Maple Leafs resist urge to promote top prospects to NHL action

By Ed Dermit
Photo: On pace for his best season yet, Andreas Johnson already has 10 points in 12 games on loan to the SHL’s Frolunda HC. (Courtesy of Tommy Holl/Frolunda Gothenburg/Champions Hockey League via Getty Images)

Photo: On pace for his best season yet, Andreas Johnson already has 10 points in 12 games on loan to the SHL’s Frolunda HC. (Courtesy of Tommy Holl/Frolunda Gothenburg/Champions Hockey League via Getty Images)

 

 

The Toronto Maple Leafs prospect cupboard is well stocked after a number of trades to acquire prospects, sign undrafted free-agents and an active 2015 draft. So much so, that prior to the 2015-16 season, the Leafs moved four prospects—Matt Finn, Christopher Gibson, Tom Nilsson and Carter Verhaeghe—to the Islanders for Michael Grabner.

While the move was made in large part to free up space under the NHL’s 50-player contract limit, the trade also signified that the Leafs had other players to move up the depth chart, ahead of those that were dealt. It’s indicative of the depth and changing value in what Leafs management has come to see as the type of player they are looking to develop within the system.

Pro

Top Pro Prospect
William Nylander, C/RW, Toronto Marlies (AHL)

The Leafs’ focus on long-term development over short-term gain passed an important test with the demotion of Nylander to the AHL to open the 2015-16 season. Based on pure skill, creativity and speed, no one on the current Maple Leafs roster can match Nylander’s offensive talents. Having averaged nearly one point per game last season in the SHL and in the AHL as an 18-year-old, the temptation may have been to move him up to the next level now.

However, with his long-term future at center after playing last season on the wing, Nylander still has room to improve on face-offs and defensive zone coverage in order to become a more complete player. Furthermore, the Marlies are expected to be a strong contender for the Calder Cup this season with Nylander expected to play a key role.

Bounceback Prospect
Stuart Percy, D, Toronto Marlies (AHL)

With the flurry of new blood in the Leafs prospect pipeline, Percy has taken a backseat to higher-profile players acquired in trades and in the 2015 draft. Having suffered an injury last season that temporarily took him out of the prospect spotlight, Percy returns healthy in 2015-16. He will begin the season in the AHL looking to re-establish his standing in the organization by demonstrating strong two-way play, and a smart, intelligent approach to the way he thinks the game.

Offensive Breakout
Kasperi Kapanen, RW, Toronto Marlies, (AHL)

The former Penguins first-round pick came over to the Leafs as part of the Kessel trade last summer. Like Nylander, Kapanen also played in a European men’s league last season, represented his country at the World Juniors and finished his season in the AHL, as an 18-year-old. While Kapanen played to mixed reviews at the World Juniors, he enjoyed greater success in Finland’s Liiga, scoring 21 points in 41 games and then finishing with a strong AHL playoff performance. Kapanen’s pedigree and relative success last season puts him on pace to enjoy a breakout rookie AHL season—despite being only 19 years of age.

Junior

Top Junior Prospect
Mitch Marner, C, London Knights (OHL)

On paper, Marner may have a hard time meeting expectations in 2015-16 after averaging two points per game last season in the OHL. He is off to a solid start with the Knights scoring five goals and 10 points after seven OHL games this season, yet his real progress will be measured off the score sheet. He will be expected to be a top point producer while moving into a full time center ice role and the added defensive responsibilities it entails.

Marner is also expected to be a core member of Canada’s entry in the World Junior Championships. Marner’s puckhandling skills and creativity with the puck mean there will be high expectations for him to become an offensive catalyst at the pro level in the long term. In the short-term, adding strength, improving his play without the puck and dominating at the World Juniors would be important indicators of continued progress.

Offensive Breakout
Martins Dzierkals, RW, Rouyn-Noranda Huskies (QMJHL)

The eighteen-year-old Latvian makes his CHL debut in 2015-16 after playing last season with HK Riga in Russia’s MHL junior league. The lightly scouted third-round selection and 68th overall pick in 2015 posted 28 points in 32 MHL games last season. He began to draw attention after two impressive performances for Latvia’s U18 and U20 junior teams in 2014-15, where he was a dominating offensive player. It was hoped that his offensive point production from last season would carry over to the CHL. Early indications are that it has, as Dzierkals is second in Huskies team scoring with seven goals and 16 points in 10 games.

New Team in 2015-16
J.J. Piccinich, RW, London Knights (OHL)

The Leafs’ fourth-round pick (103rd overall) in 2014, Piccinich endured a disappointing freshman season at Boston University in 2014-15. Playing in only 25 games, Piccinich scored one goal and three points despite being billed as a high scoring winger coming out of the USHL. After seeing fourth-line duty for much of his time at BU, Piccinich opted to join the OHL’s London Knights in an effort to re-ignite his standing as a pro prospect. The opportunity will be there, as he is slotted for a top-six forward role flanking either fellow Leafs prospect Marner or highly touted Christian Dvorak. The early returns look promising as Piccicnich is off to as strong start with six goals, 11 points and a plus-7 rating in seven games.

Amateur

Top Amateur Prospect
Jeremy Bracco, RW, Boston College (Hockey East)

Bracco joined the Terriers as a freshman to start 2015-16 after a record setting career with the U.S. National Team Development Program. The Leafs’ second-round pick (61st overall) in 2015 chose to attend BC after contemplating a move to the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL, who hold his rights. Bracco’s skillset rivals that of fellow Leafs prospects Nylander and Marner, with the small stature to match.

Bracco is off to a slow start with no points after three games, however he faces a physically demanding transition. With a slight frame, Bracco is facing competition that is as many as five years older, and players that may have already peaked physically. Despite the modest start, his long-term potential is undeniable.

Freshman to Watch
Dakota Joshua, C, Ohio State University (Big Ten)

When the Leafs drafted Joshua with their fifth-round pick in the 2014 NHL draft, they characterized him as a long-term project with potential as a top-six forward who could score. He did just that in 2014-15 by recording 44 points in 54 games for Sioux Falls of the USHL. He followed that up with 13 points in 11 playoff games on the way to a USHL championship.

Joshua joined Ohio State University for the 2015-16 season, where he has played in just one of the team’s four games to date. His slow introduction to NCAA hockey is due in part to the Buckeyes being a veteran-laden team. At 6-foot-3 and over 190 pounds, Joshua has the physical presence to contribute, but transitioning his hockey skills to the college game may require more patience.

Europe

Top European Prospect
Andreas Johnson, LW, Frolunda (SHL)

Johnson is again the top European prospect after returned to play one last season with Frolunda of the SHL in 2015-16. Despite being only 20 years old, Johnson has already enjoyed two productive seasons as one of Frolunda’s leading goal scorers and an impact player in the SHL. While few expectations come from being a former seventh-round draft pick, Johnson represented one of the few high-end skilled prospects in the Leafs system before Nylander, Marner and Bracco arrived on the scene. How Johnson’s SHL success translates to North America has been highly anticipated, and that question may start to be addressed following this SHL season. Johnson is expected to come over to North America at the conclusion of Frolunda’s season, potentially joining the Marlies late in 2015-16.

Offensive Breakout
Pierre Engvall, LW, Mora IK (Allsvenskan)

Engvall has been under the radar as a Leafs prospect in part because he was a seventh-round pick and he has played in Sweden’s junior and second-tier leagues since being drafted in 2014. Yet, the 6-foot-4, 195-pound winger with a scorer’s touch has intriguing offensive potential. In 2014-15, Engvall scored 51 points in 38 games as a junior, although a 12-game audition in the Swedish men’s leagues saw him go pointless. For 2015-16, Engvall has graduated to Mora Ik of the Allsvenskan, where he has five points in 12 games.

After a prolific three year junior career as a high scoring winger that also saw him represent Sweden on World Junior teams since he was 16, Engvall will look to convert his high scoring junior days into production against men.