after Christmas when he was able to beat defenders and show the dirty work he’s capable of in the corners. A full season of that next year might do wonders for his development.

11. Mikko Kokkonen, LHD, 23 (Newfoundland Growlers)

6-foot-0 | 200 pounds | Acquired: 3rd round, 84th, 2019

Summer 2023 ranking: 21

Kokkonen entered last season with promise, earning praise from then-Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe as one of the surprises of training camp. The steady but still intelligent defender shook off the unease that came with moving to a new country full-time and moved past a trying 2022-23 season that saw him sent to the ECHL.

“I didn’t have to use as much energy on thinking. I had more energy to practice, to show what I’ve got and I did my best,” Kokkonen said.

The results were evident: Kokkonen’s puck movement was consistently smooth, his decision-making never suffered and he mixed it up when required. He doesn’t possess any high-end attributes, but he should be in line for an NHL call-up this season. There, he’ll have to prove he can be trusted at the NHL level.

12. Ryan Tverberg, 22, C/RW (Toronto Marlies)

5-foot-11 | 187 pounds | Acquired: 7th round, 213th, 2020

Summer 2023 ranking: 17

Tverberg struggled with injuries at times during his first full season with the Marlies. I liked how he never played small and used his tenacity to win battles. He can beat defenders with the puck, but I’d also like to see him make choices in the offensive zone that benefit the rest of the team more often.

13. Cade Webber, LHD, 23 (Boston University)

6-foot-6 | 194 pounds | Acquired: Free-agent signing

Summer 2023 ranking: NA

After a surprise trade to Toronto, Webber spent the end of the season practicing alongside the Leafs and to better understand the pro game. It’s too early to tell if he has an NHL future, but his shot blocking and no-nonsense defensive play should see him log plenty of minutes with the Marlies. If he can end opposition plays with the regularity he did in the NCAA, he might eventually put himself in the NHL conversation. But for that to happen, serious strides will need to be made with his skating, too.

6-foot-1 | 189 pounds | Acquired: 5th round, 153rd, 2023

Summer 2023 ranking: 12

The biggest positive from Malinoski’s first season in college hockey was his reliability: The smart, playmaking centre played in all 35 games for Providence, which doesn’t always happen for freshmen. But the amount of games he played suggested Malinoski earned the coaching staff’s trust and didn’t rely solely on his excellent hands, vision and shot to influence games. That said, Malinoski developed well with the man advantage, tying for first among Providence players with five power-play goals. Next season, more physicality and defensive touches are necessary for his development.

6-foot-2 | 183 pounds | Acquired: 4th round, 122nd, 2020

Summer 2023 ranking: 8

It was too quiet a season for Villeneuve. Yes, there were points throughout the season where he used his size to make effective plays with the puck and his skating to break opposition teams apart. But more often than not Villeneuve’s decision-making was questionable and he didn’t show the kind of drive necessary to push himself higher up the lineup.

16. Victor Johansson, LHD, 18 (Leksands Under-20)

6-foot-1 | 159 pounds | Acquired: 4th round, 120th, 2024

Summer 2023 ranking: NA

The latest Leafs diamond in the rough: After not being listed by NHL Central Scouting, the Leafs’ scouts found the smooth-skating but intensely physical blueliner. He rarely makes the wrong decision, but next season when he’s expected to bounce back and forth between Leksands’ junior and senior teams, he’ll need to continue to bulk up and make those decisions in all situations. The Leafs will need to stay patient, but Johansson might end up surprising people.

6-foot-1 | 187 pounds | Acquired: 5th round, 151st, 2024

Summer 2023 ranking: NA

Holinka can look fearless with the puck, dangling defenders at will and ripping that same puck with force and clarity quite often. He’s a smart player though his plans didn’t always come off the way he hoped with Trinec’s senior team as opposed to their junior team. Holinka was selected by the Edmonton Oil Kings in the CHL Import Draft and it sounds like he will come to the WHL. Points aren’t everything, but Holinka will need to produce consistently first to find the confidence to then begin adding other tools to his game.

18. Jacob Quillan, F, 22 (Quinnipiac University/Toronto Marlies)

6-foot | 200 pounds | Acquired: Free-agent signing

Summer 2023 ranking: NA

Quillan can skate well, doesn’t take risks and has a remarkably strong defensive acumen. That should help him adjust to the professional game in his first full season with the Marlies. The potential is there, given his excellent final NCAA season in which Quillan did it all for Quinnipiac. We’ve seen the transition to the pros be overwhelming for some highly-touted NCAA free agents. It’s fair to wait and see.

19. Braeden Kressler, 21, C (Flint Firebirds/Ottawa 67’s)

5-foot-9 | 174 pounds | Acquired: Free-agent signing

Summer 2023 ranking: 20

A midseason trade didn’t slow Kressler down as he produced 37 points with Flint and then another 37 points with the 67’s. Kressler’s energy-first game will find a home in the Marlies’ bottom six next season, but he’ll need to round out his defensive game as well.

20. Vyacheslav Peksa, 21, G (Newfoundland Growlers)

6-foot-3 | 185 pounds | Acquired: 6th round, 185th, 2021

Summer 2023 ranking: 13

Peksa struggled in his first season in North America. In the 19 ECHL games he played, he allowed less than three goals just six times. Goals Against Average isn’t always a revealing stat, but his 3.57 GAA in his final seven games of the season speaks to a player who couldn’t crawl out of the hole he dug for himself. Yes, the Growlers weren’t a powerhouse (though they were on track to make the playoffs had they not folded toward the end of the season), but Peksa got beat too often on the kind of shots he’ll be expected to stop in the AHL. His professionalism needs to increase and if that happens, Peksa should settle into his on-ice responsibilities, too.

Honourable mention: Matt Lahey, LHD, 17 (Nanaimo Clippers)

6-foot-5 | 203 pounds | Acquired: 7th round, 200th, 2024

Summer 2023 ranking: NA

Lahey remains a wild card because of his age and how early he is in his development. He’s focused on becoming more of an offensive defenceman than a stay-at-home blueliner in the USHL next season and the NCAA afterward.

(Top photo of Maple Leafs prospects left to right, Miroslav Holinka, Nicholas Moldenhauer, Easton Cowan and Fraser Minten: Andrew Francis Wallace / Toronto Star via Getty Images)

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