Mighty turnaround for Toronto Maple Leafs prospects pool

By Chris Roberts
Photo: Scott Harrington got into 15 games with the Leafs until he was sent down to the AHL Marlies on November 28th. (Courtesy of Graig Abel/Getty Images)

Photo: Scott Harrington got into 15 games with the Leafs until he was sent down to the AHL Marlies on November 28th. (Courtesy of Graig Abel/Getty Images)

 

 

Less than a year ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs were in an unenviable place—the prospect cupboard was bare, the AHL affiliate lacked star power, and the big club was in a downward spiral. This year’s version of the Maple Leafs doesn’t inspire much confidence, but the future looks bright thanks to a drastic overhaul and a newfound commitment to drafting and development.

In just one short year the organization has gone from having one of the weakest prospect pools in the NHL to having, at the very least, a top 10 group.

Left Wing

Management’s new emphasis on skill above all else is evident when looking at the Maple Leafs prospects on the left side. In the 2015 NHL Draft the team selected undersized, but highly-skilled European wingers Martins Dzierkals and Dmytro Timashov. Dzierkals, a 6-foot-0, 160-pound Latvian, got off to an amazing start in the first two months of the season with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the QMJHL. In October he accumulated 20 points in 12 games, scoring at least one point in every game, including a four-point effort in the first game of the month. He responded with just seven points in nine November games and is currently fourth on the team in scoring.

Timashov has been heralded as a mid-round steal already and is sixth in QMJHL scoring. The fifth -round pick has been the driving force of the Quebec Remparts offense and has kept them competitive despite losing both Adam Erne (TBL) and Anthony Duclair (ARZ). He has already signed an entry-level deal with the Maple Leafs and will represent Sweden at the World Junior Championships.

The trade market has also been a way for the Leafs to add to their prospect depth. They were patient in playing the Phil Kessel market during last year’s debacle, but netted a solid prospect in Brendan Leipsic from Nashville in exchange for Cody Franson. Leipsic isn’t a high-end goal scorer, but could be a candidate to see time with the pro club toward the end of the season. He provides a mix of grit and secondary offense that suggests he might a productive third-line winger.

Left wing might have been the position of strength prior to the organization’s overhaul. Josh Leivo, a third round pick in 2011, has already appeared in 16 NHL games, but had a down year last season. He has found chemistry with William Nylander this year and currently has 21 points in 21 games. It’s clear the organization favors some of its younger, more high-profile prospects over Leivo at this point, but he could be a wild card, given his size and strength.

Andreas Johnson is perhaps the most intriguing Leafs prospect; the Swede is in his third season with Frolunda HC since being drafted, despite being signed to an entry-level deal last year. In the past two seasons he has been one of the SHL’s premier young goal scorers. The 20-year-old is third on Frolunda in scoring this season through 24 games.

Nolan Vesey and Pierre Engvall remain long-term projects. Engvall, a 2014 seventh-round pick, is having a breakthrough year in Sweden with Mora IK, while Vesey is struggling to replicate his 23-point campaign as a freshman in 2014-15 with the University of Maine.

Center

Mitch Marner and William Nylander are the crown jewels amongst the Maple Leafs prospects and the pair of top 10 draft picks has shown why this season. Nylander has been the best player all season for the Toronto Marlies, and if it weren’t for a new desire to be patient with its prospects, the gifted Swede would be playing in the NHL this season. He has high-end skill and skating ability and has shown a commitment to improving all facets of his game at the AHL level. Through 22 games he is leading the AHL in scoring with 29 points.

Marner, meanwhile, is also meeting—and exceeding—expectations in the OHL. Along with linemate Christian Dvorak (ARZ), the fourth-overall pick in 2015 is leading the OHL in scoring with 58 points in just 25 games. He will play for the Canadian National Junior Team, likely on the team’s first or second line. The Maple Leafs will have an interesting decision to make next season as the 5-foot-11, 164-pound Thornhill, Ontario native won’t be eligible to play in the AHL, despite likely having nothing to prove in junior.

The Maple Leafs’ old way of thinking in terms of drafting led to them selecting Frederik Gauthier 21st overall in 2013, a 6-foot-5, 215-pound pivot who is regarded more for his defensive acumen than his ability to produce offense. The knock on Gauthier is his skating and the prevailing opinion was that he would not be able to keep up with the pro game. It’s still early in his pro career, but thus far he has shown more than what most expected he was capable of. He is slotted well with the Marlies, playing third-line minutes, but has also earned occasional powerplay minutes.

Another holdover from the previous regime is Sam Carrick. He’s a Frederik Gauthier-lite, in a sense, without the size. He played 16 games with the Maple Leafs last season but has since settled into a bottom-six role with the Marlies. Along with free-agent signing Rich Clune, Carrick has provided sandpaper and grit to the Marlies’ skilled lineup.

The Maple Leafs also have three prospects who might be unheralded north of the border, but have done well at the collegiate level. Tony Cameranesi, a fifth round pick in 2011, is in his third season with the University of Minnesota-Duluth and is currently second on the team in scoring with 17 points in 13 games; he recorded 30 and 21 in the past two seasons.

Dominic Toninato, a teammate of Cameranesi, is also in his third season with the club. He’s more of a finisher than Cameranesi, and has played on the wing, but was drafted as a center. He doesn’t have the skill level Cameranesi has, but brings a physical presence to the ice. Dakota Joshua, meanwhile, is in his freshman season with Ohio State University. The Michigan native has been playing bottom-six minutes, but is a proven point producer at the USHL level and will be someone the Leafs keep a close eye on moving forward.

Ryan Rupert, a sixth round pick in 2012, had a productive 27-point campaign with the Toronto Marlies last season, but, highlighting the team’s newfound depth, he is currently with the Orlando Solar Bears of the ECHL.

Right Wing

The right side is easily the position with the biggest overhaul in terms of talented, young prospects. Before last season’s trade deadline, just three of the team’s nine prospects at the position were part of the organization. The six newcomers have found their way to the organization through trades, free-agent signings and the 2015 NHL Draft. Acquired in the Kessel trade in the offseason, Kasperi Kapanen might have the highest ceiling of all those players, but he has to refine his neutral-zone game as well as improve his defensive effort. Kapanen will likely suit up for his country at the World Junior Championships, given the Leafs brass allow him to take leave. The Leafs also added high-scoring collegiate Zach Hyman to the organization in a minor trade with the Florida Panthers. Unable to sign the Toronto native, the Panthers dealt Hyman to the Leafs for Greg McKegg.

Casey Bailey and Nikita Shoshnikov are currently providing solid secondary scoring for the Marlies and both players were picked up via free agency. It has been tough to earn consistent ice time on the AHL squad as they are the league’s best team, but Bailey has looked comfortable in 15 games, scoring three goals and adding five assists. It’s unlikely that he is more than a good AHL player, but he could find a spark with increased minutes if both Nylander and Kapanen go to the World Juniors. Shoshnikov, meanwhile, is tied for third on the Marlies in goal scoring with seven tallies. He had a breakthrough campaign with Moscow Oblast Atlant in the KHL last season and hasn’t had much trouble navigating the North American game in his first year.

In the draft, sticking with their modus operandi, the Maple Leafs took a gamble in the second round, selecting undersized winger Jeremy Bracco. He’s listed at 5-foot-10 and 173 pounds, and that might even be generous; but the Leafs had no qualms about selecting the player who had broken Patrick Kane‘s NDTP points record. He began this season at Boston College but has since left to play for the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers. By no means is he lighting the league on fire, but is producing at more than a point per game. He’s going to have his struggles keeping up with the physical play throughout the year, but his skill and elusiveness will show on occasion.

Nikita Korostelev was selected in the seventh round of the draft, and while he isn’t small (he’s listed at 6’2 and 195lbs) he doesn’t necessarily play a big-man’s game. Still, the Leafs feel there’s an untapped potential there for the Moscow native, who has spent the past two seasons with the OHL’s Sarnia Sting. He’s third on the team in scoring through 28 games, behind high-profile prospects Pavel Zacha (NJD) and 2016-eligible Jakob Chychrun.

Aside from the newcomers there are a couple prospects with some potential, most notably Connor Brown. A former linemate of Connor McDavid, Brown thrived in his first year as a pro last season with 61 points in 76 games. In Maple Leafs training camp this season Brown was one of the more noticeable players, showing great chemistry with Nylander, but he has been sidelined with a fractured ankle for much of this season. J.J. Piccinich has been overshadowed in London by Marner, but the 2014 third round pick has fit in well with the powerhouse Knights. He is fourth on the team in scoring with 33 points, behind the team’s top line of Dvorak, Marner and Matthew Tkachuk (2016). The move from Boston University to London has been very beneficial to Piccinich’s development.

Finally, 2013 fifth round pick Fabrice Herzog is having a career year with Zurich of the Swiss-A league, but is very much a long-term project, if he still fits in with the organization at all. He did, however, come over in the summer for the development camp.

Defense

The Maple Leafs have an unheralded group of prospects on the blue line. There isn’t a top-tier, first-pairing projected player among the group, but at least half a dozen that could carve out decent NHL careers. Scott Harrington, acquired in the Kessel trade, has been up and down between the NHL and AHL this season, but has looked steady when dressed. Meanwhile, waiver pickup Frank Corrado has yet to play in a single game for the Leafs. Corrado, who has 28 NHL games under his belt, has played in seven games for the Marlies in a conditioning stint, but his inability to get into the Maple Leafs lineup is baffling.

Stuart Percy is another that could see time with the Maple Leafs this season, but he might need an injury to open the door. Regarded as a good skater, Percy showed off his mobility in nine games with the Leafs last season as he made the team out of training camp. He was later sent down and never quite met expectations in the AHL, posting just 11 points in 43 games after an impressive rookie campaign. Outside of AHL veteran T.J. Brennan, he has been the Marlies’ most productive defenseman.

The Leafs selected four defensemen in the 2015 NHL Draft, most notably Travis Dermott. The 1996-born defender has already signed an entry-level deal with the organization and could represent Canada at the World Junior Championships this season. He’s regarded as a strong two-way defender; offense isn’t his biggest assest but, playing with a strong Erie team in the OHL, he has registered near a point-per-game.

Andrew Nielsen and Stephen Desrocher are two other 1996-born defensemen the Leafs decided to select, meaning they are eligible to turn pro as early as next season. Desrocher, the 6-foot-4, 198-pound Toronto native was a key cog on the Memorial Cup-winning Oshawa Generals blue line last season, but was traded early this year to the Kingston Frontenacs. Nielsen, meanwhile, has also been signed to a contract already. He is a physical force on the backend, but can also chip in offensively, utilizing his strong, accurate shot. Nielsen has already passed last season’s point total of 24 and matched his goal total of seven in just 29 games.

While Dermot, Desrocher and Nielsen could skate for the Toronto Marlies next season, the team’s fourth round pick in 2015, Jesper Lindgren, is quite a few years away. At 6-foot-0 and 161 pounds, Lindgren has plenty of filling out to do, but he has impressive offensive instincts. This season he is playing a regular role for MODO in the SHL and has two goals in 21 games, which ties him with three others on the team for the defense goal-scoring lead.

At the AHL level the organization also has intriguing first-year pro Rinat Valiev. As with Dermott, Desrocher and Nielsen, Valiev was drafted prior to his final year of junior eligibility, making him sooner available to the Marlies. The Russian has been a pleasant surprise for the Marlies this season, recording five points in 21 games, while registering a plus-11 rating. Despite the team’s depth, he has been a fixture in the lineup. Viktor Loov is in his second season as a pro. He had an outside shot at making the Leafs out of training camp, but the waiver pickup of Corrado effectively sealed his fate.

Finally, there is undrafted free agent signing Cody Donaghey. He was a big part of the Quebec Remparts for two seasons, but was limited to just 27 games last year; because of that, it was decided an overage season in junior would be a big benefit. Thus far, Donaghey has 11 points in 17 games for the Halifax Mooseheads.

Goaltending

Both Garret Sparks and Antoine Bibeau have been thrust into the limelight in Toronto thanks to some strange circumstances, but prior to this season the prevailing thought was that neither had much NHL potential. Yet, Sparks has looked decent in his few NHL starts, but his flaws have been noticeable. He’s a big, athletic goaltender, but has had trouble following the puck at times and maintaining rebounds. He plays a style between the pipes that might suggest he could have a career similar to James Reimer, but it’s hard to say if he has true number-one potential. Bibeau, meanwhile, has struggled mightily after a solid rookie campaign in the AHL. He has a .869 save percentage in 10 starts for the Toronto Marlies.