Maple Leaf juniors display positive development during 2010-11 season

By John-Eric Iannicello
Photo: Gregg McKegg was one of the top offensive players in the OHL this season, posting 49 goals and 43 assists through 66 games. (Photo courtesy of Holly Gunning/HF)


The Maple Leafs have seen positive development out of almost all their junior prospects this past season. Even projected role players such as Josh Nicholls, Jamie Devane, and Kenny Ryan had career years and played key roles for respective their teams. Greg McKegg was one of the OHL‘s most dangerous forwards and Jesse Blacker was equally impressive from the defensive end earning recognition from Hockey Canada. Both Sam Carrick and Andrew Crescenzi missed a handful of games this year with lower-body injuries, while defenseman Barron Smith‘s season finished in mid-November. Jerry D’Amigo made an unanticipated, but welcomed appearance in the OHL, while Brad Ross continued to be a thorn in the side of numerous WHL players.


WHL

Josh Nicholls, RW, Saskatoon Blades
Acquired: 7th round, 182nd overall, 2010

Josh Nicholls had arguably the most impressive season among the Maple Leafs junior prospects. After a year that saw him record a respectable 48 points, Nicholls exploded onto the scene offensively recording 34 goals and 87 points in 71 games with the Saskatoon Blades. His 87 points were good for second in team scoring. Known as a strong two-way player, Nicholls was also among the team lead in plus/minus with a plus-50.

While his point totals were also the product of a successful team, and strong chemistry with line mates such as Chris Collins and Marek Viedensky (SJ) it’s also an indication of Nicholl’s growth as a player at the WHL level.

A big opportunity awaits Nicholls next season as a handful of players from the Blades have the opportunity to step into a pro role. His true offensive potential won’t really be known for a few seasons, but he’s shown great progress in this area. Combined with continued maturation and a focus on improving his skating Nicholls is turning himself into quite the seventh round selection for the Maple Leafs.

Brad Ross, LW, Portland Winterhawks
Acquired: 2nd round, 43rd overall, 2010

Brad Ross has continued his development as a pesky top-nine forward this past season with the Portland Winterhawks. His offensive production has improved slightly, and he’s broken the 30 goal plateau with 31 goals this year. He’s continued to rack up the penalty minutes with 171 in 67 games.

Ross’s Winterhawks currently lead 3-2 in their Western Conference Final playoff against the Spokane Chiefs. Ross had a very strong opening playoff round scoring four goals and one point in four games against the Everett Silvertips, but has failed to record a goal in his last seven games. He’s also only recorded one point in that time.

In the second round of the playoffs, Ross received a three game suspension for a hit on Kelowna forward Zack Franko. Through his last eight playoff games he’s recorded a total of 41 penalty minutes which include two game misconducts. Six of his minor penalty minutes have come as the result of roughing.

Ross will be encouraged to play his pit-bull style, but will also need to avoid taking costly penalties. With his reputation he’s likely to be a target for penalty calls. He’s likely to return to Portland next season with a bigger offensive role as Nino Niederreiter (NYI) and Ryan Johansen (CBJ) make their probable jump to the NHL stage.


OHL

Jesse Blacker, D, Owen Sound Attack
Acquired: 2nd round, 58th overall, 2009

Recently turned 20-year-old Jesse Blacker has continued to make large strides into developing as an overall defenseman. He had a great offensive season for the Owen Sound Attack, leading the team in defensive scoring with 10 goals and 44 assists in 62 games. He was also a plus-17 which was a huge turnaround from his team worst minus-22 a season ago.

The Attack finished first in the Western Conference, and Blacker played a vital role in the team’s success. In December, he was invited to Team Canada’s World Junior camp, but failed to secure a spot with the club.

Blacker and the Attack recently steamrolled the defending Memorial Cup champion Windsor Spitfires 10-4 to bounce them from the playoffs and capture the Western Conference Championship. They square off with the Mississauga Majors in the OHL Finals May 3rd. Since the Majors are hosting the Memorial Cup Tournament they get a bypass to the tournament, which results in the Attack also having a spot in the tournament as the other representative OHL team.

Blacker will join the Toronto Marlies next season in an effort to secure a top-four spot with the club. His strength in skating, and ability to move the puck will be a welcomed addition to the team. He could see stints with the Maple Leafs in 2011-12 if injuries arise.

Sam Carrick, C, Brampton Battalion
Acquired: 5th round, 144th overall, 2010

The scrappy Sam Carrick hasn’t taken the leap offensively that he has the potential to take, but other circumstances may be playing a factor.

The Brampton Battalion, for a second season, have been offensively challenged scoring only 190 goals (second last in the league in goals-for) and have relied heavily on a defensive style to win games. The team’s leading scorer was overage forward Scott Tanski who recorded 47 points in 67 games. Also attributing to Carrick’s lack of offense was a lower-body injury early in the season which kept him out a handful of games.

Carrick ended the season with 59 games played, recording 16 goals, 23 assists and 73 penalty minutes. He also was tallied five fighting majors.

While the Battalion did find themselves in a playoff position at year’s end, they were bounced rather quickly by the Niagara IceDogs. The Battalion were outscored 18-3 in a four game sweep by the IceDogs.

Carrick hasn’t exploded offensively, but make no mistake he is still a valued forward. He is extremely solid on his skates, and combines his low center of gravity with deceptively strong style of game that should serve him well at the next level.


Andrew Crescenzi, C, Kitchener Rangers
Acquired: Free Agent, 2010

After being passed-over in the 2010 draft, the 18-year-old Crescenzi was able to secure a contract with the Maple Leafs. The 6’5 monster displayed great physical play and strong skating which projects him as a future bottom-six player for the Maple Leafs.

Returning to Kitchener, Crescenzi was expected to increase his offensive production as a second-year forward. After a year where he recorded 12 points, Crescenzi scored 12 goals and 23 points in 55 games. He also tallied 74 penalty minutes which included three fighting majors.

While Crescenzi will likely have to carve out a career as a bottom-six grinder, he’ll need to improve as a scrapper. Although he’s 6’5, Crescenzi isn’t a great fighter at this point, but can be something that improves over time and added strength.

After Kitchener was bounced from the OHL playoffs, Crescenzi was added to the Marlies roster for their final two games and didn’t look out of place. He was involved physically, and played a strong game along the boards.

There’s a lot to like about Crescenzi. He’s still very young, and won’t turn 19 until late July. He’s extremely raw, but as exceptional size, good speed, and embraces the physical game. With the proper moulding he could turn himself into a valuable depth forward.


Jerry D’Amigo, LW, Kitchener Rangers
Acquired: 6th round, 158th overall, 2009

Playing the majority of his season with the Marlies, it didn’t seem like D’Amigo was going to be assigned to the Kitchener Rangers. D’Amigo fit in well with the Marlies, but the Maple Leafs felt he needed to rekindle the offensive game he displayed on the international stage with Team USA and with R.P.I. (NCAA).

D’Amigo joined the Rangers in early February and made an immediate impact with the club scoring a goal and an assist in his first game. Through the month of February he continued his solid production with the Rangers scoring eight goals and tallying 17 points in 12 games.

Concerns about his offensive ability seemed to fade away as the 20-year-old showcased more than enough through his 21 regular season games with the club scoring 28 points. He continued to aid the Rangers during the playoffs, scoring six goals and three assists before being knocked-out by the Whalers in game seven.

Next season D’Amigo will rejoin the Marlies and will look to prove that he has what it takes to be a top-six forward at the pro level.


Jamie Devane, LW, Plymouth Whalers
Acquired: 3rd round, 68th overall, 2009

Jamie Devane has enjoyed a renaissance season with the Plymouth Whalers in 2010-11, and is starting to look more like a prospect as he begins to find his offensive confidence. He’s set new OHL career highs for himself in every statistical category.

Through the first half of the OHL season, it looked like business as usual for Devane – limited offensive production, and prominent penalty minutes. He had only recorded four goals, and three assists in 31 games. The new calendar year however saw a different Devane emerge.

In January, he had scored five goals and seven assists in 13 games – which almost equaled his total point production through the entire 2009-10 season. Devane continued his on-ice production for the rest of the regular season scoring 15 goals and 16 assists for 31 points in the final 32 games of the season.

He continued his production into the post-season collecting two goals and three assists in the first four games against Kitchener. However, his production slowed considerably going pointless in his final six games.

Devane finished the season with 19 goals and 19 assists in 63 games played. He was also a plus player for the first time in his OHL career going plus-six. His enforcer style didn’t suffer either, setting career highs in fighting majors with 10 and penalty minutes with 131.

While the option to play pro next season is there for Devane, the Maple Leafs could decide to keep him in the OHL in an effort to facilitate his offensive growth.


Greg McKegg, C, Erie Otters
Acquired: 3rd round, 62nd overall, 2010

The 18-year-old Greg McKegg has given hope to the Maple Leaf faithful this past season. Hope that they may be able to pry another potential top-six forward out of their junior ranks.

After an impressive campaign during the 2009-10 season, the Otters’ forward fell to the Maple Leafs in the third round on draft day. Many believed his success was due to the quality of line mates he was paired with, but this past season has casted those beliefs aside.

This season, McKegg has proven to be the player Erie expected when they selected him second overall in the 2008 OHL Priority Selection. He was one of the league’s most prolific scorers this past year finishing eighth in total points with 92 and tied for third in goals scored with 49.

McKegg’s season has had many peaks, but also its share of valleys. McKegg still struggled at times with game-to-game consistency, and was not as effective in the post-season as he could have been. He let his frustrations get the better of him early in the series when he attacked Spitfires forward Zack MacQueen at the end of game three.

He signed an entry-level deal with the Maple Leafs on April 6th, and is likely to return to Erie next season unless he is able to crack the Maple Leafs roster.


Kenny Ryan, RW, Windsor Spitfires
Acquired: 2nd round, 50th overall, 2009

When a top OHL scorer goes pointless against the Spitfires you can rest assured that Kenny Ryan played a pivotal role in it. The second-year Spitfires forward has evolved his game into a strong two-way forward for the defending Memorial Cup Champions. Capable at lining up at both the wing and center, Ryan has been thrown in key defensive situations as a center all season long.

The graduation of key members from last year’s team has opened the door for Ryan to develop as a player offensively as well. He built on his offensive numbers from last season by posting 21 goals and 58 points in 63 games this year. He was tied for fifth in short-handed goals with four this season, and also added three short-handed assists.

His tireless work ethic has made him a fan favourite on the Spitfires and he’ll hope that it catches the eye of Maple Leafs management. He’ll likely never be a big-time point producer, or ‘wow’ you with dazzling plays, but he plays honest, hardnosed hockey that championship teams need in their bottom-six.


Barron Smith, D, Peterborough Petes
Acquired: 7th round, 188th overall, 2009

Barron Smith‘s OHL career has seen him suffer a variety of injuries which have hampered his development. This season has been his biggest challenge to date.

He was involved in an off-ice issue earlier in the year and hadn’t played for the Petes since November because of injury. The 20-year-old Smith has only played in 16 games with the Peterborough Petes this year and only recorded one assist.

Over the past three seasons, Smith has only played in 86 games. At this rate its unlikely Smith will receive an NHL deal by the Maple Leafs.