Hardworking group leads Toronto Maple Leafs prospect awards

By Peter Prohaska

Matt Finn - Toronto Maple Leafs

Photo: Defenseman Matt Finn has been strong throughout the 2013-14 regular season and postseason for the Guelph Storm. Finn was selected 35th overall in the 2012 NHL Draft. (courtesy of Aaron Bell/CHL Images)

The playoffs are still going on for many prospects in the Toronto Maple Leafs' system, while the NHL players had to hang up the skates weeks ago. With the Memorial Cup and the Calder Cup tournaments still underway, Hockey's Future will hand out our hardware for those prospects who distinguished themselves for better and for worse.

Hardest Worker: Frederik Gauthier, C, Rimouski Oceanic (QMJHL)

Frédérik Gauthier's raw numbers probably will not stand out as especially impressive for a first-rounder in a high-scoring league. Gauthier generated a respectable 52 points in 54 games, but for a first round pick this might be a cause of some concern. Some additional offense may come with time and more favorable circumstances since he has some tools to be effective as a contributor. Gauthier gets this award because he performs a tough, less tangible, function for his squad. No one took more faceoffs per game in the QMJHL than Gauthier, and a good portion of those were in his own zone. Gauthier took 346 draws in the Oceanic's 11 game playoff run alone.

The hulking center was called on again and again to generate puck possession and did that on a pretty consistent basis while also checking top lines. It was a solid season of development for Gauthier, and though there are areas for improvement in his game, a defensive leader is something Toronto could use. As Gauthier's skating and decision-making improve further, he could become a key component of a contending club.

Hardest Shot: Eric Knodel, D, New Hampshire Wildcats (Hockey East)

This award is a bit of speculation as defenseman Eric Knodel did not produce as a high-level scorer during his collegiate career at the University of New Hampshire. Much of that may have been due to being on some fairly middling squads. When he did get the chance, Knodel was able to put the puck in the net and had 20 career goals in college. What makes him the recipient of this accolade is that Knodel possesses a giant frame at 6'6 and though his development took a while to get going (including a whole year out of competition) he still has the makings of a blue line weapon. A pretty mobile skater for his size, Knodel will of course have to continue to improve his overall game to have success now that he has turned pro. As teams become more and more sophisticated on the penalty kill, a big shot from the point is often needed to back defenders off and generate rebounds. If Knodel can be consistent in this area, he may carve out a role for himself with the Marlies next season.

Fastest Skater: Jerry D'Amigo, LW, Toronto Marlies (AHL)

Jerry D'Amigo has really come alive in the Calder Cup playoffs, and currently has 12 points through seven games. The 2009 sixth-rounder is in his fourth professional season and has been fairly consistent, though not a prolific scorer. D'Amigo has transitioned into a player who plays a dependable supporting checking role and has the skating ability to fill that role at a higher level given the chance. Although his scoring is not going to be his calling card, D'Amigo seems to thrive in the higher intensity environment of the playoffs and uses his on-ice intelligence and speed to kick up his productivity a notch when it really counts. While others in the Leafs system may have superior north-south speed, D'Amigo is showing that results matter most when they hand out the hardware.

Best Defensive Prospect: Matt Finn, D, Guelph Storm (OHL)

While this award may get lost on the bookshelf behind his other accolades, such as the 2013-14 OHL Championship Trophy for his Guelph Storm and the Mickey Renaud Trophy for Leadership, Matt Finn took strides this year as a defenseman. A player who is often referred to as possessing the whole range of necessary tools, Finn has been notable for his intelligence and personal character on and off the ice. He may not possess the natural physical gifts to play the ice with ease or overwhelm opponents physically, but Finn nonetheless is able to be effective as defenseman with good, quick decisions. Offensively, he may find most of his points coming on the power play at the next level, but certainly passes well enough to contribute on breakouts. This season's 61 points in 66 games included 14 goals so he has real skill.

There is real competition in Toronto's system for playing time on the blue line. The Marlies have a fairly veteran group in place and the Leafs have a very good group of youngsters. As promising a prospect as he is, there is little reason to expect Finn to join the NHL squad next season. Some extra seasoning is all to the good, especially with a short summer for Finn.

Breakout for 2014-15: Fabrice Herzog, RW, Quebec Remparts (QMJHL)

We decided to go out on a limb for this one. Fabrice Herzog came over from the Swiss developmental leagues this season with little notice. He managed nonetheless to put up a very respectable 58 point season together for the Québec Remparts which included 32 goals over 61 games, plus another five points over their first-round series playoff loss.

It is somewhat unfortunate that Herzog was unable to join an undermanned Team Switzerland for the World Championships in order to test his performance against higher competition, but Leafs fans may want to keep an eye on Herzog. He has begun filling out a decent frame, and while he needs to develop his physical game, Herzog's offensive instincts are noticeable.

Overachiever: Greg McKegg, C, Toronto Marlies (AHL)

While one should have some skepticism about Connor Brown's eye-popping performance on a very strong Erie Otters squad, this award goes to Marlies center Greg McKegg. It is not to say that McKegg is incapable of putting up some decent scoring numbers: his 49 goals in 2010-11 with Erie speak to some very good finishing ability. He fell a little back to earth in his next season, though he was productive with Erie and London both. Turning pro full-time in 2012-13, McKegg managed just eight goals in 61 games as he got used to the increased level of competition that the AHL offers. This year, McKegg was one of the really pleasant surprises on the Marlies roster. He finished fourth on the squad in scoring, playing a bigger than expected role in what was a pretty balanced attack. Those 19 goals, while they suggest a player gaining some ease in the AHL, may very well prove to be an outlier based on a pretty high shooting percentage. If not, the 2010 third-rounder may find himself back up in the NHL on a more regular basis next season.

Underachiever: Tyler Biggs, RW, Toronto Marlies (AHL)

It is certainly too early to call Tyler Biggs a bust, but his professional development is in a bit of a stall. One NCAA year and one OHL year may have deprived Biggs of some needed seasoning. Although not always the case, continuity can be key for some young players. Variance in coaching systems or quality of competition can sometimes be disruptive to a player's development, which may have been the case for Biggs.

Since turning pro in 2012 the big winger has struggled to put up points commensurate with team expectations. With just nine points this season, Biggs has shown a decided lack of finish while not really finding a key role for himself. Though the Marlies are a fairly veteran squad, more was expected this season from Biggs. Indeed as the playoffs go on, Biggs has found himself out of the lineup. Whatever happens the rest of this season, the stakes will be ratcheted just a bit higher next season for this young man.

Highest Risk/Reward: Connor Brown, RW, Erie Otters (OHL)

Toronto has been pretty careful at the draft in recent years. While the team has gone for players with high levels of skill (if somewhat incomplete two-way games) such as Morgan Reilly and Nazem Kadri in the first round, it has also selected a lot of players who project as little more or less than third-liners throughout the draft. While one would obviously prefer a competent NHL player over an out-and-out bust, sometimes a team needs take a chance on raw skill. The Maple Leaf scouting staff did just that in 2012, using one of its two sixth-round picks on a somewhat small but talented player in Connor Brown.

This award speaks of risk, and while the Leafs hardly need Connor Brown to pan out the way the team needs, say, Morgan Reilly to pan out, his upside is tantalizing and tremendous. Though it has been pointed out that many guys, such as former Leaf Kyle Wellwood, also had some pretty impressive junior careers before failing to stick long-term in the NHL, Connor Brown seems to have a superior fitness plan. His growth as a person and a player during his junior career speaks to the slight gamble of a sixth-round pick potentially yielding great results in the future. For Leafs nation, getting a quality contributor in a later round would be a welcome change in fortunes.

Prospect of the Year: Connor Brown, RW, Erie Otters (OHL)

For the second year in a row, Brown led the Erie Otters in scoring, and indeed had the most points of any CHL player. He showed that he could score in many different ways and in many different situations, occasionally playing with Connor McDavid (2015) but most often forcing opposing teams to check two proficient lines to little avail. Though the powerhouse Otters eventually fell in the playoffs to the Guelph Storm, Brown had a fantastic personal year unequaled among Maple Leaf prospects. The next challenge is having a summer and a fall to match it.

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