High-end skill transforms Maple Leafs Top 20 prospects

By Ed Dermit

Kasperi Kapanen - Toronto Maple Leafs

Photo: Although Kasperi Kapanen will likely spend this season with the Toronto Marlies, it’s only a matter of time before he finds himself on a top line with the Leafs. (Courtesy of Kevin Sousa/Icon Sportswire)

 

10. (NR) Jeremy Bracco, RW, 7.5 D
Drafted 2nd round, 61st overall, 2015

Statistically speaking, Bracco enjoyed a record-breaking season with the U.S. National U18 Team in 2014-15. Bracco’s single season and career point totals with the  broke records set by Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel when they were with the same program. On the ice, Bracco is an excellent playmaker and has high end puck handling skills that place him in the same company as Mitch Marner and William Nylander, yet Bracco is even smaller than the other two. Given the level of competition he has faced, a better read on Bracco’s future potential may come as soon as this season, when he suits up as a freshman for Boston College.

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

Johnson is an intriguing prospect given his skill set and the success he has enjoyed in two seasons playing with Frolunda in Sweden’s SHL as a 19 and 20-year-old. Over the last two seasons, Johnson has won the SHL’s Rookie of the Year award and scored 37 goals in 99 games. Johnson is a fast skater, a strong puck handler and plays with a high energy level. Johnson signed a contract with the Leafs this past off-season but will return to play with Frolunda before coming over to North America at the conclusion of the SHL season.

8. (NR) Brendan Leipsic, LW, 7.0 C
Acquired via trade with Nashville, 2015

The Leafs added Leipsic from Nashville at last season’s trade deadline for Mike Santorelli and Cody Franson. A former third-round pick of the Predators in 2012, Leipsic joined the Marlies late in his rookie AHL season. He experienced a successful first season with 54 total points, including 19 points in 27 games with the Marlies. Leipsic is a creative playmaker and combines skill with grittiness that is rare for a player that barely reaches 5-foot-10. Given the Leafs’ newfound depth of small, highly skilled wingers, Leipsic will have to find a way to separate himself from the pack.

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

Bibeau has come a long way after being a sixth round pick in 2013. Last season, Bibeau split the starting goaltender duties as a 20-year-old rookie in the AHL. Although statistically speaking his play was wildly inconsistent from month-to-month, Bibeau showed that he could excel at the minor-pro level, finishing with 15 wins and 10 losses, and a 2.69 goals against average. Bibeau has good mobility for a goalie that stands at 6-foot-2, allowing him to combine athleticism with a big frame. Bibeau will return to the Marlies this season and look to become more consistent from game to game.

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

Percy’s injury woes last season and the Leafs’ successful 2015 NHL draft may have taken him out of the prospect spotlight, but Percy remains one of their highest rated blue line prospects. The former first round pick is still only 22 years old and is just one year removed from making the NHL out of training camp after one season in the AHL. While an injury robbed him of important development time last season, it’s Percy’s high hockey IQ that has always set him apart as a prospect, rather than outstanding physical skills. There are defensemen in the system with better skills, but Percy’s poise with the puck and ability to think the game continue to position him as a solid NHL prospect.

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

Despite being a former sixth-round pick and standing less than 6-feet tall, Brown had an immediate impact as an AHL rookie last season. He led the Toronto Marlies with 61 points, a plus-24 rating, and tied for second with 40 assists. Despite scoring a respectable but modest 21 goals, his impressive 16-percent shooting percentage demonstrated a scorer’s touch when he was not looking to set up his linemates. Brown put himself high up on the Leafs’ prospect radar with a successful AHL rookie campaign and may make his NHL debut sometime in 2015-16.

4. (NR) Scott Harrington, D, 6.5 B
Acquired via trade with Pittsburgh, 2015

Harrington was one of two prospects the Penguins gave up to the Leafs in the Kessel trade. The Penguins second-round draft pick in 2011, Harrington played two seasons in the AHL and made his NHL debut last season playing 10 games with the Penguins. His forte is being defensively sound in his own zone.

At 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, Harrington has decent size and uses it effectively to battle opposing forwards. He may have already peaked in his development which is to say there is limited upside, but that is not a negative. Harrington is much better suited to killing penalties than playing on a powerplay unit, however defenseman who are dependable in their own zone and who can make smart, low-risk plays with the puck are always in demand.

3. (NR) Kasperi Kapanen, RW, 7.5 C
Acquired via trade with Pittsburgh, 2015

The Penguins’ first-round draft pick (22nd overall) in 2014, Kapanen was acquired by the Leafs as part of the Kessel trade. Kapanen’s small size and blazing speed put him in the same mold as Marner and Nylander, although he may not have the same elite, high-end skill. That’s not to say he is not a gifted offensive player, as he projects to be a top six winger. Kapanen earned praise for his 2014-15 season where he scored 21 points in 41 games as an 18-year-old in Finland’s top league. At the end of that season, he made a smooth transition to the AHL, where he scored three goals and five points in seven playoff games. Kapenen provides the Leafs with another excellent offensive prospect who is likely ticketed for the Marlies this season.

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

Nylander’s skills translated into excellent offensive production against much older competition in the SHL and the AHL last season. Between those two leagues Nylander played a combined 58 games and scored 22 goals and 52 points as an 18-year-old. Most encouraging was Nylander’s growth as a player in the AHL where he emerged as the Marlies first-line winger and produced increasing point totals month over month last season.

There is little question that Nylander’s skill will play well at higher levels, however a likely move to centre means he will have to learn the nuances of defensive zone coverage before he is considered ready for the NHL. He has already added strength and bulk this off-season, demonstrating that he is taking a serious approach to his own development. With the Leafs preaching patience and development for their prospects, Nylander is likely to spend at least a portion of the upcoming season rounding out his game in the AHL.

1. (NR) Mitch Marner, C/RW, 8.5 C
Drafted 1st round, 4th overall, 2015

Marner ‘s two points per game average in the OHL last season as a 17-year-old placed him in rare and elite company. That’s because every other player to accomplish the same feat in the CHL (with a minimum of 40 games played) went on to enjoy a successful NHL career. While high scoring juniors do not always translate into successful NHL pros, Marner’s high end puck-handling skills and above average skating indicate he has the tools to play at higher levels.

An early indication of that was at the 2015 Team Canada Summer Evaluation Camp, where Marner proved to be the dominant player among an all-star cast of Canadian juniors. Marner will likely be returned to the London Knights where he will be moved to centre after playing most of last season on the wing. Marner will have to add strength and overcome concerns about his small size in order to be successful against bigger, stronger pros.

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