Fraser Minten makes the Maple Leafs: The fall surprise that (almost) no one saw coming

There were some whispers from within the Maple Leafs player development and scouting departments about the possibility, that Fraser Minten might actually challenge for the NHL team this fall.

That wasn’t the general organizational consensus for the 19-year-old though. The Leafs didn’t expect Minten to be challenging for a job so soon. Why would they of a player picked in the second round of the 2022 draft?

“He wasn’t on the radar at all,” head coach Sheldon Keefe acknowledged on Monday after Minten’s spot on the NHL squad was confirmed.

Keefe liked what he saw from Minten at his first NHL training camp last fall. He was eager to watch him at a prospect tournament in Traverse City. But make the Leafs out of camp? No. That wasn’t something the Leafs coach anticipated.

Minten never tumbled backward at camp though as most young players do. Not when the level of competition increased, including back-to-back nights against a whole slew of Habs in Montreal. Not when the slog of the preseason might normally take its toll.

Minten suited up in six of the Leafs’ eight preseason games, including the final game in Detroit against a full NHL roster.

And so, here he is, an NHLer to start the season, outlasting the likes of Pontus Holmberg and Nick Robertson.

Minten got the call from Leafs GM Brad Treliving to let him know he’d be sticking around on Sunday.

Treliving said something like this, according to Minten: “You’re staying. We’ll see how it goes. Just keep doing what you’ve been doing, and going one day at a time, and earn your next day. Just keep it up.”

What really popped for the Leafs and their coach especially were the pro-ready elements in Minten’s game.

“The foundation of his game, probably more important than anything, is rooted in competitiveness, intelligence, just pro habits and details,” Keefe said, “all things that normally when kids are coming out of junior you’ve gotta spend time to get into their game. He arrives with that.”

Those were the elements that team personnel, the ones on the development side who worked with him closely throughout last season and this past summer, the scouts who saw him play regularly for the Blazers, thought might put Minten in position to make noise at camp.

That, and the Leafs needed another centre. Or at least a centre who might be able to deepen their lineup offensively.

Fraser Minten skates with the puck. (David Kirouac / USA Today)

William Nylander was option No. 1 for that. His awkward, if brief, performance in the middle coincided neatly with Minten’s continually poised play, mostly alongside Matthew Knies. And indeed, it’ll be Knies and Minten, two rookies, playing alongside Calle Järnkrok for the Leafs on opening night.

“He’s so young,” Järnkrok said of Minten, “but he’s so smart out there.”

The NHL pace is there in Minten’s game too. It doesn’t hurt that he’s 6-foot-2 and nearly 200 pounds either. Keefe noted the “tremendous growth” from Minten from last season.

“He’s faster. He’s bigger. He’s stronger,” Keefe said.

Minten celebrated his 19th birthday in July.

The Leafs have nine games before they need to make a final determination on Minten for this season. His entry-level contract would kick into effect after that. “It’s certainly going to be an ongoing evaluation, like it is really for any new player coming in,” Keefe said. “We’re a team that’s competing to win.”

It feels like Minten’s biggest challenge initially, the biggest challenge for most young players, will be holding his own defensively. Teenagers aren’t typically trusted with centre-ice assignments in the NHL for just that reason.

How will Minten acquit himself there against better, bigger, and hungrier players than he saw in the preseason?

It will be interesting to see how much Keefe feels he needs to protect a line with a 19-year-old (Minten) and a soon-to-be 21-year-old (Knies) on it. The Leafs coach is already going to have one line — Max Domi, John Tavares, and Nylander — that figures to have its challenges defensively.

Minten and Knies have both shown a pretty good feel for things on that side of the puck, to the point that Keefe had the two of them killing penalties together in the preseason. It wouldn’t be surprising at all to see them grab the odd PK shift together as soon as Wednesday night against Montreal.

The Leafs also do need a Minten-led third line to produce some offence. That was what drove, at least in part, the decision to move Nylander to the wing at the outset of camp. Clearly, the team feared having two bottom-six lines that produced little to no offence.

Minten didn’t put up huge numbers in junior last season. He did establish an intriguing connection with Knies in camp and showed a real feel for creating opportunities for himself and others with the kind of instincts that ultimately won him a job.

At one point last week, albeit against a weaker Red Wings lineup, Minten batted a puck out of mid-air that was supposed to be exiting the Detroit zone and nearly scored.

As Tavares noted, Minten (Knies too) will have to figure out how to survive and even thrive when the pace ramps up in the regular season. Then, there are the games that come every other day, the practices, and the travel. It can take a toll mentally and physically on a younger player especially, the Leafs captain said.

If it doesn’t work with Minten, the Leafs will be back to square one in the centre space. They might have no choice but to bump David Kämpf up into the 3C spot he occupied for most of last season, and bring Holmberg in to play the middle on the fourth line. That or try Nylander — again. A trade would become almost inevitable.

That fourth line will inevitably include Noah Gregor, still on a PTO but sure to get a contract imminently.

The Leafs will want to maximize the dollars on Monday’s final roster for LTIR purposes, which may mean holding onto a waiver-exempt player (i.e. Easton Cowan) until Tuesday.

It feels like the team is employing the same approach with Gregor as they did with Zach Aston-Reese, another PTO player who earned a contract at the end of camp.

Gregor found the lack of a contract at camp to be extra motivating, “just to know that I have come in and really earn my spot and maybe beat someone out.”

He ended up beating out (or at least matching) Sam Lafferty, which led, in part, to Sunday’s trade that sent Lafferty to Vancouver.

“I’ve done everything that I think I’m supposed to do when I came in,” Gregor said the other day, “just come out, compete, try and play with speed, try and add a little different element to that fourth line.”

(Top photo: Vincent Ethier / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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