With the NHL lockout in full force and not looking as if it is going to end anytime soon, fans are rightfully turning their hockey-starved eyes toward action in Europe and the junior ranks. When it comes to Leafs fans, most are understandably searching out hockey that contains Leafs property, specifically prospects.
The Marlies are primed to compete for another championship, the Leafs have a shiny new toy playing out in the WHL, and the OHL is full of Burke selections. Itâ€™s as a good time as any for fans to be watching Leafs prospects. Here are some things to look for and keep in mind while watching these players this year:
- Joe Colborne is a perplexing player for most fans. When he had his now infamous hot start in October, Big Joe shot the puck 27 times. Over the entire season he shot the puck 121 times total, meaning 22% of his shots came in one month. Obviously a large part of his shot production falling off was due to his injuries, but heâ€™s healthy now and shooting is a big part of his game. Many people confuse Colborne for a pure playmaker, but he isnâ€™t just that. When heâ€™s on his game he will take the puck to the net himself and look for his own shot. The more Colborne shoots, the more he draws in defenders and when that takes place his talent, vision, and reach takeover to provide good passes to open teammates. When Colborne is looking to be an aggressor, thatâ€™s how you know heâ€™s on his game.
- In the big picture, it also has to be recognized that Leafs management still believes he is a top six center and heâ€™s going to have to show something this year that is concrete and consistent to prove he has the potential. If he doesnâ€™t, it will probably mean itâ€™s time to start figuring out what other roles the 6â€™6 forward can fill.
- How the pairing of Fraser-Holzer looks, especially against NHL players who are in the AHL due to the lockout, is notable. The Leafs NHL defense is chalk full of offensive-minded defensemen. Holzer and Fraser are the opposite and do the dirty work in the corners and in front of the net and take the body. It would be a very optimistic leap of faith to think these two will be paired together on the Leafs third pairing, but if they were able to handle those duties and kill penalties, it would make the Leafs D a lot more complete and well rounded. It might not make them a good unit, but they would be more balanced.
- By that token, how will Paul Ranger play? The Marlies have struggled on the power play for a few years now and when this was brought up during their playoff run I pointed to the lack of a big shot from the point. They have one now. Ranger has â€“ or at least had â€” an absolute cannon, plus he moves the puck smartly and crisply. Of course, heâ€™s been out of hockey for quite a while and itâ€™s not as if this sport is like riding a bike and can be picked up again that quickly. It will be interesting to see his adjustment and where he fits in.
- Looking at the defense in general, the top four is going to be interesting. Jake Gardiner and Korbinian Holzer will be there without a doubt. After that, take your pick between Fraser, Gardiner and Blacker. Blacker might seem like the easy odd-man out choice to some, but he was playing in every situation for the Marlies during the season before getting hurt and the Leafs love him. Do you really drop that kind of player with his potential down to the third pairing? Eakins is going to have his work cut out for him.
- Where does Nazem Kadri fit? It will be very telling what position he plays this year. With Mike Zigomanis, Keith Aucoin and of course Joe Colborne on the team, itâ€™s easy to picture him on the wing. If the Leafs have any designs on making Kadri a center though, you would have to think they will shift one of those two veterans to the wing and accommodate Kadri. If heâ€™s playing wing this year, Iâ€™m considering him a winger from here on out. In terms of his play, he has nothing left to prove in the AHL as far as Iâ€™m concerned. I will be looking to see if he has gotten faster this year, though. Heâ€™s never been a bad skater, but players with his size usually need to be well above average in the wheel department and have â€œbreakaway speed.â€ Heâ€™s been working on his core and explosion this summer, so weâ€™ll see if it pays off.
- Carter Ashton scored 21 goals in his rookie AHL season and had a brief call-up with the Leafs to end the year. Heâ€™s listed at 6â€™3, 205 pounds on the AHL website, and he uses that size aggressively, which are two things the Leafs lack. His height would also put him in a tie with JVR as the second tallest forward on the team behind Steckel. Ashton plays a two-way game and grinds in the corners as well as in front of the net. You know Carlyle will like him. The question when it comes to Ashton is whether heâ€™ll be a pure grinder in the mould of Jay McClement – scoring 20-30 points a year – or whether he can be a point contributor who can at least occasionally play in the top six. Whenever you watch Ashton you can expect him to take the body and get â€œdirtyâ€; what you should be looking for is whether or not he is creating any kind of offense to go along with that.
- Another grinder Leafs fans are looking at is Leo Komarov. The important thing to keep in mind with him is that heâ€™s crossing the pond and adjusting to new surroundings and a smaller ice surface. Letâ€™s give him some time. Often fans and even pundits watch players like Komarov play a few games and draw conclusions on them. The first 5-10 games of the season are an adjustment period.
- How much ice time will the young kids get? Iâ€™ve looked at the Marlies roster before and suffice to say itâ€™s going to be tough for players like Greg McKegg, Brad Ross, Spencer Abbott and Andrew Crescenzi to see any sort of substantial ice-time. If these guys are playing under 10 minutes a game routinely, thereâ€™s really nothing to say about them. Itâ€™s not their fault there is a lockout and this team is stacked with players young and old who are established pros.
- Iâ€™m sure everyone will attempt to watch Morgan Rielly at one point or another. We all know he can produce offense and skate; it really goes without saying at this point. The knock on him is the typical one of any D-man who plays offensively – that he struggles defensively. If you get the opportunity to watch him, look to see how many times heâ€™s actually forced to play real, positional defense. He usually doesnâ€™t have to because heâ€™s busy in the offensive zone. During the times he is playing defense, note how his speed covers his mistakes and ask yourself how many times heâ€™s actually making defensive errors. Just something to chew on when it comes to Rielly. He also needs to stay healthy. If he has a full, great year in the WHL, heâ€™s going to challenge to be on the Leafs defense the following season.
- Another guy who needs to have a healthy year? Stuart Percy. A concussion sort of ruined his OHL season, but he showed very well with the Marlies in the playoffs. That said, two straight injury-ravaged years for a prospect makes it very hard to stay on track developmentally.
- And finally, because I feel like if I donâ€™t stop here I could go on forever, what goalie will win the backup job to Scrivens? We know at this point Scrivens is a good AHL goalie, what we need to find out is how good Mark Owuya and Jussi Rynnas are. Whoever wins that spot is basically passing the other on the goalie depth chart.
Itâ€™s going to be a long season, especially if thereâ€™s no NHL hockey to watch. I encourage everyone to get out and watch other great leagues like the AHL, CHL and NCAA. Itâ€™s good hockey. However, please donâ€™t make the mistake of watching a guy once and forming a conclusion on him. If youâ€™re watching the Marlies, ask yourself how these guys fit with the Leafs. We know the Leafs can score and skate, we also know they canâ€™t play defense, hit or kill penalties. With that, there are quite a few pieces on the Marlies that could make sense in a Leafs uniform very shortly.
Even when the Leafs arenâ€™t playing, thereâ€™s always a Leafs story to be had. Iâ€™m sure you all know that by now.