With Brian Burke back in the news, it’s fitting that his greatest contribution to the Maple Leafs – a rebuilt farm system — take center stage in the days leading up to actual meaningful hockey. The Baby Leafs have a gold-plated defense group and a forward contingent that breaks down fairly nicely into scoring lines and checking lines; the lines should pretty much roll themselves.
With players like Morgan Rielly trying to make an impact prior to the start of Leafs camp, and guys like Leivo, Biggs, and Percy looking to solidify key roles with the Marlies, the stakes are a lot higher for these kids than they may seem to fans on the surface. These aren’t your typical pre-season games and they’ll provide a great glimpse at what the future has in store for the big club.
The Leafs’ rookies took the tournament opener as a result of their energy, skill, and goaltending. They outpaced a Chicago group that was forced to rely more on physicality to gain ground. They caught the Leafs temporarily, but in the end Toronto came away with a win they probably deserved as Morgan Rielly and Tyler Biggs converted in the shootout to secure a 3-2 Leaf victory.
The Maple Leafs’ annual Rookie Tournament is upon us. Toronto hosts Chicago Jr. tonight at the Budweiser Gardens in London, Ontario. Toronto Maple Leafs new and ‘not-so-old’ will have a chance to display their talents for the Maple Leafs Brass in what should be an entertaining tilt of careful pre-pre-season stepping and spirited verbal jousting.
For all your basic rookie tournament info needs, the Leafs’ official website pretty much has you covered. View the roster and schedule breakdown. Read the primer for tonight’s game, which includes broadcast details. Or watch an interview with Marlies coach Steve Spott in which he talks about the weekend’s promise and touches on a few key roster points.
But most importantly, join the party at MLHS and follow @TOTruculent as I live-Twitter tonight’s action! Embedded below, for your non-having-to-switch-tabs pleasure.
I’ll be covering the action from the press box in London. Check back here for updates throughout the night, and a post-game recap. Unless things go really poorly right at the end, in which case I’ll be locked in a dark room, fighting off a wave of painful flashbacks to May 13th.
The Leafs outshot the Blackhawks 14-6 in the first period, despite a healthy amount of play taking place in the Leafs’ end in the early going. Early standouts included – as expected – Morgan Rielly, who at any given moment seems like he could do something dangerous. Rielly took two early wrist shots, one from the point and one from the half boards, that both found the net in dangerous ways.
Josh Leivo also made an impact. From creating offense out of situations you wouldn’t normally consider opportunities to using his teammates well, he impressed from the get go and was rewarded with a power play goal. Leivo doesn’t immediately strike you the way his 6’2 frame would suggest, but he uses the size well. Keep an eye on him this fall.
So far, the Leafs’ rookies are by far the better team. Outpacing, outshooting, out puck-moving, out-hockeying. Chicago seemed to land a few more memorable hits, though. Here’s hoping for a truculent second frame.
Marked difference from the first frame. Chicago closed the shot gap, but the Leafs continued a high effort across the board and played pretty solidly for a young team thrown together in recent weeks. A few standouts emerged beyond the first period crowd, providing a great look at some other Leaf prospects.
Tyler Biggs might be one of the more interesting young Leafs. We’re all aware of his purported skating limitations, but on first glance, he’s added speed since my last viewing. In close, the mobility still seems like an issue – but that’s one of the hardest elements of proper skating technique to develop. Nevertheless, he brings a 100% effort level on every shift and gets his job done by making the right play. Gritty. As I mentioned on Twitter and am happy to stand by thus far – from the press box, he looks like David Clarkson in a different jersey.
With all the focus on the Bernier/Reimer debate heading into next season, not much has been made recently of the Leafs’ net depth behind the top two. Garret Sparks has turned in an impressive night so far, stopping several shots through traffic and snagging at least one high, hard snapper with the glove hand impressively enough to make Francois Allaire wonder, “You can do that?”
Also, have I mentioned the power play pairing that is Rielly and Finn? The power play pairing that is Rielly and Finn.
After a comeback by the young Hawks, the Leafs eked it out in a shootout to win 3-2, with Rielly and Biggs coming through in the skills comp for the jr. Leafs. Thus concludes the third period recap, which was truncated in favour of running downstairs for the postgame scrums.
The Leafs’ rookies took the tournament opener as a result of their energy, skill, and goaltending. They outpaced a Chicago group that was forced to rely more on physicality to gain ground. They caught the Leafs temporarily, but in the end Toronto came away with a win they probably deserved.
Check the period summaries above for a few observations on the standouts (Rielly, Leivo, Sparks) and watch the Game in Six below. Notable highlights from Steve Spott’s postgame scrum:
-On the mobility and skill of his young defensive corps: “Wow.”
-Spott was impressed by the team’s ability to come together quickly and
-He was also enthusiastic about Sparks’ performance, only calling out the first goal as one Garrett might potentially want another shot at.
-Spott confirmed Leivo missed the third period due to a chest contusion suffered when he took a hit earlier in the game.
MLHS’ Anthony Petrielli chatted with Garth Malarchuk, amateur scout for the Maple Leafs, earlier this week. Topics covered include the ins and outs of his job, Frederik Gauthier, Morgan Rielly, and a little on Tyler Bozak.
MLHS’ Alec Brownscombe caught up with Leafs Director of Player Development Jim Hughes this morning to talk about some of the younger Maple Leafs. While much of the Leafs scouting staff heads to Bratislava next week for the Ivan Hlinka U18 tournament, Hughes will be taking in the World Junior exhibition games in Lake Placid. Dominic Toninato will participating for Team USA while Ryan Rupert, Matt Finn, Morgan Rielly and Frederik Gauthier will be playing for Canada.
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.
Earlier this week, the Leafs director of amateur scouting, Dave Morrison, took some time out of his schedule to talk to me.
We ended up speaking for nearly an hour and we went over so much that I decided to break it down by section and quote him where appropriate. So with that, please do not misconstrue anything said below and contact me for clarification if you are unsure about anything.
With all that out of the way, here are the highlights from our chat:
“Maple Leafs 2012 first round pick Morgan Rielly was named the WHL Eastern Conference Defenceman Of The Year and he was named to the WHL Eastern Conference First All-Star team on Wednesday.
Rielly finished his third WHL season with 54 points (12 goals, 42 assists) in 60 games. While Rielly’s season with the Moose Jaw Warriors has come to an end, he will be joining the Toronto Marlies this week to get his feet wet in the pro game.
The offensive blueliner also played for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships where he had three points in six games with a plus 2 rating.”
To the surprise of nobody who follows me on Twitter or reads this column with any regularity, Morgan Rielly and the Moose Jaw Warriors are on the outside looking in. If I were a lesser man, I’d gloat about how I predicted this outcome when Moose Jaw was sitting 5th in the WHL’s Eastern Conference and I’d definitely rub it in the face of all the people who called me an idiot or worse — if I were a lesser man.
What this means for Rielly is that he’ll be joining the Marlies on Wednesday and that he’ll be able to take a bit of time to adjust to the pro speed. From a developmental perspective, this is probably the ideal place for him right now. I’m not convinced that languishing in Moose Jaw for the last two months has really taught him much and I’m reluctant to throw a teenage defenseman onto a Leafs group that has, frankly, struggled. I’m not as sold as many people are on Eakins as an NHL coach but I do think that he’s an exceptional developmental coach so Rielly is in good hands.
As far as the other Leafs go, Stuart Percy and the Mississauga Steelheads will be lining up against the top seeded Belleville Bulls. Mississauga has been just brutal lately and there’s a very real chance that Belleville ends their season by March 26th, at which point Percy will join Rielly in the AHL. Once again, this is probably the best spot for him to be right now, so I wont be shedding any tears if the Steelheads make an abrupt exit.
Biggs and the Generals play the Niagara Ice Dogs and unlike the aforementioned prospects, Biggs will be hoping to make a playoff run. Also unlike the others, I think the OHL is a good spot for Biggs right now — especially in a playoff atmosphere. He’s on a good team, he’ll play a variety of situations, and this will be a good opportunity to see if the wear-you-down style of a playoff series is a strength for Biggs. Should be a good series and I’d expect Oshawa’s forward depth is enough to see them through to the next round.
The most intriguing series from a Leafs perspective will be the Kitchener v. Guelph matchup. Matt Finn has been out of the lineup with an injured knee and was set to miss 3-4 weeks. I hope he doesn’t rush back but if the series goes the distance or if Guelph should advance, Finn could see some playoff action. On the other side of the ice, Leivo is in a nearly identical position to Biggs. He’s on a good team and will be expected to play a pivotal role for the Rangers who’ve made a serious investment to win this season. Also like Biggs, Leivo has the kind of game with the potential to thrive in a long, grinding playoff series.
As far as Connor Brown goes, his Erie Otters missed the playoffs and I’m not sure what the organization plans to do with him over the next few weeks. Brown recently returned from a concussion (and scored a pair of goals in the Otters’ last game) so while he’s healthy, there’s a chance the team just skates him in practice with the Marlies but holds him off the ice. He’s still awfully young and I doubt he sees much, if any, icetime with the Marlies but maybe he surprises me; he has all season.
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Welcome to the Playoffs, Awards, and Injury Ward edition of the Leafs Prospect Update!
Starting with the bad news, Erie Captain and surprise statistical standout Connor Brown suffered a head injury (read: concussion) against London on the 18th and missed this weekend’s games. Erie is well out of the playoff mix and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Brown sit out the rest of the year to recover — it’s probably what’s best for him in the long run.
If Tyler Biggs were Russian, he’d be considered an enigma. Biggs has been taken off of Oshawa’s top powerplay unit (though he remains on their top line at even strength) and his production has been on and off ever since. Biggs picked up an assist tonight — and a number of scoring chances — but prior to tonight’s game he had been on a goals-or-nothing streak. Biggs’ last five games registered as follows: 2 goals, no points, 1 goal, no points, 2 goals. He still isn’t much of a passer, nor is he any more comfortable carrying the puck. This might be work that he needs to do with a fresh set of coaches next season.
Josh Leivo continues to impress in Kitchener and has now passed Connor Brown as the Leafs prospect with the most CHL-points this season. Leivo has 19 points in 15 games with Kitchener — a point-per-game total that no player on Kitchener has been able to match despite all the drafted talented on that team. Leivo has changed the way he puts up points since his transition to Kitchener, relying more on assists than goals, but the production has still been there despite the increased defensive focus that Spott employs in Kitchener. There aren’t a lot of holes in Leivo’s game which bodes well for his transition to the pro game (ECHL or AHL) coming next season.
From December 28th to January 22nd, the Moose Jaw Warriors went on an 11-game losing streak which corresponded fairly neatly with Morgan Rielly’s absence from the team. Since then, the Warriors are W4-L4 which may not be spectacular, but it is a pretty significant improvement. Rielly is tied for 6th in scoring among WHL defensemen despite playing on one of the worst offensive teams in the league and having missed a month’s worth of games with the WJC and NHL camp. In short, everything you’ve read on Rielly is true — he’s a dynamic offensive player and isn’t bad in his own zone either.
After being away from his teammates for both the World Junior Championships and the Leafs’ pre-season camp, Morgan Rielly returned to Moose Jaw and the Warriors returned to the win column for the first time since his departure.
The resolution to the NHL lockout combined with the commencement of the second half of the CHL season has predictably stirred up some player movement in the NHL’s development leagues.
As far as Leaf property, third round pick in 2011 Josh Leivo was traded to the Kitchener Rangers in a deal that saw the Sudbury Wolves move their top forward in Leivo, top defenceman in Frankie Corrado and starting goaltender Joel Vienneau in one swoop.
At this point in time, it is probably fair to call Morgan Rielly the most hyped Leafs prospect since Wendel Clark. I don’t know whether or not that’s fair, but with great hype comes great expectations.
In essence, Rielly is following the path of many elite defensemen before him. With that in mind, I collected some stats on how players he’s been compared to have performed in this tournament. Hopefully, it will serve as some sort of barometer on what to expect from the young Leafs prospect.
After missing time with a concussion, Leivo returned to the Sudbury Wolves lineup last week and he did so with a vengeance. The Wolves had 3 games in 3 nights this weekend and Leivo put up 2 goals and 5 assists. Leivo now has 34 points in 29 games on a pretty weak Sudbury team.