Toronto Maple Leafs: Future So Bright, Gotta Wear Shades.
To be honest, the Maple Leafs have been stuck in a rut since the 2005/2006 season, qualifying for the playoffs just once over that 10-year span (11 if you count this season), albeit in a shortened season.
During that tenure, the Maple Leafs employed five different head coaches— Pat Quinn, Paul Maurice, Ron Wilson, Randy Carlyle and Peter Horachek.
Throughout the 11-year collapse, the Toronto Maple Leafs sold their fans a bill of goods that the team would improve via the draft. While the effects of giving up two first round draft picks (one of which became all-star forward Tyler Seguin, the other which became defenseman Dougie Hamilton) in the ill-timed Phil Kessel trade are well documented, there was still a slew of prospects the Leafs were hoping would pan out.
Once thought to be top prospects within the Maple Leafs’ organization, names like
Joe Colborne, Tyler Biggs, Matthew Finn, Jesse Blacker, Greg McKegg, Carter Ashton, Brad Ross and Josh Leivo, have either moved on or are buried behind a long list of new prospects that, for the first time in a decade, look to be the type of kids you can build your future around.
To be fair, the Maple Leafs prospect pool has never really been their strong point.
The franchise spent decades trying to buy their way into the playoffs while constantly dealing away top picks. Not that it mattered. The Maple Leafs rarely picked a player of consequence in the draft and when they did, it was typically in the later rounds.
The cost of the Leafs futile drafting has been a franchise that has been lost in the standings with little future and very limited home grown talent in the roster.
Those that follow the Maple Leafs know that, with the additions of Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello, Mike Babcock and a myriad of capable new pro scouts, the team is putting a premium on young talent, culminating in this seasons “tank”.
Through well informed drafting and shrewd trades, the Maple Leafs currently have one of the best crop of young prospects, including, but not limited to, the likes of William Nylander (C/W), Mitch Marner (C), Kasperi Kapanen (W), Brendan Leipsic (W), Travis Dermott (D), Viktor Loov (D), Frank Corrado (D), Frederik Gauthier (C), Sam Carrick (D), Dmytro Timashov (W), Andreas Johnson (W), Tobias Lindberg (W), Zach Hyman (C), Jeremy Bracco (W), Connor Brown (W), Garret Sparks (G), Antoine Bibeau (G), Scott Harrington (D) and Nikita Soshnikov (W).
Nylander, 19, looks to be the Maple Leafs top prospect, with Marner, 18, hot on his heals. Both Nylander and Marner represent a change of philosophy for the Maple Leafs— putting a premium on speed and skill, rather than physical prowess.
Kapanen, 19, Leipsic, 21 and Soshnikov, 22, bring a level of speed to the team we haven’t seen since Mats Sundin and Alexander Mogilny were here.
On the current roster, defenseman Morgan Reilly looks like the real deal, while centre Nazem Kadri continues to grow his game. James van Riemsdyk is already somewhat of a proven player and, at just 26-years old, will represent a “veteran” presence on the team as it grows.
Where the Maple Leafs are lacking is in overall size (many of their prospects are small in stature), between the pipes (where with Jonathan Bernier struggling and James Reimer having been moved out, the Leafs are waiting on one of Bibeau or Sparks to emerge) and down the middle (where they are still searching for a true number one centre— although Nylander could emerge as that player).
This summer the Maple Leafs are hopeful that they will land the number one overall draft choice. If that scenario should pan out, look for the Maple Leafs to do what every other NHL team would do with the first pick— take franchise player and centreman, Auston Matthews.
The addition of Matthews to an already great crop of young talent would likely catapult the Maple Leafs out of “tank” mode and into a “rebuilding” mode that may include big off-season free agent signings in the coming years.
With 28 picks in the next three drafts, the Maple Leafs have a ton of flexibility to move up in the draft to select players they really want, make trades for prospects or NHL caliber roster players or continue to hoard picks in hope of developing a few gems.
While we are all for building the Maple Leafs “the right way” (through the draft), there obviously comes a time when you simply will not have enough roster spots, both in the minors and with the big club, with which to develop your players, so it stands to reason that the Maple Leafs will be looking to deal some of those picks over the next three drafts.
Recently, Maple Leaf fans were given a taste of things to come in Toronto when Management chose to insert a number of young prospects into the lineup, including the likes of Nylander, Kapanen, Leipsic, Soshnikov, Sparks, Hyman, Carrick and Ben Smith.
Each and every one of them exhibited a high compete level— a character Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock is putting a premium on. Nylander, Kapanen and Soshnikov look to be the Maple Leafs best overall prospects, but many Leaf fans were impressed with Sparks— who looked very good in his first two NHL games, Hyman— who continually grinds, Carrick— who looked very poised in his first two games and Smith— who, while not his first rodeo, is finding his way with the Maple Leafs.
So, what are the “experts” saying about the Maple Leafs prospects?
The Hockey News columnist, Mike Brophy, Calls Nylander “Explosive” and “a gym freak”. Search further and you will find plenty of scouts willing to label Nylander as “highly skilled”, “fast”, “SMART” and having the ability to play a 200-foot game. Without question, while it is still early, it appears as if Nylander is a can’t-miss prospect who, given time, will evolve into a monster talent, capable of one day being in the conversation as one of the top players in the NHL.
Mitch Marner continues to turn heads with the OHL’s London Knights. His 38 goals and 68 assists (126 points) this season through 50 games played, should put him well ahead of his 2014-15 totals where he scored 44 goals and totaled 126 points (63 games played).
Marner is a gifted, talented player, who seemingly scores at will and has moves for days. His work ethic is off the charts, while his vision and speed has scouts drooling over what could be. Is Marner the second coming of Patrick Kane? The Maple Leafs certainly hope so and, while he still has a long way to go before he will be known as one of the best goal scorers in the World, there is every indication that he can be that kind of player.
Like Nylander and Marner, Kasperi Kapanen owns a ton of speed. He also has a physical element to his game, which is something the Leafs need, going forward. Best known for scoring the game winning goal in overtime for Team Finland in this past World Junior Championships, if he develops his game around the net, he is going to be a huge talent, capable of scoring 30 plus goals and pitching in with a solid two-way game.
Kapanen is described by eliteprospects.com as “Small and slippery with very creative hands and impressive 1-on-1 arsenal. He has a decent shot with good release but needs added velocity. He has quick feet and impressive lateral agility and is a dangerous goal scorer who can make skilled passes and offensive zone reads”.
And then there is Nikita Soshnikov. Virtually unknown, Soshnikov was signed by the Maple Leafs as a free agent out of the KHL.His 18 goals and 10 assists, combined with a plus/minus rating of plus-24 with the Maple Leafs’ AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies, while good, just doesn’t do his game justice.
Hockey’s Future describes this kid as “an undersized, but highly-skilled forward who can dart in and out of plays quickly. He likes to go to the net and is consistently looking for ways to create scoring chances. He is not overly physical and will sometimes be overmatched in one-on-one battles due to his lack of bulk. He is a high-energy forward”.
Judging from his first goal as a Maple Leaf where he blasted a shot into the upper corner, Soshnikov looks to be like the type of player that has game-changing abilities and a drive to score.
When you add it all up, the Maple Leafs own one of the best pool of prospects in the NHL. No longer is there no hope for the future, in fact, you might even say, the Maple Leafs future is so bright, they gotta wear shades.