A quick reminder that all top 10 candidates must be no more than 25 years old as of October 7, 2015. The lists consider all skaters in that age group who have played in fewer than 40 NHL regular season games, with 25 games being the cut-off among netminders.
Oh, how the fallen have become mighty! This is, of course, putting the cart well before the proverbial horse, but the Maple Leafs, a team whose recent tradition was rife with short-sighted trades of top picks (Tyler Seguin, Dougie Hamilton, etc.) and top prospects (Tuukka Rask) for short term help, has abruptly changed course since the hiring of Hall of Famer Brendan Shanahan as team president. A revolution which began with the drafting of silky William Nylander, and followed with the decision to leave him in the AHL without giving him a single game in the NHL came to full fruition over the summer with an immense haul of talent in the draft and continued with the package of youth and picks received for sniper Phil Kessel from Pittsburgh. These aren’t Brian Burke’s Leafs anymore. All jokes about truculence should be postmarked to Calgary.
- Mitch Marner, RW, London (OHL) 5-11”, 161. 4th overall, 2015
- William Nylander, C, Toronto (AHL) 5-11”, 169. 8th overall, 2014
- Connor Brown, RW, Toronto (AHL) 5-11”, 160. 156th overall, 2012
- Andres Johnson, LW, Frolunda (SHL) 5-10”, 183. 202nd overall, 2013
- Brendan Leipsic, C, Toronto (AHL) 5-9”, 165. Trade: Feb, 15, 2015. Originally: 89th overall, 2012 (Nashville)
- Jeremy Bracco, C/RW, USNTDP (USHL) 5-10”, 165. 61st overall, 2015
- Travis Dermott, D, Erie (OHL) 6-0”, 196. 34th overall, 2015
- Kasperi Kapanen, RW, KalPa (Liiga) 6-0”, 181. Trade: Jul. 1, 2015. Originally: 22nd overall, 2014 (Pittsburgh)
- Frederik Gauthier, C, Rimouski (QMJHL) 6-5”, 214. 21st overall, 2013
- Stuart Percy, D, Toronto (AHL) 6-1”, 187. 25th overall, 2011
Players likely to lose eligibility
- Josh Leivo, RW, Toronto (AHL) 6-1”, 185. 86th overall, 2011
- Sam Carrick, C, Toronto (AHL) 6-0”, 207. 144th overall, 2010
- Viktor Loov, D, Toronto (AHL) 6-1”, 187. 209th overall, 2012
- Dmytro Timashov, LW, Quebec (QMJHL) 5-10”, 187. 125th overall, 2015
- Zach Hyman, C, Michigan (Big 10) 6-0”, 197. Trade: Jun, 19, 2015. Originally: 123rd overall, 2010 (Florida)
The beating heart of the Toronto system consists of their past two first round picks, both offensively gifted forwards in Williams Nylander and Mitch Marner, who were selected with top eight picks in their respective draft years and are both presently ranked in the Hockey Prospectus top 10 (get the annual now!). Although Marner is ranked first on this list, the margin between the two is razor thin. As with many high end point producers of the current age, Marner’s skill set begins with his skating. His start up speed is fantastic and comes complete with high level agility and pivoting. Although small, his wheels make him difficult to catch. His wrist shot is strong and accurate and the slapper is also solid, something he practices when playing the point on London power plays. He is simply magical with the puck, as his hands are incredibly fast and his creativity his top notch. Even though his goal scoring was among the best in the OHL, his playmaking skills are even better. His offensive IQ is elite and he is not shy about contributing in his own zone as well. He could naturally stand to gain a few pounds of muscle to better withstand the physical rigors of the professional game, but his overall skills scream first line dynamo and it could be as a center or at right wing.
Joining Marner on that future first line will be William Nylander, son of former top six forward Michael Nylander. Another player with heightened awareness in the offensive end, Nylander is less well-rounded as he will not play much shorthanded, but his offensive production at such a young age in the rigorous AHL has rarely been matched as he put up nearly one point per game as an 18 year old playing with and against men often 10 years older. This after doing the same with MODO of the SHL earlier in the year. Nylander has a dangerous shot when given space in the slot and his skating, stickhandling and creative passes allow him to constantly be creating chances for his teammates. While lean, Nylander has good strength and has already shown proficiency at finding space in the more tightly constricted North American professional ranks. While the Leafs are likely hoping to give him more time in the AHL, the skill set is such that will force the team’s hands by mid-season.
Marner and Nylander, a duo who would make a great headlining act for any team are only the beginning in Toronto. One more offensively talented forward who should see time with the Leafs this year is Connor Brown. The onetime linemate of Connor McDavid in Erie has a top line wrist shot that can even beat unscreened netminders, although he is more of a playmaker than sniper. While his offensive zone vision is high-end, he is conscientious in the defensive end as well and remains active in the neutral zone. Like many of the new breed of Maple Leaf forward talent, Brown is undersized, but plays bigger than his listed measurements. Brown’s all-around game will allow him to play a third-line role if top six duty is not in his future. Like Nylander, he should force his way up to the NHL at some point this season.
Not to get redundant, but Andreas Johnson is another highly skilled point producer whose biggest weakness is a lack of size. Unlike the three higher ranked players, Johnson is more a finisher than a creator. He has excellent timing and a great release on his wrist shot. The Frolunda winger can skate past his man to the outside, or wiggle his way through coverage with his wheels and hands and projects as a deadly power play weapon who can set up around the corner of the crease and put pucks in nets. If there is less certainty on his part than with his high ranking counterparts in the Toronto system it is due to his lack of experience on North American ice. After one more season in the SHL, he will start t gain that experience.
Although his WHL and AHL production rivals the scoring displays put up by those already profiled on this list, there are relatively few who see a top six future for number five ranked Brendan Leipsic. Part of the return on the trade of Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli to Nashville, Leipsic combines offensive prowess with a highly agitating game that has given way to comparisons to the likes of Brendan Gallagher and Brad Marchand due as much to his size as to his style. His most noteworthy tools are his stickhandling and shot release. He would thrive in a bottom six role and there is a chance for him to eventually ascend into second line status. He should begin to accrue NHL experience at some point this season.
Following the trend established by the previous five, number six is another undersized point producer in Jeremy Bracco, who set records with the USNTDP program last season and fell to end of the second round due to off-ice questions more than anything else. A puck carrier, Bracco is a very patient with the biscuit and an entertaining playmaker with great vision and smooth hands. His high end skating helps as well to put him in position to cause damage. Heading off to Boston College, Bracco is further away from the NHL than anyone else on this list.
Completing the list of high end scoring forwards in the Maple Leafs system is Kasperi Kapanen, son of Sami Kapanen and part of the ransom in the Kessel trade. A good skater with a strong shot augmented by an above average release, the younger Kapanen has yet to produce points commensurate with his skill level over a long stretch at any level since he laced up in the Finnish junior ranks. A strong postseason with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton after spending most of the year in Finland has Toronto optimistic that he can take his game to the next level with the AHL Marlies this year. While bust potential exists here, if everything pans out, Kapanen could grow into a second line offensive role at the NHL level with time.
The final forward on the top ten is former first rounder Fredrik Gauthier. Unlike all others above him on this list, Gauthier has relatively little offensive upside and he is not undersized. The former Rimouski pivot profiles instead as a very physical, very defensively responsible third or fourth line center. He should also immediately slot into the Marlies penalty kill as a rookie professional. While it is unclear whether he is too cautious to take chance on offense or simply unwilling to do so, his defensive capacity could allow him to be utilized in a shut-down role in short order. His strong and fast stride and wingspan utility will allow him to chip in the occasional offensive push, but that will never be his game.
Toronto has plenty of other forwards in the system who could make noise, and four in particular are worthy of mention in this article. Josh Leivo and Sam Carrick are a pair of bottom six forwards with lower upsides but well-enough rounded games that should allow them to contribute at the NHL level in short order. Carrick has better defined defensive chops at present, while Leivo has more offensive potential. Either or both could and should contribute on NHL energy lines this year. More under the radar are Dmytro Timashov and Zach Hyman. Timashov is a high end scorer who lit up the QMJHL with the Quebec Remparts. Short and stocky, he brings plenty of excitement to the game when his team has the puck, although reports of indifferent play in his own end have dogged him in the past. Hyman was acquired over the summer when it looked like he would not come to terms with the Panthers after a fantastic senior season with the Michigan Wolverines netted him consideration for the Hobey Baker Award. He has the physicality and smarts to be productive but his inconsistent history should cause some skepticism until he proves himself at the AHL level.
Moving to the blueline, the most promising defender in the system bears some similarities to most of the forwards listed above. Travis Dermott was a former teammate of Connor Brown’s with the Erie Otters and took off in his first draft eligible season last year, earning an early second round slot. Dermott has exceptional mobility and enough strength that his size should not be an issue. At the OHL level, he maintains good gap control and more often than not forces his check to the outside. He has strong hands and can dangle and maintain puck possession through heavy pressure. He needs more time in the OHL, but he has a very bright future.
Stuart Percy began last season with the Maple Leafs and looked promising at times, but struggled with injuries after returning to the AHL. The upside is not high end, but he plays the smooth game that portends to a long career as a number four or five blueliner. He has a smooth skating stride with very good edge work and sees passing lanes very well. He will not be a big point producer, but should eventually be worthy of time on the penalty kill and will assist in the transition game.
Another blueliner worthy of mention is Viktor Loov. A late round find from Sweden who showed more offensive flair in his rookie AHL season than he had since playing in the Swedish junior ranks, Loov catches the eye with his ability to turn opposing puck carriers into flies on windshields. He has good awareness of game situations, can carry the puck into a rush and initiate an attack or provide trailing support. His puck skills are good enough for a blueliner, but the physicality is his calling card. He will likely make his NHL debut this year.
The new Toronto regime has definitely decided to focus its rebuilding efforts on offensively talented forwards and that is where the bulk of its prospect currency lies. Only Edmonton, Arizona and Buffalo can rival the Maple Leafs at the top of their lists, although Toronto trumps them all with sheer depth. While the system is not as strong on the blueline, there is enough in the pipeline to ensure that future openings can be filled from within. Further, two of the three most notable young players on the current NHL roster (Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly) are defensemen. If there is one weakness, it is between the pipes, as neither Antoine Bibeau nor Garret Sparks project as high probability NHL starters, although both have their supporters.