Welcome to the 2016 edition of “Top Shelf NHL Prospects”. As we go through the Summer of 2016 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 follow 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 2016 draft. 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 2016-17 roster. I will also bring you one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the 4th-round or later; or 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.
TSP: Toronto Maple Leafs Prospects
It has been another rebuilding year for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and it looks like it paid off. The Leafs finished 30th in the NHL, and then won the NHL Draft Lottery. This gave the team the opportunity to draft a future franchise centre in Auston Matthews. He will be added to an excellent group of prospects. Featuring some real high end talent, the Toronto Maple Leafs prospect group might be the best in the NHL right now. The Shanaplan is in full effect.
2016 NHL Draft Picks: Auston Matthews, Yegor Korshkov, Carl Grundstrom, Joseph Woll, J.D. Greenway, Adam Brooks, Keaton Middleton, Vladimir Bobylev, Jack Walker, Nicolas Mattinen, Nikolai Chebykin
Graduates: Connor Carrick, Frank Corrado
Scouting Reports on Maple Leafs Prospects
Top Prospect: Auston Matthews is the Leafs top prospect, but since he is a 2016 draftee; I will not be repeating his report. Instead, you can check it out here.
#2 Prospect: William Nylander
Center/Right Wing; Shoots Right
Born May 1 1996 — Calgary, AB
Height 5’11” — Weight 174 lbs [180 cm / 79 kg]
Drafted in the first round, 8th Overall, by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2014 NHL Draft
The son of former NHLer Michael Nylander, who played for the Washington Capitals, Boston Bruins, Calgary Flames, and New York Rangers, William Nylander is looking to follow in his father’s footsteps. Statistically Nylander has been off the charts good since being drafted. He was leading the AHL in scoring before leaving the Marlies to join Sweden at the World Juniors. Overall he had 45 points in 38 AHL games. He also went up to the NHL, where he got off to a slow start. Once he figured things out, he started to score. Overall Nylander managed 13 points in 22 games. If there was any criticism, it might be a bit of a pedestrian performance in the AHL playoffs (by his standards). This should not concern anyone too much. Overall, it another year of positive development for the Swedish youngster.
William Nylander is an outstanding skater. He has very good top end speed and excellent acceleration and change of pace ability. Nylander uses this to fool defenders off the rush and to open up passing and shooting lanes by quickly changing speeds. He also shows very good agility and the ability to get around defenders one-on-one. His balance is good, but he could use more core strength in order to avoid getting knocked off the puck by bigger defenders. At this point though, he’s been able to avoid defenders getting a real clean hit on him on most occasions due to the quickness and agility he possesses.
In the offensive zone, Nylander shows off outstanding hands, and incredible stickhandling ability. He can control the game with the puck on his stick, and protects it well. He is an outstanding playmaker with great vision, and can pass the puck through the eye of a needle. His shot features a quick release, and good accuracy, but needs to add some power. There are plenty of skills there, but there are also some things Nylander has to work on. He must add mass, and become better along the boards and in front of the net.
Nylander will also need to work on his defensive game over the coming years. He has a tendency to float and puck watch in the defensive zone that will need to be addressed. This is one area that he really worked on with the Toronto Marlies though, and he is well ahead of where he was one year ago. That said there are still some strides that can be made in the coming years, but that is not unusual given he is still extremely young.
Coming off an impressive 22 game debut in the NHL, Nylander will go to camp trying to wow the new Leafs brass and earn a spot on the roster. He should make it, and could be a contender for the 2016-17 Calder Trophy.
#3 Prospect: Mitch Marner
Right Wing — shoots Right
Born May 5 1997 — Thornhill, ONT
Height 5.11 — Weight 164 [181 cm/74 kg]
Drafted if the first round, 4th Overall, by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2015 NHL Draft
Mitch Marner did it all this season, leading his London Knights to glory. OHL MVP, OHL Playoff MVP, CHL Player of the Year, OHL Champion, Memorial Cup Champion, and Memorial Cup MVP. In almost any other organization, he would be the undisputed top prospect. With the Toronto Maple Leafs right now, he sits at third.
Mitch Marner may be a little undersized, but that doesn’t stop him from playing a gritty game and getting to the front of the net or battling for pucks in the corners. He is relentless on the fore check, getting in quickly and causing turnovers. He has developed a stronger shot over the last couple of years, and has an excellent release. That said, it is Marner’s outstanding vision and play making skill that make him a top prospect. He controls the puck extremely well, and can extend plays on the cycle giving his linemates time to get open. He is an absolute magician with his stick handling ability, making plays in the tightest of spaces.
Marner seems a bit bigger and more muscular, better able to fight through checks, than what he is listed at; that said he will need to improve his strength further before getting to the pro game. Marner’s hockey sense is top notch as he makes the smart play with the puck, and can find openings in the offensive zone without it.
Mitch Marner is a tremendous skater. He has great speed, and very good acceleration. His quick first few steps help him to pounce on loose pucks, and win races all over the ice. He has excellent agility and edgework and is extremely shifty. Couple this with his strong puck handling, and he is very difficult to defend off the rush. He also shows the ability to slow the game down, or speed it up, which is just one more weapon in his arsenal that he uses to fool defenders. Marner’s balance and strength on his skates is good for his size; though it can improve as he adds more muscle to his frame.
Mitch Marner is able to use his tenaciousness, his hockey sense, and his quick feet to be effective in his own end as well. His quickness, and his anticipation help him to shut down plays and create turnovers which are quickly transitioned into offensive chances. He is willing to block shots, and get in the way of passing lanes as well. Marner’s tenaciousness is a trait that extends to his own zone as he works to win battles along the boards and support his defence down low. Over the last two years, he has been an important penalty killer for London.
Marner will come to Leafs training camp looking to show he belongs in the NHL. There is nothing more to do for him in the OHL, but he is still too young to be eligble for the AHL. Barring a really poor training camp, he should be up with the big club this year. He is extremely skilled, and a new challenge would be best for his continued development.
#4 Prospect Nikita Zaitsev
Defence — Shoots Right
Born October 29, 1991 — Moskva, Russia
Height 6’2″ — Weight 196 lbs [189 cm / 89 kg]
Zaitsev has been one of the top defencemen in the KHL over the last several years. He has also represented Russia internationally; and was excellent at the 2016 IIHF World Championships. In addition to his four points scored in the tournament, Zaitsev was very effective in the defensive zone. He played a shut down role for the Russian team, and limited shots and scoring chances against while playing against the other team’s top players.
Zaitsev plays a strong two-way game, which is based off of his strong skating ability. He has good speed and acceleration in both directions. His good agility and edge work allow Zaitsev to cover a lot of ice. He is very tough to beat one-on-one. He has good core strength, and is strong on his feet, allowing him to compete in board battles. Zaitsev is tough to knock off the puck, and can also use his strength to clear the front of the net.
Zaitsev is poised and confident with the puck on his stick. He can skate the puck out of danger and start the transition game. He also makes a very strong first pass out of the zone. Also able to play in the offensive zone, his agility allows Zaitsev to walk the line and open up shooting and passing lanes. He has the vision and passing skills to set up plays from the point, and it is likely he will be on the Leafs second powerplay unit, at minimum. Zaitsev also has a hard slap shot which he gets on net.
Zaitsev has shown a fundamentally sound defensive game. He maintains good gap control, and forces puck carriers to the outside and away from the net. Zaitsev reads the play extremely well and has very good positioning. In terms of his physical game, Zaitsev has the ability to change directions on a dime. He can really explode into an open ice hit. However, this isn’t something that he does often. He seems to really pick his spots instead of always looking for a big hit. This is a good thing, as he does not get himself out of position trying to play overly physical.
At 24-years-old Zaitsev should be ready to step into the Leafs line-up immediately. In fact, the way the Leafs roster is currently shaping up, he will be given every opportunity to take over a top four role and significant minutes this coming season. Zaitsev certainly looks like an NHL calibre player. The only question here is just how good he can be.
Sleeper Prospect: Connor Brown
Right Wing — Shoots Right
Born Jan 14 1994 — Toronto, ONT
Height 5’11” — Weight 170 lbs [180 cm / 77 kg]
Drafted by Toronto Maple Leafs in the 6th round 156th overall in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft
Connor Brown looked to build on a strong rookie season with the Marlies with another solid campaign as a second year pro. Unfortunately a broken ankle kept him out for several months, and stalled his progress early last season. When he did finally get back on the ice, he was impressive, with 29 points in 34 AHL games. He also earned some time with the big club, scoring six points in 7 NHL games.
Brown plays an industrious game where he never stops moving his feet. A big improvement since being drafted is that he has became a more explosive skater; with a better first step and improved acceleration. He always had decent top end speed, but he now reaches it much more quickly, which helps in getting to loose pucks and getting himself open with a quick burst into an open area. Brown has also shown better agility and is getting very good at eluding coverage in the offensive zone. He continues to get stronger on the puck, adding core strength and balance.
Brown has developed a a quick release on his wrist shot, using it to pile up the goals over the last few years. 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. 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 penalty kill. 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.
With so much competition for spots on the Leafs this year, it will be tough for Brown to earn a full-time spot. He could see some time as an injury call-up this season, but with youngsters Matthews, Nylander, and Marner already taking up spots, he might be given a bit more time in the AHL until there is room for another rookie in the top nine.
The Rest of the System
A plethora of draft choices, and moving players out for prospects over the last few years have led to the Leafs having an outstanding farm system. The forward group is absolutely stacked. In addition to Matthews, Nylander, Marner, and Brown, the team also has Kasperi Kapanen, Nikita Soshnikov, and Kerby Rychel knocking on the door to make the roster. Other prospects such as Dmytro Timashov, Yegor Korshkov, and Jeremy Bracco, will continue to develop at AHL and junior levels.
On defence, the Leafs have high hopes for Travis Dermott, and Andrew Nielsen, but they might be a couple of years away. The main question mark of this system is in goal. There is depth with Garrett Sparks, Antoine Bibeau, and Kasimir Kaskisuo. However, question marks remain about the ultimate upside of all three goalies. There is some question if any of the three are anything more than potential backups at best.
Main Photo: TORONTO, ON – FEBRUARY 20: William Nylander #62 of the Toronto Marlies controls the puck against the Portland Pirates during AHL game action on February 20, 2016 at Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo Graig Abel Collection/Getty Images)