The Toronto Maple Leafs earned their first playoff berth in nine years after a successful 2012-13 season which saw them finish fifth overall in the East. Though the Leafs lost in a hard-fought first round series against the Boston Bruins, the future remains bright in Toronto, as they are finally at the end of a lengthy rebuild.
Top 10 Prospects:
Tyler Bozak and Clarke MacArthur are the clubs two most valuable free-agent commodities heading into the summer. Bozak, having been the clubs default number one center, is likely to cash in on his next contract. The often underappreciated MacArthur should also make a solid addition for some club looking to add depth on the wing.
The Maple Leafs will be in the market to upgrade at every position, but the most pressing need is for a bona fide top-line center. Nazem Kadri (who is a restricted free-agent this summer) has emerged as a potential competitor for the clubs first-line vacancy, but that may be too heavy a load for the second-year forward. Mikhail Grabovksi has been pigeonholed into shutdown duties as the clubs third-line center by coach Randy Carlyle. Joe Colborne is also due for an elongated look at the NHL level and should get one next out of training camp. The club is likely to explore options on the free-agent market, but the proper return is likely to come via trade.
On defense the club should look to upgrade, but recent market rates for pending free-agents may prove to be too high a cost. Carl Gunnarsson is the clubs key free agent forward on the defensive end. While under the classification of restricted free agent, Gunnarsson should command a decent raise. Cody Franson, who's also a restricted free agent, could also cash in on a great offensive season which could make him potential trade bait. Mike Kostka has made enough publicity for himself this season that he could look to cash in elsewhere. Ryan O'Byrne, who was acquired at last year's deadline, did little to earn himself a new contract from the Maple Leafs. The defensive unit is ripe with depth defenseman, but lacks quality players who can play a lot of tough minutes.
The current strength of the Maple Leafs system resides in their defense. At the AHL level, the Marlies will be welcoming Stuart Percy, Andrew MacWilliam, and Petter Granberg into their fold as the trio is expected to make their Marlies rookie debuts this fall. They join a group that is headlined by Jesse Blacker, Kevin Marshall, and Korbinian Holzer. In Europe the Marlies also have a strong prospect in Tom Nilsson and their final pick from last year's draft, Viktor Loov. The Marlies also selected two defensive prospects in the top 60 last year in Morgan Rielly and Matt Finn. Rielly will have an opportunity to fight for a spot on the big club and failure to do so will mean a trip back to junior hockey. The same rules apply to Finn, although it is almost a certainty he returns to the Guelph Storm for another year.
The Maple Leafs also have a fine group of depth forwards at their disposal. While not many project as potential top-six talent, they have a wide range of players who may work their way into a third or fourth line position with the club in the near future. Carter Ashton and Jerry D'Amigo are now experienced AHL forwards and should be on the verge of making the NHL roster. Greg McKegg and Brad Ross will be second-year Marlies and expected to take the next step in their pro development. Tyler Biggs and Josh Leivo will make their pro debuts in the fall. Ryan Rupert and Connor Brown are the lone forward prospects in the junior ranks currently.
The lack of high-end skill is evident in the system, as not many players project to be bona fide top-six players. Beyond Colborne, the club has little in the way of center prospects. Dominic Toninato has put himself on the radar with his play over the last year, but he is a few seasons away yet. He joins Tony Cameranesi next fall at Minnesota-Duluth who also shows promise, but remains a long-term project. Spencer Abbott is a high-skill forward, but at 25-years-old he is among the clubs oldest prospects.
There is also a lack of goaltending prospects in the system. Garret Sparks is the clubs only drafted goaltender since 2008, while both Jussi Rynnas and Mark Owuya could end up playing in Sweden next season.
With GM Dave Nonis now at the helm, it is expected the Maple Leafs will not veer too far from the draft philosophy they had under former GM Brian Burke.
A top-five selection in last year's draft gave the Maple Leafs a blue chip prospect in Rielly, but the club lacks an elite forward in the system. The lack of high-end quality stems from the picks the club has made in recent years. The club made no forward selections in the top-60 last season; the year prior they picked Biggs, and in 2010 they did not have a first-round selection and picked Ross in round two.
With the 21st pick, the Maple Leafs are likely to choose their version of the best player available. Many expected the Maple Leafs to pick a forward last season, but ended up selecting a defender. The same philosophy should apply again this year, even though the need still remains the same.
Andre Burakowsky, RW, Malmo Redhawks (Allsvenskan)
Andre Burakowsky would add high-end offensive talent to the Maple Leafs system. Playing a limited role in Sweden's second division with Malmo, Burakowsky has shown his skills on the international stage. He is a high-end skater, with a knack for scoring goals. He possess good size at 6'2 which makes him hard to contain, but will need to add more strength in order to fill out physically. Burakowsky would be the Maple Leafs first European selection in the first round since Jiri Tlusty in 2006.