The Toronto Maple Leafs did well at the 2020 NHL Entry Draft.
I’m not here to tell you that all 12 of their picks are bound to be NHL stars, but I liked each of their first seven picks, something I certainly can’t say about many other teams. I’ll touch on the Rodion Amirov pick at the end, but the majority of this article will be on their next six picks, as I already wrote about why I liked the Amirov pick here.
My process to evaluate their draft class is not exactly rocket science: I rank the players well before we know who the Leafs are going to take. You can find the top 31 of my 2020 draft ranking here, and the 32-62 portion here. Let’s take a quick look at who the Leafs landed, compared to where I had them ranked:
|Pick #||Position||Player||My Rank|
*Omitted due to lack of viewings
Obviously, one quick look at that chart will tell you that I think the Leafs did well in this draft by my assessment. I would have been happy with either one of Hirvonen or Niemela with the 44th pick, but the Ottawa Senators gifted them an extra pick out of the kindness of their heart, which allowed the Leafs to take two second-round calibre players instead of one.
I debated putting Ovchinnikov in my top 62 in the weeks leading up to the draft, but I ended up making him one of the few players on my “omitted list”, as I had only watched him play a few games at that point and I didn’t think I had a good enough read on him to rank him. The Leafs also selected goalie Artur Akhtyamkov with the 106th pick, but I don’t rank goalies, so I didn’t include him in the above chart. That being said, his numbers look good in the MHL, he’s now gotten into a couple of KHL games, and it made sense to draft at least one goalie in the middle rounds.
This is the simplest way to describe Toronto’s 2020 draft: Let’s say a team calls you on draft day to offers you a third-round pick in exchange for a fourth-round pick. Do you take the deal? Of course you do. Do you start planning the Stanley Cup parade? No, but this is certainly beneficial for your team, and doing the little things right will start to add up over time. That’s basically what ended up happening with most of Toronto’s picks: They often took players who shouldn’t have been available at that point.
In a year where Craig Smith signs a new deal with a $3.1 million cap hit, the Leafs somehow got Filip Hallander and the 15th pick for Kasperi Kapanen and his $3.2 million cap hit. They somehow got more for Kapanen than the Islanders got for Devon Toews, and they took the best player available with that pick. They then took one of the best player’s available at both 59 and 64, capitalizing on a bad trade by the Ottawa Senators. Villeneuve probably shouldn’t have been available at 122, Ovchinnikov probably shouldn’t have been available at 137, and Miettinen certainly shouldn’t have been available at 168. Again, we’re not going to plan the Cup parade over this, but it’s tough to complain about much here.
I know very little about their final five picks of this draft, so I can’t offer much of an opinion on those picks. Since two of them went in the late sixth round and three of them went in the seventh round, it wouldn’t take much to convince me that they’re fine selections. As a result, this article will focus on their first seven picks.
I had Hirvonen in my top 31 for most of the year. He led Finland in scoring at the Hlinka-Gretzky tournament last August with five points in three games before spending the whole season in Finland’s pro league. He’s a shifty and talented playmaker with an ability to get to the net. He’s been one of the top players for Finland at international tournament after international tournament over the years. While he’s undersized, his fearlessness helps to combat that.
Hirvonen fell to 40th on my ranking for two reasons: First, he’s undersized with a mediocre shot. While I always saw him as a good well-rounded player, I didn’t think he quite had enough upside to be a top 20 pick. Second, the gap from 21-42 in my ranking was quite small this year. I believe I had every player in that range in my top 31 at one point or another. If you had Jake Neighbours (my 42nd ranked player) over Jan Mysak (my 22nd ranked player), I wasn’t going to say that you’re out to lunch.
If you told me heading into the draft that I could get Hirvonen with the 59th pick, I would have happily taken you up on that offer. It’s a bit of a safer pick, but there’s plenty of skill and shiftiness in his game, and he holds his own against bigger and stronger competition. He made Finland’s U18 roster back when he was a 17 year old, and there’s a reason why he spent all of last season in a pro league.
Hirvonen is an easy player to root for. He works hard, wins more battles than you’d expect for a 5’9″ player, sets up plenty of scoring opportunities for his teammates, and he doesn’t shy away from the dirty areas. He carries similar strengths and weaknesses to Alex Kerfoot, as he’s a solid transition player who can rack up a fair amount of assists, but struggles to beat goalies from a distance. All in all, Hirvonen has a good chance to be a middle-six winger or third-line center. He was a solid selection at 59th overall.
This was a fantastic pick, both in terms of value and filling an organizational need. He fully deserved to be a second-round pick; I actually had him just ahead of Hirvonen. Like Amirov, there’s absolutely no concern that his skating will hold him back. It’s easy to project him as an NHL player as a result.
Niemela’s calling card is his defensive game. He’s one of the few defensemen in this class who would stand a chance at stopping Amirov in transition. He makes life difficult for opposing forwards. Like Hirvonen, he spent essentially all of last season playing in Finland’s pro league — that was a bit of a surprise, especially given his position.
Niemela carries some similarities to Amirov, as he doesn’t have to play on your top power-play unit to be successful and you don’t have to worry about his skating whatsoever. There are tons of players in this draft who you can look at and say, “Well, I think they’re pretty good in junior, but they need to get a little bit quicker to have success at the NHL level.” Justin Bourne of Sportsnet shared his thoughts on this on draft day:
…not guaranteed it was ever a good decision to start to tinker. Don’t get me wrong, it’s doable, tons of examples of vastly improved skaters w/ time and commitment. But failures FAR outnumber those victories.
— Justin Bourne (@jtbourne) October 7, 2020
It’s nice to have prospects with no skating concerns. You don’t have to worry about it holding them back, allowing you to focus on their development in other areas. Niemela is a competent puck-mover rather than a strong one, but he was better than expected in this regard against his own age group at the Five Nations tournament — to the point where I could maybe see him on a second power-play unit someday. I don’t think he’s going to rack up 40+ points or anything, but he’s great at making simple plays that put the puck in the hands of his skilled forwards.
I’m a big fan of Travis Dermott’s game, and the Leafs should be thrilled if Niemela can become the right-handed version of him. He doesn’t give his opponents much space, and while he’s not the biggest player in the world, he’s not exactly small, either. You’re not going to mistake him for Morgan Rielly offensively, but he’s a competent puck mover who’s annoying to play against and one of the better defenders from this draft class.
Niemela started off this season in Finland’s U20 league this season rather than playing in the pro league like he did last year. That’s probably best for his development as a puck-mover. It’s good to get him plenty of minutes with an opportunity to be one of the best players on the ice. For reference, over the past decade, only three defensemen played in more games than Niemela in the Liiga as a draft-eligible player. Mikko Kokkonen, Toronto’s third-round pick from last year, is one of them.
I think Niemela has a good chance to be an NHL player down the road. As all Leafs fans know, it’s nice to have some depth on the right-side. I expect him to make Finland’s roster at the World Juniors, where he could end up being one of the better defenders in next year’s tournament.
A lot of Leafs fans seemed to like this pick on draft day, as he’s a 6’1″ right-shooting defenceman who led his team in scoring last season. I’ll admit that I’m becoming more and more skeptical of how his game will translate to the NHL level, but it’s tough to complain about taking him at 122nd overall. He’s already a top player in the QMJHL He’s not short, either.
Villeneuve is a bit of an awkward skater who needs to get a bit stronger. A good puck mover with a fair amount of skill, he’s racked up plenty of assists thus far in junior. He plays on the same team as Jeremie Poirier — an offensive defenseman who was taken in the third round by the Flames — and it’s a bit weird to see a team that generates so much of their offense from the back-end.
Frankly, I don’t care about point production as much as I used to, particularly for defensemen. I think he’s fine defensively at the QMJHL level, but he’s going to need to get stronger to be a good net-front defender in the NHL level. It’s tough to say whether or not he will ever get there. Maybe Barb Underhill can help him get one step quicker, but he’s got a ton of work to do and I’m a bit skeptical that he’ll be able to adequately defend top NHL forwards in transition.
Again, it’s tough to complain about this pick too much at the end of the fourth round. However, he’s not my favourite pick of this draft class, and I think he got a little bit overhyped on draft day due to his size, position, handedness, and point production. He’s off to a bit of a slow start this season, but I’m not overly concerned about his offensive game. Either he makes significant improvements with his skating, or he won’t be an NHL player. His ability to move the puck won’t be what holds him back. Villeneuve wouldn’t be in my top 62 if I re-did my rankings today, but at 122, this was a perfectly fine pick.
The Leafs acquired a fifth-round pick when they paid roughly $190k of Robin Lehner’s salary to help Chicago and Vegas facilitate a trade at the deadline. They added one of the billion seventh-round picks they had — the sixth last pick of the draft — to move up 16 spots and take Ovchinnikov. While every prospect in the fifth round is a bit of a long-shot, this is as exciting of a pick that you’re going to get at this point in the draft. Despite not playing for Russia at the Hlinka-Gretzky tournament, he was exciting enough for both the Scouching and Draft Dynasty Youtube channels to make a video on him:
As mentioned, Ovchinnikov is considered to be a bit of a late bloomer, as he didn’t play for Russia at any international tournaments, but completely broke out in Russia’s junior league last season. He went from scoring seven points in 40 games in 2018-19 to scoring 55 points in 54 games. He was good enough to get himself into two KHL games last season, and while he’s still prominently playing in junior, he has managed to get himself into three KHL games already this season.
I’ve watched him play in two games since the draft, and I think I prefer him to Villeneuve at this point. He reminds me a little bit of Leafs prospect Mikhail Abramov, as he’s a skilled center who is also a pretty good shooting threat on the power play. Like Abramov, he needs to put on weight and get a bit stronger, but that’s common with most teenagers. He’s got time to do just that. I think he’s a pretty good skater, a good carrier, and boasts his fair share of scoring upside.
It’s tougher to evaluate MHL players who haven’t played in international tournaments, but I think this is a player who should have been in my Top 62. He looks dominant in the MHL at this point, and I think he’d be a good player in the CHL today if he came overseas. You’re getting a lottery ticket in the fifth round, but this is a great lottery ticket. If he played in Canada, he probably would have gotten enough attention to be picked in the third or fourth round. I love this pick.
The Leafs sure liked Team Finland from the 2019 U18 tournament. They took Mikko Kokkonen and Kalle Loponen from that team in last year’s draft and followed that up by taking Hirvonen, Niemela, and Miettinen this year. Miettinen had four points in five games in that event. He was also a good scorer for Finland at the Hlinka-Gretzky and U17 tournaments as well. In the sixth round, I will happily take just about any player who has scored like this in best-on-best tournaments.
Miettinen also completely dominated Finland’s U20 league this year. If he wasn’t going the NCAA route, he would have been playing against men in the Liiga. With 73 points in 52 games, he led the league in scoring by 12 points and led his team in scoring by 24 points. He also led the league in shots on goal by 89, so generating scoring chances wasn’t exactly a problem.
Miettinen is only 5’9″, and he needs to get stronger to win more puck battles. He’s not Mathew Barzal out there, but I think he’s a fine skater who should be able to keep up at the NHL level. He needs to score at a decent rate to hold a spot in an NHL lineup, but he certainly hasn’t had much of a problem doing that to date. A good shooter who can beat you in multiple different ways, he’s a bit underrated as a playmaker because everyone’s so focused on his shot.
Scott Wheeler of The Athletic put him at 36th on his final draft board. While I’m not quite that high on him, it’s impossible to knock this pick in the sixth round. He was probably worth taking a gamble on in the fourth round, and he really had no business being available at 168th overall. He’s easily one of the better players taken from the later rounds.
I’ve been a big fan of Rodion Amirov’s game for a while now. Prior to the Kapanen trade at the end of August, I didn’t think that the Leafs had a chance of getting him. I said back in May that he should be getting more top-10 consideration. I said in July that he might end up being one of my favourite picks on draft day, and I reiterated that in August. Given that he was 19th on Bob McKenzie’s Industry Ranking, I stated that I thought he was the player who was most likely to be a steal on draft day. It’s safe to say that I like the player.
I was always going to be advocating for Amirov in this range of the draft, regardless of who had the pick. When the Leafs acquired this pick in August, Amirov did not magically get worse at hockey, and this did not suddenly become a defense-heavy draft. I’m a big fan of Thomas Harley, a 6’3″ defenceman who went 18th overall to the Dallas Stars last year. Harley would have been eligible for this year’s draft if he was born one month later, and if he was available at 15, I would have strongly considered taking him. Since Harley was born in August instead of September, there were only two defensemen in this draft who I’d take at 15. Both were off the board in a hurry.
The Leafs had no control over the first 14 picks of the draft. If Sanderson was the one who fell, the Leafs probably would have taken him, and we probably would have heard a narrative that they’ve completely changed their philosophy. If Marco Rossi or Anton Lundell was the one who fell, the Leafs probably would have taken them, and we probably would have heard a narrative that they don’t think John Tavares can play center for much longer. If Yaroslav Askarov was the one who fell, the Leafs probably would have taken him, and we probably would have heard a narrative that they don’t believe in Frederik Andersen. In reality, they just took the best player who fell to them.
Amirov was the best player on my board at 15 — by a fairly wide margin. There were essentially no surprises in the top 14 picks of the draft:
Players who should be off the board at 15:
Lafreniere, Byfield, Stutzle, Rossi, Drysdale, Raymond, Lundell, Sanderson, Holtz, Askarov, Perfetti.
Targets: Amirov, Jarvis, Holloway, Quinn.
— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) August 25, 2020
The 15 players listed above ended up being the top 15 picks of the draft. The other 14 players were off the board when the Leafs picked. Amirov was the last man standing. I’m not going to say that they got an absolute steal — it’s not like someone completely unexpected fell to them — but this was a perfectly good pick at 15th overall. I would have considered trading down if there was a big enough offer, but I still would have taken a forward. Barring a great offer, it never really made a ton of sense to trade the pick for an established NHL player, as it made far more sense to shop their 2021 first-round pick rather than the 15th overall pick in a strong class.
As I wrote after the pick, contrary to popular belief, Amirov fits Toronto’s team needs quite well. What the Leafs need, more than anything else, are good players who can provide plenty of value down the road while on their entry-level contracts in order to offset the big cap hits of their big four forwards. The cheaper they can build a good forward group, the more they have to spend on their defense and goaltending. The team also needs to get better defensively, and while some people like to pretend that forward defense doesn’t matter, top teams often have several great two-way forwards. This video does a great job of out-lining his two-way ability:
One of my favourite teams to watch in the NHL is the Vegas Golden Knights. Their lineup is filled with strong two-way forwards who can really drive play, taking a ton of pressure off of their centers and defensemen. Their wingers are strong on the forecheck, strong in transition, and they win a ton of battles.
I thought of Amirov every time I watched Vegas play in the playoffs. His speed and length help him to generate plenty of takeaways, and he’s going to be good on the forecheck once he gets stronger. I love watching him play with Vasili Podkolzin (who went 10th overall to Vancouver last year) for Russia, as they’re both well-rounded wingers who can drive play with their forechecking, puck-carrying, and two-way skill. They don’t need a star center in order to be successful.
Of course, Amirov’s transition ability is definitely his calling card. He excels at driving the puck into the offensive zone with control. Like William Nylander, he’s able to do this on either wing. I don’t think he’s the same calibre of playmaker as Alexis Lafreniere, Lucas Raymond, Marco Rossi, or Cole Perfetti, and I don’t think he’s the same calibre of sniper as Alexander Holtz, Tyson Forester, Jacob Perreault, or Brendan Brisson. But there are no clear holes in his game, either. You can catch a glimpse of his transition skill here:
He’s playing in the KHL, which is a pro league rather than a developmental league, so don’t be surprised if he gets fourth line minutes or is a healthy scratch at times. Let’s just say that the league does not have a long track record of giving big minutes to young players. The OHL and WHL seasons haven’t even started, so it’s not like he’s missing out on a bunch of playing time at the moment compared to other prospects.
The Leafs added a ton of talent to their organization in this year’s draft, which bodes well for the future of their team. They have a real chance of developing 3-4 solid NHL contributors from this class. That’s a great sign for a team that looked like they were going to have just one top-100 pick a couple of months ago. After punting plenty of their non-first round picks in 2016 and 2017, the Leafs have bounced back nicely with back-to-back strong draft classes.
There were plenty of upset Leafs fans on draft day, but they’re probably a lot of the same people who wanted Hanifin over Marner, Fleury over Nylander, and who didn’t like the Nick Robertson pick last year. I also highly doubt that many of them have even seen Amirov play. Signing Zach Bogosian for one year at $1 million is a better idea than using a good first-round pick to try to draft the next Zach Bogosian. If you don’t have good cheap forwards down the line, you’ll need to spend on forwards in free agency, and you’ll end up having less money to sign the next TJ Brodie.
Zach Hyman is a really valuable player for the Leafs. He’s a staple in their top-six who grades out well by metrics like goals above replacement, RAPM, and isolated threat. He doesn’t have to play on the top power-play unit to be successful, he kills penalties, and he puts up more points than you might expect at five-on-five. Amirov isn’t quite the same type of player — he’s not quite as strong and tenacious as Hyman (who is?), and he’s a much better transition player — but I think he can one day replace Hyman as Toronto’s cheap but effective top-six forward.
Amirov was the best player available at 15. Hirvonen and Niemela both would have been solid picks at 44; the Leafs ended up with both of them. Akhtynamov looks like a perfectly reasonable gamble at 106th overall. Villeneuve is certainly a project, but it’s tough to complain about that pick at the end of the fourth round. Ovchinnikov and Miettinen are two of my favourite late-round picks from this draft class. It’s tough to complain about much here.
All in all, this was a great draft for the Toronto Maple Leafs.