I had the pleasure of chatting with Dave Morrison yesterday on behalf of MLHS. The Director of Amateur Scouting for the Leafs, Morrison is an intelligent hockey mind that provides direct insight and analysis on the prospects and general state of affairs in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization. We covered topics including recent draft picks, organizational depth, up and coming prospects and Nazem Kadri.
Nikhil Daljeet: Let’s start with your thoughts on the progression of the farm system as a whole.
Dave Morrison: Well obviously I am happy with the way things are going. I think as an organization we’ve put a lot of time and effort into developing systems on our farm teams and with our development coaches to enable us to have the best environment for our players to progress and become NHL players. I think if you look at the last while, you can start to see the results as a lot of our players are coming along quite nicely. It’s a credit to them too, but obviously they have to keep putting that effort in. If you were at the development camps you would have seen a lot of progression
ND: Are there needs at a particular position or for a particular skillset, a certain type of player?
DM: Well, having looked at it, I am happy with the overall group and the different kinds of players we have. We have a lot of skill in different positions, a lot of two-way type players, a lot of grit in different areas. We have some size, we also have some speed. There are a lot of different things we have there. You always want to add to your prospect pool and improve them if you can. At this point, it is tough to say where we may need something. We needed a little more depth down the middle. I think that picking Gauthier and then Verhaeghe and looking at the camp this summer, I thought we solved that at this point. It’s tough to say until you see them become pros exactly where you’re at. We draft the best available player. It’s got to work out for us that the position we want is there and is the best available player. This year was one of those years where the guys popped up for us at the right time.
ND: Last year, you liked Morgan Rielly enough to take him fifth overall despite coming off a pretty tough injury. He certainly seems to have bounced back with an excellent season for Moose Jaw. What are the next steps for him?
DM: He also had that opportunity to play 20 games at the AHL level which included a number of playoff games. I think for Morgan, it’s just progressing in all areas. Morgan’s a pretty talented young player. At his age, it’s really hard to say how quickly he will be able to make that adjustment to the pro game. Obviously by how he played at the American League level last year he is perfectly capable of playing at this point. But is it the best thing for him long term to be rushed into the pro game? Because next year he either has to play in the NHL or major junior. Only Morgan will be able to tell us that and telling us will be how he plays and how he performs at training camp. That will be the mark by which we judge him. If he’s ready, he’s ready. If he isn’t, he isn’t. It’s no race here with a young player. I think we’ve seen with Nazem that taking your time with a player doesn’t hurt them and can only make them better.
ND: Yeah definitely. I was glad when they didn’t rush Nazem a couple years ago. I wouldn’t mind at all if Reilly took his time and followed his natural progression.
DM: Yeah, I think we’ve seen that work for us, and it works for a lot of organizations. I think in our market too, it’s especially important that a player has to work and earn his way there. There are a lot of different components that come into play when you’re looking at a player becoming an NHL player. It’s not just that they’re an NHL player – it’s that they can play in the NHL and help us win. Playing in the NHL is one thing, but playing and helping your team win is a whole different thing. That’s where we want to get our players.
ND: Even outside of Rielly, the organization is quite deep along the blueline in terms of prospects. For example we’ve got Percy, Blacker and Matt Finn coming up the ranks. Who stood out to you this season? Who might be the closest to making that jump?
DM: I think closest is a matter of experience. To me, the one kid that comes to mind is Petter Granberg who played in the SEL, won the championship and then capped it off playing in the World Championships and winning. A player like him has had that full year of pro experience and played against some of the better NHL players in the World Championships. That just gives him a bit more confidence. He’s one guy that would come to mind.
We’ve got a number of kids. Stuart Percy’s progression could go quickly depending on how much strength he gets this summer and if he’s able to adapt to the pro game quickly. It could happen fairly quickly for him. Also a guy like Andrew MacWilliam, entering his first year of pro, is a big physical defenseman. He’s played four full years of NCAA hockey so he’s fairly mature physically and mentally. You never know with a guy like him.
Obviously we’ve very optimistic about our depth on the blueline. We have a number of kids – Matt Finn who you mentioned – still back in junior. We have two Swedes [Tom Nilsson and Viktor Loov] going back to Sweden that we’re quite happy with. So we’re pretty happy with our depth on the blueline. But still, every year you try to make them better.
ND: The trade for Bernier gives the Leafs two young NHL goaltenders with starter upside. But at the lower levels, Jussi Rynnas and Mark Owuya have left the organization. The organization recently signed Christopher Gibson and drafted Antoine Bibeau to add to the organizational goalie depth. After Reimer and Bernier, who is the most promising goalie currently in the system? The one that is closest to making an impact at the NHL level?
DM: Well we have MacIntyre who is an older AHL player that has played some games here and there and is an established depth goaltender. In terms of Garret Sparks or Christopher Gibson, they’re both talented young goalies that both need some pro experience. It’s hard to say at this point which one of them will vault themselves forward quicker. Garret got in some games with the Marlies last year and acquitted himself well. But that’s not a season. They’re both talented and both a bit different in how they play the game. They both have good size and athleticism and they’re both good character kids. We think the competition is healthy and we will see which one of them vaults themselves into position quicker than the other but at the end of the day you have to think (as we were talking about with the defensemen and just our overall group of players) – it’s good to have depth. It’s good to have talented depth that’s going to push each other to become better.
ND: On that note, last summer you told us that Nazem Kadri was on the verge of breaking out as an NHL player and he certainly did. What did you see in his character or his game that really told you he was ready?
DM: I’m from London, so I know a lot of people in this area and I know his family. I know Naz and I know his character, so I know what drives him to become a player. I know that he’ll meet a challenge head on. He’s not the type of young man to turn away from challenges. He accepts them and he wants to excel and he wants to win. It was just that close for him last year when we talked about it. I was happy with the way he came back and proved himself and he has got to continue to prove himself. He’s still a young player and a player that’s important to our future. From what I understand he’s been working pretty hard this summer so we are looking forward to getting him back in the fold here. Obviously there are some things to work out in between. He was just at that point and I’m happy that it’s starting to happen for him.
ND: Is there any player this year that could make that same step? One that you think is close?
DM: It’s interesting because we have a number of kids that I think could actually. I’m excited about the potential of a lot of our players. It’s going to be hard to say until we get to training camp. There are a number of guys that will be ready for this year’s camp and it has to do with the depth and competition within the organization. I just see that there’s a group of kids down at the MCC working out a lot. There’s a healthy competition with these kids.
A lot of the young Marlie players are going to be pushing for jobs and kids graduating from junior will put a push on, but obviously may need more time at the pro level before they can do that. But you never know. I’m excited about a lot of guys: I think a kid like Josh Leivo could turn some heads. Tyler Biggs could. David Broll. Some of the Marlies: Greg McKegg, Jerry D’Amigo, Carter Ashton. And that’s why I say it’s kind of a group that I’m excited to see who has put in the time and really matured mentally and physically and developed their games for training camp. I’m excited to see which kids will step forward. I mentioned only a few names; I could mention another five to ten names I’m excited to see at camp. I think we have a number of kids that could have breakout years.
ND: Definitely. At the development camp – we had some guys there – they were talking about how good Leivo and some of the others looked. We have a lot of size, and it’s interesting because a lot of our prospects are on a similar level in the sense that any one of them could break out, but its close.
DM: Yeah, I think you’re right and I’m excited. Sometimes size takes a little longer to develop. For example Fred Gauthier, understand that he’s a big man but still a very young boy. Same with Carter Verhaeghe. It takes time. These kids now, that are turning pro, there’s an adjustment period. Most of the time there’s an adjustment period and you just have to be patient with them. And we’re going to be. We’re going to be patient with them. It’s worked for us and it will continue to work for us.
ND: Speaking of Gauthier – how high was he on your draft board? What do you like about his game and where do you see him fitting in 5 years down the road?
DM: With Frederik Gauthier, we feel pretty comfortable with his potential as a third-line center. Could he better than that? Yeah, I think he could. But I don’t think at this point you could project him better than that. I think he’s going to be a really strong two-way player that is going to help your team win. I think he’s going to be one of these guys that down the stretch, playoff time, big situations, when you really need two-way strength – he’s going to be a player that really helps us down the road in that regard.
I think if you watch the playoffs and toward the end of the season, there is a type of player that starts to look a little more important and a little more valuable. I feel like Frederik will be one of those guys. I don’t think he’s going to be a flashy guy. He’s got a different type of skill set than a guy like Nazem Kadri. I think, in saying that, I still feel like Frederik has some offensive upside. But I wouldn’t ever say he’s going to be a guy like Nazem Kadri – he’s not. Frederick is going to be that strong two-way guy that will help you win hockey games.
ND: Yeah, thinking about the playoff run this year for example: I could see some comparisons to Michal Handzus, although he may be a bit long in the tooth at this point. That large size at center and two-way presence was a big force in the playoffs.
DM: Exactly, I think you’re not far off. I think that’s probably what you’re going to be looking at. That type of guy. Or a Martin Hanzal, another big guy down the middle. Maybe a Jordan Staal but perhaps not quite as developed offensively as Jordan. It’s hard to say at this point as Frederik has come such a long way. You have to remember that just a year ago he was playing basically midget AAA, and all of a sudden within a year he is almost a PPG in the QMJHL and helping Canada win a gold at the U18 tournament. It’s such a huge accelerated year for him that you just have to be patient with him. It may take him 3 or 4 years to get there but we’re going to be happy with that he brings us.
ND: Last year at this time, you had just wrapped up a draft where you held the fifth overall selection. After a strong season, you now found yourself selecting toward the end of the first round. Does the position of a draft pick, especially in that first round, affect your drafting game plan? It’s more difficult to find a star at that point – so do you target a player with a defined skillset that can fill a role? Or do you swing for the fences a little bit on a raw project player with high upside?
DM: It’s interesting: I would say that we consider all of the above. You go through so many different scenarios and we evaluate and rank so many different players. Those players in that range we’re going to draft – every one of them has a different skillset. We rank them in terms of which one of them we feel will have the biggest impact. That doesn’t necessarily mean offense. You need to have players that can stop those other players too, win big faceoffs and play in critical situations and have that size and strength down the stretch and in the playoffs where it becomes important. And Frederik, we were impressed with the kind of year he had for a big man. He has good hockey sense and a developing skillset. So we’ll see where he goes, but we feel he has the right character to put in the time and effort and work to become the best he can be. How good that will be remains to be seen, but we’re confident he’ll help us down the road at some point.
ND: Let’s finish off with a few reader questions:
DM: Sure, as long as they’re not kicking me in the ass for someone I picked.
ND: What is the most interesting question you’ve asked a player during the pre-draft interviews?
DM: The funny thing about that question is, I probably can’t divulge it publicly. Because sometimes they can get a little personal. Players run into problems during the season, sometimes they’re issues off the ice. They can be touchy subjects. We’ll give a player the chance to explain – sometimes it’s not easy to ask those questions but we do. We want to be honest with the player and we want them to be honest with us. And they are, they always are. Sometimes that’s the only way you get to know them.
Therefore, that’s kind of a tough question to answer for that reason. In the past, we’ve asked some of those questions where we show pictures, ask who would you like to go to lunch with and questions about a certain type of pill. We’ve done different things over the years but we’ve got it to a point now where we are straightforward and honest. And it’s not the first interview. All my regional scouts interviewed these players during the year, so by the end we’ve probably got about three interviews with them.
ND: What is your personal opinion on the CHL’s ban of European goalies?
DM: My personal opinion – I can understand why they’re doing it. I can see why they’re doing it, it remains to be seen whether it’s going to work or not. Fundamentally, this may come right down to the grassroots level. I would never second guess the decisions Hockey Canada and the CHL have made because they’ve been very successful. Fundamentally, if it solves the problem in a different way then that’s good. If we want Canadian goaltenders, I can support the notion. How you’re going to do it is obviously going to be up for debate, especially in this type of manner. But that’s something they’re going to try and hopefully it helps. It’s going to be a question mark going forward. It will give Canadian goaltenders at this upper level the chance to play. If it helps the kids at a lower level see that they will get a better chance, then that’s good.
ND: Let’s hand out a few Maple Leaf Prospect Awards – starting with “Most Improved Player”
DM: Greg McKegg, Tom Nilsson, Josh Leivo
ND: “Best goal scorer”
DM: Leivo or Connor Brown
ND: “Best defensive forward”
DM: This can’t be recent drafts obviously? [read: Gauthier] I may throw you off a little with this one, but I’m going to say Tyler Biggs. Very good penalty killer.
ND: “Best all-around defenseman”
DM: Morgan Rielly
ND: “Toughest son of a gun”
DM: Three way toss up between Devane, Biggs and Broll.
ND: “Best locker room personality” and “Most likely to be an NHL captain”
DM: Oh, an interesting question. I would say Morgan.