The Toronto Maple Leafs have featured a lot of high character, two-way forwards in their prospect pool over the years, but few with pure offensive instinct or elite skill. That is changing with the drafting of high-end talent William Nylander and the progress shown last season from the likes of Josh Leivo, Andreas Johnson, Carter Verhaeghe, and others.
Another significant sign of the improved depth within the system is coming from the blue line, where the Leafs have as many as seven legitimate NHL hopefuls ready to battle for roster spots within the next two years.
1. (NR) William Nylander, C/W, 8.0C
Drafted 1st round, 8th overall, 2014
Nylander’s skating ability, speed, puck handling skills, and on-ice vision immediately bump him to the top of the Leafs prospect rankings. While the physical tools he possesses made him a standout prospect within the 2014 draft class, he was also able to translate those skills into meaningful offensive production playing against men in the Swedish league as a 17-year-old.
That important glimpse into Nylander’s ability will provide the Leafs with an interesting dilemma as they decide on his future development. If Nylander does not make the NHL roster out of training camp, he would be eligible to play in the AHL next season as an 18-year-old. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely he is sent to the OHL‘s Mississauga Steelheads, as Nylander has little left to prove playing against other juniors.
2. (4) Josh Leivo, LW, 7.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 86th overall, 2011
Leivo has progressed steadily since the Leafs drafted him in 2011. Projected as a high scoring power forward, that potential seems well on its way to being realized as Leivo made significant strides in his first full pro season, earning a top six forward role with the Marlies and even playing seven games with the Leafs. A right handed shot who is comfortable playing on the left side, Leivo maintains a strong presence in front of the opposing team’s net, protects the puck well down low, and possesses a goal-scorers instincts.
In the short-term, Leivo is expected to be a call-up when needed by the Leafs during the 2014-15 season. Long-term, he is making important strides towards fulfilling his potential as a top six NHL forward.
3. (6) Matt Finn, D, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 35th overall, 2012
Matt Finn jumps to the head of the Leafs blue line prospect pool after a dominating season with one of the top junior teams in the CHL. Finn possesses strong leadership skills off the ice, plays a shutdown defensive game, and projects to possess enough skill to play on the second unit of the powerplay as a pro.
Despite Finn’s elevated prospect status within the Leafs organization, he will face a battle for ice time as he is expected to spend the 2014-15 season in the AHL. Given the Leafs depth of young blue line talent at the AHL level, they can afford to be patient with his development.
4. (3) Frederik Gauthier, C, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 21st overall, 2013
Gauthier’s 2013-14 season affirmed the expectations Toronto had for him when they selected him in the first round of the 2013 NHL Draft. Namely, a defensively responsible center who can play a shutdown role against the other team’s top offensive players. Gauthier uses his 6’5 frame and strength to muscle opposing players off the puck, although he is not an overly physical player. Those skills were important enough to earn him a roster spot on Canada’s U20 World Junior team last season, albeit in a fourth line role. During the Leafs 2014 summer rookie camp, Gauthier also showed an improved skating ability, which was a necessary improvement to play at the pro level.
Gauthier’s upside projection as a checking third line center with limited offensive upside. If as he returns to the QMJHL for 2014-15, which is likely, he will be expected to elevate his offensive production if he wants to change the perception about his offensive upside.
5. (8) Stuart Percy, D 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 25th overall, 2011
Percy’s strongest attributes as a defenseman are his poise under pressure, maturity, leadership, and solid all round play. He does not excel in any one part of the game however. This lack of a perceived outstanding skill that often defines first round draft picks does not take way from his overall combination of positive attributes. He is a solid skater, calm and poised in his own zone, makes a good first breakout pass, and handles the puck well. Percy is dependable and makes the type of low risk plays that do not show up on a scoresheet. He fits the mold of a second line pairing NHL defenseman.
Percy is likely headed back to the Marlies for a second season in 2014-15, but should be in consideration for his first NHL experience with the Leafs should the need arise.
6. (5) Connor Brown, RW, 7.0C
Drafted 6th round, 156th overall, 2012
It is hard to imagine a transformation that would take a player from 53 points and a minus-77 rating, to 128 points and a plus-44 in just two seasons. But that is exactly what Connor Brown did from the year he was drafted by the Leafs in 2012, to last season when he won the CHL scoring title and was named the OHL’s Most Outstanding Player. While it is fairly common for small, 100 point producing players from junior to not be able to translate that type of production into the pros, what sets Brown apart is his heart, determination, and unmatched work ethic on and off the ice.
Brown will require patience and a long-term development plan as he enters the pros. His skating and defensive zone coverage need further refinement. He will also have to prove that he has the strength and stamina to play against men. Yet, if Brown can maintain his will to succeed and translate his playmaking skills to the pro game, he could realize potential as a top six point producing winger.
7. (9) Carter Verhaeghe, C, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 82nd overall, 2013
Verhaeghe began to fulfill his potential as a point producing center with an 82 point season in 2013-14, almost double that of his rookie season the year before. Centering the top line for the Niagara Falls Ice Dogs of the OHL with Brendan Perlini (ARI), Verhaege displayed the offensive skills the Leafs had envisioned when they selected him in the third round of the 2013 draft.
Verhaege is another one of the Leafs long-term projects, but with a solid skill set to build from. He is creative with the puck, has good offensive instincts and is effective at taking faceoffs. On the development side, he needs to improve his skating and he does not always play with a consistent level of effort or intensity. Verhaege has already signed an entry-level contract with the Leafs but is expected to be sent back to the OHL for another season.
8. (14) Andreas Johnson, RW, 7.0C
Drafted 7th round, 202nd overall, 2013
The Leafs used their last pick in the 2013 draft to select a fast and skilled but small winger from Sweden with high reward potential. Fast forward one year later and that high risk pick has catapulted himself into a top 10 prospect. Andreas Johnson enjoyed a momentous 2013-14 season, scoring six points in seven games on the way to winning a silver medal with Sweden at the U20 World Junior Championships. Perhaps more importantly, Johnson played a full season for Frolunda in the SHL, where he led all rookies with 15 goals and was named the league’s rookie of the year.
Johnson is considered to be an excellent stick handler who plays with a lot of energy. Johnson is under contract to Frolunda for the 2014-15 season, where he will look to build on an impressive rookie campaign and position himself to join the Leafs organization in two years.
In order to illustrate the type of season Ashton had with the Marlies in 2013-14, consider that if you pro-rated his AHL goal production of 16 goals in 24 games over the Marlies 76 game regular season, he would have finished with 50 goals. Ashton fits the classic power forward prototype. He is effective at using his large frame to protect the puck in the opposing team’s zone or battle opposing defenseman by positioning himself in front of the other team’s net. He is also a willing combatant when required.
A former first round pick by the Tampa Bay Lightning, Ashton has been with the Leafs organization for three seasons, but has yet to make an impact at the NHL level where he has zero goals in 47 career NHL games. Yet, Ashton is still only 23 years old and has established that he may be too good for the AHL. He will be given a legitimate chance to earn a roster spot with the Leafs in 2014-15.
10. (NR) Rinat Valiev, D, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 68th overall, 2014
Valiev was drafted by the Leafs in 2014 as a 19-year-old defensemen, after he endured a disappointing season during his 2012-13 draft year. In 2012, he was drafted third overall in Russia‘s KHL draft. However, Valiev was determined to pursue a pro hockey career in North America so he left Russia to play the 2012-13 season in the USHL, which was cut short due to an injury. In 2013, he was selected by the Kooteney Ice of the WHL and re-established himself as a prospect with a dominating finish to the latter third of the season and playoffs. Valiev has earned rave reviews for his dynamic game. He is a good skater, has more offensive ability with the puck than his point totals indicated last season, and he was willing to drop the gloves to protect teammates.
Valiev is expected to return to the WHL in 2014-15 where he will assume first pairing minutes on the blue line. Having acclimatized himself to the North American game, he will be able to better utilize his puck moving skills to generate more offense while still playing a defensively responsible game.
11. (7) Greg McKegg, C, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 62nd overall, 2010
McKegg had a breakout second season with the Marlies in 2013-14 after a rookie campaign in which he played sporadically. While doubling his point production over those two years, McKegg was also entrusted with a much more prominent role when the Marlies were shorthanded due to injuries and NHL call-ups. During that period, McKegg was able to utilize the strong work ethic and playmaking abilities he displayed so well in the OHL.
While McKegg made important strides to put himself back on the prospect map, he will have to build on that success with the Marlies in 2014-15 if he is to fulfill the potential he had as a top six forward coming out of junior. His first step quickness is a point of weakness which may make him more ideally suited to play the wing at the next level.
12. (13) Petter Granberg, D, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 116th overall, 2010
Granberg fits the mold of the type of defensemen the Leafs have been searching for in recent years. Namely, that of a strong, defensive-minded, stay at home defenseman, who can clear the front of the net and minimize defensive zone mistakes. Granberg did just that during his rookie 2013-14 season with the Marlies by using his big size effectively in his own zone. He does not have much to offer offensively. Yet, despite scoring only seven points in 73 games with the Marlies last season, he still finished with a plus-19 rating.
13. (NR) Tom Nilsson, D, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 111th overall, 2011
Nilsson shares many traits to that of his countryman Granberg. Both were scouted and drafted based on the recommendation of Leafs European scout Thommie Bergman. Both are Swedish. Both were drafted in the fourth round, although Nilsson was picked a year later. And both play strong defensive zone hockey with limited offensive production to their game.
However, one notable difference that defines Nilsson’s game is that he loves to hit. Despite being a modest 6’0, Nilsson plays a clean but very physical style in which he looks to initiate contact. He is a strong skater with a hard shot, but he does not possess the offensive instincts to utilize those skills into generating offensive production. Nilsson will be assigned to the Marlies in 2014-15 where the organization will be able to see how his physical game plays at the AHL level.
14. (NR) Viktor Loov, D, 6.5C
Drafted 7th round, 209th overall, 2012
Loov, like Nilsson, signed an entry-level contract with the Leafs to play in North America for the 2014-15 season, where he will look to earn a spot on a crowded Marlies blue line. Loov participated in the Leafs 2014 summer rookie camp and impressed with his overall skating ability, which includes great first step acceleration and a powerful stride. Loov played with Nylander for Modo in Sweden last season, where he showed he can play effectively at both ends of the rink.
Although Loov does not possess any single outstanding attribute, his combination of size, eagerness to play the body, skating mobility, and superior passing skills, make him an interesting long-term prospect to watch. He is yet another late round find by Leafs scout Bergmann.
15. (11) Tyler Biggs, RW, 6.5C
Drafted 1st round, 22nd overall, 2011
Biggs has all the makings of a prototypical NHL power forward, possessing a powerful stride and a hard shot inside a 6’2, 220 pound body. However, as is the case with many former first round picks, Biggs’ progress has not been in a linear straight line. Biggs has played for three different teams since the Leafs drafted him in 2011, including the University of Miami-Ohio, the Oshawa Generals of the OHL as a 19 year old, and then the Marlies in 2013-14.
While the Leafs envisioned a hard hitting, scoring winger when Biggs was drafted, he seems to be evolving into more of a third line checking forward. Marlies coach Steve Spott had Biggs play a more defensive role with some penalty killing duty last season. Even then, he found himself in and out of the lineup due to inconsistent play and a seeming lack of willingness to use his size and strength to play a consistent physical game. Biggs will play much of the 2014-15 season as a 21-year-old so there is still plenty of time for him to reach his untapped potential.
16. (NR) Christopher Gibson, G, 6.5C
Signed as a free agent, July 19th, 2013
A native of Finland, Gibson was a former highly touted junior player who was picked by the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of 2011 NHL Draft. The Kings did not offer him an NHL contract, but the Leafs did so after he attended their rookie camp as a free agent in 2013.
Gibson split backup duties with Garret Sparks in 2013-14 where he bounced back and forth between the Marlies and their ECHL affiliate, the Orlando Solar Bears. While he still has a long way to go to establish his legitimacy as a pro prospect, he improved immensely during the second half of his AHL rookie season. Gibson will look to establish himself as the number one netminder for the Marlies next season.
17. (18) Dominic Toninato, C, 6.5C
Drafted 5th round, 126th overall, 2012
Heading into the 2014-15 season as a sophomore at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Toninato still has a long way to go before the Leafs get a more accurate read on his prospects as a pro. The potential is certainly there. Possessing good speed, strong offensive instincts, and good touch around the net, Toninato will need to demonstrate he can translate those offensive tools into greater scoring production during his sophomore season. He will however have plenty of opportunity to develop those skills as he could spend three more seasons playing NCAA hockey.
18. (20) Garret Sparks, G, 6.5C
Drafted 7th round, 190th overall, 2011
Sparks split backup goalie duties with Gibson during his 2013-14 rookie season with the Marlies. He won the original backup job out of training camp, but saw limited playing time behind veteran Drew MacIntyre. Like Gibson, Sparks seesawed back and forth between the AHL and the ECHL, in part to get much needed playing time amid long stretches of sitting on the AHL bench.
The 2014-15 season will present an interesting battle as Sparks and Gibson battle for the number one job with the Marlies. Like Gibson, Sparks also has an impressive junior resume, holding the single season Guelph Storm franchise record for regular season wins (36), and shutouts (6). At 6′ 2, Sparks has good size and mobility. He has an easy-going attitude and the type of laid back approach that allows him to remain even keeled when he has a bad game.
19. (NR) Sam Carrick, C, 6.0C
Drafted 5th round, 144th overall, 2010
Carrick packs an excellent work ethic and a team first attitude that does not necessarily translate into eye-popping scoreboard statistics. However, his determination and versatility make him a valuable prospect, despite not having any one single elite skill. He alternated between center and wing last season with the Marlies, and was able to earn top six minutes during a mid-season stretch when the Marlies were short-handed at center. Despite a modest 6’0 frame, Carrick was also willing to stand up for his teammates when needed, engaging in nine fights during the regular season. He saved his best for the Marlies playoff run, where he was second on the team in shots on goal.
Carrick fits the profile of a bottom six forward at the NHL level. In the meantime, he will look to play an even more prominent role with the Marlies in 2014-15.
20. (NR) Andrew MacWilliam, D, 6.0C
Drafted 7th round, 188th overall, 2008
MacWilliam was drafted six seasons ago by the Leafs in the seventh round but is entering only his second season of pro hockey. The 6’2 defenseman uses his size to good use, playing a very physical style. He is effective at making good breakout passes out of his own zone but offers little in the way of offense. In 163 career games at University of North Dakota he scored four goals and had zero goals in 66 total games with the Marlies last season. Nonetheless, it is his strong physical play that makes him a candidate to fill a number five or six role at the NHL level. At 24 years of age, he is facing stiff competition from other younger defenseman in the Toronto system.