MLHS’ Alec Brownscombe recently caught up with Director of Player Development Jim Hughes to check in on the progress of the younger Maple Leafs.
Hughes and Claude Loiselle had recently traveled to the World Juniors together to take in Frederik Gauthier and Andreas Johnson’s performances for Team Canada and Team Sweden respectively, as well as one viewing of Fabrice Herzog for Team Switzerland.
On Connor Brown’s eye-popping production:
JH: In Connor’s case, the goals and assists are in a lot of ways just the result of his whole makeup. He loves the game, he works extremely hard day in day out, he’s got good habits away from the rink; he’s paying attention to what he’s eating, going to bed on time, and he’s a very focused hockey player. He’s a hungry hockey player with a lot of desire. Obviously the numbers sort of speak for themselves. It’s been a progression for Connor; he worked hard the entire summer, which is carrying into his winter production. From all the good we’re saying, he needs to put in another great summer. There’s a progression here. He’s still a few years away but certainly moving in the right direction, no doubt about it.
JH: He is such a grounded kid, and such a balanced kid. There may have been a slight sense of disappointment, of course, but it certainly doesn’t rule his game. He’s not that kind of a kid. He’s got a tremendous outlook on life. He’s got something in his head and he wants to get there. He didn’t let the World Junior selection slow him down an ounce. Did he use it as motivation? I’m sure quietly he did, but he’s not a vindictive kid. He just does it because he loves the game. He loves a great challenge. I don’t see that stopping, and it hasn’t stopped. He’s done it this season with a variety of teammates, and he’s done it in a way that is gradual. There’s been no highs and lows or peaks and valleys. He’s done it throughout the entire year from the start until now. I’m certain he’s going to continue that forward momentum.
On concerns with Brown’s size:
JH: You’re correct in saying he [needs to be] a top six guy. Obviously the numbers show and indicate that. In a lot of ways, he’s still in a boy’s body with a lot of growing left in him. He hasn’t hit his full maturity. He’s a late bloomer. If you look at the shape of his body, he really needs two great summers of training so that we can continue to bulk him up so that he can have the success he wants and needs at the pro level. It’s not there yet, but there’s room to grow physically, to continue to put bulk on. It’s not going to happen over the summer. It’ll take a couple of summers, but he’ll get there.
On Frederik Gauthier’s tournament:
JH: A positive experience for us and him. For him to make the team is a great accomplishment in and of itself. We know Frederik’s makeup and what he’s capable of doing, and the role he’s going to play in. He does it well. It goes back to his faceoffs, it goes back to penalty killing. His roots and his support over 200 feet is good in all areas. He’s obviously a huge person. But again, he’s very young. After this junior and another junior year, he will most probably need a full AHL year. He’s a boy entering a manhood. There’s a lot of room to grow there, and a lot of potential. Even though he’s big, he’s not quite physically strong just yet, which he will become. He’s strong by nature. Given him a couple of summers with Anthony Belza, let him work with Barbara Underhill on his skating, and we think there is tremendous upside with this kid in terms of what he is now and what he will become.
Could Canada have used Connor Brown? Did they leave off too much game-breaking talent in preference of filling roles?
JH: That’s not for me to say, as I’m not in those meetings or in the selection meetings. But could they have used Connor? Absolutely. In a highly skilled tournament, and we saw how skilled the Swedes were, Connor could’ve contributed. I don’t know if there’s a lot of people who could disagree with that.
On Andreas Johnson’s tournament:
JH: I agree with what you just said about [a willingness to go to] tight areas. He had a real consistent tournament and saved his best for last. Throughout the tournament he was very good, and in the finals he was fantastic. Every time he had the puck on his stick, something good happened. He knows how to create offence, how to buy time and space. He rolls off people; he uses his hips very well to protect and shield the puck. He has the ability to find the open man. To sum it up, he’s got fantastic offensive instincts. He knows where to go when he doesn’t have the puck, and he knows what to do when he does have the puck. He’s calm and poised. The coach knew that in that championship game and kind of rode him a bit. He got him on the ice an awful lot in key situations. It was really incredible – every time he touched the puck, something good happened. He’s moving in the right direction. He’s had a good year in the Elite League. He’s a good kid who is well schooled. Certainly he needs another year in the Elite League, but we’ve got a good one here.
On Dominic Toninato’s transition into the NCHC from the USHL:
JH: I saw him just before Christmas and was encouraged with his game. He’s not putting up the numbers we would like to see. And yet, I like the style and the way he plays. He doesn’t cut corners, he doesn’t cheat on the wrong side of the puck, and he’s getting top quality minutes on the PK, PP and 5 on 5. He takes key faceoffs in the defensive zone. He’s a big-bodied kid who is in a good spot right now. He’s got good hockey sense, knows his way around the rink, and has a bit of physicality. We just like where he’s at right now, so we’re going to leave him where he is and see what we’ve got a few years down the road.
On how Morgan Rielly handling of the up and downs of being a pro:
JH: Very impressed with how even keeled and how balanced he is, and how consistent he’s been at such a young age. And not only consistent, he seems to continue to grow in confidence. He’s maturing just in this short while. Every few games you can see it. He’s balanced, he’s consistent, he’s sound and steady, and sharp in his mind. He’s a detailed kid who sticks to the details in terms of the habits and lifestyle away from the rink. You can see how he translates his sharp thoughts into his game. The coaches have done a wonderful job with him.
On the Leafs vs. Marlies systems:
JH: They are similar in that Spott will watch how the Leafs play, and they are both in the same town so the coaching staff has the opportunity to really watch and recognize the patterns the Leafs are using. There’s a lot of similarities in terms of forecheck, neutral zone coverages, the philosophy of defensive zone coverage. I’m sure because of the personnel, Spott has his own thoughts on the PK and PP, but they would be similar as well. There’s a lot of advantages to the two teams being so close by. I think the players on the Marlies have the ability to follow the patterns and the behaviours of the players on the Maple Leafs. These players can gain thoughts and observations of their own about how the teams play and how the organization operates.
The Marlies are giving a lot of young guys ample opportunity and quality minutes. Let’s find out the ceiling on each and every one of these players. That’s what the process is all about. Finding out what that ceiling is and trying to get these guys to hit their goals and their full potential in all situations. Greg McKegg is a powerplay guy, so let’s get him on the PP and find out what his capabilities are. Where is going to take his professional game? Stuart Percy, if he’s a puckmoving, intelligent, powerplay guy, let’s put him in those situations so that he can gain tremendous experience and be exposed to those situations. I think that’s what’s going on right now in the Marlies environment. A lot of these young guys are getting 13-14 minutes, some are getting quality minutes between 16 and 18, and some are hitting the 20-21 minute range. They are given the opportunities and exposure, so we’ll see which players take advantage of those opportunities. It’s a great training ground. They’re getting great coaching, and great instruction.
Not only are they getting developmental minutes and exposure, they’re winning at the same time. I’m not sure any of us knew the winning was going to come so quickly. We wanted to see development and to see what they’re doing in the win-loss column is fantastic.
Who among the glut of young D on the Marlies is next in line for a call up?
JH: That depends on what piece to the puzzle [Randy Carlyle] needs. We’ve got some young kids who aren’t going to be rushed. If groomed and developed properly, we’ve got lots of pieces there. With MacWilliam, there’s girth, size, physicality. Stuart Percy is a different piece as an intelligent, poised, puckmoving defenceman. Brennan has had a bang up year. It’s hard not to recognize the numbers and what he’s doing offensively. And we’ve got Granberg, who is being groomed and developed, learning how to play in a North American building, the rigors of the AHL. He’s a real strong man who is playing with authority and really knows how to defend. He’s going to be a good one. Holzer is a quality depth guy and a quality leader, somebody who is fantastic with the young players, showing the way to handle yourself going on road trips. He’s got a wealth of experience. We’ve got a lot of pieces on the backend and we’re delighted with how they’re moving along and certainly not being rushed. These minutes these guys get at the AHL level grounds them, and gives them a base and a solid foundation. If and when they get called up, they will have some substance. They won’t crash and burn. They will have some quality experience behind them physically and mentally so that it’s a long range plan. We aren’t looking for small bursts here and there, we are looking for longevity, for guys who will graduate from the American League and will be well on their way.
On Sam Carrick stepping up into different roles for the Marlies team:
JH: He’s taking full advantage of every opportunity given. He does a multitude of things well, he can play center or wing, he can take face offs, support the puck over 200 feet, play physical, and fight if necessary. He’s also scored some beautiful goals this year. He obviously can kill penalties. He’s done a lot of things well this year in taking advantage of opportunities.