Toronto Maple Leafs Rookie Wrap
There’s no denying this Maple Leaf’s season was to be measured on the merits of who on this roster is part of the long term future, how the young players would impress, and whether or not this team could lose with grace. Unloading seemingly dead weight contracts just prior and during the season is an added bonus.
For Toronto, this season was tremendous success. They managed to lose enough games to secure the best chance to draft borderline generational talent Auston Matthews, a player who is that number 1 center this team has desperately needed for the better part of a decade. A kid who will fill the void Mats Sundin left when he departed for Swedish pastures, and by many accounts has a very real chance to surpass anything Sundin accomplished here, at least on the scoreboard.
Many of the young players they gave a chance to shine glistened to varying degrees, while some faltered and showed they are certainly on the outside looking in for a Leafs roster spot in the future. By and large the youth movement in Toronto is in full swing and the future looks bright, albeit the prospect cupboard could use a bit more stocking, particularly on the defensive end of the ice.
Toronto’s on ice performance was the biggest thing to watch this season. We all knew this team was going to lose but how they did was going to determine if head coach Mike Babcock was truly instilling his beliefs and system on the club with the players buying in. After a season of sampling it appears the players at least believe in what he’s selling and it showed. They had their fair share of duds as any team with this caliber of roster would have, yet they performed admirably through stretches which included injuries, roster purges, and an AHL team masquerading as NHLers. Perhaps a bigger testimony than Babcock, is how prepared many of these minor leaguers looked in their Show games thanks in large part to Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe and wunder-GM Kyle Dubas.
Here’s my take on grading the Maple Leafs youngsters this season:
Morgan Rielly — D GP 82/G 9/ A27/ P 36/ PIM 28/+- -17
Still very much the face of the franchise, Rielly performed exceptionally in the absence of any real top 4 blue line talent once Dion Phaneuf was dealt near the trade deadline. Groomed to learn the defensive end of the rink first early in his career, he has shown an ability to log big minutes, counter opponents top lines with some success, and play in all situations competently. While it remains to be seen if he’ll ever truly be a legitimate NHL powerplay quarterback like he was in junior, I fully expect his point total to surpass 40 next season and even flirt with 50 should he remain healthy and his blooming Leaf counterparts hold up their end of the offensive bargain. Appears to project anywhere from Scott Niedermayer to Brian Rafalski at this point.
William Nylander — F 22/6/7/13/4/+1
Toronto’s only current A level prospect playing professional hockey made his long awaited big club debut this season. You’ll be sure to see polarizing takes on what kind of expectations people placed on him and whether or not he measured up to them. It’s hard to not be mildly disappointed for him to only put up the numbers he did considering his utter dominance at every other professional and junior level he’s played prior to the NHL, but perhaps it is not fair to ask a 19 year old, former 8th overall pick to put up point-per-game numbers in his rookie debut. Well, it’s not fair at all really. I saw a player who had flashes of brilliance but was generally missing that fearlessness he showed at other levels of play. This could be a result of his mid-season concussion or trepidation from the pressures of playing in the self-proclaimed center of the hockey universe. Time will tell how his game develops but there is no denying that in 22 games he showed lethal accuracy on his wrist shot (particularly blocker side), full ice vision and play making ability that very few players have at the NHL pace, and a willingness to at least acknowledge there is a defensive end of the ice. For me he brings back memories of what fans hoped Kadri would be and never was. 2016/2017 season I project a baseline of 0.6 PPG for this Maple Leaf.
Zach Hyman — F 16/4/2/6/18/0
My first, and overly simplistic, impression of Hyman was Bozak 2.0. What I’ve come to see from this guy is that he’s probably never going to be able fill a top line role for long stretches of time but is already a sound and legitimate two-way bottom six NHL player. He’s exactly the type of player past Leaf’s management would pursue and overpay in free agency rather than acquire through the draft. In today’s NHL, these checking line players are a commodity you cannot afford to overpay and its best to have them homegrown where the team can truly dictate their worth and not let a free market have as big an impact. Valuable commodity to this team, fully expect him to stick next season out of training camp. Player who would fit in perfectly in Detroit’s current day checking unit (Abdelkader, Miller, Helm, etc).
Nikita Soshnikov — F 11/2/3/5/6/-4
Arguably the most impressive debut performance from the crop of Maple Leafs to do so this season when we take into account expectations. Prior to the season there were articles about this signing and most chalked the kid up to being a flyer with a low risk, which is exactly what he was. 11 games is a very small sample size in the NHL so it’s hard to make a truly proper assessment on his ability to play a full NHL season but what he offered left many, including myself, wanting to see more of it. He plays in top gear at all times, showed a genuine effort on the defensive end, a pro level shot with a complete willingness to use it whenever possible (a lost trait) without being selfish, and a physicality and edge to his game which is hard not to love and desire on any team’s roster. Expect him to make a strong case to make the team out of camp but would be less surprised to see him returned to Marlies as top dog and be first call-up. Brendan Gallagher type with a bit more size and offensive prowess, but not likely to be as much of an agitator to opponents game in, game out.
Frederik Gauthier — F 7/0/1/1/0/-5
If Frederik Gauthier makes his NHL debut and only Jeff O’Neill remembers it, did it ever really happen? I’ve maintained since not long after he was drafted that Gauthier’s career path was either Martin Hanzal or David Steckel, and as his career has gone on it’s become evident he was more like the latter. However, since seeing him actually play at the NHL level I feel I owe David Steckel an apology. In all fairness it was only a 7 game stint for the young man and it’s not totally fair to say his career has very limited paths. With that said, he looked like a guy who was told the only way he’s going to play in the NHL was if he could play a checking role and he has no idea how to do it. My serious take is that he’s not close to NHL ready even as a 4th line checker but I refuse to cut the cord just yet because cheap 4th line players on 2-way contracts are a valuable commodity and he may very well become that one day for the Leafs. It’s just a shame that a borderline 4th line player came at the cost of a first round pick, which isn’t Gauthier’s fault by any means.
Connor Brown — F 7/1/5/6/0/-2
Connor Brown is a perfect example of how it is much more efficient to look for top 9 scoring wingers in the draft as opposed to free agency and trade. Seeing him play allowed the realization of how poorly the Leafs have been run for so long to sink in. Plays a quiet 2-way game and shows an acumen for the net, whether it be through shooting the puck or making the right pass. Another player that should challenge for a roster spot next season but just as likely to return to the Marlies.
Rinat Valiev — D 10/0/0/0/0/0
Simply put, Valiev wasn’t ready for the pace and quality of the NHL, and not many 20 year old defenseman are. However, he did show he is a very capable pro style defenseman and has all the tools to becoming a decent top 4 two-way player in the NHL. He has a very nice 6’2 frame which should fill out as he continues to transition from a teenager’s body to a man and trains properly. Toronto fans should be excited but they may be waiting at least another season before we see what he brings to this league.
Garret Sparks — G 17/3.02/0.893
Grade: C -
Sparks didn’t inspire feelings of goalie of the future for many in Leafland. He performed as well as could be expected for any 22 year old rookie netminder playing behind a patchwork squad, though he never really showed flashes of brilliance and dominance. It’s hard to determine what Sparks real ceiling is off of these 17 games and that’s okay. Toronto isn’t desperate for a world class goaltender this upcoming season and that will allow them to carefully and patiently pursue other options via trade and free agency to fulfill the tandem duty with Bernier, while Sparks can continue to develop with Marlies as he rightly should.