For the past few years, we’ve noticed a trend with some of the Stanley Cup Champions as well as a message from the Toronto Maple Leafs management. They’ve drafted and developed their talent to reach the top of the hockey world.
Having a deep prospect pool will benefit any team. As older players leave, young players in the system can come in, step up and make an impact with the team.
For the Maple Leafs, they have been at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to this philosophy as a result of poor scouting and poor developing. While we have seen players like Nazem Kadri and Morgan Rielly step in and make contributions, that is all that we have when it comes to drafting and developing big name NHL players.
However, that is starting to change. First came William Nylander in 2014 with the eighth overall pick. Then came Mitch Marner in 2015 at fourth overall. Then came Auston Matthews with the first overall this past summer.
All three of them stepped in and are currently in the top five in scoring among rookies. Dazzling skill, high-end speed and great puck handling are on display every single game. It’s an absolute thrill to have a young core with high-end talent that will be a nightmare for teams in the future.
While many have been solely focusing on Marner, Matthews and Nylander, there’s the next wave of prospects that are making an impact in the Leafs organization. Whether it is at the NHL level or in the minors.
Following a 6-1 win over the Florida Panthers, Connor Brown recorded a four-point game (two goals, two assists). Since earning an opening night spot on the fourth line, Brown has done a tremendous job making an impact.
In an article by TSN’s Kristen Shilton, Brown stated that the points and offense are starting to roll in.
“‘I’m slowly getting more comfortable with the puck and more comfortable making plays,’ he said. ‘Offensively it was a bit of a slow start but I feel good defensively and I feel like I’m in the right spots.’”
Soon enough, he caught the eye of head coach Mike Babcock and ended up being promoted to the third line and finding great chemistry with Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov.
“‘He’s a good player, but we know he’s got the ability to score and make plays and we know he’s going to score in the league,’ head coach Mike Babcock added. ‘He can play with or without the puck, so it was nice to see him get rewarded.’”
He’s scored eight points in 23 games played, playing in a bottom six role while managing to provide a strong presence at both ends of the ice. His defensive play is standing out and now the offense is starting to come as he starts to get more comfortable with the pace and his line-mates in the NHL. The two-way presence is key for a young Leafs team in transition to becoming a potential Stanley Cup contender. However, there’s still a long way to go.
Brown is the latest to show his talents and not get lost in the noise surrounding the top three prospects. But there is a buzz surrounding prospects with the Toronto Marlies in the American Hockey League.
The Marlies were off to another good start in the AHL season after disappointing finish in the playoffs. However, recent play has them sitting in third place in the North Division and seventh overall in the Eastern Conference, going 4-5-1 in their last 10 games.
Most of the attention, however, is on a number of their prospects, especially Brendan Leipsic and Kasperi Kapanen.
Leipsic leads the Marlies and the AHL in scoring with 24 points in 20 games, while Kapanen is second in the team and 11th overall in the league with 18 points in 20 games.
Both Leipsic and Kapanen have emerged as not only key players for the Marlies, but potential call-ups for the Leafs and possibly long-term NHL wingers. They have the speed, skill and awareness to be able to come in and make an impact with the Leafs.
“They’re both really good players. Both have a lot of skill, they’re both dynamic. They’ve obviously carried the load for us offensively, by and large, throughout the season,” said Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe. “We’re a different club this year with the make up of our group. But those guys are important people and I think they recognize that this year with the people that we lost from last year. There’s more opportunity and more responsibility for them to carry the load and so far, they’ve answered that and the confidence is really high.”
There have recently been rumours that Dougie Hamilton is being shopped by the Calgary Flames and the Leafs have been reported to be interested the right-hand defenseman. On Tuesday’s edition of “Insider Trading”, TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported that it would make sense for the Leafs to move forward James van Riemsdyk.
Van Riemsdyk is the obvious choice to move should they try and pursue Hamilton. He has an affordable contract that any team would like to take with cap hit of $4.25 million. (Note: Since the rumour came about, the Flames have denied the notion of shopping Hamilton).
Should the Leafs move JvR, McKenzie noted that both Kapanen and Leipsic will get a chance to come up and replace his spot. And with forward Peter Holland possibly on the move as well, another opportunity will open up.
Last year, there was some concern surrounding Kapanen. There were times where he was inconsistent and Keefe wasn’t afraid to admit it. He had this to say last year after a game against the St. John’s Ice Caps.
“With (Kapanen) it’s been I would say inconsistent. He’s had some shifts and some games where he’s been terrific. Other shifts and other games maybe it’s a little bit inconsistent in his impact in the game. We think he’s got the ability to impact the shift whether it’s offensively, defensively, every shift because of his speed. We want him to be able to do that all the time.” -Sheldon Keefe Mar.26th vs. St. John’s Ice Caps
This year, with a different roster and with players making the big club, there is more of an opportunity for Kapanen to take the next step, be a key contributor and be a consistent threat on the ice every night. And it’s definitely paying dividends for Kapanen.
“Certainly I think Kapanen made a turn last year through the playoffs, to become one of our more consistent guys in the playoffs, one of the hardest times in the year,” Keefe said recently. “He’s taken that and built upon it through the exhibition with the Leafs and then through the early going in the season.”
While Kapanen and Leipsic are making a name for themselves up front, it’s hard not to notice the impact two CHL graduates have had on this team.
Travis Dermott, selected 34th overall in 2015 and Andrew Nielsen selected 65th overall in 2015 have been making an immediate impact with the Marlies since the suited up in their first professional game. With question marks surrounding the blueline of the Leafs, Dermott and Nielsen will look to provide the defensive depth that will benefit the team in the future.
Dermott has played in eight games, earning five assists in his first pro season. He hasn’t seen much ice lately as he’s been dealing with a lower body injury that’s forced him to miss at least over two weeks. The Marlies were 6-1-1 with Dermott in lineup before his injury. Not to say that one player makes a difference, but Dermott was one of the keys to their early season success.
“We miss him dearly,” Keefe said of Dermott. “Despite being a young guy in his first year, when he’s come out of our lineup we’ve noticed a difference.
“His transition to this league was really good and he was playing really important minutes for us, playing extremely well with and without the puck. I thought he’s done really well.”
While Dermott has started skating, there hasn’t been a time frame for his return.
Andrew Nielsen has been a name that everyone has been keeping an eye since he was drafted. Nielsen put up 70 points with the Lethbridge Hurricanes in the Western Hockey League last year finishing third overall in scoring among defenseman. Nielsen then made a quick transition to the Marlies last year and managed two assists in five games.
In his first full season, the results are showing for Nielsen. In 20 games played, Nielsen has 14 points, good for third overall in team scoring. His offensive instincts are a huge plus to go along with his powerful shot from the blueline on the power- play. While the points are coming in, Nielsen is still a work in progress.
“Nielsen has brought a lot to our power- play,” Keefe said. “I think as we played some better teams, the competition has increased, he’s shown some things, that we need to work at with him defensively and his pace and those kind of things. But it’s coming with him and there’s a lot there.”
It’s safe to say that both Dermott and Nielsen have moved their way up the depth chart on the blueline and possibly paved their way for a potential call-up.
“Both of them have a bright, young future,” Keefe said.
While the potential for the young budding stars is present, nothing is set in stone just yet. As Keefe alludes to, consistency is key. The speed, skill and awareness from all four of these players are there. While were are seeing that early on in the AHL season, Kapanen, Leipsic, Dermott and Nielsen need to continue to show that consistency in order to earn the trust of the Maple Leafs coaching staff. Once they’re 100 per cent convinced, the transition shouldn’t be too difficult.