Draft Steals for the Maple Leafs in Recent History

A draft “steal” is a player who was drafted at a surprisingly low position despite their talent. Some great examples of this are Nikita Kucherov (58th overall), Pavel Datsyuk (171st overall), and Dominik Hasek (199th overall). In this article, I’ll be looking at draft picks that the Toronto Maple Leafs made over the last 10 or so seasons that have rather proven to be a steal, or have potential to be.

Connor Brown

Connor Brown was drafted 156th overall by the Maple Leafs in 2012. In his draft year, Brown had a team-leading 53 points through 68 games with the Erie Otters of the OHL. In fact, Brown led the Otters in points in each of his three seasons with the team. Through 63 games in the 2012-13 season, he had 69 points, and 128 points in 68 games played the next season. These point totals were enough to top his teammate Connor McDavid in the two seasons they played together.

After three seasons in Erie, Brown joined the Toronto Marlies and was instantly successful. In the 2014-15 AHL season, which was his rookie season, Brown had 61 points in 76 games, once again leading his team in points. He participated in the 2015 AHL All-Star Game, and was named to the AHL first rookie team. Next season, Brown spent time with both the Marlies and Maple Leafs. He played 34 games in the AHL, registering 29 points. On top of that, he played seven games in the NHL, in which he had 6 points.

Brown played all 82 games with the Maple Leafs in all of the 2016-17, 2017-18, and 2018-19 NHL seasons. He put up 36, 28 and 29 points respectively. Due to minimal space for him in the lineup, Brown never became more than a 30 point player with the Maple Leafs. On July 1st 2019, Connor Brown was traded with Nikita Zaitsev and Michael Carcone to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for Cody Ceci, Ben Harpur, Aaron Luchuk and a third-round pick in the 2020 NHL draft.

Since joining the Senators, Brown’s point production has increased significantly. In the 2019-20 season, he had 43 points in 71 games. He followed up that season with 35 points in all 56 games in the 2020-21 season. Connor Brown has only shown improvement in his 5 NHL seasons. He will be a big part of Ottawa’s future.

Carter Verhaeghe

The Toronto Maple Leafs drafted Carter Verhaeghe with the 82nd pick in the 2013 NHL draft. Verhaeghe had just put up 44 points in 67 games with the Niagara Ice Dogs of the OHL, which is nothing phenomenal, but are respectable numbers. He also had four assists in seven games for Canada at the 2013 World Juniors. In the 2013-14 season, Verhaeghe spent most of his time back with the Ice Dogs, playing 65 games and registering 82 points. He also got in 2 games with the Toronto Marlies, putting up one assist. He spent one more season in the OHL with the Ice Dogs, once again putting up 82 points before going pro.

Unfortunately, the two games with the Marlies would be the most Verhaeghe would ever play in the Maple Leafs organization. On September 17th, 2015, the Toronto Maple Leafs traded Carter Verhaeghe with 4 other players to the New York Islanders in exchange for Michael Grabner. Verhaeghe spent the next 2 seasons going back and forth between the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the AHL and the Missouri Mavericks of the ECHL before being traded again.

On July 1st, 2017, the Islanders traded Verhaeghe to the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for Kristers Gudlevskis. He spent the next 2 seasons with the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL, and was one of their best players. In the 2017-18 season, Verhaeghe had 48 points in 58 games. He followed up that season with 82 points in 76 games, scoring 34 goals along the way. This effort earned him a spot on Tampa’s roster for the 2019-20 season. He only played 52 games in his COVID shortened rookie season, amassing 13 points. It was perfect timing for the 25 year old rookie, as he became a Stanley Cup Champion with the Lightning that season.

On October 9th 2020, Carter Verhaeghe signed a 2 year contract with the Florida Panthers. In his first season with the Panthers, Verhaeghe played primarily on their first line with Alexander Barkov. He had a breakout season, putting up 36 points through 43 games. Verhaeghe’s performance was impressive during the 2020-21 season. Florida certainly hopes he can keep it up, and it’s hard to imagine he doesn’t. Through every level he’s played at, he’s exceeded expectations. His road to the NHL was not short, but he definitely has the skill to make his career in the NHL a lengthy one.

Andreas Johnsson

In the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, the Maple Leafs selected Andreas Johnsson 202nd overall. Johnsson was coming off of a 54 point season through 42 games with Frolunda of J20 SuperElit. Although he was playing for Frolunda’s junior affiliate and not in the SHL, his production was still impressive for a 17 year old. Johnsson spent 3 more seasons in Sweden, all of which he played in the SHL with Frolunda. His highest single-season point total came in the 2015-16 season, when he had 44 points in 52 games.

Johnsson came to North America to play for the Toronto Marlies for the 2016-17 season. He did not disappoint, as he put up 47 points through 75 games. Next season in 2017-18, Johnsson was point-per-game with 54 points in 54 games. He was also a crucial part to the Marlies’ Calder Cup run, putting up 24 points through 16 games. His performance won him the Jack A. Butterfield Award for MVP of the Calder Cup playoffs.

As expected, Johnsson made the Maple Leafs’ roster out of training camp in 2018-19. He spent most of the season on the wing of Kasperi Kapanen and Auston Matthews. Playing top 6 minutes helped Johnsson’s production in his rookie season. He scored 20 goals with 23 assists throughout 73 games that season. He even earned a few votes for the Calder Memorial Trophy, awarded annually to the rookie of the year.

Due to salary cap restraints, the Maple Leafs traded Andreas Johnsson in October of 2020 to the New Jersey Devils for Joey Anderson. Johnsson only had 11 points in 50 games with a struggling Devils team. Fortunately, his past has shown that he is capable of much more. Hopefully he will have a breakout season with the Devils this year. Nonetheless, he has already exceeded the expectations of a 7th round pick.

Topi Niemela

Topi Niemela was drafted 64th overall by the Maple Leafs in 2020. Going into the draft, Niemela ranked within the top 10 of all draft-eligible European skaters.

Niemela has spent his entire junior and professional hockey career thus far with Karpat of LIIGA, starting in the 2016-17 season with their U16 affiliate. Currently, Niemela is playing in the Finnish Liiga with Karpat. He had 7 points in 43 games in his draft year, as well as 4 assists through 15 games in the COVID-shortened 2021 season.

Niemela’s lack of point production is due to the fact that he is purely a defensive defenseman. If he does make it to the NHL, it’s hard to imagine he will ever produce at a much higher level than he already has with Karpat. However, there has been one outlier to his overall low point production in his career. In the 2021 World Junior Championship, Niemela registered 8 points in 7 games with Finland, winning defenseman of the tournament.

It’s hard to say exactly what Topi Niemela’s road to the NHL will look like as of right now, but hopefully he can improve his game even more over the next few seasons in Finland before coming to Toronto. He would ideally play a season or two with the Marlies for development before hopefully joining the Maple Leafs. This is only hypothetical, but it is entirely possible that the Maple Leafs picked up a gem in the 3rd round of the 2020 draft.

Final Thoughts

While it is unfortunate that the majority of these players are no longer with the Leafs, they’ve still had relatively successful careers. Although, all of these players are still very young and have plenty of room for growth. What are your thoughts? Do these players fit the criteria of a “steal”? Does Topi Niemela have potential to be a full-time NHLer? Leave a comment down below.

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