Defensive prospects an area of strength for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ system

By John-Eric Iannicello

Carter Ashton - Toronto Maple Leafs

Photo: Carter Ashton is just one of a handful of young forwards the Maple Leafs have acquired over the past two years. (Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

The additions of defensemen Morgan Rielly and Matt Finn at the 2012 NHL Draft have bolstered what was once a weak point in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ system. They are added to a list of names such as Korbinian Holzer, Jesse Blacker, Stuart Percy, and Petter Granberg that are in the fold currently. Each player offers a different dynamic that should complement the team’s defensive core if they continue to progress in their development.

With a young NHL defensive core made up of names such as Dion Phaneuf (27-years-old), Carl Gunnarsson (25-years-old), Cody Franson (25-years-old), and rookie stand-out Jake Gardiner (22-years-old) at the NHL level, it leaves a few doors open for the Maple Leafs to bolster other areas of their roster if need be. General Manager Brian Burke already moved 22-year-old Luke Schenn for 23-year-old James vanRiemsdyk, in an effort to bolster a lack of true top-six talent on the Maple Leafs roster. A similar effort was made with the acquisition of Carter Ashton last February as the Maple Leafs moved big defenseman Keith Aulie to Tampa Bay.

Areas of weakness for the Maple Leafs system continue to be lack of high-end forward and goalie talent. The scouting staff has done a good job on the defensive end, focussing more on stronger transitional defenseman rather than big bruising defenseman of old, and the same will have to be done at the forward level. After a few years selecting the ‘pick and axe’ type players in the top-60 such as Tyler Biggs, Kenny Ryan, and Brad Ross, the Maple Leafs may be in a prime position to land a top-line forward talent at the upcoming 2013 Draft, which seems ripe with first-round quality centers.

The Maple Leafs AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies, has experienced major consistency issues early on in the 2012-13 season. So far, the team has been a shadow of the club that made it to the Calder Cup finals just a few months ago. Even with the additions of Mike Kostka, Paul Ranger, Keith Aucoin, and Leo Komarov, the team has slipped to the bottom of the North Standings.

Left Wing

The Toronto Marlies saw the addition of two left-wing junior prospects this season in Brad Ross and Jamie Devane. With the lockout in effect both have suffered from a lack of playing time. Ross played in a few games with the Marlies, but was limited in ice time. He did however show his pesky style of game that has made him an effective forward so far in his career. Jamie Devane saw some exhibition action prior to the season and he was able to showcase his talent for the fisticuffs when he pummelled Hamilton Bulldogs forward Kyle Hagel.

Nicolas Deschamps and Jerry D'Amigo both returned to the Marlies this season looking to build on successful 2011-12 seasons. Like many Marlies, both have had consistency issues so far this season. Deschamps, after scoring 30 points in 40 games has only one goal in 10 games and has at been a healthy scratch. D’Amigo after a very successful playoff performance, has not found the back of the net yet this season.

At the OHL level, both Josh Leivo and David Broll continue to take steps forward in their development. Levio has continued where he left off last season although he is not surrounded by the same supporting cast. He leads the Sudbury Wolves in goals with 10, and points with 20 through the first 19 games of the season. He was also named to the Subway Super Series roster and will appear in both games. Broll continues to look for consistent offense in his game, now a fourth year player. Through the first 20 games of the season he has scored six goals and seven assists while collecting 23 penalty minutes.

Restricted free agent forward Marcel Mueller, who was a member of the Marlies the past two seasons, returned to Europe this year likely due to the lockout. The 24-year-old has performed well sitting third in team scoring for MODO (SEL) with four goals and eight assists in 20 games. 

Center

The center position, specifically for the Marlies, has seen many players playing the wing as the linesup continue to be juggled to find the right chemistry.

The two key forward prospects in the Maple Leafs system: 22-year-olds Joe Colborne and Nazem Kadri, have not had the starts many expected. As the Marlies struggle to find offense, so do Kadri and Colborne. For two players who were expected to compete for NHL positions, they will need to raise their level of play in the near future to help aid the Marlies out of their funk.

Another new Marlies addition who has been a bright spot in an otherwise dark start to the season has been the play of rookie forward Greg McKegg. Since the start of training camp, McKegg has drawn praise from many including Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins. He’s been used in a top-six role at points and has been one of the more consistent forwards for the Marlies.

Other rookies at the minor league level include Spencer Abbott, Sam Carrick, and Andrew Crescenzi. All three have been reserve forwards so far this year, with Sam Carrick being the lone forward playing at the ECHL level. Carrick has appeared in eight games with the Idaho Steelheads and managed two goals. Abbott, who appeared in three games the Marlies at the end of last season, has recently made the most out of his chance in the Marlies lineup. He scored his first AHL goal in his first game of the season on November 2nd against the Abbotsford Heat. Crescenzi, has yet to see game action this season at any level. He has an opportunity to return as an overage player with the Kitchener Rangers, but does not seem likely to return at this point.

Minnesota natives Tony Cameranesi and Dominic Toninato are more of the lesser known names in the Maple Leafs system, but have gotten off to strong starts in their seasons. Diminutive speedster Cameranesi is playing his freshman season at Minnesota-Duluth and has been used mostly in a top-nine role. Toninato, who will be joining Cameranesi next season at Minnesota-Duluth, sits second in scoring for Fargo Force (USHL) with five goals and 13 assists in 14 games. Both are considered long-term, five-year projects and are expected to play out their entire NCAA careers first before making the professional jump.

With the London Knights in the OHL, Ryan Rupert has yet to find the back of the net through 15 games this season although he does have seven assists. Even without a goal on the year, he was named to the Subway Super Series roster; however a recent shoulder injury could sideline him for the entire month of November.

Right Wing

Matt Frattin, Carter Ashton, and Greg Scott represent a group of key top-nine forward who returned to the Marlies this season.

Ashton, who had a strong offensive performance last year with the Norfolk Admirals, has not been able to produce much with the Marlies. He does however possess a strong cycle game and a willingness to go into the dirty areas. Scott is coming off career highs of 21 goals and 44 points last season. He emerged as one of the leagues premiere two-way forwards, but has also come out of the gate slow this season. Frattin continues to rehabilitate the knee injury he suffered in last season’s Calder Cup playoffs. Prior to his injury, Frattin had an astounding 10 goals in 13 playoff games. He recently began practicing with the club again and is approaching a return to the lineup. He is expected to play a key role with the club as the teams’ go-to sniper. 

Kenny Ryan and Tyler Brenner continue to work on establishing themselves at the AHL level after spending last season in the ECHL. Ryan has already seen a few games this season and has made the most of them scoring two goals and adding an assist in four games. Brenner was one of the few Marlie depth players to find an ECHL affiliate. He is currently a member of the Bakersfield Condors and is among their most productive forwards.

Two of the clubs younger right-wing prospects at the OHL level: Tyler Biggs and Connor Brown have both had varying degrees of success so far this year. Biggs, the Maple Leafs 22nd overall selection in 2011, has made a solid transition to the OHL after spending last season in the NCAA with Miami (Ohio). He has nine goals, 12 assists, and 27 penalty minutes (including three fighting majors). Brown, who was selected this past June at the NHL Entry Draft, has produced extremely well so far with the Erie Otters, managing 16 goals and 12 assists through 20 games of the season.

Defense

As mentioned above, the strongest area in the Maple Leafs system could be the strength of their defensive prospects. This is mainly due to the additions of recent draftees Reilly and Finn, who have excelled greatly in the early parts of their junior seasons. Rielly is among the top offensive producers in the CHL from the backend with four goals and 17 assists through 22 games with the Moose Jaw Warriors. He is usually the most dynamic player game in game out, and is starting to focus more on becoming a complete two-way player. Finn has also shown great offensive prowess so far this year, managing at almost a point per game level. He also logs heavy minutes in all-situations for the Guelph Storm.

Another OHL defenseman not to be forgotten is 25th overall selection in 2011 Stuart Percy. The 19-year-old is looking to bounce back from an injury-plagued 2011-12 campaign, and is off to a strong start. He has five goals and 10 assists through 16 games this season while captaining the Mississauga Steelheads.

At the professional level, the Marlies have Jesse Blacker, Korbinian Holzer, and Simon Gysbers returning from last years squad. Juraj Mikus, who appeared in 76 games for the Marlies last season, decided to return to Europe to play in the KHL during the lockout season.

For Blacker, the second year defenseman will look to establish himself as a primary fixture with the Marlies. He has already seen an increased role with the club in special teams situations, but still has work to do when it comes to his overall game. At 21-years-old he is the youngest defenseman on the team.

Holzer to some was seen as the clubs most NHL-ready defender although he’s projected as more of a depth player. He makes up the Marlies shutdown unit with Toronto native Mark Fraser. Holzer has already matched his goal totals from last year scoring once through seven games this year.

Gysbers remains a depth option for the Marlies as he sees himself rotated in and out of the lineup. The 6’4, 210 pound defenseman is one of the Marlies more offensive minded defenseman over the last few years scoring an average of 30 points the last two seasons.

The Maple Leafs have a trio of other young defensive prospects plying their trade in Sweden. Petter Granberg has only appeared in two games for Skellefteå because of a nagging collarbone injury that he suffered first in late August. He is currently sidelined until mid-January as he recovers from the surgery. Tom Nilsson and Viktor Loov are both playing in Sweden’s Allsvenskan league again this season. Nilsson as a member of Mora has one goal and one assist in 16 games, while Loov, who was selected this past summer in the seventh round, also has one goal and one assist through 16 games for Södertälje.

At the NCAA level, the Maple Leafs have depth defensive prospects Max Everson, Eric Knodel, Dennis Robertson, and Andrew MacWilliam. Everson, who only managed four assists through 34 games last year, has one assist in five games this season with Harvard. Robertson, who is captaining Brown, has contributed three assists through his first six games. Knodel, who invites intrigue due to his 6’6 stature, has three goals and one assist through seven games in his second season with New Hampshire. MacWilliam returns to captain North Datkota in his senior year. The 22-year-old has two assists through his first seven games, while also amassing 27 penalty minutes.

Goaltending

The stable of Maple Leafs goaltending prospects is made up primarily of free-agent acquisitions. Ben Scrivens returns as the clubs starting netminder, but after a sensational 2011-12 campaign that saw him win the Hap Holmes Award for goaltender with the best goals against average, he too has started off rather shaky. He’s appeared in six games so far splitting time with both Jussi Rynnas and Mark Owuya. Through those six games he has a 2.82 goals against average and a .894 save percentage. Rynnas has appeared in three games posting a .98 goals against average and .968 save percentage. He also recorded two shutouts. Owuya has only made two starts, and has not faired particularly well, posting a 3.55 goals against average and a .833 save percentage.

The only drafted goalie prospect in the Maple Leafs system remains Garret Sparks, who the club selected in the seventh round of the 2011 NHL Draft. He has also battled consistency issues this season, and is relied on heavily by the Guelph Storm. He has appeared in 20 games and has a 3.34 goals against average and a .909 save percentage. He is considered to be in contention for the backup role for Team USA’s World Junior squad.
 

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