Skilled Toronto Maple Leafs prospects are developing according to plan

By Ed Dermit
Frederik Gauthier - Toronto Maple Leafs

Photo: Frederik Gauthier will attempt to lead the Rimouski Oceanic all the way to the Memorial Cup this spring. (Courtesy of Francois Laplante/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images)

 

At the dawn of the 2014-15 season, the Leafs featured a number of skilled forward prospects who were looking to either build on past success or transition to the next level of hockey. While most of this group consists of players small in stature, there were no major setbacks among their elite offensive forwards as they made successful transitions to the minor pro ranks or improved statistically over their previous season.

The Leafs also possess a growing number of two-way defenseman that are on the verge of competing for an NHL roster spot. While none of them fit the profile of a top-pairing defenseman, the youth and depth at the position with the AHL Toronto Marlies is creating a highly competitive environment that is conducive for development.

In goal, the Leafs entered the season with question marks about the quality of their three best prospects. None of them project to be top-flight NHL starters, however given their youth and success this season, they have positioned themselves to grow into legitimate professional goaltenders.

1. (1) William Nylander, RW, 8.0 C
Drafted 1st round, 8th overall, 2014

The Maple Leafs recalled Nylander from MODO of the Swedish Hockey League in early January 2015 after a productive first half. He was second in team scoring with 20 points in 21 games, and flashed his offensive skills during the World Junior Championships with 10 points in 7 games. Afterwards, Nylander was assigned to the AHL Toronto Marlies, where he has flourished in a prime offensive role despite a modest start. Nylander has 24 points in 31 AHL games and has not gone more than two consecutive games without a point. He has made important adjustments to his game and is gaining experience in a pressure-filled environment as the Marlies make a strong push to reach the AHL playoffs.

2. (6) Connor Brown, RW, 7.0 C
Drafted 6th round, 156th overall, 2012

Brown’s impressive rookie pro season with the Marlies has been one of this year’s pleasant surprises. He was a lowly 6th round draft pick due to his height, and doubts about how well Brown’s playing style would transition to the pro game. This year, Brown has proven those doubts unfounded, and has led the Marlies in scoring with 60 points through 73 games. He also led all AHL rookies in points, and was named to the 2014-15 AHL All-Rookie Team.

3. (5) Stuart Percy, D, 7.0 C
Drafted 1st round, 25th overall, 2011

The season started well for Percy when he made the Leafs out of training camp, but things proved more difficult upon his demotion to the Marlies. He was the only regular Marlies defenseman with a negative plus/minus after 70 games. Battling injuries and inconsistent play through most of the season, Percy has rebounded noticeably since the end of February—he was a plus-10 in the month of March. Despite the setbacks, Percy remains a solid NHL prospect.

4. (4) Frederik Gauthier, C, 7.0 C
Drafted 1st round, 21st overall, 2013

Gauthier continued his defensive dominance as a shutdown centre during his third season in the QMJHL. He is captain of the best team in the league, and Rimouski is considered a strong contender to reach the Memorial Cup. Gauthier represented Team Canada for a second time at the World Junior Championships and was also named the QMJHL’s Best Defensive Forward for the 2014-15 season. Although his offensive production has fallen slightly from the point-per-game average he had last season, he has picked up the pace since the playoffs began, with 10 points in seven games.

5. (NR) Brendan Leipsic, LW, 7.0 C
Acquired in trade with Nashville, 2015

Leipsic was acquired by the Maple Leafs as part of the trade that sent Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli to the Predators at the 2015 NHL trade deadline. The former 3rd round pick in 2012, he registered 36 points in 47 games as an AHL rookie with the Predators’ Milwaukee Admirals prior to the trade. Though his transition to the Marlies started on a promising note with points in five of his first six games, afterward he went on a prolonged 13 game slump where he produced just one assist. While Leipsic is small at 5’9”, he provides the Leafs with an offensive dimension that the system generally lacks.

6. (2) Josh Leivo, LW, 7.0 C
Drafted 3rd round, 86th overall, 2011

Leivo’s combination of size, skill and offensive production positioned him squarely among the Leafs’ few top-six forward prospects at the beginning of the 2014-15 season. He has been recalled to the NHL for nine games this season, getting fourth line minutes and scoring one goal. His AHL production is not far off last year’s pace, however he does not appear to have made the progressive leap one might have expected in his second pro season.

7. (8) Andreas Johnson, RW, 7.0 C
Drafted 7th round, 202nd overall, 2013

Johnson followed up his 2014 SHL Rookie of the Year honours with another strong offensive season with Frolunda. He led the team with 22 goals in 55 games and finished with 35 points, which was among the league leaders. Putting his goal production into perspective, Johnson is one of only four players in the last 10 years to score 20 or more goals in the SHL at 21 years of age or younger. The former 7th round pick in 2013 continues to intrigue with the anticipation of how well his skills will translate to the North American style game, potentially next season.

8. (7) Carter Verhaeghe, C, 7.0 C
Drafted 3rd round, 82nd overall, 2013

Verhaeghe entered the 2014-15 OHL season as a four-year veteran of the Niagara Falls IceDogs, and was named captain. He replicated his 82 point performance from last year, but also finished with a +21 rating, compared to a minus-19 rating a season ago. Of Verhaeghe’s 33 goals, 30 came at even strength. He was also named the team’s Most Outstanding Player. Verhaeghe is an impact player at the OHL level who is ready to take the next step.

9. (10) Rinat Valiev, D, 7.0 C
Drafted 3rd round, 68th overall, 2014

The Leafs’ third round draft pick in 2014 made excellent progress this season. Despite beginning the year on the injury list, Valiev finished with 46 points in 52 games for the WHL’s Kootenay Ice. His stellar offensive production was not an indication of a one-dimensional game, as he also excelled defensively with a plus-22 rating. He represented Russia twice during the season: once for the Russian Selects team and again at the World Junior Championships. Valiev’s strong junior season and physical tools place him among the Leafs top defensive prospects.

10. (3) Matt Finn, D, 7.0 C
Drafted 2nd round, 35th overall, 2012

Of the Leafs’ pro-level rookie prospects in 2014-15, Finn may be the one who has found the transition the hardest. Finn needs to get stronger, and he has struggled with the speed of the game. He has flashed some of the offensive creativity he displayed when he starred in the OHL, but his inadequate defensive play saw him become a healthy scratch for much of the season. Finn has a combined four points in 33 games between the AHL and ECHL. Defensemen typically take longer to develop, and at this stage of his career, Finn has too many tools for the Leafs to ignore.

11. (12) Petter Granberg, D, 6.5 C
Drafted 4th round, 116th overall, 2010

Granberg’s 14 points double his offensive output from a year ago, despite playing in only 52 AHL games this season. While offense will never be his calling card, it is a good sign of his development to go along with his already strong game in the defensive zone. Possessing a strong 6’2 frame, Granberg was recalled for seven games with the Leafs in the latter-half of the season.

12. (11) Greg McKegg, C, 6.5 C
Drafted 3rd round, 62nd overall, 2010

McKegg has evolved into the most dependable two-way forward for the Marlies in his third AHL season. During a November swoon that saw the Marlies win only two of 12 games, McKegg shouldered the offensive burden for the depleted Marlies squad by scoring in eight of the 10 games he played that month. Overall this season, McKegg has 19 goals and 34 points in 58 games. He has also played three games with the Leafs this season.

13. (17) Dominic Toninato, C, 6.5 C
Drafted 5th round, 126th overall, 2012

Toninato starred for the University of Minnesota-Duluth as a sophomore this season, leading the team with 16 goals in 34 games—more than double his output from a year ago. Toninato will need to become stronger and improve on the draw, but his skill and success as a sophomore makes him an intriguing dark-horse prospect that bears watching.

14. (14) Viktor Loov, D, 6.5C
Drafted 7th round, 209th overall, 2012

The AHL rookie defenseman has demonstrated strong puck possession skills, a willingness to make the big hit and good skating ability to garner attention in his first North American season. Possessing NHL size, Loov has been an important offensive contributor from the blueline despite a modest six goals and 20 points in 68 games. Loov’s smooth transition to the AHL has put him on the prospect radar.

15. (16) Christopher Gibson, G, 6.5 C
Signed as a free-agent, July 19th, 2013

Gibson has flown under the radar since signing with the Leafs two seasons ago, but has gone on to establish himself as the number one goalie with the Marlies in 2014-15. After splitting the starter duties in the first half of the season, Gibson went on a dominating run in the new year, posting a 15-6 record. In March, Gibson’s 1.94 goals-against average and .934 save percentage pulled the Marlies back into playoff contention.

16. (13) Tom Nilsson, D, 6.5 C
Drafted 4th round, 111th overall, 2011

Nilsson is in his first North American professional season after coming over from Sweden. He plays a more physical game than one would expect from a 6’0 defenceman. He has generated little offensive production for the Marlies with only 6 points in 42 games, however those low point totals are consistent with his production in the Sweden. Nilsson missed two months of action due to injury and will have to do more to separate himself from other blue line prospects in the Leafs system.

17. (NR) Antoine Bibeau, G, 7.0 D
Drafted 6th round, 172nd overall, 2013

After a stellar final season in the QMJHL, Bibeau entered the 2014-15 campaign with high expectations. He enjoyed a strong start in his rookie pro campaign with the Marlies, however as the season progressed he struggled with consistency. His 2.80 goals-against and .910 save percentage masked what has been a roller coaster season, with dramatic swings in statistical performance from one month to the next. Taken as a whole however, Bibeau has established himself as the best long-term goalie prospect in the Leafs system.

18. (NR) Casey Bailey, RW, 7.0 D
Signed as a free-agent, March 20th, 2015

Bailey, a junior out of Penn State University, was signed by the Leafs as an undrafted free-agent. The 6’3 right winger led the Big Ten Conference in goals with 22, while totalling 40 points in 37 games. Bailey also led the NCAA Division I in shots on goal, and displays a hard quick shot. He profiles as a top six forward.

19. (NR) Nikita Soshnikov, RW, 7.0 D
Signed as a free-agent, March 20th, 2015

The Leafs signed Soshnikov to a three-year entry level contract out of the KHL, where he played for Moscow Oblast Atlant. The 21-year-old right winger played 57 games in 2014-15, scoring 14 goals and 32 points with 22 penalty minutes and a plus-5 rating. Soshnikov fits the profile of a top-six winger and will report to Leafs training camp next September.

20. (19) Sam Carrick, C, 6.0 C
Drafted 5th round, 144th overall, 2010

Carrick embodies the type of player whose value is greater than what is measured on the game sheet. Averaging less than half a point per game this season in the AHL, Carrick has made up for modest offensive totals with tenacious work ethic and high hockey IQ—playing effectively at both ends of the ice. He also plays leads the Marlies in penalty minutes. Carrick’s work ethic also earned him 16 games in the NHL this season.