Toronto Maple Leafs show patience with NCAA and European prospects

By Ed Dermit
Photo: Casey Bailey scored his first NHL goal after signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs at the end of his junior NCAA season. (Courtesy of Dan Hamilton/Icon Sportswire)

Photo: Casey Bailey scored his first NHL goal after signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs at the end of his junior NCAA season. (Courtesy of Dan Hamilton/Icon Sportswire)

 

 

The Toronto Maple Leafs had five drafted prospects playing in the NCAA and three playing in Europe during the 2014-15 season. At this stage, most are still questionable as potential pros, although Andreas Johnson and Dominic Toninato had impactful seasons that separated them from the pack. The Leafs also signed a pair of promising free agents in Casey Bailey (NCAA) and Nikita Soshnikov (KHL), following the completion of their respective seasons. They will have the opportunity to make an immediate impact in 2015-16.

NCAA

Casey Bailey, RW, Penn State University (Big Ten)
Signed as a free-agent, March 21st, 2015

The Leafs signed Bailey as an undrafted free agent after he completed his junior season at Penn State. Considered the most coveted NCAA free agent in the 2014-15 season, Bailey is a pure goal scorer with NHL size. At 6’3 and 195 pounds, Bailey adds a dimension of size that is lacking in the Leafs system. Bailey’s primary skill is a hard shot and it comes with a shoot-first mentality. Bailey was a Hobey Baker Award nominee after leading the Nittany Lions with 23 goals and 40 points in 37 games.

At 23 years of age, he should be ready to transition into the pros fairly quickly. Bailey dressed for six NHL games at the end of the season, scoring his first goal in the last game of the year. He will likely begin next season with the Marlies.

Dominic Toninato, C, University of Minnesota-Duluth, (NCHC)
Drafted 5th round, 126th overall, 2012

Toninato completed a sophomore season that saw him take a major leap forward. Centring the top line, he led the team with 16 goals in 34 games and was second in team scoring. Toninato displayed the puck handling skills of a finesse player but did not shy away from physical contact, finishing second on the team with 58 penalty minutes. With up to two years of NCAA eligibility remaining, he will be able to continue his progression as a potential top-six forward prospect. Toninato is the Leafs’ top NCAA prospect.

Tony Cameranesi, C, University of Minnesota-Duluth, (NCHC)
Drafted 5th round, 130th overall, 2011

Cameranesi was the leading scorer for the Bulldogs as a junior in 2014-15 with nine goals and 30 points in 40 games. Like fellow Maple Leafs draftee and Bulldogs teammate Toninato, Cameranesi was given a top-six role.  Centering the team’s second line, he generated consistent offensive production with points in 26 of the team’s 40 games. Short at 5’10, but a stocky 190 pounds, Cameranesi is a skilled player who enjoyed a resurgence after a disappointing sophomore season in 2013-14. He has one season remaining with the Bulldogs before the Leafs must decide whether to offer him a professional contract.

Nolan Vesey, LW, University of Maine (Hockey East)
Drafted 6th round, 158th overall, 2014

Vesey was a major offensive contributor for the Black Bears as a freshman in 2014-15. Vesey played in 36 games, scoring 10 goals on only 48 shots—and his 23 points placed him fifth on the team in scoring. His three powerplay goals led the team. Vesey’s hat trick in late February was the first by a University of Maine freshman in 18 years. He was also named Hockey East’s Rookie of the Week on two separate occasions during the season. Vesey’s impact as a freshman was a pleasant surprise, so his follow-up sophomore season will be a important barometer for where he stands as a prospect.

J.J. Piccinich, RW, Boston University (Hockey East)
Drafted 4th round, 103rd overall, 2014

Piccinich joined a Boston University team that was in rebuild mode for the 2014-15 season. While the Terriers enjoyed tremendous success, the freshman’s contributions were modest. Piccinich played in 25 games, recording one goal and three assists and was one of only three regulars to post a negative plus-minus rating. In fairness, Piccinich played bottom-six minutes on a team with highly productive forwards that featured one of the top prospects in the 2015 NHL draft, Jack Eichel. Piccinich is a long term project for the Leafs with up to three years of college eligibility remaining.

Max Everson, D, Harvard University (ECAC)
Drafted 7th round, 203rd overall, 2011

Everson, a senior at Harvard, finished the 2014-15 season with 37 games played, two goals, six points and 28 penalty minutes—all single-season highs in his four year career. Offense has never been part of Everson’s hockey skillset; it took him 69 games to score his first NCAA goal. Everson is a fearless shot-blocking defender, and he served as Harvard team captain this season. It does not appear that the Leafs will sign Everson to a professional contract, which will make him a free-agent this summer.

Europe

Andreas Johnson, LW, Frolunda (SHL)
Drafted 7th round, 202nd overall, 2013

Johnson was one of the top prospects in Sweden this year. Following a 15 goal campaign and SHL Rookie of the Year honours in 2013-14, Johnson improved to 22 goals and 35 points in 55 games this season. He played an even more prominent offensive role with Frolunda this season, placing third in team scoring. Although small in stature, Johnson has the speed and skills that are conducive to larger ice surfaces. When and how that will translate to the North American game remains to be seen. In the meantime, Johnson has emerged as one of the Leafs’ most dynamic offensive prospects. Johnson is likely to play one more season in the SHL before coming over to North America.

Nikita Soshnikov, LW, Moscow Oblast Atlant (KHL)
Signed as a free-agent, March 20th, 2015

Soshnikov was signed by the Leafs following the completion of the 2014-15 KHL season. The 21 year old left winger finished fourth in team scoring with 32 points in 57 games. Soshnikov has all the requisites of a potential top six forward including speed, strong puck handling skills and a high energy level. He also plays bigger than his 5’10, 185 pound frame with a willingness to crash the net and capitalize on scoring chances. The Leafs signed him to a three-year, entry-level contract which will see him come to training camp and play in North America in 2015-16, most likely starting with the Toronto Marlies.

Pierre Engvall, LW, Frolunda J20 (J20 SuperElit)
Drafted 7th round, 188th overall, 2014

Engvall presents a unique commodity within the Leafs prospect ranks given his combination of size and skill. In 2014-15, Engvall bounced between three leagues in Sweden, and he failed to register a point in 12 games split between the SHL and the second-tier HockeyAllsvenskan. When he was returned to Sweden’s J20 league however, he flashed the skill and offensive production he demonstrated during his draft year—scoring 17 goals and 51 points in only 38 games. He also scored five goals in eight games during the playoffs. Engvall is a long-term project whose potential as a top six forward is intriguing, but the Leafs can afford to be patient as they can retain his rights for another three years.

Fabrice Herzog, LW, Zug (Swiss-A)
Drafted 5th round, 142nd overall, 2013

After scoring 32 goals in the QMJHL—and a five game stint with the Marlies—Herzog returned to his native Switzerland to play for Zug of the Swiss league in 2014-15. The skilled 20-year-old winger played sparingly with Zug this season, a veteran laden team. He finished the season with six goals and nine points in 43 regular season games and three assists in six playoff games. Given that Herzog has already signed to play another season in the Swiss league for 2015-16, the Leafs do not have to make any immediate decisions on his future with the organization.

Prospect of the Month: Christopher Gibson

Christopher Gibson - Toronto Maple LeafsAt the end of February, the Marlies would have been considered a long shot to make the playoffs. One month later, they had clawed their way back into playoff contention in large part due to goaltender Christopher Gibson. During March, Gibson posted a 7-3 record, with a 1.92 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage. It was an important step in his development, as Gibson’s play during the month cemented his position as the team’s starter heading into the AHL playoffs.