What we learned from Maple Leafs prospects at the Traverse City tournament

The annual Traverse City prospect tournament is an opportunity for young players in the Maple Leafs system to show what they’re capable of against prospects from other teams and possibly move up the team’s depth chart. And over the course of three games against prospects from the Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars and Detroit Red Wings, multiple players did just that. The Leafs finished with two wins and one loss.

With training camp beginning this week and many of those same prospects expected to attend, let’s take a look at what we learned about the most intriguing up-and-coming Leafs during their time in Traverse City.

There is much more to Easton Cowan’s game than he gets credit for: The Leafs 2023 first-round pick led the team in scoring with six points through three games. He spent time both at centre and on the wing in a top-six role. The offence is all well and good, but it’s what Cowan showed beyond his production that warrants discussion. When Cowan, 18, gets beat while forechecking, he hounds players through the neutral zone. His ability to pester players off the puck is actually quite remarkable.

Cowan can fly. He can switch directions on a dime and I felt his work on the penalty kill needs to be talked about far more. His pace and stick work mean he’s got Mitch Marner-esque qualities a man down. And he doesn’t hesitate to move the puck quickly in transition, either.

His puck skills were on display when he blew by players and attacked the goal at will. He can use those skills to quickly move the puck by defenders facing him and then rescue that same puck deep in the offensive zone.

All in all, the big takeaway? He was the Leafs’ best player because there’s a fearlessness to his game that is hard to emulate. You either have that kind of attitude and approach, or you don’t. It’s so, so early in his Leafs career, but I feel comfortable saying this dude has got it.

Topi Niemela is going to be depended on, but has room to grow: I thought the Leafs’ best prospect’s defensive zone coverage could have improved at times in Traverse City. When the play settles down a bit in his own zone, his inclination to play a greasy, physical game shines. He can separate opposition forwards from the puck really well. The simple but effective play comes to him naturally. But when the pace picks up, I thought he struggled at times. Something to keep an eye on as he likely logs heavy minutes with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies this season.

Dennis Hildeby is incredibly calm in goal: The 2022 fourth-round pick doesn’t ever appear to overexert himself when moving his 6-foot-6 frame down to the ice to make a quick save. We’re talking about a very small sample size here, but Hildeby finished with a .931 save percentage through two games.


One question always worth asking about goaltenders as they move to new leagues full-time — Hildeby likely will move to the AHL full-time this season — is how they’ll be able to read shots from better shooters. Like many observations here, it’s worth remembering that it’s early in each player’s career. Yet I did come away from watching Hildeby against Detroit and Dallas feeling more confident about the Swede’s ability to read North American shooters and react accordingly. The Leafs organization wanted him to work on his glove and his touches in this tournament, and he looked to have succeeded. The one time Hildeby’s glove did get beat against the Red Wings was when the Leafs were on the penalty kill, so I’m not holding that one too tightly against him.

There were small but noticeable improvements in Matthew Knies’ stride: He looks like he’s indeed gained a step in his quickness by making his stride longer. Knies was never going to play the team’s third game and he got a break before Leafs training camp this week. Not to worry though, as Knies looked a cut above the competition. His three points in two games after getting a planned game off against the Red Wings were expected.

The composure Fraser Minten showed in this tournament could end up being one of his defining traits this season: There were some players who appeared overtly eager to make an impression in Traverse City. Not Minten. The 2021 second-round pick showed pro-ready qualities including intelligent decisions with the puck, especially close to goal. Minten looked like he always wanted to make the right play, even if it required extra patience. His effort to sustain pressure close to the Red Wings goal ahead of the Leafs’ first goal in the game stood out. He finished with five points in three games.

Off the puck, his ability to strip opposition players also stood out. His maturity means he should make a fine captain in Kamloops this season.

William Villeneuve is entering this season with a chip on his shoulder: The right-shot defenceman’s puck movement was clean and professional-looking throughout most of his shifts, though an errant cross-ice pass did eventually lead to the Red Wings’ first goal on Sunday.

Villeneuve has an eye for the kind of dangerous stretch pass that can quickly change the course of a game. Like many young defencemen, the need for Villeneuve to improve his defensive game is a constant; however, I saw an aggressive stance toward opposition forwards from the right-shot blueliner near the Leafs goal. I’ve long maintained Villeneuve has sneaky size. What I saw more and more throughout this tournament was how eager he was to use that size to get inside of forwards and cross-check to clear garbage away from the goal.

The Marlies blueliner told The Athletic how disappointed he was to not get in any playoff games last season despite finishing second on the team in games played by a defenceman. My bet is he won’t have reason to be disappointed again this season.

Max Ellis may have turned a corner: The Marlies need Max Ellis to have a consistent season, highlighted by improved production. Early indications throughout this tournament are that his work ethic has improved. There was more attention to detail with his puck movement than I saw last season. He also appears more confident in his play than this time last year.

He rarely let his 5-foot-9-frame detract from his game in tough areas of the ice, particularly against the Stars prospects. I thought Ellis showed a peskiness that helped separate him from the pack at Marlies training camp last season, but that dissipated at times throughout the AHL season. It was back on full display during this tournament.


Roni Hirvonen continues to look like a pro: The 2020 second-round draft pick doesn’t hold onto the puck any longer than he needs to. The puck seems to have proper purpose very often when Hirvonen is in the neutral zone. He played with a lot of confidence. The flash in his game has diminished. Instead, Hirvonen is a professional-looking player who looks hell-bent on getting the puck deep and putting skilled players in the right places as soon as possible.

Mikko Kokkonen may be back, for real: The understated but intelligent blueliner had a tough first pro season in North America in 2022-23, but he returned to Traverse City with some size, muscle and, it would appear, confidence. That was clear in how moved the puck cleanly in all three zones. Against the Stars and Red Wings, his deft little plays with the puck in the offensive zone made him look like a completely different player from last season. He led all Leafs defencemen with four points in three games. I’m rooting for him to figure it all out.

Ryan Tverberg and Roni Hirvonen showed the kind of chemistry that could benefit them during the Marlies season: Not only does neither player give up on pucks, but they then transition the puck quickly. Both should be used consistently on the penalty kill under John Gruden with the Marlies this season.

Tverberg, in particular, showed how his ability to intercept passes can lead to offence the other way. He was one of the Leafs’ better players against the Red Wings and finished with five points in three games.

In a best-case scenario for the Leafs a few years down the road, we’re debating which of Tverberg or Cowan is the best puck hound on the big club.

Dmitry Ovchinnikov has the ability to be the most electric Marlies forward this season: The 5-foot-11 winger can dance around defenders, maintain possession of the puck and either find seams for quick little passes or drive toward the net himself. When the 2020 fifth-round pick has the puck on his stick, it’s hard to take your eyes off him, for both positive and negative reasons. He’s supremely talented but can be accused of having tunnel vision with the puck.

The positive? Ovchinnikov using his aggressiveness and quick shot to score 15 goals in his rookie AHL season isn’t out of the question. The negative? He wants to consistently attack the goal but if he can’t maintain possession of the puck, it felt like the opposition could quickly capitalize with a rush the other way.

You want players to play fearlessly in the offensive zone, but I wonder how that will translate against larger, stronger players in the AHL. And most notably: Ovchinnikov has supreme puck skills, but does he have the consistency and maturity to play in a top-six role with the Marlies? And if he’s deployed in a bottom-six role (which I’m betting happens), will his high-risk approach work?

Ovchinnikov remains one of the players to watch in the AHL this season. We’ll see whether that’s for the right reasons.

Brandon Lisowsky is still such a dangerous shooter: The winger was drafted as a shooter in the seventh round of the 2022 draft by the Leafs and he’s been trying to add different elements to his game, as required. But with two goals against the Red Wings and four goals over three games (tops among all Leafs), it’s worth remembering what makes him special: He can rip it, and I can’t wait to see how many goals he’ll pot with the Saskatoon Blades in the WHL this season.

(Photo of Matthew Knies: John E. Sokolowski / USA Today)

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