Defense and right wing positions hold lots of promise for Toronto Maple Leafs organization

By Ed Dermit
Tom Nilsson - Toronto Maple Leafs

Photo: Defenseman Tom Nilsson is one of several prospects who are in their first year with the Toronto Maple Leafs’ minor league organization. (courtesy of Mark Spowart/Icon Sportswire)

 

Over the last few years, the Toronto Maple Leafs have utilized the NHL Draft to build depth across all positions within their prospect ranks. While the question of how much of an impact that depth will have on the parent club is hard to gauge, the Leafs most recent training camp showed that depth is translating into competition for roster spots at the NHL level.

Stuart Percy and Carter Ashton earned their way onto the Leafs roster out of camp. Josh Leivo and Viktor Loov were also among the last cuts which indicates they are close to being ready. Meanwhile, William Nylander, Frederik Gauthier, Matt Finn, Connor Brown, Andreas Johnson, and Antoine Bibeau provide a good nucleus of players 20 or younger that may serve as the next wave of prospects ready to challenge for NHL jobs.

Left Wing

If the Leafs have a positional weakness within the organization, it’s on left wing. Aside from Leivo, the Leafs prospects on left wing fit the profile of organizational depth players.

Josh Leivo is a right-handed shot that is comfortable playing on the left side. With NHL size, good skating ability and a strong shot, Leivo used his 2013-14 AHL rookie campaign to establish himself as a legitimate NHL prospect with top six forward potential. After a strong showing in Leafs training camp, Leivo made the team to start the season, however a minor injury suffered late in camp also saw the Leafs send him back to the Marlies before he had a chance to appear in any games. Still only 21 years of age, Leivo appeared in seven games with the Leafs in 2013-14 and is the most pro-ready prospect in the entire Leafs minor league system.

David Broll and Jamie Devane may also be ready to step into the Leafs lineup in 2014-15 if needed, albeit in a limited role. Broll plays a very physical, intimidating style of hockey. He patrols his wing, consistently takes the body and understands his role as an enforcer willing to defend his teammates. Similarly, at 6’5 and over 200 pounds, Devane plays the same physical style and role as Broll. While Devane will not likely be more than a physical presence on a fourth line in the NHL, his specialized role may allow him to develop a limited NHL career within that capacity.

Brad Ross is another physical winger who has limited NHL potential. Ross is in his third season with the Leafs organization and has played the early part of the year in the ECHL.

The Leafs have two young, extremely raw left wingers playing in Europe this season. Fabrice Herzog returned to Switzerland to play in NLA in 2014-15 after scoring 32 goals in the QMJHL and appearing in five games for the Marlies in 2013-14.

Pierre Engvall began the year with Frolunda’s under 20 junior team in Sweden before being recalled to Oskarshamn of Sweden’s second division pro league. Engvall was a prolific scorer in junior and has been a consistent member of Sweden’s amateur teams at international competitions, but is still very raw in terms of gauging his NHL potential.

Although Spencer Abbott is 26 years of age and not considered a prospect in the classic sense of the word, the Marlies offensive leader provides the Leafs with depth at the forward position.

Center

The Leafs have depth at the center position in junior and at the minor pro level, although most fit the profile of a strong two-way, third line center.

Frederick Gauthier entered the 2014-15 season with expectations that his improved skating would see him take an important step in his offensive development. Unfortunately, this season is already under a cloud. Gauthier hurt his ribs during the NHL Rookie Tournament, which also kept him out of the Leafs training camp altogether. He was returned to the Rimouski Oceanic of the QMJHL for a third season, where he was expected to take on a more offensive role. Yet, he has not played in any QMJHL games this season and his spot on the 2014 Canadian World Junior team may also be in jeopardy.

Carter Verhaeghe returns to the Niagara Ice Dogs of the OHL for a fourth season. Verhaeghe has improved his point totals in each of his three previous seasons in the OHL. More is expected in 2014-15 as he must improve his skating, defensive play, and play with a more consistent effort.

Greg McKegg returns to the Marlies for a third season after re-establishing himself as a prospect in 2013-14. Injuries and call-ups to the Leafs last season allowed McKegg to play the type of offensive role with the Marlies that he played in junior. He is not likely to fill an offensive role at the NHL level, however his hard work and high energy level make McKegg a good candidate to get called-up this season should the Leafs face injuries to their regulars.

Sam Carrick displays average skills across the board, but his work ethic and being a consummate team player are what sets him apart. Carrick has played himself into contention as a bottom six NHL role player after a rookie AHL season that saw him finish among the top three Marlies in shots on goal and fighting majors. It speaks to Carrick’s attitude and willingness to do whatever it takes to help his team win.

The Leafs will have three centers playing in the NCAA and one in the USHL during 2014-15. Sophomore Dominic Toninato and junior Tony Cameranesi return to the University of Minnesota-Duluth where they are expected to play prominent offensive roles this season. Nolan Vesey is attending the University of Maine as a freshman. Dakota Joshua is expected to play a dominant offensive role for the Sioux Falls Stampede of the USHL.

Ryan Rupert will begin his rookie pro season with the Leafs ECHL affiliate in Orlando after graduating from the London Knights of the OHL. He is small in stature, but plays with a chip on his shoulder. Rupert, much like the Leafs’ prospects playing in US hockey programs, is still a few years away from being defined as a legitimate NHL prospect.

Right Wing

William Nylander possesses the skating, skill, play making ability, and on-ice vision that may ultimately see him play center, but for now, he has been slated for right wing. Nylander put his high end offensive skills on display during September’s NHL Rookie Tournament and again during 2014 NHL preseason. It also became apparent that when playing against men, he could add some strength to his frame and work on his defensive game. Returning to Modo to play against men in the SHL for the 2014-15 season would seem to be a prudent decision for Nylander, so he can develop his all round game and do so in a challenging environment.

Connor Brown makes his eagerly awaited AHL minor pro debut in 2014-15. Coming off a MVP CHL season in 2013-14, Brown will look to establish that his offensive dominance in junior hockey can translate to success at the pro level. Brown appeared in only one NHL exhibition game this season which indicates the Leafs are being patient as they will let Brown’s offensive instincts develop more fully with the Marlies in 2014-15.

Andreas Johnson went from a seventh round draft pick out of Sweden in 2013, to being Rookie of the Year in the SHL in 2013-14. Johnson did not attend Leafs training camp as he was expected to play for Frolunda in the SHL in 2014-15. He has started very strong for Frolunda, posting five goals and three assists through 12 games.

Carter Ashton is at a cross roads in his career. Having shown that he has little left to prove at the AHL level, he is trying to find a role on the Leafs after having made the team out of training camp. He has NHL size and strength but has yet to score in over 40 NHL career games.

Tyler Biggs‘ stock has fallen dramatically since being a Leafs first round draft pick in 2011. While fellow first round pick Stuart Percy is making an early impression with the Leafs in 2014-15, Biggs has started the season with the Leafs ECHL affiliate in Orlando. Still only 21 years of age, it would be premature to say that Biggs cannot fulfill his potential as an NHL power forward. His rookie AHL campaign was marred by a nagging shoulder injury and by learning to play an unfamiliar bottom six grinding role. Now that he is healthy, is being given a chance to play a regular shift, and understands what his role will be, Biggs can continue his development in a more constructive fashion.

J.J. Piccinich begins his freshman season at Boston University after being the Leafs fourth round draft pick in 2014. Piccinich profiles as a goal scoring winger and plays with a high energy level, but he has four years of college eligibility before the Leafs get a real gauge on his prospect potential.

Defensemen

Matt Finn’s dominance in the CHL in 2013-14 positions him as the best all round two-way defenseman in the Leafs system. However, as evidenced in part by his play at the NHL Rookie Tournament in September, he will need to work on his strength and defensive zone coverage as he graduates to the minor pros in 2014-15.

While Stuart Percy’s steady development with the Marlies in 2013-14 put him in line to make his Maple Leafs debut in 2014-15, it was still somewhat of a surprise to see him make the Leafs right out of training camp. His steady two-way play and intangible qualities make him a reliable defenseman who is very effective at moving the puck. He does not have exciting upside, but may settle in for a long NHL career as a second pairing defenseman who could man the powerplay.

Petter Granberg plays a responsible, defensive style in his own zone. His strong 2013-14 rookie season with the Marlies earned him long a look at Leafs training camp where he did not look out of place. Returning to the Marlies for 2014-15 will allow Granberg to focus on developing his puck possession skills, which should allow him to become a more complete player.

While Finn may have struggled, Viktor Loov used the NHL Rookie Tournament to garner a lot of attention with his strong overall play. A former seventh round pick, Loov did not carry many expectations coming into this season. Demonstrating strong skating abilities, good puck handling skills, size, and a willingness to make hard body contact, allowed Loov to make a positive impression at Leafs training camp. It appears at these early stages, that Loov’s smooth transition to a North American style of hockey may allow him to move through the system quickly.

Rinat Valiev, the Leafs third round pick in 2014, is the only Leafs’ defenseman prospect playing in the CHL this season. Given the strong praise Valiev’s Kootney Ice coach made about his strong play in the latter half of 2013-14, Valiev is expected to take a major step forward in his development this coming season. Unfortunately, he has missed the beginning of the season to a knee injury.

Second year Toronto Marlies defenseman Andrew MacWilliam, and minor pro rookies Tom Nilsson and Eric Knodel, represent a second tier of Leafs prospects with potential. MacWilliam and Nilsson are not overly big, but both come with a reputation for playing a hard hitting, defensive style that could prove valuable at the NHL level. Both will do so with the Marlies this season. Knoedel on the other hand, stands 6’6 and possesses a hard shot from the point, but needs to use his size more effectively if he is to become an NHL prospect. Given the Marlies’ depth on defense, Knoedel is starting the 2014-15 season in the ECHL.

Goaltending

The Leafs enter the 2014-15 season with three very young, but talented goaltenders manning the nets for their AHL and ECHL affiliates. Although none of the three are considered potential number one NHL goaltenders at this stage, all three could evolve into NHL caliber goalies over time. With Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer firmly established at the NHL level, the Leafs can afford to be patient.

Christopher Gibson and Garret Sparks spent their 2013-14 pro-rookie seasons splitting backup duties behind AHL veteran Drew MacIntyre. Given MacIntyre’s heavy workload last season, the Leafs also had both goaltenders spend time with their ECHL affiliate to ensure they could continue their development playing in real games. Statistically speaking, Sparks and Gibson posted similar save percentages and goals against averages with the Marlies last season, however, it was Sparks who entered 2014-15 a notch higher on the Leafs depth chart. Unfortunately, he suffered an injury during Leafs training camp which led in to him being assigned to the ECHL to begin the year. Sparks has the size, agility and a fierce competitive spirit that will likely make that demotion a temporary one. Gibson gets an important opportunity to establish himself as a starter in the AHL.

Over the course of one season, Antoine Bibeau went from a sixth round pick of the Leafs in 2013 to QMJHL Playoff MVP and the Memorial Cup’s Outstanding Goaltender. Bibeau followed that up with a good performance for the Leafs during a handful of NHL exhibition appearances and started the 2014-15 season with the Marlies. At this stage of his career, Bibeau relies more on quick reflexes rather than sound technique, but he will have ample time to develop those skills as he adjusts to his first season of pro hockey.