Toronto Maple Leafs President Brendan Shanahan has committed the organization to a long-term rebuild through drafting and player development at the forefront of the team’s blueprint for future success. This has put the spotlight squarely on current prospects in the development pipeline.
On the immediate horizon, the Toronto Marlies iced the youngest team in the AHL during 2014-15. More importantly, a number of those AHL rookies proved to be impact players as first year pros. Highly-touted William Nylander flashed his offensive skills as an 18-year-old.
Twenty year olds Connor Brown, Brendan Leipsic and Ryan Rupert played important minutes and ranked among the team’s leaders in points and plus/minus, while Antoine Bibeau established himself as a potential goalie of the future.
Petter Granberg, Stuart Percy and Andrew MacWilliam earned auditions in the NHL during the season. Viktor Loov was a pleasant surprise, making a smooth transition to the AHL after coming over from Sweden.
Hardest Worker: Sam Carrick, C, Toronto Marlies (AHL)
If measured by pure hockey skills, physical presence or statistical offensive production, there are numerous other Leafs prospects that would rank well ahead of Carrick. However, when it comes to intangibles—such as leadership and hard work—Carrick has set an example for other prospects in the Leafs’ system.
Despite his statistical limitations, Carrick was rewarded with a 16-game audition by the Leafs, as recognition for his tireless work ethic and leadership. Carrick’s 125 penalty minutes led the Marlies, and represents (at least in some measure), his willingness to battle and stick up for teammates. Few players in the Leafs system can do more with less.
Hardest Shot: Casey Bailey, RW, Penn State University (Big Ten)
Bailey, who was signed as a junior out of Penn State, led the team with 22 goals and 40 points in 2014-15. Bailey possesses a shoot-first mentality, which he puts to good use—he led all Division I shooters with 211 shots.
A 2015 Hobey Baker Award nominee, Bailey possesses a strong slapshot that he unleashes in and around offensive zone faceoff circles to deadly effect. His standout junior year was not a fluke, as he led the team in scoring with 27 points as a freshman, and was second in goals with 14.
Best Defensive Prospect: Stuart Percy, D, Toronto Marlies (AHL)
Percy battled injuries and inconsistency in 2014-15, but he is still one of the Leafs’ best prospects. Percy still has work to do on his skating and strength, but the former first round pick has the poise and savvy to keep him well within reach of fulfilling his potential as a playmaking top-four NHL defenseman. Percy began the season with a three-game stint with the Leafs, where he flashed signs of his strengths before being sent back to the Marlies—where injuries cut his season down to 43 games. Watch for a big improvement next year.
Fastest Skater: William Nylander, Toronto Marlies (AHL)
The Leafs’ first round pick in 2014 counts speed as one of his biggest assets, but what really sets Nylander apart is his unique ability to combine that with an equally high level of playmaking ability. Nylander played at three levels during the 2014-15 season, including the SHL, World Junior Championships, and the AHL—demonstrating that he is an impact player at each level. Nylander’s speed, vision, and offensive skills were all the more impressive given his older and stronger opponents.
Prospect of the Year: William Nylander, Toronto Marlies (AHL)
Nylander’s potential and accomplishments make him the Leafs’ top prospect this season. His eight goals and 20 points in 21 games for MODO in the SHL were a dramatic improvement over his eight points in 2013-14. His importance to MODO this season cannot be understated, as his 0.95 points-per-game average was more than twice that of the next highest player on the team.
Nylander was outstanding at the World Junior Hockey Championships, finishing with three goals and 10 points in seven games. When Nylander joined the Marlies in January, he improved his point totals for four consecutive months. By year end, his 32 total points were fourth best in AHL history for players under the age of 19.
Breakout Player for 2015-16: Antoine Bibeau G, Toronto Marlies (AHL)
Despite Bibeau’s eye-opening performance during the 2014 QMJHL playoffs and Memorial Cup, the former 2013 6th round pick surprised by sticking with the AHL Marlies for the entire 2014-15 season. In 31 games, Bibeau went 15-10, with a respectable .913 save percentage and a 2.69 goals-against average.
Though the 20-year-old was wildly inconsistent, he finished the season on a high note—posting an outstanding 39-save effort in the final game of the playoffs. Despite his performance, the Marlies were eliminated from the playoffs by the Grand Rapids Griffins in five games.
Most Improved Player: Dominic Toninato, C, University of Minnesota-Duluth (NCHC)
The Leafs’ 2012 5th round pick went from being a bottom-six center as a freshman in 2013-14 to centering the Bulldogs’ top line this season. The increased ice time and responsibility paid off, as he led the team with 16 goals versus only seven the previous year. At 6’1 and possessing a top-six forward skillset, Toninato is putting himself on the pro prospect radar after showing that he can be an impact player in the NCAA.
Overachiever: Connor Brown, RW, Toronto Marlies (AHL)
It may be counter-intuitive to name Brown—the 2013-14 CHL scoring leader—an overachiever. However, Brown entered the 2014-15 season with many question marks. The naysayers attributed Brown’s scoring crown to playing on a line with the consensus 2015 1st overall NHL draft pick, Connor McDavid.
Despite modest expectations, Brown led the Marlies with 61 points and proved durable by leading the team with 76 games played. Of his 21 goals, only three came on the powerplay, which tied him for second in even-strength goals and third in total goals. Brown also led the team with a plus-24 rating. At season’s end, he was named to the AHL’s All Rookie Team.
Underachiever: Matt Finn, D, Toronto Marlies (AHL)
Finn entered his rookie season with the Marlies after an accolade-filled OHL 2013-14 season. Despite possessing an abundance of skills and leadership qualities, the 2012 2nd round selection had a difficult transition to professional hockey. Finn didn’t make his debut with the Marlies until their sixth game of the season, and after 12 games, was sent to Orlando of the ECHL. He played eight games for the Solar Bears, scoring 1 goal and 2 points. He returned to the Marlies in early January, finishing the season with just 3 points in 28 games.
Highest Risk/Reward: Andreas Johnson, LW, Frolunda Indians (SHL)
Andreas Johnson has enjoyed two progressively impactful seasons in the SHL after being selected by the Leafs in the 7th round of the 2013 draft. The 2013-14 SHL Rookie of the Year, he followed up an impressive 15 goal campaign with 22 goals this season. The offensive production was indicative of how much Frolunda relied on him as a key catalyst for their offense. Despite his smooth transition to the pros in Sweden, Johnson still has to prove that his skillset and relatively small size can successfully transition to the North American pros.
Prospect of the Month: Brendan Leipsic, LW, Toronto Marlies (AHL)
Leipsic was acquired from the Nashville Predators as part of a package for Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli. The rookie left winger was enjoying a relatively productive AHL season until March, when he registered only one assist in 11 games.
Come April, he rebounded dramatically with five goals and seven assists in 10 games, and followed that up with 1 goal and three points in five playoff games. Leipsic’s impressive April coincided with a strong push by the Marlies, who clawed their way into a playoff spot despite a dismal first half.