Welcome to the 2017 edition of “Top Shelf Prospects”. During the summer, I will feature a team-by-team look at the top prospects in the NHL. I will follow the order of the first round of the NHL draft (as if there were no trades). 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 this year. There have been no games since then, and my reports on them will not have changed.
I will link 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 2017-18 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 a dark horse to make the NHL. 50 NHL games played or being 25 years old is the cut-off for prospects. These are not hard or fast rules though, and I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
TSP: Toronto Maple Leafs Prospects
Owners of the number one ranked farm system in last year’s Top Shelf Prospects; no team got more of an impact from their rookies than the Toronto Maple Leafs. Led by Calder Trophy winner Auston Matthews, the Leafs returned to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Matthews was not the only rookie to make an impact in Toronto. Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Connor Brown, and Zach Hyman all played big roles in the Leafs top nine. Meanwhile, Nikita Zaitsev contributed in a top four role on the blue line. This season gives Leafs fans big hope for the future.
There has not been many changes this off-season in Toronto. The moves made add experience to this young team. The Leafs signed veteran forward Patrick Marleau, Stanley Cup winning defenceman Ron Hainsey, and journeyman fourth line centre Dominic Moore. These moves indicate that Leafs management are transitioning from the re-build, into an attempt to build a contender in the near future.
2017 NHL Draft Picks: Timothy Liljegren, Eemeli Rasanen, Ian Scott, Vladislav Kara, Fedor Gordeev, Ryan McGregor, Ryan O’Connell
Graduates: Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown, Nikita Soshnikov,
Top Prospect: Timothy Liljegren
The Maple Leafs drafted Liljegren with the 17th overall pick in this year’s NHL draft. Prior to the draft, we did an in-depth scouting report on Liljegren. As no games have been played since that report; we will not repeat it. You can check out the report here.
#2 Prospect: Kasperi Kapanen
Right Wing/Left Wing — shoots Right
Born July 23rd, 1996 — Kuopio, Finland
Height 5’11” — Weight 180 lbs [180 cm / 82 kg]
Drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1st round, #22 overall at the 2014 NHL Draft
Traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs, June 2015
Kapanen spent most of last season with the Marlies. He was a point per game player with 43 points in 43 games. He received a late-season call-up to the big club putting up one goal in eight games. Kapanen really made his impact in the playoffs, with two goals, including a double overtime winner in Game 2 against the Washington Capitals.
Kapanen is an outstanding skater, with great speed, and acceleration. He also has very good agility and outstanding edge work. Kapanen can cut quickly past a defender and get to the net if they don’t respect his speed off the rush. He has the ability to fool defenders with his changes of pace. His balance improved with added muscle. He is stronger on the puck. Kapanen fights through checks. Defenders do not knocked him off the puck as often as they did in previous years.
Kapanen also has soft hands and great stick handling abilty. He is deadly off the rush. He can be both a scorer and a play maker. Kapanen’s wrist shot is extremely impressive. He generates tremendous power, has lethal accuracy, and does it all with a lightning-quick release. It is NHL ready, especially when he is coming down the wing. Kapanen also has a very good one-timer. As a play maker, Kapanen has extremely good vision and passing skills, with the ability to thread the needle with a pass right on a teammate’s tape.
Kapanen understands the game at a high-level and almost always seems to make the correct play with the puck. Without the puck, he finds the soft spots in the defence and gets open for teammates. Kapanen is gritty and always involved in puck battles. His biggest issue is adjusting to NHL speed. Kapanen has not been able to do all the things he does in the AHL, at the NHL level yet. He needs to adjust to the fact that he will have less time and space at the NHL level. Once that clicks for him, he can be a top-six forward.
Kapanen also has a well-developped defensive game. Again, the hockey sense is key, as he reads the game extremely well, and cuts down passing and shooting lanes extremely well. He puts a lot of effort into his backchecking and shows a concerted effort at the defensive end. This will help him to break into the Leafs line-up in a lower line role.
The Leafs have a very deep forward group and that made it difficult for Kapanen to find his place last season. However, there is not a whole lot more he can learn at the AHL level. Kapanen’s time is now. Expect to see him start out on the Leafs fourth line, and work his way up the line-up.
#3 Prospect: Travis Dermott
Defense — shoots Left
Born December 22nd, 1996 — Newmarket, Ontario
Height 5’11” — Weight 207 lbs [180 cm / 94 kg]
Drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2nd round, #34 overall at the 2015 NHL Draft
Dermott had a strong first pro season with the Marlies. He put up five goals and 24 points in 59 games. He also scored a goal and five points in 11 playoff games. Dermott is quickly rising up the Leafs depth chart.
Dermott is a very good skater. He has impressive speed and acceleration in both directions. He also has a very quick first step which allows him to be first on loose pucks. With his good pivots, edge work and agility he is able to transition from offence to defence, or vice-versa, quickly. This skating ability also helps him to cover a ton of ice. His agility and edge work also helps him to walk the line in the offensive zone, allowing him to open up shooting and passing lanes. Dermott might not be the biggest player, but he has a strong lower body and is solid on his skates, helping him to win board battles and to clear the front of the net. While he does well against most players, he still struggles with the exceptionally big forwards though just due to the sheer size and strength mismatch.
Dermott’s biggest asset is his hockey sense. His positioning at both ends of the ice is extremely strong. He reads the play well, and picks the right times to pinch in at the blue line, to join the rush, or to look to step up and make a hit. With the puck on his stick he is able to avoid danger with good poise as well as decent stick handling. He uses his vision to make a strong first pass. He can also control the play and quarterback things from the point on the power play.
His shot could use more power, but he gets it through traffic. He also keeps it low and on net, looking for screens, deflections and tip-ins. He almost always has his head up and looking for the right play, which he makes on most occasions. Dermott is not the type of puck-rushing defenceman to try and go coast-to-coast. He follows up on plays to unleash a wrist shot or one-timer.
Dermott is a solid defensive player. His strong positioning and skating allow him to maintain excellent gap control and funnel attackers to the outside of the ice. He is also quick on the puck, retrieving it out of the corners or pouncing on rebounds and clearing them out of danger. Dermott is an absolutely fearless shot blocker, willing to put his body on the line to help the team win.
With Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak no longer on the Leafs blueline, and only Ron Hainsey added, there is an opening in Toronto. Dermott will go to Leafs camp trying to win that open job. If he can earn a top-six job, the Leafs will keep him on the roster. However, if he looks like the seventh or eighth defenceman, expect Dermott back in the AHL for more seasoning. The opportunity will be there. Dermott must seize the chance in training camp. His biggest competition will come from Andreas Borgman and Martin Marincin.
#4 Prospect: Andrew Nielsen
Defense — shoots Left
Born November 13th, 1996 — Red Deer, Alberta
Height 6’3″ — Weight 207 lbs [191 cm / 94 kg]
Drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 3rd round, #65 overall at the 2015 NHL Draft
Nielsen showed his offensive ability in his first pro season with the Marlies. He put up 14 goals and 39 points in 74 regular season games as well as a goal and four points in 11 playoff games. He led all Marlies defencemen in both goals and assists.
Nielsen is a big defenceman. His skating is a work in progress. His first step is awkward, and his stride is a bit sloppy. This leads to issues in acceleration as well as his top end speed. He also needs to improve his pivots and edge work. His lack of agility causes Nielsen to have real issues with speedy forwards. He has good strength and balance. Nielsen wins battles on the boards and can clear the front of the net.
Nielsen has an absolute rocket of a slap shot. He is also very good with this one-timer, and can unleash it even when moving away from the puck. Nielsen also utilizes a strong wrist shot, with a quick release. It is especially effective when defenders shade his way to take away his big slapper. Nielsen also has the poise to handle the puck at the blue line and make plays. He keeps his head up and quarterbacks things from the point on the power play. Nielsen also makes a good first pass out of the zone. While he is not one to lead the rush often, he is willing to trail the play, looking for an opportunity to unleash his shot.
Nielsen is willing to be physical. He throws big hits, as well as battling hard in front of the net and in the corners. Nielsen needs to be disciplined. He must learn not to take penalties when looking for those big hits, and not to get himself out of position on them either. He also must work at reading the play, and maintaining his position. Nielsen must keep his focus, and not get too focused on the puck. He must stay with his man and maintain his coverage.
Nielsen needs more time at the AHL level. He has the offensive skills to contribute to the Leafs power play, but must round out his defensive game before he is ready for the NHL. Working with coaches to improve that defensive game should be a priority this season.
#5 Prospect: Carl Grundstrom
Right Wing — shoots Left
Born December 1st, 1997 — Umea, Sweden
Height 6’0″ — Weight 194 lbs [183 cm / 88 kg]
Drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2nd round, #57 overall at the 2016 NHL Draft
Grundstrom put up 14 goals and 20 points in 45 games playing for Frolunda in the SHL, Sweden’s top men’s league. He also scored seven points in seven games for Sweden at the World Juniors. Following the Swedish Season, Grundstrom joined the Marlies in the AHL playoffs, putting up three goals and four points in six games.
Grundstrom plays a simple game, but a highly effective one. Grundstrom is a quick skater who has good acceleration and gets up and down the wing quickly. He gets in quickly on the fore check and lays punishing hits on defenders who go back to retrieve the puck. Grundstrom has decent edge work and agility. His stride shows good power, and he has a strong lower body leading to good balance. Grundstrom is able to fight through checks and get to the front of the net.
Grundstrom is a pure goal scorer. He loves to shoot the puck, and does so whenever he gets the opportunity. Grundstrom has a heavy wrist shot that can give goaltenders issues. He also has a quick release. He uses his skating to take defenders wide and cut to the net. However, if they have backed off to respect his speed, he is willing to use them as a screen and fire the puck on net.
Grundstrom works hard on the cycle game, using his body to protect the puck and extending plays for his teammates. He is not the most creative player, preferring to make the simple play rather than attempt to deke an opponent or feather a pass through a small opening. This is not always a bad thing though, just ask most coaches who often prefer his type of responsible game. He is not afraid to get involved in the physical game, battling hard in the corners and in front of the net.
Grundstrom is a good defensive player. He understands positioning and brings his physical, gritty style to his own zone. He reads the play well and gets his stick into passing lanes, and gets his body into shooting lanes. Once he does create a turnover, he is quick to transition this to offense. Grundstrom has often been used as a penalty killer by his international coaches. He often irritates his opponents and seems to bring out the worst in them, drawing penalties and getting them off their game.
Grundstrom signed his entry-level contract in April. He needs more development time. The question is whether he gets that time with the Marlies or back in Sweden with Frolunda.
#6 Prospect: Jeremy Bracco
Right Wing — shoots Right
Born March 17th, 1997 — Freeport, New York
Height 5’10” — Weight 190 lbs [178 cm / 86 kg]
Drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2nd round, #61 overall at the 2015 NHL Draft
Bracco started the season red-hot and was dominating with the Kitchener Rangers. With 51 points in 27 games, he was ripping up the league. Over the winter break, he won a gold medal with Team USA at the World Juniors and was traded to the Windsor Spitfires. He was never quite as dominant with Windsor as he was in Kitchener. He scored 32 points in 30 games and five points in their first round loss to London. Bracco picked it up at the Memorial Cup, scoring three goals and eight points in four games.
The biggest knock on Jeremy Bracco is his size, as he’s just 5’10″. For an undersized player to succeed in the NHL today, he must be a great skater. Bracco meets that requirement. He is one of the fastest players in the OHL, and has outstanding acceleration to go along with it. Bracco also has outstanding edge work, and the agility to avoid defenders both on the rush and when working in the zone. His balance and power are good. He added lower body strength last season, and this really helped him take his game to the next level and fight through checks. He will need to add a little bit more as he gets ready for the pro game.
Bracco also has great hands and this combined with his skating makes him extremely dangerous off the rush. He has very good vision and strong passing skills as well, making him an ideal play maker. Defenders must respect his ability to take them wide and cut to the net, and when they back off he can use the increased time and space to create passing lanes and find open teammates. Bracco also has excellent hockey sense. He makes smart plays with the puck on his stick and is able to find open areas without it.
Bracco has a decent wrist shot and good release, but sometimes seems a little too hesitant to shoot. He has the good hands to finish in close and get deflections and rebounds. Overall he must get stronger to win more battles on the boards, and to be able to succeed with his frame, though he is not afraid to get to the dirty areas of the ice. He might get knocked down by bigger defencemen, but you will find Bracco right back in the corners or in front of the net later on the very same shift. He has a relentless energy in the offensive zone.
Bracco’s defensive game could use some work. He needs to be more consistent in his effort on the back check as he can have a tendency to puck watch at time, and doesn’t always keep his feet moving. He also can fly the zone a little early at times, trying to get things started in the transition game at the expense of defensive responsibilities. This is something that should improve with some maturity and good coaching though.
Bracco moves to the Marlies this season. He should be one of the top wingers on the team. The Leafs will hope to see his game translate to the AHL. He needs to improve in his own end. If he makes the jump successfully and continues to put up points, he could see the NHL in 2018-19.
#7 Prospect: Yegor Korshkov
Right Wing — shoots Left
Born July 10th, 1996 — Novosibirsk, Russia
Height 6’4″ — Weight 180 lbs [193 cm / 82 kg]
Drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2nd round, #31 overall at the 2016 NHL Draft
Korshkov had an strong season with Lokomotiv. While 19 points in 36 games might not seem like a lot, it is very good production for a 20-year-old playing in the KHL. He was not quite as good in the playoffs, with just three points in 15 games.
Korshkov has decent speed and good acceleration. He is strong on his skates. Korshkov has good balance. He uses that to win battles in the corners, establish position in front of the net, and fight through checks. He has the agility to go with his stick-handling and beat defenders one-on-one.
Korshkov has excellent size, but will need to add some muscle to his frame. He is an excellent play maker, as he uses excellent stick handling skill to slow the play down and wait for teammates to get open. Korshkov uses his body to win battles on the boards, and to protect the puck in the cycle game. This should get even better as he grows into his body and gets stronger. He has high end hockey IQ and almost always seems to make the smart play with the puck on his stick.
Korshkov brings his gritty game to the defensive end. He can support the defence down low and help protect against the cycle. He is also a young player, and still makes some mistakes in positioning and in being too aggressive in going after the puck at times.
Korshkov has not signed an entry-level-deal with the Leafs, and is still under contract in the KHL. Elite prospects indicates that his contract ends after the 2017-18 season. If he has another strong season in Russia, he could get a contract with Leafs at the end of the year.
Sleeper Prospect: Adam Brooks
Center — shoots Left
Born May 6th, 1996 — Winnipeg, Manitoba
Height 5’10” — Weight 175 lbs [178 cm / 79 kg]
Drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 4th round, #92 overall at the 2016 NHL Draft
Brooks went back to junior for an overage season with the Regina Pats. With 130 points in 66 games, Brooks was a dominant force in the WHL. He finished just one point behind Regina teammate Sam Steel for the league scoring title, an award he won in 2015-16. Injuries limited Brooks in the playoffs, and cost the Pats a shot at winning the league. He had 18 points in 17 games. Included in that are some games where he sat on the bench for support, too injured to even take a shift.
Brooks is a little undersized, but uses good skating to create space. He has decent speed and acceleration. Brooks also has good edge work and agility. He makes quick cuts and can beat a defender to the outside on the rush, or beat his man and cut to the net in the cycle game. Brooks has good balance and is strong on the puck.
Brooks works extremely hard down low to create offense. He protects the puck with good stick handling ability and cycles the puck. He is a smart player, who keeps the puck moving and hits the open man. Brooks has good vision and can feather passes through tight spaces. He battles hard in the corners, digging for loose pucks and creating turnovers.
Brooks has a quick release on his wrist shot, but can add a bit more power. He also scores goals in tight to the net, with the soft hands to finish in close. Brooks plays a very simple game, but it is highly effective. He gets the puck to the front of the net and makes plays when he gets there.
Brooks brings his tenacity and grit on the boards to the defensive end. He supports the defence down low, and has good positioning. He is also strong on the face-off dot. Pure size and strength is his biggest weakness as he can struggle with big forwards.
Brooks heads to the Marlies, where he will battle with Frederik Gauthier for the top line centre role. Gauthier will likely play the important defensive match-ups, while Brooks will be given the offensive opportunities. He needs time to develop in the AHL, and to see if the offence he brought in his last two junior seasons can translate to the pro game.
After graduating a number of players, the Leafs will likely fall from the top spot when this year’s prospect rankings are released. However the team will still rank well, due to the immense depth that they have assembled. Up front the Leafs also have Andreas Johnsson, Kerby Rychel, Josh Leivo, Dmytro Timashov, Frederik Gauthier, Miro Aaltonen, Dakota Joshua, and Martin Dzierkals.
Eemeli Rasanen joins a Leafs defence group that also includes Andreas Borgman, Calle Rosen, J.D. Greenway, and Jesper Lindgren.
In goal, the Leafs have Joseph Woll and newly drafted Ian Scott. They are long-term projects. Marlies goalie Garet Sparks is closest to the NHL. His upside seems limited though.
Main Photo: CHICAGO, IL – JUNE 23: Timothy Liljegren poses for photos after being selected 17th overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs during the 2017 NHL Draft at the United Center on June 23, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)