Shift in organizational strategy creates deep Toronto Maple Leafs Top 20

By Matthew Stamper

Andrew Neilsen - Toronto Maple Leafs

Photo: Andrew Neilsen played in five regular season games for the AHL’s Toronto Marlies after a strong season in Lethbridge of the WHL. (courtesy Graig Abel/Getty Images)

 

10. (17) Nikita Soshnikov, RW, 7.0C
Signed as a free agent March 20, 2015

Another young gun that impressed Babcock, Soshnikov is “too good, too hard and too fast” to not play in the NHL. At least according to Maple Leafs Head Coach Mike Babcock.

Soshnikov can contribute all over the ice, and it showed in his Leafs stint earlier this year. The Russian winger is an offensive threat with strong skating ability and a wicked shot that he showed off in some of the goals he scored in the NHL. But he also isn’t afraid to mix it up, and his dedication to backchecking and playing a 200-foot game is something that Babcock will love for years to come.

9. (NR) Connor Carrick, D, 7.0C
Acquired via trade with Washington Capitals, 2016

Even as a smaller defenseman, Carrick has still made a strong impression on Leafs brass, and played out the rest of the NHL season after being acquired in February from the Washington Capitals.

Carrick is a great skater and stickhandler, with great vision to carry the puck in on the rush. He will also be a future powerplay specialist with his booming shot and quarterback ability. He led the Toronto Marlies in playoff scoring with 18 points in 15 games.

8. (NR) Dmytro Timashov, LW, 7.0C
Drafted 5th round, 125th overall, 2015

After a mid-season trade from Quebec to Shawinigan, Timashov saw his production drop a little bit, but was still able to post a lofty 1.49 points per game in the QMJHL.

Timashov is a speedy winger who can create space and opportunities for himself and teammates. His willingness to play down low is also a key asset for the 2015 fifth rounder, who will likely play for the Toronto Marlies next year.

7. (NR) Nikita Zaitsev, D, 7.0C
Signed as a free agent May 2, 2016

The Russian defenseman was a popular target for a number of teams this season, but opted to sign a one-year deal with the Leafs. He was impressed by the organization when he visited last year, and it’s safe to say Leafs brass was also impressed by Zaitsev.

The 24 year old defenseman played three seasons for CSKA Moscow before deciding on Toronto for the 2016-17 season. The two-time KHL All-Star is able to contribute offensively, as seen with CSKA Moscow this year, where he scored 26 points in 46 games, and then another 13 in 20 playoff games. But that doesn’t mean Zaitsev can’t be relied upon in his own zone. The smooth-skating defenseman is able to move the puck with ease and can play a smart game without the puck.

6. (8) Brendan Leipsic, LW, 7.0C
Acquired via trade with Nashville Predators

The small, speedy forward that the Leafs acquired from Nashville in February, 2015 finished third in Marlies scoring, and it was thanks to consistent scoring. He finished with a 0.83 points-per-game ratio this year, higher than his impressive 2014-15 season split between Milwaukee and Toronto in the AHL.

The Winnipeg, Man. native also earned a call-up in the year of the youngsters for the Leafs, posting three points in six games, but failed to contribute much to the Marlies in the 2016 Calder Cup playoffs. The consistency he maintained in the regular season was nowhere to be found in the playoffs. He was even held scoreless in the first three games of the Conference Final against the Hershey Bears before being a healthy scratch for Games 4 and 5.

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

Even though an injury knocked out part of Brown’s year with the Marlies, he came back to post 20 points in 20 games before a trip to the bigs with the Leafs. He continued his consistency with six points in seven games there, proving that he can score at any level.

The 22 year old is a truly determined player, and his skating has improved, as he can beat defenders to the puck. He’ll be in good shape to play on the second- or third-line next year, but could use some defensive zone work to fill out his game.

4. (18) Zach Hyman, RW, 6.5B
Acquired via trade with Florida Panthers

Babcock is a huge fan of this guy, almost guaranteeing him a permanent job in front of fans at the Air Canada Centre next season. Hyman is a big body, who doesn’t let anyone else outwork him.

His toughness and tenacity makes him an aggressive forechecker, with the ability to play in his own end, too. He’ll fit in well on a second- or third-line next year, especially with his ability to crash the net to score goals. His skating can look a bit shaky at times, but it hasn’t seemed to get in his way so far.

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

The young Finn showed off his “escapability” in the NHL with his stickhandling and strong puck possession skills. He has real potential to be a scoring forward, and although consistency has been a problem in the past, he has had a great 2016.

After scoring the gold medal-winning goal for Finland at the World Junior Championships, Kapanen came back to post 12 points in 15 games through January and February. He slowed down in March, but still earned a call up to The Show, where he was held pointless in nine games. The consistency came back in the AHL playoffs as Kapanen scored eight points in 14 games for the Marlies.

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

Nylander has already shown what he can do at the NHL level, and the future is bright for Leafs fans with the young Swede ready to join the big boys in Toronto for a full season. Nylander started the season off in the AHL, tearing up the league before taking a devastating hit in the World Juniors. He missed all but a period of the tournament, and there was a serious scare for fans in Leaf Land. Luckily, it doesn’t look like there were any ill effects as Nylander got the call up to The Show in late March and dazzled in a 22-game preview, with six goals and seven assists.

The best part about Nylander coming up isn’t even on the stat sheet. Besides his wicked shot, that he used to beat excellent NHL goalies, Nylander has shown improvements at both ends of the ice, as well as how strong he can be on the puck. Don’t let Nylander’s stature fool you. His blazing speed, combined with his ability to hold onto the puck in traffic, is an extremely valuable asset for a smaller player. His shiftiness will wow fans next season when he gets a full-time gig.

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

For the second straight year, Marner tops all other Leafs’ prospects, and it’s easy to see why. The OHL’s Most Outstanding Player put together a stellar year in London, with 116 points in 57 games. He then followed that with an impressive performance in the MasterCard Memorial Cup, once again winning MVP honours.

His creativity and vision on the ice have created some highlight-reel goals, like this one with Arizona prospect Christian Dvorak. His hockey IQ is off the charts, especially because the amazing plays he makes never seem to risk a turnover. His ability to control the puck, and his strong skating give him the potential to be an elite forward in the league for years to come, however, like tons of other Leafs prospects, size is an issue. Marner sits just under six feet tall and only weighs about 165 pounds.

The only other problem that Marner faces is what the Leafs plan on doing with him in the 2016-17 season. It’s no secret that patience is a virtue with president Brendan Shanahan and GM Lou Lamiorello, but there aren’t really any other options. Decimating the opposition in the OHL again next year won’t help his growth at all, and as he’s ineligible to play with the baby Leafs in the AHL next year, management will have to be ready to give him a shot with the big club.

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