Toronto Maple Leafs prospects heavily stocked with blooming CHL talent

By Chris Roberts
Photo: Travis Dermott grew up in Newmarket, Ontario, just a 44-minute drive from his future home in Toronto. (Courtesy of Terry Wilson / OHL Images)

Photo: Travis Dermott grew up in Newmarket, Ontario, just a 44-minute drive from his future home in Toronto. (Courtesy of Terry Wilson / OHL Images)

 

 

When former London Knights assistant coach and general manager Mark Hunter was brought into the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, it was assumed the team would put an emphasis on drafting players out of junior hockey, primarily the CHL. So it was no surprise, then, when the Leafs went to the CHL for six of their nine selections in the 2015 NHL Draft.

Out of the three that weren’t selected out of the CHL, two have since transferred there; Martins Dzierkals was drafted by the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in the Import Draft and Jeremy Bracco opted to leave Boston College after just five games to join the Kitchener Rangers. J.J. Piccinich, a fourth-round pick in 2014, left Boston University after his freshman season to join the OHL’s London Knights and free-agent signing Cody Donaghey is playing out his overage season in the QMJHL, giving Toronto a total of 10 prospects playing junior hockey this season.

QMJHL

Martins Dzierkals, LW, Rouyn-Noranda Huskies
Acquired: 3rd round (68th overall), 2015

Latvian native Martins Dzierkals has been a pleasant surprise for the powerhouse Huskies in the QMJHL. He is third on the team in scoring with 46 points in 38 games and has an incredible shooting percentage of 17.0, scoring 19 times on 112 shots.

The lanky winger had a mediocre November with just seven points in nine games, but was one of the team’s more productive players in October and has been in the New Year. Dzierkals scored nine goals and added 11 assists in 12 October contests. He was out of the lineup for a couple of weeks in December, but still managed seven points in five games, including his first career hat trick against Blainville-Boisband Armada on Dec. 30, a game in which he also had a career-high nine shots.

The Huskies boast one of the league’s top power-plays and Dzierkals is a big reason why; he has a team-leading nine power-play goals. However, Rouyn-Noranda recently acquired Timo Meier (SJS), who might cut into some of Dzierkal’s minutes.

Dmytro Timashov, LW, Shawinigan Cataractes
Acquired: 5th round (125th overall), 2015

Hailed as a steal the minute they selected him, the Maple Leafs have to be thrilled with the play and production from Ukrainian-born Dmytro Timashov this season. After leading the Quebec Remparts in scoring last season with 90 points in 66 games, the diminutive but strong winger continued his torrid pace into this season, recording 64 points in 36 games.

Prior to the QMJHL’s trade deadline, Timashov was dealt to the Shawinigan Cataractes, one of the league’s top teams. Clearly, he has fit right in with the Cataractes; in his first two games, Timashov scored once and added six assists. He’s primarily a playmaker, but he can score when he decides to shoot. His 19 goals between both teams this season matched last year’s total in 35 fewer games and he has an absurd shooting percentage of 22.4.

Cody Donaghey, D, Moncton Wildcats
Acquired: Undrafted free agent

Signed prior to the 2014-15 season, Cody Donaghey was a bit of a disappointment last year, but through no fault of his own. The St.John’s, NL native was expected to be a big part of the Quebec Remparts blue line as they were set to host the Memorial Cup, but ended up missing the second half of the season, the entire postseason and Memorial Cup thanks to a knee-on-knee collision in December.

Because he essentially missed a year of development, the Leafs opted to allow Donaghey to play out his overage season. He was dealt to the Halifax Mooseheads in the offseason and again missed some games due to injury, but nothing major. He was dealt to the Moncton Wildcats prior to the QMJHL’s trade deadline, where he has three assists in six games, playing on the second pairing and earning minimal power-play time. Donaghey has 22 points in 32 games this season.

OHL

Jeremy Bracco, RW, Kitchener Rangers
Acquired: 2nd round (61st overall), 2015

Whether the CHL or the NCAA is the best route for Jeremy Bracco’s development is irrelevant. The Boston College commit left the school after just five games and decided junior hockey was a better option. He may be right. Through 33 games with the Rangers, Bracco is third on the team in scoring with 46 points, while his 32 assists are second on the team, but first in assists per game.

Bracco had some off games in November but has settled into form rather nicely, becoming a consistent offensive force for the Rangers, particularly in the New Year, where he has 17 points in 11 games. Dating back to the beginning of December, he has points in 15 of 19 games. The 5-foot-10, 173-pound winger was left off of the USA World Junior Team, but will certainly be considered heavily for next year’s tournament.

J.J. Piccinich, RW, London Knights
Acquired: 4th round (103rd overall), 2014

The lone 2014 pick of the 10 Toronto prospects playing in the CHL, Piccinich left Boston University in the offseason after an underwhelming freshman season in which he scored just once in 25 games. Like Bracco above, it appears to have been the right decision, at least for his stock moving forward. Piccinich is fourth in scoring on the powerhouse London Knights with 52 points in 43 games.

Piccinich anchors the team’s second line, one which might be a first line on any other team, but he also plays pivotal first-unit powerplay minutes, where he has been excellent. The top three powerplay goal scorers in the OHL are all on the Knights and Piccinich is second, having scored 15 of his 24 goals with the man advantage. The 6-foot-0, 185-pound winger is without a contract from the Maple Leafs and must be signed by June, but if he continues this pace it should be inevitable.

Nikita Korostelev, RW, Sarnia Sting
Acquired: 7th round (185th overall), 2015

Despite being one of the better teams in the uber-competitive Western Conference, the Sarnia Sting boast a balanced scoring attack. Last season, Nikita Korostelev led the team in scoring with just 53 points in 55 games. This season, the Russian native is a tad behind last year’s pace, but is still third on team scoring with 26 points (13 goals, 13 assists) in 36 games.

Listed at 6-foot-1, 203 pounds, he was one of the biggest forward selected by the Leafs in the 2015 draft, though he doesn’t particularly play that way. He struggled mightily in November with just four points in 11 games, but rebounded in December with nine points in nine games. He recently missed a pair of January games with a lower-body injury.

Mitch Marner, C, London Knights
Acquired: 1st round (4th overall), 2015

As expected, Mitch Marner has been one of the most dangerous forwards in the OHL this season. The diminutive, but dynamic forward is currently third in league scoring with 70 points in 34 games. The high point total is partly attributed to playing for the London Knights, a team that boasts a bevy of high-profile prospects; yet, there is no denying Marner’s talent.

Marner has been held pointless in just three of those 27 games, two of which were in October. He also had back-to-back hat tricks in November. Marner played center in October, but has since shifted to the wing, where he has been more effective on both sides of the puck. His elite-level vision and hockey smarts has made him a strong penalty killer as well, despite his lack of size. The Thornhill, Ont. native is tied for the league lead with five shorthanded tallies.

Travis Dermott, D, Erie Otters
Acquired: 2nd round (34th overall), 2015

Newmarket, Ontario native Travis Dermott has improved considerably in his final season of junior eligibility. He is an all-purpose defenseman for the Erie Otters and is on pace to beat last season’s career high of 45 points even without the help of Connor McDavid, who helped Dermott’s point totals, particularly on the power-play.

This season Dermott has four goals and 30 assists in 35 games to lead Otters defensemen in scoring, ten points ahead of Darren Raddysh, who has played six more games. He is also sixth in the league in plus/minus with a plus-27. Dermott plays a relatively safe game and moves the puck up the ice well.

Stephen Desrocher, D, Kingston Frontenacs
Acquired: 6th round (155th overall), 2015

Desrocher was an important piece of the Memorial Cup champion Oshawa Generals last season, but after just 17 games with the team this season was dealt to the Kingston Frontenacs. The Generals lost a lot of veterans over the past year and are in a retooling phase, so it made sense to deal Desrochers, a 19-year-old, for younger players.

He has fit in well with Kingston, slotting into the team’s top-four and playing heavy minutes during the World Junior Championships while Roland McKeown was away with the Canadian team. Throughout the season the 6-foot-4, 198-pound rearguard has 27 points in 48 games, including eight goals, four of which have come with the man advantage. He will turn 20 on Jan. 26, meaning it will likely be his last season of junior hockey, unless the Leafs opt to let him play his overage season next year.

WHL

Andrew Nielsen, D, Lethbridge Hurricanes
Acquired: 3rd round (65th overall), 2015

The Lethbridge Hurricanes have been one of the stories of the WHL this season with their best season in recent memory and Red Deer native Andrew Nielsen is one of the big reasons why. He is well past his point totals from last season with 51 points in 48 games (12 goals and 39 assists); last year he had just 24 points. Moreover, Nielsen is 20th in league scoring and leads the league in points by a defenseman, six points ahead of Ethan Bear (EDM).

December, in particular, was a tremendous month for Nielsen. The bruising defenseman ended the month with a six game point streak and recorded 15 points in 12 games. Plus/minus, while becoming less relevant, is still part of the story and Nielsen’s plus-33 is fifth in the WHL. Because of his late birthday, Nielsen is eligible to play in the AHL next season and has already been signed to an entry-level deal by the Maple Leafs.

World Junior Championships Update

The Toronto Maple Leafs had five prospects participate in the World Junior Championships, the most the team has had since 2003 when five played for the Canadian team (Kyle Wellwood, Matt Stajan, Carlo Colaiacovo, Brendan Bell and Ian White).

Mitch Marner and Travis Dermott skated for Canada at this year’s tournament; William Nylander and Dmytro Timashov played for the Swedes and Kasperi Kapanen was loaned to Finland from the Toronto Marlies.

Neither Marner nor Nylander lived up to the pre-tournament hype, but for different reasons. Nylander scored Sweden’s first goal of the tournament but was concussed later in the first period by Switzerland’s Chris Egli. He missed the rest of the tournament and has yet to play in an AHL game since, as of Jan. 22.

Marner, along with the entire Canadian team, was underwhelming in the round robin. In the quarterfinal game against Finland the 2015 fourth overall pick showcased his quick-strike offensive ability, scoring a pair of goals in the loss and creating numerous chances every time he was on the ice. It wasn’t enough, however, as Marner and the Canadians were eliminated by the host Finns. He finished the tournament with six points in five games.

Dermott recorded two assists in five games, playing third-pairing minutes with Canada. He also earned some power-play time.

Timashov and Kapanen were the two most noticeable Leafs prospects at the World Juniors. Timashov recorded seven points in seven games and finished third in scoring for the high-powered Swedes. He was a consistent offensive threat, stepping up with the loss of Nylander. Kapanen, meanwhile, had a slow start offensively, but scored one of the biggest goals in Finland’s history, ending the gold medal game in overtime with a wrap-around goal. He had five points in seven games.

Prospect of the Month: Kasperi Kapanen

Kasperi Kapanen - Toronto Maple LeafsThough it was in early January, Kasperi Kapanen earns the honor of Maple Leafs Prospect of the Month through the past 30 days. The Maple Leafs allowed Kapanen to play for Finland in the World Junior Championships and it was a decision that paid off for all parties involved. In the early goings of the tournament, the Finn was snake-bitten, failing to score on prime opportunities, but he scored arguably the biggest goal in his country’s history when he ended the gold medal game against Russia just two minutes into overtime.

Kapanen showed off his quick feet and skill with a stop and start that led him behind the net, following which he turned the corner and slid the puck into the open net. He finished the tournament with a respectable five points in seven games; he also had three assists in four December contests for the Toronto Marlies of the AHL.