After years of sacrificing high draft picks for quick fix solutions, which eventually led to a lack of depth in their minor league system, the Toronto Maple Leafs have turned a corner in the quality and depth of their player development pipeline. That youth injection is getting stronger with prospects Matt Finn, Connor Brown, and Antoine Bibeau potentially joining the Leafs’ minor league affiliates for the 2014-15 season. Other prospects, such as Andreas Johnson and Carter Verhaeghe, will look to build on their solid performances in 2014-15.
Nylander opened a lot of eyes this fall, showcasing his tremendous speed, offensive creativity, and superior puck handling skills. He is adept at rushing the puck up the office, penetrating the offensive zone, and setting up linemates to create scoring chances. Nylander provides a blend of dynamic offensive skills that may tempt the Leafs to rush him to the NHL. He will, however, need to show a greater commitment to defensive zone coverage, a trait not uncommon among young and offensively gifted forwards.
Where Nylander starts the 2014-15 season is a major question. Nylander’s situation is unique given that if he does not make the Leafs roster out of training camp, he could return to Sweden, be assigned to the Marlies in the AHL, or play in the OHL. The latter is the most unlikely scenario, while making the Leafs roster is a long shot. He could go back to Sweden for another season, where he would compete against men in a challenging environment. However, having Nylander assigned to the Marlies would allow the Leafs to keep close tabs on his development. It would also allow him to learn Leafs’ systems and acclimate him to playing a more North American style game on smaller ice surfaces.
Stuart Percy, D, Toronto Marlies (AHL)
Percy’s maturity, heady play, and solid all round two way game position him to make his NHL debut during the 2014-15 season. The 25th overall pick in the 2011 NHL draft, Percy earned valuable experience during the Marlies successful 2013-14 season by earning a regular shift as a rookie defenseman and by playing important minutes killing penalties. During the Calder Cup playoffs, Percy was paired up with fellow rookie Petter Granberg in a shutdown role against the opposition’s top line which is a testament to the coaching staff’s confidence in Percy’s defensive ability. Although he possesses only average NHL skills across the board, Percy makes smart, safe plays with the puck and is calm under pressure.
Making the Leafs out of training camp may be a stretch given the defenseman they already have with NHL experience, so Percy’s opportunity will likely come as a fill-in due to injuries. Scoring 25 points in 71 AHL games as a rookie AHL defenseman last season demonstrates that Percy has more upside to his offensive game as he gains experience. His is comfortable and confident moving the puck, and makes a strong first pass to get the puck out of the defensive zone. Given his solid all round game, Percy is positioned to make his NHL debut this coming season.
Tyler Biggs, RW, Toronto Marlies (AHL)
Former first round draft picks that do not make progressive improvement from one season to the next can quickly be labelled as ‘failures’. As such, the 21st overall pick in 2011, Tyler Biggs, is looking to re-establish himself as a legitimate NHL power forward after a disappointing 2013-14 AHL rookie season. At 6’3 and 220 pounds, a willingness to finish his checks, and strong skating ability, Biggs has the makings of a potential NHL-caliber player. He may not possess the finish to reach his ceiling as a top six forward, but he still has enough skill and the previously mentioned attributes to position him as an effective third-line winger.
Biggs battled a season long shoulder injury and inconsistent play last season that hurt his development. The result was only nine points in 57 regular season games, followed by dressing for only three games in the Marlies long playoff run. Biggs faced limited playing time when he did dress and also had to adjust to playing in a third line role.
At 21 years of age, the Leafs can afford to be patient with Biggs. Players of his size and mobility are rare. Gaining another year of experience and by adjusting to his new role, Biggs can also work on the offensive side of his game to re-establish himself as the power forward the Leafs envisioned when they selected him.
First-Year Pro to Watch
Connor Brown, RW, Toronto Marlies (AHL)
Brown profiles as a top six forward with strong offensive instincts and creative playmaking abilities. He acquitted himself well at the NHL Rookie tournament this September by putting those skills on display, showing soft hands and making notable plays offensively. Yet, it may take some time for Brown’s offensive game to translate at the pro level given the speed and strength of players at the next level. Furthermore, Brown joins a Marlies team that is deep with young forwards, so he will have to earn his ice time. There is no doubt he will be watched closely to gauge whether his junior hockey dominance will translate at the minor-pro level.
Drafted by the Leafs 21st overall in 2013, Gauthier is a big-bodied, defensive center, who played much of the 2013-14 season in a shutdown role for Rimouski. Despite facing the opposing team’s top line every night, he still finished a plus-19 rating and averaged just under a point per game average. Gauthier uses his big frame to his advantage through sound positioning, rather than initiating hard contact.
Questions remain about Gauthier’s ability to generate offense, which may call into question whether he can change perceptions that his ceiling in the NHL is as a third line center. As a 19-year-old junior returning for his third season in the CHL, Gauthier will be expected to contribute more offensively in 2014-15. His skating has already improved measurably since being drafted, but developing the offensive part of his game would make Gauthier a potentially more impactful pro prospect.
Carter Verhaeghe, C, Niagara Falls Ice Dogs (OHL)
A player who has already experienced an 82-point season may not be the obvious candidate for an offensive breakout season. Yet despite the strong point totals last season, Carter Verhaeghe may be on the verge of reaching an even higher level in 2014-15. The former 82nd overall pick in the 2013 NHL draft is set to enter his fourth season in the OHL. His natural playmaking ability and offensive creativity have translated into material improvements year after year. Over the last three seasons, Verhaeghe has gone from 16 points as an OHL rookie, to 44 points in his draft year, to 82 points last season. Achieving a 100 point level in the OHL and contending for the scoring title is not out of the question.
Top Amateur Prospect
Dominic Toninato, C, Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs (NCHC)
Toninato enters his sophomore season of US college hockey after enjoying a modestly successful freshman year with 15 points in 35 games. Toninato participated in the Leafs summer rookie camp in July 2014 and stood out with his offensive creativity and the chemistry he developed playing on a line with Nylander. Toninato possesses decent size at 6’1 and 185 pounds, as well as good skating ability. Combining these attributes, his offensive potential and the expectation that he will to play a bigger role for the Bulldogs this coming season, Toninato may be able to establish more definitively, that he is a legitimate pro prospect. For now, he still has much to prove.
Freshman to Watch
J.J. Piccinich, RW, Boston University Terriers (Hockey East)
Piccinich is considered highly competitive with a strong desire to win. His skill set is that of a goal scorer, one who drives hard to the net and who uses his hard wrist to good effect. The native of Englewood, New Jersey produced 27 goals and 58 points in 60 games to earn a scholarship to Boston University beginning with the 2014-15 season.
Piccinich joins a BU team that is rebuilding. This will present him with an opportunity to step into the lineup right away and contribute as a freshman, while playing in one of the premiere college hockey programs in the US.
Tony Cameranesi, C, Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs (NCHC)
Camerenesi took a step backwards during his sophomore 2013-14 season. As a freshman in 2012-13, Camerenesi made an important statement as to his future potential by scoring 34 points in 38 games. When his production slid to 21 points last season, questions about his 5’10 and 180 pound frame became front and center. However, Camerenesi could return to his freshman form given his NHL caliber speed and that he is slated to play a more prominent offensive role for the Bulldogs. Camerenesi may have also been the victim of bad luck last season. While he led the Bulldogs in shots on goal, he converted only six percent of those shots into goals which is an unusually low percentage. If nothing else, a return to his average shooting percentage would increase his point totals.
Unsigned for 2015-16
Max Everson, D, Harvard Crimson (ECAC)
Everson enters the season as a senior at Harvard with much to prove if he is to be offered a contract by the Leafs at season’s end. The first three years did not go well for Everson, which included a shortened 2012-13 season due to a campus wide academic scandal at Harvard. Everson faces an uphill battle to establish himself for pro consideration given a lack of offense to his game and more importantly, the deep level of talent already present within the Leafs minor pro season.
Top European Prospect
Andreas Johnson, LW, Folunda (SHL)
Despite standing 5’10 and being a former seventh round pick, expectations for the Swedish winger heading into 2014-15 are high. Johnson has a lot to live up to after a strong performance representing Sweden at the U20 World Junior Championships, and then capturing Rookie of the Year honors in the Swedish Hockey League during the 2013-14 season.
Johnson is a high energy player who possesses good speed and is not afraid to go to the net. His background indicates that last year’s success was not a fluke given a history of strong offensive production throughout junior and in representing Sweden at world tournaments.
Johnson will play one more season in the SHL, after which, the Leafs can decide what would be best for his future development.
Unsigned for 2015-16
Fabrice Herzog, RW, Zug (NLA)
Herzog chose to return to the Swiss league for the 2014-15 season after spending last season with the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL. Herzog’s 2013-14 season held promise by scoring 32 goals for Quebec, representing Switzerland at the U20 World Junior Championships, and then finishing the season by playing five regular season games with the Marlies. He has good size, standing 6’2″ and weighing in at 195 lbs, but does not quite possess the natural offensive instincts expected of a prospect who’s style of play is suited for a top six forward role.
Despite some limitations to his game, it bears keeping in mind that Herzog will begin the season playing against men as a 19-year-old, so it would be too soon to write him off as a pro prospect. Regardless, the Leafs have the luxury of being patient with his progress as they will continue to retain his rights while he develops playing in Europe.