In this week’s Leafs Musings, we will cover Jeremy Bracco’s NHL readiness, Rasmus Sandin’s rapid progression, and the type of ‘heaviness’ the Leafs need to incorporate into their lineup.
We also have a few extra notes on Timothy Liljegren, Michael Carcone and Adam Brooks. Let’s get right to it.
Jeremy Bracco Is NHL Ready
When it comes to prospects, many fall into the trap of caring too much about position and fit rather than how good the player actually is. The Leafs are stacked at right-wing, are looking to play a heavier style, and already have Mitch Marner on a team that barely gets any power plays. Adding a player with Bracco’s skillset is far from their top priority, but he’ll be too good to ignore at the start of next season.
His playmaking is a true “carrying skill”. In baseball, if you can hit .300, win a gold glove, or run like Billy Hamilton, you have yourself a skill that will probably single-handedly keep you in the big leagues. If you can find a way to get Bracco the puck in the offensive zone, you’re going to rack up high-danger scoring chances in a hurry.
He’s completely ‘Mitch Marnered’ the Marlies power play this year, and he’s done this his entire career. You can basically just hand him the puck in the Marner spot and wait for the goal light to come on. His heel-to-heel skating technique is difficult to defend against; it opens up passing lanes, which he is more than capable of taking advantage of.
If the Leafs use him with one of their top three centers, and give him the keys to the second power play unit all year, it wouldn’t shock me if he scored over 40 points next year. You can’t just leave that type of player sitting in the AHL all year. You want to play him with heavy forwards who can get to the net and win battles; the Leafs have a few solid options here in Andreas Johnsson, Zach Hyman, or Trevor Moore. Patrick Marleau doesn’t win a ton of battles anymore, but he can still finish his chances and I wouldn’t mind seeing a fourth line of Marleau-Gauthier-Bracco. I know that many don’t see Mike Babcock playing him on the fourth line, but Tyler Ennis is essentially playing that type of role at this point and they’ll need to replace his production.
Leafs fans should start getting excited about him. Having two strong power play units was a huge advantage for the Leafs in recent years and Bracco can help to get them back to that point. He’s in the midst of a great stretch of play right now with multiple points in each of his past four games. Don’t let position and fit stop you from getting excited about a pretty damn good player.
Rasmus Sandin Is In Brannstrom Territory
I am the president of the Erik Brannstrom fan club. One of my first ever hockey articles was about him, and he wasn’t receiving much top-20 attention at that time. He’s always reminded me of Torey Krug, and he’s finally getting the recognition he deserves as one of the game’s best prospects.
I would have Brannstrom ahead of Sandin ahead in a prospect ranking, largely due to Brannstrom’s speed. However, the gap is smaller than most people seem to think and Sandin is probably closer to Brannstrom than Liljegren at this point. Sandin is the best defenseman in the Marlies lineup right now and he’s often better than any defenseman on the opposing team as well. Given that he was just drafted in June, this is incredibly unusual.
You can dump the puck in and throw three Zach Hyman-level forecheckers on him and he doesn’t seem to care. You’re rarely going to muscle him off the puck or rush him into a bad pass, and he’ll just spin away if there’s a forechecker right on his back. He’s playing in all-situations, forming a solid top-pair with Vincent LoVerde, playing the point on an outstanding power play unit, and he’s helping out on the penalty kill. He even racked up his first three-point game on Sunday, which included a couple of nice assists:
Sandin picks up his third assist of the afternoon, and we still have another period to play pic.twitter.com/Swtc1Hw9vf
— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) March 17, 2019
Just tap it in.
He remains underrated offensively. I don’t think he’s a guy who only plays on a second power play unit “if needed”. I think he’s the type of player who you make room for on the power play to the point where I’d play him there over Jake Muzzin, Travis Dermott, or Calle Rosen. He’s not as quick as Brannstrom, but he’s a standout puck mover in his own right and the gap between them is fairly small. While you could argue that Sandin should be playing ahead of Martin Marincin right now, I don’t think the Leafs want to flip him back and forth and they certainly do not want to make him eligible for the expansion draft. Given that the Leafs should have Dermott back soon, they’ll probably just keep Sandin where he is.
Timothy Liljegren’s Strong Stretch
Liljegren’s a talented prospect in his own right and I don’t want to make it seem like my praise of Sandin is somehow a knock on Liljegren. He’s played well over the last handful of games and I love watching defensemen who can cover so much ground in a hurry. However, he’s always been a longer-term project and the Leafs knew that when they drafted him.
He’s a little bit clumsy, both with his footwork and passing, and he doesn’t play an overly heavy style. He shares some similarities to Jake Gardiner in this regard, but he doesn’t move the puck like Gardiner, at least not yet. I’ve compared him to Kasperi Kapanen in the past and I know that Scott Wheeler of the Athletic did so recently as well. The speed has always been there, so once he gets a little bit stronger and starts to play heavier, he should be a NHL player. Unfortunately, getting stronger takes time, so we’re just going to have to wait. On the bright side, it’s nice to see this type of rush out of him:
Really nice rush from Liljegren here.
He’s playing very well today (from what I’ve seen thus far) pic.twitter.com/ScV6R2Ilkb
— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) March 17, 2019
I expect him to start dominating the AHL level someday, and when that happens, I will certainly give him credit for that. Given the right-side of Toronto’s defense, he will be up in no time once that happens. I’m not convinced that he’s established himself as the second-best defenseman in the Marlies lineup yet, but he’s creating more offensively as of late, so there’s progress to be excited about. He’s a good NHL prospect and the fact that he hasn’t reached the NHL yet does not change that.
Playing a Heavier Style
Playing a “heavy” style seems to have multiple definitions. I don’t think that racking up more hits is going to make much of a difference, but I’d prefer to see a heavy style that allows the team to protect the puck and dominate in terms of possession. In other words, I am looking for more players like Zach Hyman, Andreas Johnsson and Trevor Moore rather than players who excel at hitting an opposing player two seconds after the puck is gone.
The key is finding players who can “play heavy” while also being competent in terms of transitioning the puck. Idolizing the wrong type of “heavy” style put this franchise in a ton of trouble, as Leafs fans were left to watch players like David Clarkson, Mike Komisarek, Dion Phaneuf, Roman Polak, and Colton Orr get overpaid and overplayed. Be careful what you wish for.
The main reason the Leafs are struggling right now is that they struggle to move the puck out of their end. They do not have many talented puck movers on the back-end now that Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott are out and the back-end looks awfully rough most nights. If they can get healthy again, we should get back to watching the team that we saw during the first half of the year. If they move on from Hainsey and Zaitsev next year, they could improve in this area in a hurry.
- Michael Carcone looks like he will play games with the Leafs next year. It would be a huge boost to the team if he can be next year’s version of Trevor Moore. Carcone might be even faster than Moore, and while he does not play quite as heavy, he generates a ton of entries as a left-shot on the right side. His speed helps him to get back into position and win the puck back. He’s still only 22. Here’s a glimpse of what he can do:
Carcone is a zone entry wizard. He’s playing games with the Leafs next year. Book it. pic.twitter.com/qJv4N6sIet
— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) March 17, 2019
- Adam Brooks played left-wing on a line with Chris Mueller and Jeremy Bracco on Saturday before shifting back to center on Sunday. Pierre Engvall did the opposite, as he returned to the wing for the first time on Sunday, after filling in at centre when Mueller got hurt. I’d like to see more of Engvall at center as I think he carries the size, speed and strength to be effectively defensively up the middle. He also owns a good wrist shot. I think he could challenge Gauthier for the fourth-line center role at some point next season. On the other hand, Brooks doesn’t quite have Engvall’s size or speed, so I wouldn’t mind seeing if he would score more by playing on the wing.