We quantify the scientific potential for exoplanet imaging with the mid-infrared E-ELT Imager and Spectrograph (METIS) foreseen as one of the instruments of the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT). We focus on two main science cases: (1) the direct detection of known gas giant planets found by radial velocity (RV) searches; and (2) the direct detection of small (1–4 R⊕) planets around the nearest stars. Under the assumptions made in our modelling, in particular on the achievable inner working angle and sensitivity, our analyses reveal that within a reasonable amount of observing time METIS is able to image >20 already known, RV-detected planets in at least one filter. Many more suitable planets with dynamically determined masses are expected to be found in the coming years with the continuation of RV-surveys and the results from the GAIA astrometry mission. In addition, by extrapolating the statistics for close-in planets found by Kepler, we expect METIS might detect ≈10 small planets with equilibrium temperatures between 200 and 500 K around the nearest stars. This means that (1) METIS will help constrain atmospheric models for gas giant planets by determining for a sizable sample their luminosity, temperature and orbital inclination; and (2) METIS might be the first instrument to image a nearby (super-) Earth-sized planet with an equilibrium temperature near that expected to enable liquid water on a planet surface.