Toronto Maple Leafs reaping benefits of good drafting and development

By John-Eric Iannicello

Spencer Abbott - Toronto Maple Leafs

Photo: Forward Spencer Abbott has been a standout for the Toronto Marlies, the AHL affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Abbott is in his second full season of professional hockey. (courtesy of Abelimages/Getty Images)

The Toronto Maple Leafs strong start can be attributed to the depth they have accumulated over previous seasons. Under general manager Dave Nonis, the Maple Leafs continue to foster the development of their youth in hopes they will one day become NHL players.

At the AHL level, the Toronto Marlies saw a massive turnover of their roster including former head coach Dallas Eakins (now coaching the Edmonton Oilers). The club is built on a foundation of draft picks that have been developed over the last four seasons.

Left Wing

The left wing position in the Maple Leafs system is loaded with pro ready depth that is beginning to push for NHL positions. David Broll, Jamie Devane, and Josh Leivo have already seen NHL-duty this fall appearing in a combined 14 games. Leivo is the clubs top prospect on the left wing and arguably the most highly regarded forward prospect in the system. He has already appeared in seven games with the Maple Leafs this season playing with the likes of David Bolland. The 20-year-old and has recorded one goal and one assist.

Broll is another 20-year-old forward who has played all over the Maple Leafs forward lineup in five NHL games. He has seen time primarily with Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul, but has been given opportunities to flank Phil Kessel when James VanRiemsdyk missed a few games to injury.

Unlike Broll, 22-year-old Jamie Devane has played primarily fourth-line minutes with Colton Orr and Jay McClement. The 6'5 enforcer averaged just under six-minutes of ice time through two NHL games.

Beyond Broll, Devane, and Levio, the Maple Leafs have Spencer Abbott leading the offensive push on the Marlies. The 25-year-old has shown strong playmaking ability recording 17 assists through 12 games while playing on the Marlies top-line. Abbott had a very limited role in one NHL game earlier this season, but his play with the Marlies should have him on the call-up shortlist.

Other Marlie left wing prospects include Jerry D'Amigo and Brad Ross, both who have failed to deliver much offensively so far this season. Ross has already missed a game after being a healthy scratch. While Ross has gone pointless through 12 games this season, he has had a fair amount of chances and should start producing at some point this year. D'Amigo, now a seasoned vet with the Marlies, is again being used in a defensive role with limited powerplay time and has two goals and two assists through 12 games.

Center

The center depth in the Maple Leafs system is led by the clubs recent top pick from the 2013 NHL Draft. Frederik Gauthier has rebounded well from a slow start to the season that saw him tally just two assists through five games in September while going 44 percent on the faceoff dot. Gauthier has since bounced back and now has 19 points through 21 games and is 47.3 percent in the faceoff circle. The 18-year-old is going to need more time to develop, but he possesses an intriguing combination of size and skill.

Other Maple Leaf center prospects plying their trade at the junior level include Carter Verhaeghe of the Niagra Icedogs and Ryan Rupert of the London Knights. Verhaeghe has exploded out of the gate with a strong start to his season. The 18-year-old is centering Niagara's top line flanked by 2014 top prospect Brendan Perlini. In 21 games, Verhaeghe has scored 16 goals and 20 assists. The forward is well on his way to eclipsing his 44 point season last year that saw him selected in the third round at the NHL Entry Draft.

Rupert was returned to the Knights where he has been reunited with his brother Matt Rupert. The 5'9 forward is not intimidating in size, but his feisty play makes him a menace on the ice. Rupert is known to be more of a playmaker and it reflects in his points. The 19-year-old has five goals and 12 assists through 21 games this season.

The Maple Leafs also have two long-term center projects playing at Minnesota-Duluth. Tony Cameranesi returns as one of the clubs go-to forwards after an impressive 34 point freshman campaign. The diminutive forward is off to a slow start scoring only once and chipping in with two assists through nine games this season. Dominic Toninato, who is in his freshman season, is off to a strong start with two goals and three assists through nine games.

At the professional level, the club is led by the recently acquired Peter Holland. A former first round pick in 2009, Holland has been in the Anaheim Ducks system the last few years and should be an immediate help to a Leafs team that is hurting at center.

Further down the pipeline are Greg McKegg, Andrew Crescenzi, and Sam Carrick. McKegg has been the clubs de facto number one center since Trevor Smith has seen time with the Maple Leafs. The second-year forward has three goals in 13 games this season.

Crescenzi has been used in a more defensive role in the Marlies bottom-six. The 6'5 center is also in his second-pro season after spending most of last season playing in the ECHL. He has gone pointless through 11 games this year.

Carrick meanwhile has provided a fair amount of grit for the Marlies and currently leads them with 31 penalty minutes.

Right Wing

The Maple Leafs depth on the right wing is represented by a few interesting names that could pay off big dividends down the road. Fabrice Herzog and Andreas Johnson are two late-round European selections who have done very well so far in their respective leagues, while Connor Brown is off to a blazing start in Erie. Herzog, making the jump from the Swiss league, has joined with the Quebec Remparts. The 18-year-old forward has 14 goals and 22 points through 25 games this season.

Johnson has emerged as one of the top rookies in the SHL this season as a member of Frolunda. The 18-year-old has 11 goals and six assists through 21 games this season. Brown meanwhile sits atop of the OHL scoring race at an impressive 17 goals and 25 assists for 42 points through 21 games. Brown will have the chance to prove his worth as soon as next season as he will be eligible (turning 20 in January) to join the Marlies.  

The remaining right wing depth is represented at the AHL level with the Marlies. Carter Ashton, Tyler Biggs, and Kenny Ryan embody much of the physical characteristics that current Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle adores.

Ashton's chippy exhibition stint saw him earn an extended look to start the season, but was sent back down briefly as well as his play started to fade. In his short demotion to the Marlies, Ashton made his presence felt with two goals in two games playing top-line minutes. With the Maple Leafs he has played a depth role and appeared in 13 games, registering one assist.

Biggs has been groomed in a third-line defensive role seeing time on the penalty kill. The 20-year-old has not been given a ton of opportunity to produce offensively, finding the back of the net once through 12 games.

Ryan has been rehabbing a sports hernia since the summer after injuring himself during training. He has not appeared in any games this season with the Marlies after appearing in 59 games last season where he notched 21 points.

Defensemen

The strength of the Maple Leafs system is highlighted by a number of defensive prospects scattered across different development leagues. The Maple Leafs top prospect Morgan Rielly has asserted himself well as a member of the Maple Leafs, earning himself a spot in the starting six. Rielly has six points through 15 games with the Maple Leafs, averaging 17-18 minutes a night. The 19-year-old is still junior eligible with his rights held by Moose Jaw, but there does not seem to be any indication of him returning any time soon.

Behind Rielly the Maple Leafs boast solid depth with the Marlies, with Petter Granberg, Stuart Percy, and Andrew MacWilliam providing a good mix different skills.

Granberg has had an adjustment period after high praise during the summer had him pushing for an NHL position. The 21-year-old is in his first pro season in North America and has suited up in 12 games with the Marlies. He has scored one goal and a plus-two rating.

Percy has been impressive since camp, and he too has appeared in 12 games with the Marlies, where he has recorded three assists. The 20-year-old shows poise beyond his years and has earned high praise from Maple Leafs management.

Another player endearing himself to management, MacWilliam, who also happens to be one of the clubs more punishing defenders. The 23-year-old is pointless through eight games this year. He thrives in the trenches and is most noticeable when he is laying a devastating hit or making a key blocked shot.

Eric Knodel, Max Everson, and Dennis Robertson are three who make up the NCAA defensive prospect group for the Maple Leafs. Knodel is in his third NCAA season with New Hampshire and is off to a strong start with two goals and five assists through 11 games. Robertson is averaging big minutes with Brown University. The 22-year-old has two goals and three assist through seven games this season. Everson has rejoined Harvard after being suspended from the team last year. He has yet to play this year.

Matt Finn is the lone defensive prospect at the junior level. Returning as captain of the Guelph Storm, Finn is continuing to play his consistent, reliable brand of hockey through 19 games this season. He has five goals and 13 assists through 19 games. Finn was named OHL Defenseman of the Month in October.

Across the pond in Europe, the Maple Leafs have two intriguing prospects in Tom Nilsson and Viktor Loov. Both Nilsson and Loov have made the jump to the Swedish Hockey League this year and are off to strong starts. Nilsson as a member of Frolunda has averaged 20 minutes of ice time through 19 games this season which is good for second on the team. He also has scored one goal and added a helper. He was is currently nursing a knee injury that should keep him out the month of November. Loov has averaged 15 minutes per game this season which is sixth amongst MODO's defenders. He has scored one goal and added four assists through 21 games.

Goaltenders

The goaltending depth is comprised of three goalies playing at various levels. Garret Sparks currently holds the backup position with the Marlies behind veteran Drew MacIntyre. He has appeared in only two games this season posting a 0-3 record. He has a 4.10 goals against average and a .848 save percentage.

Christopher Gibson, who was signed as a free-agent over the summer, is gaining playing time as a member of the Orlando Solar Bears in the ECHL. He's appeared in six games and has a 2.64 goals against average and a .904 save percentage.

Antoine Bibeau, a 2013 selection of the Maple Leafs, has been the Charlottetown Islanders starting netminder appearing in 16 games this season. He has a 3.30 goals against average and a .913 save percentage on the year.