Training camp is just days away and the annual rookie tournament is upon us.
While Auston Matthews has been busy working his way onto Connor McDavid’s line at the World Cup of Hockey and William Nylander has outgrown the tournament, there are still plenty of intriguing names set to hit the ice in London for the Leafs this weekend.
The tournament kicks off tonight at 7 p.m. versus the Ottawa Senators rookies.
2016 Toronto Maple Leafs Rookie Tournament Roster
Mitch Marner – We all know the deal. The star of the show, two or three appearances in the rookie tournament will have little bearing on Marner’s chances of making the big club out of camp, but it is a chance to ramp up for training camp and show Leaf brass he’s added some power and strength over the summer. He will wear jersey #16 in the tournament and is expected to start on a line with Colin Smith and Tobias Lindberg.
Jeremy Bracco – 19 until March, he will likely head back to build on a successful OHL debut season in Kitchener — 17th in points per game — after leaving college early in the 2015-16 season. Drafted out of the NCAA, the Leafs do have the option of moving him onto the Marlies as soon as this Fall. A skilled playmaking winger, Bracco may be a second-tier prospect in a system that has some high-profile talent ahead of him, but the rookie tournament is a chance to prove he belongs on everyone’s radar. Given his gaudy USNTDP numbers and good OHL rookie year, he’d have a lot of hopes pinned to him if he was a Leaf prospect in 2012.
Andreas Johnson – The former seventh rounder in 2013’s first (brief) foray in North American ended in disaster as the recipient of a head shot in his second AHL game; a tough lesson on the unforgiving nature of the American Hockey League. Now healthy, this is a good chance to get further acclimated on the NA rink with less space and bigger opponents. The 21-year-old has produced capably against men for several years in the top-flight Swedish league, and he should be a productive AHLer before long.
Adam Brooks – The fourth rounder in 2016 has seen a dramatic spike in his trajectory in the past two seasons, leaping from 11 points to 62 to 120 and winning the WHL scoring crown in 2015-16. Drafted as a 20 year old, Brooks may jump straight into the pros, but he’s also eligible to return to Regina for one more season. The WHL scoring leader seems like he’s got nothing left to gain in junior, but he didn’t get much playing time in his first two years in Regina. Losing Nylander to the Leafs, the Marlies could use his skill and speed at center but he’ll need to prove he’s pro ready starting this weekend in London.
Martin Dzierkals – A championship season in the QMJHL with Rouyn Noranda gave him some time in the spotlight of the Memorial Cup, where he recorded one goal in five games en route to a second-place finish for the Huskies. His transition from the Latvian league to Canadian major junior was a steep but successful one as Dzierkals was over a point per game and adjusted well to the physical demands overseas. Quick and skilled, he’s got enough grit and fearlessness to his game to suggest that, despite his size, he may not need top-six time to carve out a role at the NHL level. The third rounder in 2015 had a few standout moments and recorded a couple of points in the rookie tournament last year.
Dmytro Timashov – Better known as Nitro Mysteron, there is some supporting evidence to suggest the Leafs found a gem that slipped through the cracks in the fifth round of the 2015 draft. His plus-one production was dynamite (53 points in 29 games) in Quebec but slowed down considerably after the trade to a deeper Shawinigan team. That said, 13 goals and 28 points in 21 playoff games is nothing to shake a stick at. Timashov was drafted as one of the older 18-year-olds in the 2015 draft class and is therefore eligible to join the Marlies this Fall (turns 20 at the start of October). The Remparts traded him as a rental knowing he was likely pro-bound in 2016-17. This weekend’s tournament is the first opportunity to show he’s ready to graduate.
Nikita Korostelev – The seventh round pick in 2015 saw his stock dip after a point production decline in his plus-one season. Whether that was a problem with Sarnia’s inexperienced coaching staff — newly-minted owner, Derian Hatcher, inserted himself as head coach – or if it was on the player is up for debate. While Pavel Zacha saw an uptick in production, Jakob Chychrun — the presumed 2016 second overall pick going into the season — saw his numbers flat line and he eventually fell all the way to 16th on draft day. Sarnia was ousted in a first-round upset by the Sault St. Marie Greyhounds; combined with some of the underperforming stars on the team, it perhaps points to some systemic issues. In a curious move, Korostelev saw his KHL rights traded from Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg to CSKA Moskva (Moscow) on September 3. It could point to frustration on behalf of the player, or it could be part of the Maple Leafs’ new development path — Yegor Korshkov will be staying back in the KHL, Vladimir Bobylev has moved from the WHL to the KHL, and Nikolai Chebykin will remain in Russia. If it’s an organizational mandate, it runs contrary to how NHL clubs have traditionally preferred to have prospects under their wing in North American development leagues. The fact that he is at rookie camp suggests he’s staying in Sarnia for now, but it’s a situation to keep an eye on. Turning 20 in February, Korostelev isn’t eligible to join the Marlies this Fall.
Jack Walker – The defenceman-turned-forward (converted full-time in his second WHL season) was one of five overagers drafted by the Maple Leafs in 2016 after a 36-goal year in Victoria (doubling his goals output from the season previous). Like Brooks, he’s eligible to make the jump to the Marlies right away, but – listed at 5’11, 179 – a final year of junior wouldn’t hurt. His junior coach, Dave Lowry, describes him as “probably the fastest player in our league with the puck.”
Colin Smith – An interesting inclusion on the rookie roster given the 23-year-old has three seasons of pro experience to his name, Smith is likely just here to help fill out the roster. Acquired in the Shawn Matthias deal before the deadline, Smith found a new level to his production – 22 points in 23 games – with the Marlies at a time when they needed the center depth and scoring help due to callups and injuries. He was a victim of the numbers game in the playoffs (scratched in six of 15 games). He’s yet to flirt with a point per game over a large sample size in the AHL, but he could get himself on the radar for an NHL deal if that form carries over to start next season. Smith will always have to scratch and claw for opportunity as he’s not blessed with natural skills, but he has a model to follow in the Byron Froese story.
Trevor Moore – One of the newest members of the Leaf organization, Moore was signed to a three-year entry-level contract in late July after a good showing at development camp as an invitee, notching a couple of points on a line with Mitch Marner and Adam Brooks. Perhaps Sheldon Keefe has plans to put that line back together at some point this weekend. The 21-year-old is coming off back-to-back 44 point seasons in Denver but saw his goals total fall from 22 to 11 in his junior year. Fresh out of college and weighing in at 175 pounds, Moore will likely need significant development time in the AHL.
Tobias Lindberg – Lindberg didn’t step into the easiest of circumstances in Toronto after arriving as part of the Dion Phaneuf trade return. A transition from the rough-and-tumble Binghamton Senators into a far more skilled, deep and possession-focused Marlie team took some time, but Lindberg showed moments of promise. He didn’t look totally out of place in a six-game NHL stint, recording a couple of assists, but he will need to improve his foot speed in order to take the next step. Lindberg produced at a slightly lower rate with the Marlies than with the Senators, but — a victim of the numbers game in a much deeper system – there were extenuating circumstances (the 21-year-old also appeared in just three playoff games). The rookie tournament marks the beginning of a second season in Toronto that should present the 6’3, 215-pound Swede with more opportunities to produce.
JJ Piccinich – Piccinich’s first season in the OHL saw him spend some time on a line with Mitch Marner early in the year before Dale Hunter moved him into more of a checking line role. The hard-working winger thrived in both situations. His 30-goal, 66-point season (in 66 games) has to go down as ‘mission accomplished’ for a prospect in limbo following a plus-one season in which he played a limited role — just four points in 25 games — at Boston University. The 20-year-old will almost certainly return for a second OHL season, looking to build on those numbers in a consistent offensive role for the (likely Marner-less and Dvorak-less) London Knights.
Frederik Gauthier – The former 2013 first round pick spent his first professional season primarily on a fourth line with Nikita Soshnikov and Rich Clune as a designated checker for the Marlies. A smart player with good positional awareness and blessed with great size (6’5, 240lbs), Gauthier, like most players with his frame, will have to work diligently on his skating and his puck skills if he’s going to take the next step. Babcock described him as a year away from regular NHL duty after a seven-game NHL debut last season. The 21-year-old’s ability to keep up with the pace of the NHL will determine his future. The Marlies look thin at center heading into camp, which may provide an opportunity for Gauthier to move up into the third line slot, where he could receive more offensive looks with better linemates.
“For him to be real effective he’s got to be an elite penalty killer and dominant face-off guy. With his size there’s no reason he shouldn’t be a dominant face-off guy so he’s got to work at that.”
– Mike Babcock
Tony Cameranesi – The former fifth rounder in 2011 wasn’t signed to an entry-level deal after completing his college stint at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, but he has been brought back into the fold an AHL deal this season. Out of all the players signed to Amateur Tryouts by the Marlies last season, the former fifth round selection arguably made the most noticeable impact, scoring twice in six appearances in April. His foot speed, tenacity and work ethic brought some spark to the lineup from a mostly bottom six role. The Marlies have plenty of wing depth but lack options at centre, so it’s likely that Cameranesi will have a real shot of making the opening night roster provided he has a strong enough camp.
- Mason Marchment (AHL contract)
- Tye Felhaber (FA)
- Tyler Wong (FA)
- Chase Witala (AHL contract)
- Cason Hohmann (AHL contract)
Travis Dermott – The 2015 second rounder had a strong first professional camp in 2015, impressing with poise beyond his years in a couple of preseason appearances. Taking on a leadership role and logging big minutes in Erie last season, Dermott’s production didn’t take a big leap forward but it did increase slightly on a point-per-game basis despite concerns about the ‘Connor McDavid’ effect on his numbers in the season prior. His goals total did drop due to a 22-game goalless skid to start the season, but he finished top five among OHL defencemen in points per game and shots per game. Just as he did in his draft year, he elevated his game in the playoffs and was above a point-per-game over 13 games. He won’t be eligible for a second World Junior appearance due to his late December birthdate, but it does make him eligible to play for the Toronto Marlies this season. Sub six foot but stocky and strong, Dermott could physically handle the rigors of the pros but Leaf brass may prefer to let him go back and dominate a junior season. Dermott is an important prospect for the Leafs given their relative lack of quality depth at the defence position.
Nikolas Brouillard – The 2015 rookie tournament was the best of times and the worst of times for invitee Nikolas Brouillard. A slick puck-rushing defender, he was a standout performer in each appearance – scoring a couple of goals, even dropping the gloves on one occasion – up until a knee injury knocked him out of the tournament and cost him half his season. He returned to feature for Rouyn Noranda as an overager and played a key role in their QMJHL championship run with 20 points in 19 games. With an AHL deal in hand, Brouillard is an intriguing defenceman to keep an eye on this season with the Marlies (provided he makes the team). He formed an effective pairing alongside Travis Dermott in this tournament last season, so that may be a duo Sheldon Keefe revisits this weekend.
Nicolas Mattinen – One of the more intriguing and mysterious picks of the Leafs’ 2016 draft, Mark Hunter saw Mattinen as a player that wasn’t afforded much opportunity on a dominant Memorial Cup-winning Knights team. 6’4 and 220 pounds, the sixth round pick can skate and has a cannon of a shot (clocked at 100mph in the London Knights skills competition). There was a window into his potential as a defenceman during the World Junior Championships when Olli Juolevi and other Knights teammates were away. Mattinen enjoyed a big surge in his production during that time, going from .11 to .71 points per game with increased ice time and responsibilities. As one of the few right-shot defencemen in the Maple Leafs’ system, there should be a fair bit of interest in how Mattinen’s career develops from here on out.
Stephen Desrocher – Drafted as an older 19-year-old in the sixth round of 2015, the 6’4, 200 pound defenceman made strides as one of the OHL’s most productive defencemen in 2015-16. He led the OHL in goals by a defenceman prior to a trade to the Kingston Frontenacs, and finished the season 6th in OHL point scoring among defencemen. Widely considered one of the best shut-down defencemen in the OHL last season, the 20-year-old is eligible to play for the Marlies, but would be in a battle with Brouillard, Dermott and Neilsen for a spot on the crowded left side of the Marlie blueline. More likely to return for a final OHL season, the Leafs have until the end of the season to sign him to an entry-level contract.
Keaton Middleton – Perhaps the most controversial pick of the ten made in the Leafs’ 2016 draft, Middleton has been depicted as a one-dimensional defenceman picked for his size (6’6), toughness, and not much else. Hunter believes “there’s good upside on his will” if he can develop his puck skills and foot work. He has all the appearances of a low-upside prospect, but this tournament is a first chance to show there is more to his game than meets the eye.
Andrew Nielsen – After garnering positive reviews from Mike Babcock at camp, the 2015 third rounder turned heads with a massive breakout season in Lethbridge. He leaped from 24 points in 2014-15 to 70 in 71 games in his plus-one season (18 goals, 52 assists) — good enough for third in scoring among WHL defencemen, three points behind a top-10 pick from the same draft in Ivan Provorov. His 122 penalty minutes tied for the league lead among defencemen. Nielsen ranked outside of the top 10 in even strength production among defencemen, but that can also be seen as a testament to how effective he was on the powerplay. His speed and footwork are the question marks for the 6’3 lefthander, but he’s made strides in the area since his draft season. A November birthdate, Nielsen turns 20 in time to join the Marlies this Fall. There is plenty of reason to be hopeful about Nielsen’s trajectory to start 2016-17.
Justin Holl – The oldest member signed to an NHL contract on the rookie tourney roster, the 24-year-old was given a one-year entry-level deal over the summer after a successful first season with the Marlies. Big and right-handed, Holl played a season at forward during his NCAA career and has an offensive dimension to his game. He’ll be looking to take another step forward and should receive more opportunity with a Marlies team that lost Stuart Percy and TJ Brennan over the summer and may not have Connor Carrick to start the year.
Rinat Valiev – The Russian was passed over in the 2013 draft, with some confusion around his decision to stay home rather than return to the USHL following the Four Nations tournament in February of his draft season. As it turns out, there was miscommunication about a knee injury sustained during the tournament. After two seasons of steady growth in Kootenay, Valiev made the jump to the pro ranks last season, putting up 23 points in 61 AHL games as a rookie and making ten appearances for the big club. The 2014 third round pick didn’t look NHL ready in his big-club stint, but Babcock saw some encouraging signs: “I think his skating ability has really come. I watched him with the Marlies, and kind of like The Goat, I didn’t think he could skate. I don’t see him skate in the games yet; I see him skate in practice. If I didn’t see him practice, I wouldn’t have known that. That’s got to transfer over with confidence and assertiveness and then show up in the game. But he looks like he has a real skillset, he’s got a good frame, he can shoot the puck, he can slide with it, he sees what’s going on. So he’s a kid that’s a work in progress and he’s got to spend some time in the minors.” Valiev should see increased opportunity in his second pro season with the departure of TJ Brennan and Stuart Percy off the Marlies’ backend.
Antoine Bibeau – The sixth round pick in 2013 had an up and down second professional season. His save percentage figure was pedestrian (.909), but he improved as the season wore on, showing some consistency down the stretch heading into the playoffs. The 22-year-old would have expected better from himself in the postseason, although he certainly wasn’t the only reason why Toronto fell short against Hershey. Bibeau has another year remaining on his entry-level deal and should get a chance to build on the strong end to his season, playoffs notwithstanding. He will continue to battle Sparks for starts, with newcomer Kasimir Kaskisuo — the other goalie in the tournament this weekend — also in the mix.
With notes from Declan Kerin and Mark Rackham