The annual Hockey News Future Watch Edition came out on newsstands recently and the Toronto Maple Leafs were ranked third in the NHL.
Future Watch basically grades both teams and players and their future impact in the NHL. It takes into account players 21 and under in the NHL in determining the team grade to go with what the team has in the system and lists each of the team’s top 10 prospects,
Also factoring in is average draft position. Its all well and good to draft early and often, but scoring with late picks, especially for teams who never draft early, is such a boon as it allows those successful teams to continue to be successful. Its a tribute to great scouting and development by a team that can sometimes get overlooked by all the flashy, high end, top 10 picks made in each draft.
It is no surprise the Leafs are so highly ranked. The Leafs have three star players who are not even 21 years old. Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are 19, William Nylander is 20.
Matthews is the dynamic, big, number one centre that all teams crave. He is one of the leading goal scorers in the NHL with 31 so far, and is in a dogfight with fellow teen Patrick Laine for the race for the Calder.
Marner has brought the get you out of your seats skill that few can match. Offense is at a premium in today’s NHL. Having a player so dynamic who can create something every shift can make life difficult for opponents. This is especially true on Toronto since he has for the most part played away from Matthews, both at even strength and on the power play. Marner leads rookies in assists.
Nylander is another dynamic talent. He has quietly put together a very good rookie season. He has had a few more bouts of inconsistency, but his high skill level has been on display and the production is there as well. He has had an on again-off again duet with Matthews but seems to fit in on any line he has been put on.
Their prospect list is solid. The Hockey News ranked the Leafs top 10 prospects as follows:
1. Kasperi Kapanen F
2. Carl Grundstrom F
3. Jeremy Bracco F
4. Adam Brooks F
5. Brendan Leipsic F
6. Joseph Woll G
7. Andrew Nielsen D
8 Travis Dermott D
9. JD Greenway D
10. Yegor Korshkov F
The top 100 prospects not in the NHL were also ranked and the Leafs had two on the list. Kapanen was ranked 33rd overall and Grundstrom was ranked 65th.
Two of their prospects came in trades. Kapanen came over in the Phil Kessel trade. While the move obviously worked out for Kessel and the Penguins, The Leafs have a top prospect in Kapanen who, if he can stay healthy, should be yet another highly skilled forward to add to what they already have. The deal also included a first rounder, which they used to acquire Fredrik Andersen, and Scott Harrington, who was traded for another prospect, Kerby Rychel who wasn’t even ranked. This shows the kind of depth the Leafs have been accumulating.
The other traded player is Leipsic. Its unsure if he has a place on the Leaf roster. There are other smallish, skilled forwards on the team as is and so he is in tough to make it here. Based on his pro experience, he will be eligible for the upcoming Expansion Draft to fill the Vegas Golden Knight’s roster. He may be arguably the best Leaf made available and could easily be scooped up by the NHL’s newest team.
Five of the prospects were selected in the 2016 draft. That seems odd since that draft was panned by some as not being great after the selection of Matthews 1st overall. Grundstrom has probably been the biggest surprise since he has shown some offence to go with his Leo Komarov type grit.
Another big surprise is probably Woll in goal. He could be Team USA’s main goalie at next year’s WJC in Buffalo. He is a long term project, but with Andersen signed for four more years, there is time for him to develop. He has leapfrogged Antoine Bibeau and Garret Sparks as the main goalie prospect in the organization.
Brooks is probably the least known name in Leaf Nation among the top 10. He won the scoring race last year in the “Dub” and is second this time around, on pace to break his own career high. There is little surprise that Brooks has fallen under the radar despite his outstanding stats. He has often been a player overlooked, yet has persevered through all the doubt.
Korshkov and Greenway were specific targets by Mark Hunter and the Leafs staff as they attempted to increase the size within the organization. Korshkov seems to likely take the path of role forward in a defensive role, while Greenway is a bit of a project on defence who may take four to five years to develop. They are big men and add a different element the Leafs are in short supply on.
The other three players in the top 10 were Bracco, Dermott and Nielsen, all selections in the 2015 draft.
Bracco has had a very productive year on two different OHL teams and had a successful WJC, helping Team USA to Gold. The Leafs are hoping he can step up and have a big OHL playoff and Memorial Cup with the hosts, the Windsor Spitfires.
Dermott and Nielsen are both on the Marlies. They are a work in progress. Some defensemen take a bit of time for development. Both as first year pros, its likely the Leafs will be patient with these two. Dermott is the more mobile of the two, but Nielsen has a knack for scoring points. They are both Left-Handed shots and with Jake Gardiner and Morgan Reilly cemented as the Leafs top two LH Dmen, the Leafs can afford to take their time with Dermott and Nielsen.
Besides Rychel and the two Marlie goalies, there were a few others who didn’t make the Leafs top 10, but are considered decent prospects still. Dmytro Timashov, Andreas Johnson, Tobias Lindberg, and defensemen Rinat Valiev and Justin Holl are just a few others the Leafs have. Suffice to say, that’s a nice problem.
So what does this all mean? It means the Leafs are on the right track. In the last two drafts they’ve added eight of their top 10 prospects and two cornerstone players.
It also means though the work is never done. The Leafs have a terrific core of Matthews, Nylander and Marner. Every successful team has that base to start with and have a group of players to build the team around. Toronto has uniquely three tremendously high skilled forwards to go long term with.
They have a fairly young group still who are supporting the big three with Andersen at 27 being the oldest among Nazem Kadri, 26, Jake Gardiner, 26, Morgan Reilly, 23, Nikita Zaitsev, 25. These five should be around for the next long while.
A small group of role players may or may not stick around long term, It will probably all depend on their affordability. Right now, as first or second year players, the likes of Connor Brown, Zach Hyman, Nikita Soshnikov, Connor Carrick, Josh Leivo are still affordable commodities who fill key spots in the lineup and provide the parent team with further depth.
What is missing is a key main piece on defence that is never easy to fill. The lack of a top pairing defenseman who can handle the ice time and the pressure of facing the league’s best players is a gap in the lineup.
While Reilly and Zaitsev have given it their best, they are not yet at the level where championships can be contended. There is potential, but the addition of a top pairing blueliner is probably a must for the franchise to take the next level.
The best teams, the teams that have won recently have those kinds of players.
Other than the Penguins and Canes, the other five teams that have won a Cup in the last decade all had a stud D. Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger anchored the Ducks. Nic Lidstrom was the man in Detroit. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were the best for Chicago. Zdeno Chara was a pillar for the Bruins and Drew Doughty is a stud for the Kings.
Even the Pens though have Kris Letang. Probably not a player at the elite level like those other names, but he is an excellent player and better than what the Leafs currently have. The Pens too had depth. Its why they were able to withstand the loss of Trevor Daley and still win the last two rounds.
But let’s put this all in perspective. This is only the second season since Toronto gutted everything from the coaches, the managers and even some arena staff.
These young players still need to develop. Their two best are still teenagers. There’s no need to panic and rush things or expect a Cup this year.
For further proof, the Bruins signed Chara and had Bergeron, Marchand, Krecji and Rask in the organization. Yet they still missed the Playoffs in Chara’s first year.
The Kings were dreadful for years and even after selecting Drew Doughty, they missed the playoffs in his rookie season.
The Hawks, who the Leafs are often compared to, missed the playoffs in Jonathan Toews and Pat Kane’s first year.
Even the best player in the World, Sidney Crosby, couldn’t bring the Pens to the playoffs as a 100- point scorer as a rookie.
Suffice to say, these things take time.
Currently the Leafs are battling for a playoff spot. They’re right there in the running for not only third place in the Atlantic but also for the final Wild Card spot in the East.
The last 15 games of this season will be a great test for this young team and an excellent learning experience. For their efforts, the team even sacrificed future assets to acquire a rental in Brian Boyle. Who would have believed the Leafs would be in that position so soon?
It’s a credit to not only the players, but the staff, especially coach Mike Babcock. They are heading into the right direction. Though they sacrificed draft picks over the last year to get a rental and get a top goalie, they still have picks in every round.
Considering there are still three plus months left until the entry draft, there is plenty of time for the team to continue adding more draft picks to arm Mark Hunter with more options on draft day.
Also, with the expansion draft looming, there is without a doubt more moves to be made. And, maybe part of that will be to acquire that defenceman they covet/need.
Toronto is in good shape. Being critical of their path and how they’ve gotten to where they are is quite honestly negative for the sake of being negative. Negativity has previously been the norm here in Toronto. That is what happens when you don’t win a cup for 50 years. A long drought like that brings frustration and anger.
But today, Leaf Nation should be excited, not bitter. The rankings by THN show the path Toronto has taken has been just fine. Over time the Leafs will continue to be refined and refurbished. GM Lou Lamoriello, President Brendan Shanahan and Babcock are really just getting started. They have rebooted the organization for the better. Gone, at least for the time being, are those years where the Leafs didn’t have draft picks, and hovered in the bottom five in future watch rankings. That in itself is a refreshing change.