In the finale of the Toronto Maple Leafs Rookie Tournament, the Blue and White welcomed the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Budweiser Gardens in front of a much-smaller and quieter fan base. Drawing back into the fold were the Leafs three most anticipated offensive talents in Mitch Marner, Michael Nylander, and Kasperi Kapanen.
Not in the lineup versus the Penguins were Nikita Korostelev, Matt Finn, Frederik Gauthier, TJ Foster, Justin Nichols, Cameron Lizotte, Travis Dermott, JJ Piccinich, and Bradley Latour.
Despite adding three dynamic options, Toronto’s big guns came out of the gates rather dismal in the opening period, with their highlights consisting of low-quality backhand saucer attempts through large traffic areas instantly turning into turnovers. Sure, exhibition play in a “rookie” tournament is a great time to try the cutesy stuff, but there is a time and place for it every situation. Nik Brouillard, once again, turned heads in the opening frame with his smart and confident puck rushing ability. Unfortunately for the free agent invite, he left the game midway through the contest after taking a weird hit in the defensive zone, but we will get to that later.
Toronto found the back of the net first just minutes into the game with Jack Rodewald and Stephen Desrocher teamming up again for the second straight night. Rodewald was Johnny-on-the-spot jumping on a Desrocher’s rebound. Brady Vail picked up the secondary assist. Outside of the Rodewald goal, the first period was fairly uneventful, but there were a few notable plays.
A late addition to the tournament rosters, Garret Sparks performed well stepping into the crease and made a clutch save on Penguins 2015 second round selection Daniel Sprong just over the midway point in the first. Coming over the blueline uncontested, Spong unleashed his trademark wrister that nearly handcuffed Sparks, who eventually landed on his back before smothering it.
With Pittsbugh’s top defensive prospect, Derrick Pouliot (a player Shanahan must have pushed for in the Kessel trade), sitting in the penalty box, Dmytro Timashov handed Kasperi Kapanen a gift with a silky cross-crease pass, but the young Finn failed to convert on the wide open cage. Despite flying about the ice at top speed, Kapanen looked out of sorts to start the game; he seemed to be gripping the stick too hard, limiting his crafty puck skills that we’re used to seeing.
In the second, Kapanen seemed to find his touch and became one of the game’s more thrilling players to watch. He not only impressed with the puck on his stick but also should be applauded for some stellar defensive executions, including one back check in the second that ended a Penguins scoring chance. It was Kapanen who would eventually set-up Mitch Marner for his first goal in a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey when Marner batted in his rebound on a centering attempt to put the Buds up 2-0. Just minutes later, Nikolai Skladnichenko extended Toronto’s lead with an absolute laser, going bar down on Tristan Jarry.
Back to free agent standout Nik Brouillard. It was probably an indication of how his night would be after getting a puck shot at his face earlier in the game, but his night got even worse midway through the second frame. After taking a hit in the defensive end, Brouillard had to leave the ice with the help of the trainer. His frustration was evident immediately following the hit as Brouillard pounded the ice while on his knees in pain. Tough break for one of the Leafs top performers this weekend. It’ll be interesting to see if the Leafs offer him a contract. It’d be disappointing if they didn’t. Outside of Travis Dermott, and maybe Stuart Percy and Rinat Valiev, Toronto lacks a defensive presence who’s capable of chipping in production from the backend.
Pittsburgh squeaked one by Garret Sparks late in the second as Sahir Gill converted on a shortside rebound and the teams headed into their rooms with the Leafs leading 3-1.
The third period was highlighted by three goals from the Leafs as they marched to a 6-2 victory – their first of the tournament. Michael Joly, one of the game’s best players and eventual 1st star, showed great tenacity throughout the contest. I noticed that he has quite the knack for creating around the crease using subtle touch passes, reverses and sneaky wrap-a-rounds effectively. After attempting a weak-side, low-percentage shot that almost found its way in, Joly pounced on a Brady Vail cross in the crease to put the Leafs up 4-1 on the powerplay.
Just a few minutes later, Daniel Sprong was ‘sprung’ in alone from the top of the circle and beat Sparks shortside (again), closing the lead to 4-2. Fortunately for the Leafs, 2015 3rd round selection Andrew Nielsen’s point shot found its way to the back of the Pens cage just nine seconds later, and it was cruise control from that point on. William Nylander would cap off the scoring for the night as he walked out from behind the net in a heel-to-heel glide and fired it bar down on Tristan Jarry for a beautiful goal.
Simply put, Michael Joly just finds a way to make an impact every shift. He’s not big or overly strong, but he’s ultra-competitive with fairly crafty hands. He works equally as hard on both sides of the puck and plays with a never-die attitude. His versatility would certainly be an asset to Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe.
Garret Sparks wasn’t named one of the games three stars (those went to…Mitch Marner [3rd], Brady Vail [2nd] and Michael Joly [1st]) but he was deserving of one. His lateral coverage was outstanding and he was one of the few players who drew fans to their edge of their seat Sunday night. His near-perfect game was interrupted by two short-side goals, but he saved his team from about a half dozen sure-fire goals.
Rinat Valiev had an up-and-down game, but I left satisfied because he was able to make an impact during several moments of the game. He’s a sound puck mover who makes smart decisions on the offensive blue liner. Valiev will never be a big-time point producer, but he should be able to chip in his fair share while providing a physical and tough-to-play-against element.
With no Travis Dermott in the lineup tonight, Stephen Desrocher picked up more offensive minutes and he stepped up to the occasion. He’s not the natural puck mover Dermott is, but he sees the ice very well. I was quite impressed with his ability to get point shots through, creating rebounds for his net driving teammates.
Much press has been given to Nikolas Brouillard over the past few days and rightfully so. His injury tonight puts a damper on the game, but I don’t think it should stop the Leafs brass from offering him a contract – that is, if they’ve got one to offer. He’s deserving and would be a nice addition to the prospect pool.
William Nylander wasn’t his usual dominant self, but his high-end talents are evident several times a game. Much like Kessel, Nylander is a player who can burn a team once or twice a game but he’s not a player who’ll make an impact every time he takes the ice. If his switch would stay on more often, he’d be nearly impossible to contain. His bar-down goal was something to marvel and he’s set to rack up some serious points with the Marlies.
Kasperi Kapanen didn’t find his groove right away, but by mid-game he was buzzing about the ice. His combination of speed and puck handling abilities are mesmorizing. Down the road, it’ll be fun to watch Kapanen with the Marners and Nylanders on the Leafs’ future powerplay. ‘Oh the places they’ll go!’
Dating back to his OHL days, Brady Vail has been a frustrating player for me to watch due to his inconsistent efforts; tonight, he was excellent. He played with good energy, kept his feet moving and got in on pucks harder and faster. His puck pursuit was much more prevalent tonight than in the past, and he was an asset on the powerplay driving towards the net. He’s a longshot NHL prospect, but does have the tools to fill a depth role and should be a good chemistry player at Ricoh this season.
Nikita Soshnikov is a player who I can’t help but like because he not only flashes some tantalizing speed and skill but also has excellent defensive awareness. He does a lot of the little things well and coaches reward those type of players. He saved a prime scoring chance on the Leafs powerplay with quick back pressure that resulted in a poke check to break up a near breakaway. I’m not sure where he will fit down the road, but Soshnikov isn’t your typical smaller skilled forward who needs top six minutes. It appears he’s smart and determined enough to play up and down the lineup.
Analysis by @RossyYoungblood
Game In Six Minutes:
Sheldon Keefe Post Game Presser:
Mark Hunter Post Game Presser: