The common theme among the Toronto Maple Leafs’ front office and coaching staff, when asked about young players making the team, is that they’ll have to usurp a veteran to make the final roster. Mike Babcock has espoused a “tie goes to the veteran” mantra, and Lou Lamoriello’s comments have followed a similar line in his various rounds with the media.
Put simply, it appears the Maple Leafs management and coaching staff are going to make it very difficult for any young player to make the team — a sharp departure from the previous regimes that have rushed some prospects into the big leagues in order to shore up poor rosters and to help market seasons with little to sell except sheer hope at the price of the most expensive ticket price in the league.
When people ask me about the plan in Toronto…. I’ve often said the plan is not some unique plan that you won’t hear 29 other teams say they have to do, which is draft, develop, patience. Make good choices. The challenge here in Toronto is not to come up with the plan. The challenge in Toronto is to stick to it. That’s the hard part. Our vision is to indeed to draft and develop our own players. When a player is ready to come up, he’ll come up. If a player needs more time to reach his full potential, we’ll leave him down there. Every decision we make is about how do we build a winning organization that can sustain itself year after year in the draft. That is our vision. – Brendan Shanahan’s 2014-2015 season-ending press conference
This is the first real test of the new management team: their stringency in sticking to the plan. There are going to be strong calls for players like William Nylander to make the NHL team, and there’s no doubting he’d instantly be one of the most skilled players on the Leafs.
It’s not uncommon for a least one young player to make the big squad—on any team, really—out of camp. There’s always a youngster everyone has their eyes on and has earmarked to make the NHL team. It may well turn out that none make it this Fall in Leafland, but let’s take a closer look at the players with the best odds.
Height: 5’11 | Weight: 180lbs | Position: Wing | Shoots: Right | Age: 21
Connor Brown has had a steady progression since getting drafted in the sixth round by the Maple Leafs in 2012. After being slapped with the dubious distinction of a (meaningless) -72 in his draft year, Brown has had to battle negative press and public opinion about his lack of size and slow skating. Since then, Brown has won the OHL scoring title two years ago before leading the Toronto Marlies in scoring last year, earning the AHL’s rookie scoring title and a selection to the AHL All-Star Game. In addition to a game that is grounded in sound defensive play and an excellent work ethic, Brown has a finisher’s touch and a nose for the net. A coveted right-shot winger, Brown has experienced a year of tutelage at the AHL level and passed his first pro test with flying colours. Right now, he is arguably as close to making the NHL team as any young player in camp. He’s looked good so far and has primarily played with James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak, which is, essentially, the first line. This will be his draft +4 year. Now may be as good a time as any for him to play some games in the NHL.
Height: 6ft | Weight: 200lbs | Position: Center/Wing | Shoots: Right | Age: 23
He’s a curious case, that Sam Carrick. Two years ago, while top producers Peter Holland and Carter Ashton were injured and out of the lineup, he was leading the Marlies in the Calder Cup playoffs. He was carrying play, putting up points, and generally being a nasty player to play against. Last year, it was a notable omission for him to not make the big team out of camp. He had a history of good play on the Marlies to go along with an excellent camp in which he played physical and desperate. His line was one of the only that was able to keep play in the offensive zone for any sustained period of time partly thanks to his determined board play.
With the decision to keep Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren on the team followed by waiver loss of the now-productive Joe Colborne still fresh on their minds, Leafs management was faced with a similar situation: Peter Holland was not waiver exempt and he most certainly would have been picked up off the wire. Carrick was sent back to the Marlies. It must have been quite a blow, as he deserved the spot as much as anyone competing for spots. This year is Carrick’s sixth camp and he hasn’t looked as effective so far. He’s been pushed further down the depth chart with Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri, Peter Holland, Nick Spaling, Mark Acrobello, and William Nylander all ahead of him. If he does make the team, it will likely be on the wing. However, early signs suggest he will be back with the Marlies again. He’s got five games to show what he did at last year’s camp and make the Leafs management and coaching staff take notice of him.
Height: 6ft | Weight: 185lbs | Position: Wing | Shoots: Right | Age: 19
As an 18 year old, Kapanen was close to making the Pittsburgh Penguins out of training camp last year, when he was praised by Assistant General Manager, Bill Guerin, for his play. That might be an indictment of the lack of quality depth at wing for the Pittsburgh Penguins, but regardless it’s an impressive enough feat for 18-year-old to even be in consideration to make an NHL team — and one that is playoff calibre.
Kapanen has looked good in spurts while at Maple Leafs training camp, but his shift to shift play has been somewhat vanilla. He is a skilled player — of that there is no question — but his consistency is going to have to improve. Ultimately, that’s what separates good and great players in the NHL; players are reasonably equally talented, but for good players the good shifts happen with more regularity than the bad shifts.
Kapanen was soured on by some for his lackluster World Junior Championship with Team Finland last year, but his pedigree over a larger sample size in international play is excellent. Kapanen, as with Nylander, was able to play in the AHL as an 18-year-old against men and put up five points in seven games (including a hat trick). By most accounts, he acquitted himself well.
At this stage, Kapanen hasn’t shown enough of his impressive skill set to be rewarded with a spot on the big club as a top six forward, and he hasn’t shown enough defensive acuity and determination checking the tough areas of the ice in order to stick around as a bottom roster player. The latter scenario would be wasting the opportunity for good development time on the Marlies, where, presumably, big ice time five on five and on the powerplay awaits him. Kapanen is better served lighting up the AHL, barring the possibility of him knocking everyone’s socks off over the next five preseason games.
Height: 5’11 | Weight: 165lbs | Position: Center | Shoots: Right | Age: 18
In his first preseason showing, not unexpectedly, Marner didn’t play with the supreme confidence he’s exhibited against his own age group. He’s looked tentative and a little tight. This isn’t uncommon for Marner, as he had the same thing happen to him at the start of last season for the London Knights, when he was putting undue pressure on himself at the start of his draft year. A couple of sessions with his long-time private skills coach, Rob Desveaux, and he relaxed and started having fun again. If I were to hazard a guess, it seems the same thing might be happening here. Regardless, his lack of weight and strength is showing against AHL and NHL men. There’s no shame in that at this stage of the game. He’s going to have a great year on the OHL favourite London Knights.
Height: 5’11 | Weight: 183 | Position: Winger | Shoots: Left | Age: 21
Here’s a player I could envision seeing time with the Maple Leafs before long. Let me explain.
At first blush, it doesn’t sound all too impressive that Soshnikov is a 21-year-old KHL import who went undrafted. But, among players 21 or under in the KHL last season, he was second in even-strength goals and points. He produced in a good league against grown men and without a tonne of opportunity.
Leafs scouting chief Mark Hunter is a fan: “He’s a kid that plays a hard-nosed, two way game, he’s got some good skills, but lots of effort.“
Soshnikov is further along in his development arc, and really the biggest hurdle for him at the moment is learning the timing and tempo of the game when on NHL ice, where everything happens at a quicker pace. He’s not a player that shies away from contact and will engage in second and third battles after losing the puck. Perhaps some seasoning with the Marlies might help, but let’s see what happens over the next five games — like the rest of the prospects – and then assess if his game is better with more structure and fewer rookies on the ice. He could potentially be a capable bottom roster player with his defensive game and strong board play, with the possibility of some spot duty further up the lineup. It’s possible he could get much better quickly here as he becomes acquainted with a new country, city, team, and ice surface.
Height: 5’11 | Weight: 189lbs | Position: Center | Shoots: Right | Age: 19
Nylander has been the talk of camp so far, and rightfully so. His speed across all ranges (first step, first three steps, mid-speed acceleration, top gear) is plain to see, as is his pro-shot and great vision. Something to watch for with Nylander as more cuts from camp are made: will he get better alongside NHL players who can read off of him better, or will he shrink against the tougher competition? There’s no question, to me, that he Nylander is NHL ready. The real question is: will his development be better served learning to play center on the Marlies, on North American ice under an inexperienced OHL coach in Sheldon Keefe, or from one of the best coaches of his generation in Mike Babcock at the NHL level?
Ice time opportunities five on five and on the power play are going to be important for Nylander. His defensive game is “okay”; by some accounts, he is a bright player, has a great attitude and is very coachable, so he should be able to improve in this regard over the course of the year, whether with the Marlies or the Maple Leafs. For the Maple Leafs to retool quickly and in the right positions, it’s important that Nylander is groomed as a centerman. Nylander playing wing offers less value for the organization. The Maple Leafs have shown in recent years that allocating cap space and talent mostly on the wing are recipes for disaster. Should Nylander stick at center, it checks a big box for the organization as management tries to build with skill down the middle and on the blueline, like all great organizations do.
Babcock impressed by Nylander so far: "He just has to keep doing it and doing it and if he keeps doing it, he takes someone's job."
— Jonas Siegel (@jonassiegel) September 24, 2015