Welcome to the 2014 edition of “Top Shelf Prospects”. As we go through the Summer of 2014 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) and 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 2014 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 2014-15 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.
There was much hope in Toronto following the lockout-shortened 2012-13 Season. The team had earned their first playoff appearance since 2004, and had pushed the eventual Eastern Conference Champion Boston Bruins. It was 4-1 in the third period when the collapse happened, but despite that most Leaf fans saw the year as something to build off of. The summer signing of David Clarkson was seen as a move that would pay off in the short term, even if many were worried about the contract, the acquisition of Jonathan Bernier was a major upgrade in goal, and David Bolland was a centre with Stanley Cup Winning pedigree to add to the roster. Along with a strong core including Phil Kessel, James Van Riemsdyk, and Joffrey Lupul, the progression of some youthful pieces such as Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner, and Morgan Rielly earning a spot on the team, the future looked bright in Toronto.
The season turned out to be a nightmare. Clarkson was an unmitigated disaster in his first year in Toronto; Bolland was hurt for much of the year and then left as a free agent for a big contract in Florida; Kadri and Gardiner had up and down seasons and while Bernier proved to be the upgrade in goal a March injury saw the season fall apart. Prior to the Bernier injury and subsequent collapse the Leafs were in contention for 2nd place in the Atlantic division and home-ice advantage in the playoffs. So what went wrong? Was it simply a run of poor play coupled with fatigue, and some bad luck injury wise? Or was the collapse due to the fact that the Leafs were a team that gave up a historic number of shots against, and were the second worst possession team in the NHL (corsi/fenwick wise) and that finally caught up to them? It seems that management believes it was the latter and are finally taking some steps to fix it, signing an advanced stats guru as assistant GM, and picking up two cheap forwards with strong corsi and fenwick numbers in the last week. The team also added William Nylander as the eighth overall pick in the NHL Draft this spring, giving them their highest potential forward prospect in a long time.
2014 NHL Draft Picks Reviewed by LWOS: William Nylander
Graduates: Morgan Rielly, Peter Holland,
Top Toronto Maple Leafs Prospects
Top Prospect: Matt Finn, Defence
Born Feb 24 1994 — Toronto, ONT
Height 6.01 — Weight 205 — Shoots Left
Drafted in the 2nd round, 35th overall in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft
Matt Finn led the Guelph Storm to the best record in the OHL, and to winning the league in the playoffs. The captain was a 30 minute per night defenceman, playing in all situations and putting up 61 points in 66 games in the regular season, and 18 points in 24 playoff games (including 4 points in 4 Memorial Cup Games). Unfortunately, the Storm would fall one win short of the goal, losing in the Memorial Cup Final.
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 opponent’s 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.
If this review sounds glowing, it should. Finn is a really solid all-around player. While he doesn’t have a glaring weakness, he also doesn’t have an elite skill in his toolbox. When compared to say current Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly where his skating and offensive skill means that the sky is the limit on his superstar potential, Matt Finn’s ceiling is more in the range of a very good defenceman, but not a truly great one. That’s not a bad thing though, and given his game, the chances of Finn becoming a top 4 defender at the NHL level are high. The Leafs would be smart not to rush Finn and give him a full season to develop at the AHL level.
Prospect #2: Frederik Gauthier, Centre
Born Apr 26 1995 — Mascouche, PQ
Height 6.04 — Weight 219 — Shoots Left
Drafted in the first round, 21st overall of the 2013 NHL Draft
There were both encouraging and discouraging signs for Gauthier this year. Making Canada’s National Junior team was certainly a positive. On the other hand failing to hit 1 PPG, or improve his PPG total from his draft year is a bit discouraging. It was hoped that Gauthier would continue to improve offensively so that he might eventually be a top 6 centre at the NHL. While he is a still young, the Leafs will need to see him progress this season, or he will be labelled as having third line centre potential as his ceiling.
Gauthier is absolutely huge. Listed at 6’04″ and 219 lbs, Gauthier towers over most of his opponents and can often times look like a man amongst boys out on the ice. Gauthier has shown to be very strong along the boards and in front of the net. Especially good on the cycle, Gauthier could be a powerforward in the making. He wins a ton of battles, and protects the puck extremely well, which extends plays and buys him time to set up teammates. He has good vision and can thread the needle on his passes out of the cycle game, setting up teammates with great scoring opportunities. Gauthier can score goals on his own by taking the puck hard to net, or by utilizing his hard, accurate wrister and good release. The skills are there, but Gauthier must become more consistent at using them.
For a big guy, Gauthier shows really impressive skating. His top end speed and acceleration would both be ranked as good. He can be a dangerous forward on the rush, and can take defencemen wide. What is really impressive though is Gauthier’s edgework and agility. The agility he shows is really rare in a forward of his height, and combined with good stickhandling he can get by defenders with his quick moves. Gauthier is also well-balanced and powerful, which allows him to protect the puck while fighting off checkers, and power through his man.
Gauthier shows a good two-way game, which is especially impressive for a rookie in major Junior. He wins faceoffs, and is a strong backchecker. He understands the game, and is able to diagnose plays and use his long stick and big frame to break them up. If there is a criticism, its that I’d like to see him throw more big hits given his size and strength advantage at this level. Expect Gauthier to spend one more season in Junior hockey before jumping to the pro game. His Rimouski team could be one of the best in the QMJHL this season.
Prospect #3: Josh Leivo, Right Wing/Left Wing
Born May 26 1993 — Innisfil, ONT
Height 6.02 — Weight 180 — Shoots Right
Drafted by Toronto Maple Leafs 3rd round, 86th overall in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft
After a strong junior career, Josh Leivo made the jump to the pro ranks and had a solid rookie season with the Toronto Marlies in the AHL, putting up 23 goals and 42 points in 59 games. He even earned a call-up to the big club, playing 7 games and scoring both his first NHL goal and assist.
Leivo has the size and ability to play a power forwards game. He has a powerful stride which allows him to fight through checks and get to the front of the net. Good balance aids him in winning puck battles along the boards and being a net front presence capable of banging in rebounds, providing screens, and tipping in others shots. He cycles the puck extremely well down low, keeping possession and looking for the smart outlet. He is a good puckhandler who uses his body to shield opponents while maintaining possession. Leivo also has a strong and accurate shot, which he gets off in a hurry with a quick release. One area he can work on is his edgework and crossovers, if he can make sharper, more accurate cuts and turns, he could really take the next step in his game.
Defensively, Leivo is responsible, helping out with back pressure and getting into passing and shooting lanes. If he is able to create a turnover, he is quick at looking to head-man the puck and begin the transition game. He has the speed necessary to keep up with the Leafs quick transition game.
As last season ended it looked like Leivo was poised to fight for a spot on the Leafs bottom six. However the additions of Frattin, Booth, Winnick, Kontiola, Komarov, and Santorelli are going to make things crowded and make it difficult for Leivo. It looks like the organization plans on having him spend another year apprenticing in the AHL with an occasional call-up due to injuries. Long term though he looks like he should be at minimum a third liner, with a possiblity that he could have the offence to play a two-way role on the second line. The possibility of keeping his offensive development moving forward at the pro level may be why the Leafs keep him with the Marlies, so he gets plenty of first line and powerplay ice time.
Super Sleeper: Connor Brown
Born Jan 14 1994 — Toronto, ONT
Height 5.11 — Weight 170 [180 cm/77 kg]
Drafted by Toronto Maple Leafs in the 6th round 156th overall in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft
After an absolutely massive season which saw him lead the OHL in scoring, and win the OHL player of the year award, I was unsure about naming Brown a sleeper. As a Leafs prospect, he got a ton of press in the Toronto area. However as a recent sixth round pick, I’m not sure how well he is known in the rest of the hockey world. It would also be unfair not to cover him in the series, and I don’t think he’s passed Josh Leivo for #3 on the Leafs list.
Some will say that Brown’s big season was the result of playing with Connor McDavid, but the reality is that Brown did not always play with McDavid. He often had centre Dane Fox on his line, and sometimes played with Brendan Gaunce. In other words Brown produced points no matter who he was with.
Brown plays an industrious game where he never stops moving his feet. A big improvement between his 2012-13 and 2013-14 season was that he became a more explosive skater, with a better first step, improved acceleration, and better agility. He also seemed to get a quicker release on his wrist shot using it to pile up the goals. Couple that with Brown’s already strong stick handling ability, and good vision and passing skills and outstanding hockey sense it made for an offensive dynamo at the OHL level. He’s still a little undersized though. 5’11” isn’t too bad, but Brown will need to add muscle to his frame before facing the rigors of the pro game.
Brown is also a strong defensive player, contributing greatly on the Otters penalty kill this season. His ability to anticipate plays, cut down passing lanes, and be a threat in transition really help him to be a two-way threat. Add in a work ethic that never quits no matter the score or what zone the puck is in, and you have a player who is greatly outproducing his draft rank so far.
Where does his game go from here? Continutng to produce at the AHL level with the Marlies will be a key to seeing if the Leafs can take the next step.
In terms of system, the Leafs only true high-end, blue chip prospect is William Nylander. While no longer considered a blue chipper, Morgan Rielly is also at that elite level of blue-chip future player. Beyond them there is plenty of depth both upfront and on the blueline. Players like Carter Verhaeghe, Greg McKegg, and Andreas Johnson have been good juniors and could develop into NHLers, but also have big question marks. Meanwhile the defence including Petter Granberg, Andrew MacWillian, Eric Knodel, and Stuart Percy also has some potential to produce an NHL player or two. In goal Antoine Bibeau had a huge season, and Christopher Gibson and Garrett Sparks had good junior careers but translating to the pro game is a question as well. The leafs cupboards are well stocked with depth, but some more high end talent would really go a long way into turning the club into a true contender in the near future.
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