Through three games at the NHL Rookie Tournament in London, Ontario, the Toronto Maple Leafs prospects have given Mike Babcock and the front office staff a lot to think about when it comes to picking an NHL roster for October. The team went 1-1-1, losing despite dominating large stretches of both their first games against Ottawa and Montreal, and dismantling Pittsburgh 6-2 on Sunday night to end the Leafs rookie camp on a high.
It’s a foregone conclusion that training camp in Toronto will be extremely competitive this year. With three players on PTOs and several more on one-year contracts, it will be incredibly difficult for any player at the Rookie Tournament this year to make the NHL club. Brendan Shanahan and co. have made it very clear that they have no intention of rushing any prospects, nor do they intend on calling up players from the AHL (save for an emergency situation) unless it’s permanent. However, the Leafs brass may have some serious thinking to do when assembling a roster before the season begins on October 7th.
Turning the most heads at the Rookie Tournament was William Nylander, who spent much of his time in the two games he played at centre, with Kasperi Kapanen on his wing. He impressed everyone, scoring 3 goals in total and controlling the play almost every time he was on the ice. Nylander was visibly the most composed player on the ice, compared to many who have never seen action at this level. He told reporters “I had a little bit more experience coming here so I think that helped me a little bit.” As such, he played a leadership role for the baby Leafs, acting as a quarterback in the offensive zone and contributing to the physical tone of the game, as well as scoring goals with confidence.
The expectation at the start of rookie camp was that Nylander would play in the AHL this season with the Marlies, alongside Kasperi Kapanen. However, that may not be a sure bet now. It wouldn’t be outrageously shocking to see him steal a spot on the Leafs, depending on how well he plays in preseason. Playing in the NHL would mean burning a year of Nylander’s ELC, which is something for the team to consider, as is the fact that they aren’t likely to be very competitive this season. As such, the team of Shanahan, Babcock, Kyle Dubas, Mark Hunter and Lou Lamoriello will have to be utterly convinced he’s ready for them to put him into the NHL lineup.
The Leafs other top prospect, Mitch Marner, didn’t make quite as many waves as Nylander in London. His nerves were evident on Friday against Ottawa, where he was kept off the board and not particularly noticeable the whole night. Sunday, however, he appeared to have settled in more, seeing more time on the wing, as opposed to the previous game which he played at centre. He managed to score on the powerplay by driving hard to the net, and later set up Michael Joly for an assist. Even towards the end of the game, Marner looked very keen on adding to his 2 points, as he was easily skating the hardest on a late powerplay. Frustration did appear to get to him, however, as the agitator Penguins players nearly provoked him into a fight in the third period. Marner said after the game that at main training camp his plan is to “buy into everything, and play as hard as I can every day I get out on the ice”, adding that he’s eager to watch the older players, and bring his experiences back to London (where he’ll likely play this season with the Knights) to build off of them.
As for the rest of the Leafs prospects, there were some definite bright spots among them as well. Kasperi Kapanen, despite not putting up many points, stood out as an offensive threat every game, with blistering speed. He also demonstrated an unusual willingness to throw hits, although his defensive game certainly needs work. Nikita Soshnikov and Dmytro Timashov were regular offensive threats all weekend, particularly in their time spent on the powerplay. As well, Travis Dermott and Rinat Valiev were extremely solid on the Leafs blueline in every game they played, both contributing offensively as well.
And then, there were the tryouts. The Leafs had eight players invited to camp for amateur tryouts, all of which saw ice time (to varying degrees of success). From the group, it looks as though Michael Joly and Nikolas Brouillard are most likely to be invited to main camp, as both played very significant roles, especially on Saturday night when the Leafs rested their top prospects. Scott Eansor may also be called to Toronto for training camp, as he played a strong, physical game on Sunday night, although he showed a lack of discipline at times.
In spite of the team’s record through the three-game tournament, the event in London appears to be an overall success for the Leafs. With performances like Nylander’s, the front office in Toronto’s plans have been complicated significantly – not that they’re likely to be complaining. However, much more will hinge on the main training camp and preseason games, when prospects will be put up against seasoned NHL veterans. These next few weeks will be fascinating to watch, as one of the most intriguing preseasons in the league unfolds.
Main Photo Credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images/NHL Collection