State of Leafs Prospects — NHL Rookie Tournament Recap

The Toronto Maple Leafs wore their new logo for the first time just a few short days ago, bestowing that privilege on its rookie group, and they did it in style. The Leaflings went 3-0 on the weekend, all heavily contested and competitive contests. No official points are awarded for these affairs, so often you look for your positives elsewhere. For the Blue & White, there was no shortage of W’s in the win column, on the scoreboard or otherwise. We’ll let you in on where found the victories.

Since most reading are aware of my opinion on the Leafs marquee rookie under the microscope during this tournament, Mitchell Marner, why don’t we start there.

A lack of point production would normally sound the alarm bells of panic and judgement throughout Leafs Nation, but I wouldn’t hover my hand over any buttons. As I watched Marner and being familiar with his game on both sides of the puck, I couldn’t help but think the organization must be pleased with what they were seeing from their top prospect in the tournament, points or not. Everyone knows what Marner can do on the score sheet and not to beat an old hockey saying to death, but sometimes it’s the little things.

“I thought at different times there were some really, really elite plays.” Coach Sheldon Keefe said in evaluating Marner’s weekend. “You think there’s nothing there and he finds a way to make a play that kinda gets the attention of everybody in the rink, both teams, both benches, the fans. He has that ability. I’m not sure what he ended up with for points but he made a lot plays, did a lot of things offensively. More importantly I thought he worked really hard, was competitive, played fast, kept his shifts short, and was really good and positive on the bench. We used him in all situations and I thought he dealt with it well.”

Mark Hunter echoed Keefe’s sentiment in assessing Marner’s showing. “I thought Mitch, you know, he worked really hard. He made some great passes. But sometimes the puck doesn’t go in and it didn’t go in for him in the couple games. You know what though, I liked his effort. I like how he thinks the game out there. It’s just the start of training camp and only two games, he’s just going to have to keep showing what he’s capable of doing.”

While not lighting the lamp, I felt his game resembled that of a professional hockey player. We saw quick, heady plays from the gifted Marner who was strong on his skates and the puck in battles. He seemed attentive to the details of the team’s system. Whether hanging back in the neutral zone and taking away lanes or covering for his defenseman and hustling on the back check, his awareness is a talent of its own. Toronto management, more than his innate skill, likely wanted to see a few of those “little things” which are necessary in the NHL game and physical maturity would be included. There are bigger and more accurate tests around the corner but Marner gets a passing grade from the Leafs brass and as well. There’s the first W in the bank.

Keefe talked about grabbing people’s attention, well nobody turned more heads in London than Andrew Nielsen. Along with Travis Dermott and Rinat Valiev, Nielsen represents the future of the Toronto blue line as far as their prospects go. His play earned a story of its own to come, and has to be the consensus pick as first star of the tournament. The Red Deer native scored the winner on Saturday and set up the OT winner Sunday with a gorgeous breakaway pass leading to the OT winner. Nielsen unloaded bomb after bomb from the point, quarterbacking the PP and did a stellar job getting the puck up ice to the forwards. What was perhaps most noticeable of all was his mean streak and physicality, characteristics he wasn’t necessarily known for when initially drafted.

“It’s something I know I have to bring to my game being a bigger guy and one of the older players here you want to set the tone.” Nielsen explained as physical play is something he wants to bring to the table this year. “I think when you do that it sets it for everybody and gives the bench energy. It’s a motivator, for sure.”

Along with Nielsen you have Travis Dermott and Rinat Valiev rounding out a group of defenders who are projecting as NHLers, and so they should be. While these two may not have had the stand out performance of Nielsen, it was easy to see what makes them part of the plan. All three are defenseman who excel in every facets of the game back there, each to varying degrees of the other. It’s understood there’s more to learn for the blueliners but they are headed in the right direction. What they have in common as defenders is all three are fiery as they come and battle for pucks like their life is on the line.

Rinat Valiev had a banner season for the Marlies and logged considerable minutes in key situations. If he’s not ready for the NHL, he’s knocking on the door and the assumption is it will open late this year or next. Once it does I expect it to be a long time before he walks back out of the top league in hockey, probably not until his career is done.

Now as for Dermott, who I’ve watched a considerable amount over his last two years in Erie, I’m not sure I can think of anyone among the youth who plays with his spirit or passion. When the Maple Leafs called his name on draft day after watching him so intently I was as happy as anybody could be, excluding family and those closest to him. Sometimes while straddling the line he does cross it and that’s a part of his game he may have to address. But reining him in a bit is a far better scenario than having to poke and prod for effort. Aside from playing with a welcome edge, Dermott is a very fine Dman in all areas and given time will be a mainstay on Toronto’s back end. You’d also be hard pressed to find anyone with a bad word to say about Travis Dermott the young man. Considering his likability both on the ice (opponents do not concur) and off, he fits Mike Babcock and management’s mould for what the Maple Leafs want their players to represent perfectly. Dermott is good people.

The theme out of Toronto’s 2015 draft was “Skill Lite”. Though that may remain the notion today, there’s a trend among the draftees other than stature. This is a collective prospect pool who play fast hockey. I’m not necessarily talking about just blazing around. There ain’t on the ice that moves quicker than a puck, and the Leafs kids know how to push the black rubber disc and the pace.

When you go up and down the lineup, even a late pick like Korostelev who felt the pace last year only to show signs of offensive dominance, the Leafs have a dangerousness to their game. Toronto also exhibits, as a reward for respecting team speed, the ability to slow down the game in instances like when gaining the line, or looking for threads, that sort of stuff.

Timashov, who loves to rag the puck, is a proven playmaker at the junior level and could be for Toronto one day. And the other guys up front, starting with Dzierkals, they add a tenacity throughout the system. He in particular had a real nice tournament, very “dog on a bone”. Cycled it, got in on pucks, basically a complete pain in the ass. I don’t think “Zerksy” or Tobias Lindberg will be winning any Lady Byng’s in the foreseeable future. They got under some skin.

Sticking with dangerous, Tony Cameranesi didn’t want to be forgotten about in London. Wow. On AHL deal, I know Marlies fans are going to appreciate this guy’s wheels and offensive instincts. It was good to see Andreas Johnsson back and healthy and while he didn’t have a huge weekend, you saw the tools. Especially firing the puck in practice. Man, he can rifle it. And second only to Marner of the rookie class in London, nobody else has the pure hockey hands and smarts of Jeremy Bracco.

Where Bracco fits in the plans for Toronto long term is yet to be determined, of course. His weekend certainly did himself a solid, with two goals in Sunday’s come from behind win, including the OT winner on a breakaway. Post game I asked him if he was thinking 5-hole the entire time and he garnered a few chuckles when saying “yeah that’s my go-to move” but keep it between us. A charismatic young man, when you watch him both make and see some of the plays he can, it’s hard not to imagine him alongside Toronto’s upper echelon group trio of Mitchell, Willy or the guy who’s not here this weekend who’s playing 21:00 minutes for Team North America, where he’s been as good as anyone in all areas of the ice.

In mentioning the 1st overall pick of the 2016 draft not being in attendance, not only does it put further emphasis on the strength of Toronto’s rookie class, arguably the league’s best, it also helps to address the one possible area of need. Size in the middle. The Goat was in London and looked as he should at this point, ahead of others in some ways but he’s probably never going to tickle the twine all too much. After Gauthier there’s not a lot of heavy at center or on the walls for Toronto.

Hunter and his scouts assessed the overall organizational depth going into this summer’s draft and began filling in some blanks to become a more rounded prospect group. Yegor Korshkov, a big Russian with a frame he’s still growing into was not here for the three game set. Word is he’s put on even more bulk and will continue playing in the KHL for now. Carl Grundstrom is another draftee in ‘16 with a propensity to pester and play in your face who wasn’t in London but will be in the mix before long. “Hunts” didn’t give up on adding high end skill either by drafting Adam Brooks and Jack Walker.

So what the Maple Leafs were missing on the rookie tournament roster in 2015 organizationally Toronto have seemingly filled those holes with some girth, skill again, and even more skill overflowing that hole with the likes of Auston Matthews. How’s that grab ya, Leafs fans?

The goaltending in London was neither a highlight or lowlight. Kaskisuo solid on Friday, an odd type game on Sunday and difficult to judge. Antoine Bibeau pitched 5 ⅔ innings giving up 3 runs, just shy of a quality start still a win all the same. Newly drafted Justin Woll under NCAA rules couldn’t attend, but it seems the Leafs have adequate depth below the NHL level. It will be up to these guys over the next few seasons to raise their game and push for a job in Toronto, and I’m not talking about at Ricoh.

On a personal note it was nice to see a big weekend from a hard nosed type of guy like Mason Marchment, who earned Hunter’s praise on Sunday after finding the back of the net on route to a Gordie Howe hat trick. On the topic, there was no problem having a gigantic body in Keaton Middleton in the lineup, despite some of the angst his selection caused. There were ups and downs at different points, still I was intrigued with Middleton, mainly by his gargantuaness. You want to roll the dice on skill as much as you can, I agree and so would Mark Hunter. So you take your eleven rolls. But everything is a skill in hockey, so is it so wrong to take a roll, one roll, on a kid like Middleton? Maybe the dice come up a Big Z or a Colton Parayko, two projects who come to mind. Just sayin’.

As Corporal Komarov (Yes the Corporal himself and he’s a finer gentleman than you even imagined) said to me from the bar as we saw Middleton walking back to his London hotel “He look Douglas Fir, Komrade.”

As much as everything sounds wonderful in LeafsLand, there is one major dilemma facing the club. One that very well could be the best problem to have. If there’s anything to worry about it’s the tough decisions ahead, the Leafs have too many bodies.

“That’s what it’s all about, that’s why we have the draft.” Mark Hunter said in relation to the numbers game and who heads to Halifax with the big camp. “We bring people in and it’s pushing everyone to compete harder jobs.”

If it’s competition for spots Hunter and the Leafs want, they have created it in spades. More than that, you are beginning to not only see a draft plan and vision, you’re starting to watch it play out. Two years in now for many of the Maple Leafs management and their fingerprints are everywhere.

Hunter and crew have loaded the cupboards with intelligent and competitive hockey players. During actual game play you see those traits as the youngsters hockey IQ on display in carrying out the systems Sheldon Keefe has put in place, a system that mirrors the one implemented by Mike Babcock in Toronto. After a 3-0 comeback Sunday, Jeremy Bracco spoke of the dressing room intermission talk revolving around sticking with the systems and good things will happen. On Friday and Saturday you could clearly see the team following forechecking patterns along with neutral zone coverages and zone exit strategies.

“When you look at this tournament, there’s always evaluations going on, that’s just the nature of sports, it’s part of the business.” says Coach Keefe. “From my perspective and from the coaching staffs perspective it’s our job to develop the players we have here, introduce them to the concepts and the systems and the language.”

The Maple Leafs through drafting, coaching, and development, are growing strong at the roots. went to London with the intention of giving an honest evaluation of the performances both individually and collectively as a team, even if we had to be critical. It’s not often you get to see the organization close up and I think there’s a responsibility to report factually. I’ve been guilty myself of painting possibly too positive a picture at times and went into the weekend with the mentality we’d assess the situation as it stood, without our Maple Leafs prejudice. We make no secret, this is a fan site and we all love our team. But it is what it is. For me to draw or find negatives would basically be an unnecessary creation not indicative of what we witnessed in London. I didn’t score a single L in the loss column. W’s, W’s and W’s. Everybody gets a W. You’ll be taking that bag off before long, Toronto Bag Head. Who also turned up in London, bag and all.

There you have it. Top notch amateur Leafs blogging analysis for you right there. Summed up nice and tight, the Leafs could very well have the best farm system and prospect depth in quality and quantity in the entire league. If you’d like me to fabricate a concern I’d rather not. It was evident seeing the talent everywhere that this is a hockey organization on the rise and stating otherwise would be negligently false.

After spending the weekend around the squad there was a positive feeling in the air not unsimilar to last year here at the home of the Knights. The difference in my mind, in 2015 you could kind of feel the hope and promise of what was to come. In 2016 at the NHL Rookie Tournament in London you didn’t sense or feel hope for the Toronto Maple Leafs, you felt a sense of reality.

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