Sheldon Keefe knew last summer.

During the celebration on the ice following the Game 7 Calder Cup victory, Toronto’s head coach pulled rookie Jeremy Bracco to the side in what might prove to be a seminal moment in the young man’s career.

Keefe elaborated on what he said to the right winger during a post-game presser in January: “Last year, when we were celebrating the Calder Cup on the ice, I congratulated him and kind of said this is gonna be your team next year, in terms of the offense.”

Bracco ended the 2017-18 regular season on quite the streak with 14 points in 11 games, but he was a healthy scratch for the majority of the playoffs after making way for the returning Andreas Johnsson, who ended winning the honour of playoff MVP.

In training camp last September, Mike Babcock gave a classic Babcock assessment of where Bracco stood in his development heading into the year:

He’s just gotta learn to be a good pro. That means learning how to work, learning how to train, and learning how to eat. He’s got a skill-set, without any question. Now you’ve got to become a professional athlete. It takes some kids some time.

As far as becoming a “professional athlete” and taking on a more prominent role at the AHL level, 2018-19 has been a major step forward in the development of the 22-year-old New York native.

Overcoming a Slow Start

Expectation for a young player is one thing, but delivering on it is something else.

Toronto’s second round draft pick from 2015 failed to hit the ground in the early going with just one goal and an assist through the opening nine games of this season. It was not overly surprising given the second-year professional adapting to an elevated role and extra responsibility on his shoulders to produce all while facing more difficult competition in the process.

Not helping matters was that the Marlies were understandably a different animal from the dominant championship-winning team of the year before. As a unit, they were struggling to produce anywhere near the consistency to their performances that was required to string wins together.

A five-game point streak (0-7-7) was followed by four games without a point, but from late November onwards, Bracco didn’t look back and quickly became an integral part of the Marlies‘ success this season.

His game is gradually evolving from that of a one-dimensional distributor to a more well-rounded offensive threat. While his passing, vision and power play prowess undoubtedly stand out as his best attributes, Bracco has started to take heed of the coaching staff’s insistence that he drive more to the inside of the ice rather than remaining on the perimeter. Allied with shooting the puck with increased frequency, he’s been a more difficult player to predict and defend against at 5v5 for opponents.

The proof is in the pudding: After scoring just once in 19 games, Bracco has put up 16 in his last 42 outings and could easily finish the season with 20-25 goals to his name after netting just six goals through 50 games in his rookie campaign.

By the Numbers

The Toronto Marlies‘ offense has been one of the AHL’s most prolific all season long (currently ranked second with 209 goals), and Bracco has been a major cog in that production.

In all situations, Bracco leads the league in primary assists (33) and is ranked second in primary points (50). Among 18-22 year olds who have played 25+ games, Bracco is fourth in points per game (1.02).

Toronto has scored 59 power play goals this season (second highest in league) and Bracco has a direct hand in 30 of those (5-25-30), 18 of which are primary assists.

Undoubtedly, the right winger’s partnership with Chris Mueller as his center has been very fruitful, with the pair directly combining for 28 goals (45.16% of Bracco‘s points total). Bracco has also proven he’s in no way reliant on his experienced linemate, though, by producing at point-per-game pace (3-10-13) through the 13 games Mueller has recently missed through injury.

Not only driving the Marlies offensively with a whole host of top players missing (Chris Mueller, Mason Marchment and Calle Rosen to name but three), Bracco’s infectious personality has shone through during his sophomore year now with the growing confidence to fully express himself.

This has played a part in helping the Marlies through adversity at different points, including during this stretch run with a wafer thin roster that is facing a battle to qualify for the playoffs as rivals nip at their heels in an ultra-competitive North Division.

With 62 points in 61 games, the NY native has accumulated the most points in a single season by any Toronto Marlies forward since Spencer Abbott (69) in 2013-14. Abbott set a new franchise record for assists (52) during that campaign, and Bracco is on target to eclipse that mark having accumulated a league-leading 44 to his name with 14 games left on the schedule.

Bracco’s path to the NHL is blocked due to a plethora of right wingers currently on the Leafs, but he’s certainly turned heads during his second year as a professional. If sustaining his impressive form and scoring pace into the playoffs and (hopefully) beyond, he could well be knocking on the door by the time training camp rolls around next fall and giving the coaching staff a hard decision to make.

For a Leafs team that needs to keep the pipeline of quality young talent on entry-level contracts flowing into the big club if they’re to sustain their window of contention, Bracco is yet another example that the organization’s development system is burgeoning into a well-oiled machine.

2018-19 Notable Clips