In a year of malcontent, and true pain for Leafs fans, there weren’t very many things to get excited about – at least not from an NHL standpoint. Management made many changes, all in the name of furthering the rebuild, but that meant watching games was getting, slowly, more and more painful as the season progressed. However, a positive aspect to 2015-2016 that all fans should be focusing their attention to is how good their prospect pool has become. It’s inevitable that Management’s going to have to make some tough changes that could possibly see some really exciting guys be shipped out. I capitalize the “M” in management because Lou Lamoriello is basically hockey’s Godfather and I don’t want to piss him off. This isn’t another article to discuss how great the team is going to be in a few years when all their top prospects have some NHL experience under their belt. Rather, I want to celebrate how successful of a season it was for these prospects.
There are so many good prospects within this organization, I had no idea of where to even start with my wrap-up. So, I took to twitter and asked some fans about who they thought stood out this season. The recurring names were Josh Leivo, Tobias Lindberg, Connor Carrick, and Brendan Leipsic.
What really stood out for a lot of fans about Leivo was the statement season he had. His ability to work well below the goal line, his strong net front presence and puck possession landed him a position in the Leafs lineup to start 2016. He probably would’ve spent more time in the NHL if he hadn’t gotten injured in February. I think there’s definitely a lot of potential to be a bottom six guy that provides secondary scoring but, I’m undecided as to whether that’ll be with the Leafs or not.
Both Lindberg and Carrick were acquired in major deals at the beginning of 2016. Prior to the trades, they both had spent most of the year in the AHL. Carrick’s offensive abilities were really put in the spotlight in the playoffs where he led the Marlies in scoring with Connor Brown and William Nylander. What really makes him special is his skating. He isn’t the biggest guy around but, his confidence with the puck and ability to create offensive opportunities while remaining strong in his own one shows that he’ll eventually become a very strong offensive defenseman at the next level. Though, consistency defensively is something he’s going to need to continue working on. Lindberg, however, is one of those really special players that’s able to play in almost every situation in a game. He’s a big body that can pass very well, and he has a heavy, precise shot. He’s typically been used to shut down the opposing teams top players. It’s been assumed that his future role with the Leafs will be to compliment the smaller, more offensively skilled forwards, but he can also play a third line checking role with offensive flare.
Leipsic, however, stood out to a few fans because of the amazing experiences they’ve had with him off the ice, though his rough and tumble but offensive playmaking game certainly helps in making him a fan favourite. He demonstrated characteristics of just being an all-around good guy that genuinely wanted to make sure fans, especially the younger fans, had the best experience possible. Leipsic had an awesome stint in the NHL in February – playing 6 games, finishing with 3 points, and 2 penalty minutes before being returned to the Marlies. He, like Lindberg, found himself scratched towards the end of the playoffs but, he’s one of the many undersized players coming up through the system. It’s expected that he’ll push hard for a lower-line roster spot in October.
The top junior prospects were pretty well known guys, like Andrew Nielsen and Travis Dermott on defense, Mitchell Marner, Martins Dierkals, Dmytro Timashov and Jeremy Bracco.
Everyone knows how great Dermott was this season, with getting nominated as a top defenseman in the OHL, earning a spot on the 2nd OHL All-Star Team and Canada’s World Junior team, where he surprised many with how well he was able to adapt to the bigger ice surface. He’ll be playing pro next season after signing his ELC with the Leafs. But, I feel like not enough fans known much about Andrew Nielsen. He was absolutely fantastic on a Lethbridge team that, for the past few years, hasn’t been very good. He doesn’t get the accolades that many top defensive prospects get, probably because he was a late bloomer, but he can generate offense with a big shot that’s exceptionally effective on the power play. He’s continuing to develop defensively but, that’ll come with more experience at different levels. I think there’s a chance he could turn pro with the Marlies next year but, he’s most likely going to be returning to the WHL for his 20 year old season.
Dzierkals was a key piece in Rouyn Noranda’s run to the Memorial Cup final, especially down the stretch in the QMJHL playoffs to win the President’s Cup. The Latvian is a smooth skater with unreal passing and stick handling abilities and is able to execute efficiently, either to take the shot or make a quick pass to a teammate. He was a star on the Latvian u20 team that found itself a spot in the top World Junior division that will be playing in Toronto and Montreal later this year, where he could be, potentially, facing the Leafs best junior prospect, Mitchell Marner. I don’t think Marner’s left anything to be said about him. He was outstanding during the regular season, even more outstanding in the playoffs, as if that was even possible. If he has a strong off-season, which I presume he will, he’ll, undoubtedly, be playing with the Leafs next season. Bracco and Timashov are both smaller bodies. Bracco is more of a creative scorer, like Marner and Nylander, whereas Timashov is a more physical player that’s stockier in stature. Both of their seasons took off offensively after leaving the team they started the season with. The change of scenery, apparently, did them both well. Bracco will be looking to turn pro next season with the Marlies, but Timashov will probably go back to Shawinigan – as of right now.
It was more difficult for me to choose standout AHL prospects, as my viewings were more limited but, I simply couldn’t ignore what William Nylander was able to do when he was with the Marlies. He was arguably one of the best players in the AHL, as a rookie, when he was playing in the league. Even in his time with the Leafs, he wasn’t playing the same important role he had become accustomed to with the Marlies, but he still found a way to make a difference. Though he didn’t have as strong of an impact in the AHL playoffs as many were expecting, he still shared the team’s lead in goals with the Connors. It’s expected he’ll be playing with the Leafs next season, barring some kind of offseason disaster.
Soshnikov, though, absolutely stole the hearts of all Leafs fans this season, proving, once again, that the highly skilled, undersized guy can be successful in the NHL. I’m assuming he’ll start next season in the NHL but, he’ll probably move up and down the lineup until he finds a good fit as, against most teams he played in the NHL, he was typically on the losing end of many one on one battles. Zach Hyman was definitely the feel good story of the Leafs prospects this season. He used his speed and smooth skating to gain himself a tryout with the Leafs, showing that the full four years he spent in the NCAA was well worth the wait. He’s learned to play a disciplined, but hard hitting game that can be relied upon. He’s proving that he could end up being a huge steal after being drafted in the 5th round.
It seemed as though there were a few problems in goal, though. Especially the further the Marlies got in the playoffs. Bibeau’s an athletic goalie that relies on his reflexes and physical talents to make saves but his lack of technical skills exposed flaws in his game that will need to be fixed if he’s going to make it to the next level. Garret Sparks’ season was highlighted by making his NHL debut, getting his first shutout all in the same night against the Oilers. His consistency will be his biggest challenge in getting to the next level on a more permanent level. It’s expected that he’ll be the front runner for the backup position next season, barring any off season acquisitions.
There are a few prospects that I’m already very interested in seeing next year, primarily the defensive prospects. Firstly, Scott Harrington. He missed most of this season with injury, but he made the eam out of his first training camp with the organization. He’s a really reliable two-way defenseman with strong hockey IQ and on-ice awareness. He makes a good first pass, and plays an overall safe game. Assuming he can stay healthy next season, I can see him playing in a lower-pairing role in the show. Andreas Johnson is another player that intrigues me. He finished the year with the Marlies after being loaned to, and winning a championship with Frolunda in Sweden. His size is considered to be a disadvantage but he’s a very quick skater with good passing and stick handling. I expect him to start the season in the AHL but will push hard to be a first or second call up. Valiev and Gauthier both made their NHL debuts this season – playing limited roles, albeit, in their time with the Leafs but, they left fans with a good idea of what to expect. Valiev’s got strong offensive abilities and stickhandling and plays with a bit of an edge. He could probably stick in the NHL next season, assuming all goes according to plan for him. Gauthier, however, will likely return to the Marlies. He plays a mature game at both ends of the ice. He has strong vision and hockey sense. He’s strong on the cycle, skates well and he’s awesome on the face off, which makes him pretty dangerous. I expect he’ll have a longer wait until he becomes a permanent NHLer.
Finally, I’m really interested to see how next season goes for JJ Piccinich in London. This season, it seemed like everyone on London could do no wrong. Everyone knew their roles and they executed them perfectly. He finished the season as a point per game player, and has the skillset of a power forward. He has a willingness to drive the net and compete along the walls that many do not, while remaining responsible in all three zones. He’ll be looking to start next season as a pro but, the Leafs have yet to sign him. Should he go back to London, they will only have one season left to sign him to a contract before he becomes eligible for a redraft.
The last topic that I wanted to discuss, that, in my opinion, is one of the most important aspects to developing young players into strong, well rounded professionals is maturity. In late January, Craig Button discussed Mitchell Marner at World Juniors on the Blue and White Tonight Podcast, and how he thought Marner had been good but could have been better. He brought up a sign of a lack of maturity in Marner, especially in the quarterfinal game against Finland. He was very obviously trying to be “the man” for Canada, by attempting to do everything himself. Ordinarily, this probably would have worked for him in the OHL, but, on this stage, trying to do a lot individually shows a lack of maturity. What really stood out to me, while watching him in the OHL playoffs and Memorial Cup, was how he didn’t need to be “the guy” anymore, and instead was cool with being “one of the go-to guys”. He grew so much in just 5 months, it was obvious he had learned a lot from his experience in Helsinki, and what it meant to be a leader on a winning team.
In late January, when the Leafs were calling up players, Connor Brown was initially left with the Marlies – coming off a tough injury, and obviously management felt he needed some more time getting back into his game. But, what left me with a lasting impression, was that he took it upon himself to keep working hard and finding his rhythm post injury rather than feel sorry for himself. Kyle Dubas praised him for having that mental maturity to take it upon himself to make himself better and earn a call-up during the next round, rather than throwing a pity party for himself.
As many know, Kasperi Kapanen is my personal favourite Leafs prospect (and I’m still very bitter that the Penguins traded him but also not because now I get to write about him). He pointed something out that I think a lot of people forget about the teams young prospects – who have had a decent amount of success early in their careers. Most of them are still really young, kids even. And a lot of them are in their first pro seasons, some of them in their first pro seasons in North America – which is completely different from the model of European leagues. Kapanen had spent most of his hockey playing career living at home and seeing his family and friends whenever he wanted. Moving to Toronto was the biggest shock he could have experienced both professionally, and personally. He had a rougher year than many would have expected. He didn’t start the season on the best foot, then going home to Finland and winning his team gold at World Juniors, to being recalled by the Leafs, then getting healthy scratched to start the AHL playoffs but coming up HUGE in game 7 against Albany in the Eastern Conference semi-final. Just the fact that he was able to acknowledge that he had a difficult season to start his North American professional career, but still found a way to keep persevering was incredible to me in terms of how well his maturity bodes for, not only his future with the organization but, also the organization itself.
Overall, I think the successes that Leafs prospects experienced this year showed management where they still have room to grow. Whether it’s through the draft, or through free-agency or even trades, with the staff involved and the resources available, it’s certain that the shortcomings will be addressed. One thing is for the sure, the future is very bright in Toronto!