Top Shelf Prospects: Toronto Maple Leafs
Welcome to Today’s edition of “Top Shelf Prospects”. As we go through the Summer of 2013 I will be featuring a team-by-team look at the top prospects in the NHL. I will go team by team through the NHL bringing you a look at each Teams Top Prospects. I will be following the order of the first round of the NHL draft (as if there were no traded draft picks). You can find all the articles here. Since we had an extensive NHL Draft preview, I will not be reviewing the players who were drafted in the 2013 draft, as there have been no games since then, and my reports on them will not have changed. What I will be doing is linking you to those articles, as well as taking a look at prospects that were acquired before this year’s draft; their progress, and their chances of making the 2013-14 roster of the NHL team in question. I will also bring you one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the 4th-round or later, or was an undrafted free agent signing who I pick as my darkhorse to make the NHL. For those wondering, the cut-off for what is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 50 NHL games played or being 25 years old. These are not hard or fast rules though, and I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances (especially due to the fact that the latest NHL season was only 48 games).
There was a celebratory mood in Toronto this spring, as the Maple Leafs playoff drought finally ended. The Leafs finished 5th in the conference, and gave the eventual Eastern Conference Champion Boston Bruins all they could handle in a seven game first round matchup. The Leafs even led 4-1 late in game 7 of the series before it all unraveled. Still it was a big step forward for the team, and for young players such as Nazem Kadri, James Van Riemsdyk, Cody Franson, and James Reimer who were big parts of the Leafs success this year. Now it will be up to Dave Nonis to see that his team takes the next step. With off-season acquisitions of Dave Bolland, David Clarkson, and Jonathan Bernier, he’s already attempting to put those wheels in motion, and we only have a short time to wait to see if those moves will bring results.
2013 NHL Draft Picks Reviewed: Frederik Gauthier
Graduated: Nazem Kadri,
Top Prospect Morgan Rielly, Defence
Born Mar 9 1994 — Vancouver, BC
Height 6.00 — Weight 190 — Shoots Left
Drafted in Round 1, 5th Overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2012 NHL Draft
Morgan Rielly suffered a torn ACL in his draft year. It was an injury that would keep him out for most of the season, as he was injured in early November, and only returned to play in 5 games in the WHL playoffs. Despite his limited action, Then Leafs GM Brian Burke saw enough to make Rielly the 5th overall pick in the 2012 Draft. Rielly showed that he was well recovered from the injury this season, scoring 54 points in 60 games for the Moose Jaw Warriors. He also played for Team Canada at the World Juniors, and finished the year with the Toronto Marlies when Moose Jaw, who had a much weaker overall team than in 2011-12, missed the playoffs.
Rielly is an absolutely elite skater. His speed is off the charts, he uses his edges effectively, he has a great first step and quick acceleration, and his pivots and changes of direction are quick and crisp. Rielly’s skating is already at a level that would leave many NHLers in his dust and he has not lost much, if anything at all due to his knee injury.
Rielly loves to carry the puck, and loves to lead his teams rushes from the backend. A frequent sight at Warriors games the past few years has been Rielly trying an end to end rush. He’s great with the puck on his stick, and has good vision and passing ability. He also has both a great wrist and slap shot and he utilizes these along with his great vision, and ability to make crisp tape to tape passes and to be a future elite PP Quarterback. Rielly and Jake Gardiner should make for an elite PP combo on the Leafs blueline in the coming years.
Defensively, Rielly does sometimes make mistakes and has a habit of sometimes being a gambler, and making a bad giveaway due to his desire to always push the offence. He also needs to continue to bulk up and become stronger before he will be able to take on bigger forwards in the defensive zone. His lack of strength was apparent in the NHL, even if his other skills somewhat compensated so that he didn’t look out of place. Rielly’s puck skills do help him defensively as he’s able to quickly move the puck up the ice, most of the time. However there is a difference between “not looking out of place” and “being an elite defender.” Rielly has the potential to be an elite two-way defender. In order to reach that potential he will need to bulk up, and learn when to take chances and when to dial it down. However, these are common problems for young, offensive defencemen and I think that Rielly will make these two changes as he gets older.
Rielly is in that weird “no-mans land” some high-end prospects find themselves in. He dominates at the junior level, and is ready to move up to playing against pros, likely the AHL level, but he is too young to play in the AHL. Meanwhile he does need more seasoning and size before he is ready to play in the NHL. I think its possible he gets a 9 game (or less) tryout with the Leafs this year, but ultimately see him back in Juniors where he will hope for a better result with Moose Jaw and Team Canada’s World Junior Squad this upcoming season.
Prospect #2, Matt Finn, Defence
Born Feb 24 1994 — Toronto, ONT
Height 6.00 — Weight 197 — Shoots L
Drafted in the 2nd round, 35th overall in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft
Taking over as Captain of the Guelph Storm, Matt Finn seemed poised for a big season. He, and the Storm, came out of the gate strong and were even leading their division a couple of months into the season. Finn was putting up points from the back end, and the Storm who were a darkhorse pick going into the year, looked to be fulfilling that promise. However at this point, disaster would strike for Finn, and the storm who just could not afford an injury to their best defenceman. First Finn would miss 23 games after being diagnosed with mononucleosis. He returned to the Storm lineup with 15 games left in the season, and planned to get himself back into game shape to take on big minutes in the playoffs. Unfortunately Finn was the victim of a knee-on-knee hit by Sabres’ prospect Justin Kea just five games later taking him out for the rest of the regular season and the playoffs with a knee sprain. Without Finn in the lineup, the Guelph Storm would finish 5th in the Western Conference, and fall to the Kitchener Rangers in 5 games in the first round of the OHL playoffs.
Finn is an incredibly intelligent defenceman in both ends of the ice. Finn uses his high end hockey sense to be an effective two way player who makes smart reads and very good decisions in all three zones. Offensively, Finn understands the proper time to pinch in at the line, and is effective in picking his spots to join the rush. He is able to find holes in the opponents defence and exploit gaps created in the offensive zone to sneak in from the blueline and create a high quality scoring chance. Defensively Finn reads the play well in both the neutral zone and the defensive end of the ice, effectively shutting many plays down before opponents get the opportunity to set up. He is a quick and agile skater, and uses these skills in all areas of the ice.
In the offensive zone Finn has a good slapshot, which he keeps low and gets through to the net. This allows his teammates to set up screens, and to pick up tip ins and rebounds in front of the net. Finn is also able to effectively use his wrist shot when he needs to get the puck off quickly. It is hard and accurate, and his release is quick. He is an intelligent Power Play Quarterback using his vision and skills to make great tape to tape passes and to set up teammates with good scoring opportunities.
Finn is an effective defender who is very good positionally. He angles defenders to the outside and is rarely beaten by a forward off the rush. He is a good shot blocker, and rarely misses his assignments. He gets the transition game started with a good first pass, and his mobility with the puck. Finn however does need to put on some more muscle onto his frame so he can better handle bigger forwards at the next level.
If this review sounds glowing, it should. Finn is a really solid all around player. So what is the difference between Finn and Rielly? To put it simply, it is that Finn is good in every aspect of the game and he doesn’t have a glaring weakness, he also doesn’t have an elite skill like Rielly’s skating and offensive game. Where Rielly can become a real superstar in the NHL, Finn’s ceiling is more in the range of a very good defenceman, but not a truly great one. Thats not a bad thing though, an given his game, the chances of Finn becoming a top 4 defender at the NHL level are high.
Finn will likely spend another year in Guelph attempting to play a full season, and continue to develop his game. Like many young defencemen he needs to continue to grow and refine his game, and he will likely need a year in the AHL after his junior career is over. That said the Leafs have a good one, if they can be patient with him.
Super Sleeper, Ryan Rupert, Centre
Born Jun 2 1994 — Grand Bend, ONT
Height 5.10 — Weight 180 — Shoots L
Selected by Toronto Maple Leafs round 6 #157 overall 2012 NHL Entry Draft
Ryan Rupert had another solid season with the London Knights. He upped his game in the OHL playoffs coming up with 20 points in 21 games in helping the Knights to a second straight OHL Championship. Rupert plays with his twin brother Matt on the Knights checking unit, going head to head with the top players on other OHL teams every night. Rupert has done enough to impress to earn an invitation to Canada’s World Junior Team Development Camp this summer.
Rupert plays an aggressive, high energy style. He is always in an opponent’s face and battling in corners and in front of the net. When the play ends you can find Rupert in the middle of every scrum. Don’t let his size fool you, Rupert is extremely physical and gritty. He projects as a super pest going forward.
Offensively he has decent vision and passing skill. He also shows some good instincts in the offensive zone. He seems to find a way to get open even if he’s right in the middle of the action. However Rupert can use some work on his release and his stickhandling.
Defensively Rupert’s game is advanced. He’s willing to do whatever it takes to win hockey games. He sacrifices his body, blocking shots, and cutting down passing lanes. He is physical and harasses opposing puck carriers. Rupert has become one of the better penalty killers in the OHL.
Size will always be Rupert’s biggest impediment, but he has the work ethic and the energy to overcome this. He will likely head back to London this year, where as hosts the Knights are guaranteed a third straight Memorial Cup Appearance. Rupert will be a big part of the team and will be looking to finally win the big prize this year. He likely will need a year or two in the AHL after he’s done in junior, but he has the potential to make the NHL as a bottom line energy/defensive forward.
The strength of the Leafs prospect pool is certainly in defence. Joining Rielly and Finn in the pool are quality defence prospects like Jesse Blacker, Stuart Percy, and Korbinian Holzer (who got quite a bit of NHL exposure this past season). Meanwhile the graduation of Nazem Kadri, and the trade of Matt Frattin, leaves the Leafs a little short in terms of forwards. Joe Colborne should get a great opportunity to make the team this season, but given his inability to truly dominate offensively in the AHL, he is likely a bottom 6 centre. New draft pick Frederik Gauthier has top 6 potential, but his ceiling is likely a responsible two way player on the second line. Past that 2011 Tyler Biggs lives up to his name as a huge, physical specimen, but there are questions as to whether he has the offensive potential to be more than a third liner. Brad Ross is another aggressive forward who plays a pest’s game, but again we see the upside limited to the bottom 6. Josh Leivo had a great season for the Kitchener Rangers and may be the Leafs forward with the most offense potential, but remains a project. A serious injection of forward talent will be next on Nonis’ to do list.
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