ESPN insider Corey Pronman joined Andy McNamara on TSN 1050 to discuss his latest NHL team prospect rankings and his ranking of the Maple Leafs’ system at second overall.
Andy McNamara: Last year, the Leafs were ranked 17th. This year, you have them all the way up to #2. Why?
Pronman: A lot has changed in the course of a year. The organization has made a clear direction change in terms of how they think they’re going to win, which is over the long term. They’ve also changed the emphasis on the kind of players they want to acquire. I think you look at how their 2015 draft went; they bulked assets in terms of trading down, and then took really upside/ceiling-type of players. You’re thinking of Travis Dermott, or guys like Jeremy Bracco, and some other guys in the later rounds. And then they obviously were big on getting prospects via trade. I really like Brendan Leipsic, the guy they got in the Cody Franson deal. We can talk for a long time about the Phil Kessel trade and whether or not it was equitable, but Kasperi Kapanen and Scott Harrington are very good prospects. Obviously they got Mitch Marner fourth overall; William Nylander, Connor Brown had very good seasons. You put all this together and the farm system looks dramatically different from 12 months ago.
McNamara: You have to think, too, they’re not necessarily going to be a playoff contender this year, so they might even be able to add more in the kitty after next year’s draft.
Pronman: Yeah, absolutely. This is the process of a rebuild. You’ve got to accumulate assets, because even when you rate the farm system very highly and you have a lot of great prospects, there is still a very high miss rate on a lot of these guys. You’ve got to give yourself as many bullets as you can to hopefully have some of these guys turn out to be real top-end players, whether it’s Mitch Marner or William Nylander or Kasperi Kapanen, or anybody else who might accumulate over the next year or two. So this is part of the process, they’re not going to be [good] next year; it may not be the year after that. I think you saw when Mike Babcock came in, during his presser, he talked about how there’s going to be a lot of pain, a lot of patience in front of this team right now, but they’re doing it the right way.
McNamara: Are you concerned at all that a lot of the talent that you mentioned – Travis Dermott, he may be one of the exceptions here – is forwards? It’s guys who have offensive upside, and there’s not as much on defence. Do you think that’s the next place they should look to shore up?
Pronman: I think, with time, they’re going to have to try to even it out, but they’re really at the point right now where their NHL chances are so far away; they just have to fill as many holes as they can. You have Dermott, you have Stuart Percy – who looked strong in camp, was decent-ish in the AHL; he’s a fine prospect, probably not a top end guy. Down the line, you’re looking to improve that. I think winning teams in the NHL today are really built with an elite forward group. You do have to have a good defencemen, too – [good] rosters are built on overall quality – but I think getting real high-end offensive talent and then building around that is always the right direction, in my opinion.
McNamara: One of the guys I wanted to ask you about – you mentioned the Kessel trade. People might have seen Scott Harrington. He was a member of Team Canada a couple times at the World Juniors. He was the captain in London for the Knights. If you follow junior hockey, you may have seen him. Kasperi Kapanen, though, is a very different story. People here haven’t seen him play an awful lot, and there have been mixed reviews on what exactly he brings to the table. How do you see him?
Pronman: I’ve seen him a lot over the past year. I saw him at the World Junior camp, the World Juniors, and when he was in the AHL. He is a very dynamic player. His speed and skill is really high end. I think people have some mixed feelings because, when he was at the U20 tournament this year with Finland, he really wasn’t all that impressive. I think you saw the standout skill, but the scoring just wasn’t coming. His line wasn’t clicking. That powerplay was awful. I know anyone who was watching that tournament may not feel too optimistic, but having seen him for a number of years, I do think he’s a top-end prospect. There’s some risk in his game, just because he does have to round out, bulk up, and improve on some other aspects of his play, but I think against men in Finland – and in the American league – he’s shown that he can win battles and still make those unique offensive plays even versus the bigger defencemen. I do think he has a lot of potential. He is not of a higher grade like a Mitch Marner or William Nylander, but I definitely think he’s the third-best prospect in that system right now.
McNamara: One of the things you referred to is getting rid of Kapanen and Harrington pretty much emptied the cupboard when it comes to the Penguins. They are now, in your view, the worst (30th) in terms of prospects. They’re really in it for the now, right? Does that change the way you look at that deal?
Pronman: It’s just the direction of the franchise. I didn’t count Derrick Pouliot as a prospect. He’s a graduate by the guidelines I’ve used. You look at it – they’ve tried away all of their recent top picks and prospects, either picks or players they acquired like Kapanen and Harrington. If you look at the farm system, there’s not a tonne there. I think the goaltender Matt Murray, who is a top goalie in the AHL this year as a rookie, he’s a very impressive player, but overall there’s not a tonne of depth there. There’s maybe a little – a bottom of the line-up, call-up kind of thing – but in this organization — while very strong, you add Kessel to that lineup and you have a very strong team – in three or four years, when the cap situation starts to get a little more complicated, it might not be as good of a situation. They’re in it to win it now, and in a few years we’ll see. It might get a little more complicated.
McNamara: You have the Edmonton Oilers one, up from 13. How much is that ranking, that top spot, due solely to Connor McDavid?
Pronman: Pretty much all of it. They have some good prospects. Darnell Nurse is fantastic. Griffin Reinhart hasn’t wowed people, but I did see him in the AHL this season. He looked strong. You still have good prospects. Their depth is okay, but you take McDavid out of that equation and they’re a very average system, maybe somewhere between 15-20. Meaning, it’s just incredible how good a prospect he is. It gets really hard to put an exact number on his real value to an organization, but he moved the needle for them in all kinds of ways.
McNamara: How about the team that got the next best player, second overall, the Buffalo Sabres? They were ranked at number one for prospect strength a year ago; dipped to number three, [they] have Jack Eichel, and of course Sam Reinhart. You take those two into account and that obviously makes your organization better, but outside of them, you were writing that they’re pretty thin?
Pronman: At this time last year, they had two mid-first round picks in Mikhail Grigorenko and Nikita Zadorov in there, a mid-first round pick in Joel Armia in there. Two high-second round picks in Brendan Lemieux and JT Compher up there. Five of those guys were dealt for Ryan O’Reilly and Evander Kane. Some of their other guys were up and down this season. Their depth isn’t horrible, but it’s nowhere near as strong as it was last year, when they had the high-end guys and the depth. Right now, they tried to corner in the rebuild very quickly, going from what looked like a 3-4-5 year plan to maybe a 2-year plan they’re looking for now, getting O’Reilly and Kane, and now you’re going to plug Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel into that team. It’s going to be interesting to see how many games they win next season, because it seemed like Tim Murray seemed to think it was a 4 or 5-year process.