Much of the contract speculation this summer has focused on how much William Nylander should be paid as he enters the final year of his entry-level deal.
There is no doubting the highly-skilled forward will command a pretty penny for his services almost no matter what he achieves this year. For other players in the organization, however, this will be a make-or-break season in determining the direction of their respective careers.
With the Leafs almost maxed out to their full entitlement of contracts, earning an NHL deal is no certainty for players on the periphery. Just ask prospects Martins Dzierkals and J.J. Piccinich, who have both signed AHL deals just to get their foot in the door.
There are a dozen players in the last year of their entry-level contracts that are almost certain to spend the season with the Toronto Marlies this year. For the following six men, there will be pressure to perform just to earn a spot in the line-up — let alone a second contract — on what is shaping up to be another stacked Marlies roster.
The Finnish goaltender only received an opportunity to shine last season due to Garret Sparks’ injury and the organization losing faith in Antoine Bibeau. With Toronto now having cut ties with the Quebec native (Bibeau signed in San Jose), Kaskisuo enters the year as the anointed number two goaltender for the Marlies.
What is interesting about Kaskisuo’s 2016-17 season is that his time in the ECHL with Orlando Solar Bears wasn’t particularly fruitful for either party. He only really flourished once back in the AHL, posting a 5-1 record through six regular season starts, a .934 save percentage, and one shutout.
Kaskisuo went on to start 19 playoff games with mixed success for him and the Marlies. He was excellent in the tight series versus Albany but struggled at times in the following round against Syracuse, who bossed Toronto around on the War Memorial ice, scoring almost at will.
Given the nature of the contract given to Garret Sparks this summer, Toronto wants Sparks to cement his position as the Marlies number one and go on to replace Curtis McElhinney in the near future. If Sparks is finally able to stay healthy, opportunities for Kaskisuo to make an impact during the last year of his ELC are likely to be limited.
There is, then, a certain amount of pressure to perform in what may only amount to 25 or so appearances this season.
However, with Toronto’s organizational goaltending depth still looking relatively thin, any improvement from Kaskisuo in his game this season should see him secure a new contract and a real shot at becoming the organization’s third-string goaltender in 2018-19.
Gauthier made huge strides in his development last season, but he will begin the new season on the back foot. A late hit from Jake Dotchin during the playoff series against Syracuse means that Gauthier could miss the start of the 2017-18 season, or at least that he likely isn’t going to be fully up to speed to begin the year.
It was a devastating end to what had been a promising sophomore season that included hard work behind the scenes with Barb Underhill and a commitment to improving the offensive part of his game, both of which paid dividends. The latter was certainly apparent in the post-season, where Gauthier produced four points in six outings.
The former first-round pick is as certain as any player named in this article to receive a second NHL contract, but not being able to develop his skills further this summer, combined with a possible late start, present challenges. It seems that the Leafs brass like what they have in Gauthier — as a player and a person — and that provides him with a certain safety net.
Acquired by the Leafs in the summer of 2016 via a trade with Columbus, Kerby Rychel continues to be a conundrum as far as his NHL potential is concerned. The Blue Jackets were all too happy to be rid of him for a relatively small return (Scott Harrington and a conditional draft pick) and the former first-round pick is yet to pull on a Maple Leafs sweater 17 months later.
Featuring in all but three games for the Marlies in 2016-17, Rychel finished as the team’s leading scorer with 52 points. Much of the left winger’s offensive success was garnered on the power play, where he accumulated 29 points and 11 goals.
Exactly where Rychel fits in on the Leafs depth chart with the plethora of wing depth options is difficult to nail down and he certainly wasn’t the first name mentioned when call-ups were required last season. Moving forward, the California native’s worth to Toronto might well be as a trade chip — assuming he doesn’t get claimed on his way down through waivers this Fall — but that depends on how well he performs through the upcoming season. The opportunities to prove himself should be plentiful, with a top-six role and power play time his for the taking.
With his level of professional experience and talent, Rychel should really be a dominant player in the American League by now. Whether he can prove that this year will go a long way in determining his NHL future in Toronto or elsewhere.
Of the six players listed in this article, Lindberg might be the one feeling the most pressure heading into this season. Acquired as part of the Dion Phaneuf to Ottawa trade, Lindberg’s stock was relatively high during the 2015-16 season but it’s since plummeted to the point where he’s now one of Toronto’s forgotten prospects.
The promise of the Swedish winger’s rookie season feels like a distant memory at this point. As a member of the struggling Binghamton Senators, Lindberg was one of their better offensive players, posting 22 points in 34 games. He added a further 12 points for the Marlies in a 22-game stint and showed glimpses of NHL potential in six outings for the Leafs.
The 2016-17 campaign proved a shortened and frustrating affair for Lindberg. He appeared in just 44 games due to an upper-body injury that caused him to miss seven weeks of competitive action. In truth, his inconsistent performances did more damage to his prospects of playing significant minutes, with Sheldon Keefe noting that the big forward only showed flashes of what he’s capable of.
On paper, there’s enough to like about Lindberg’s game; there aren’t many wingers on the Marlies with his combination of size and skill. However, with so much competition on the roster, he has to rise above what he achieved in his rookie year to make Toronto’s brass sit up and take notice.
Defenceman Rinat Valiev is another player who has somewhat fallen down the prospect rankings since a promising rookie season.
With the introduction of Andreas Borgman, Calle Rosen and impressive showings from rookies Travis Dermott and Andrew Nielsen, the former third-round pick’s prospects for NHL duty appear limited at this time. Even Justin Holl appears to have leaped ahead of Valiev despite a rocky sophomore season.
Valiev began the year by dropping the gloves twice during the first four games of the season, setting the tone for a penalty-ridden year for Valiev, who missed some time through injury and struggled to recreate the promising offensive contributions he mustered in 2015-16 (down from 0.38PPG to 0.28PPG).
The Marlies’ inconsistencies as a team undoubtedly affected the performance of the defense, but Valiev’s play proved inconsistent; perhaps that was in part due to him being separated from the settling presence of then-captain Andrew Campbell.
Toronto’s defense core at Ricoh looks strong on paper this season with Michael Paliotta and Vincent LoVerde joining the ranks as well as Timothy Liljegren (most likely), ensuring that ice-time will be at a premium. Valiev needs to get back to the basics of being a responsible defenseman inside his own zone. He has some ability with the puck on his stick when leading breakouts and owns a decent shot that he needs to use with more confidence on offense as well.
Just two games into his North American career, Andreas Johnsson ended up flat on his back and out of action. A predatory hit from Albany defenseman Dan Kelly resulted in a concussion for Johnsson, ending his 2016 playoff campaign with the Marlies.
That might go some way to explaining the Swedish forward’s slow start to the past season.
After netting twice in the opening two games of the year against a hapless Utica side, Johnsson mustered just two assists in his next 14 games and had just 14 points to his name before the turn of the new year.
The turnaround happened in January and the 22-year-old winger never looked back, enjoying several scoring streaks and ending the season as the only Marlies player on the roster with 20 goals. Six more goals in the playoffs further showcased his prowess in front of the net, especially his ability to find the soft spots in the slot and capitalize with a quick release. He was easily one of Toronto’s best players on the power play, scoring half his goals with the man advantage, and earned praise from his head coach for his coachability and versatility.
The main stumbling blocks for Johnsson are that he’s an older prospect (he’s going to turn 23 in November) as well as Toronto’s depth on the wing. A strong beginning to the season and a continuation of his progress to date will place him atop the pecking order for a potential call-up and a chance for some NHL ice-time before his contract expires.