They’re here. It finally happened. All season, fans in Toronto have been waiting for the mass sell-off that would lead to open roster spots and now that the trade deadline has passed, the plan is unfolding before our eyes. When Leafs management loaded up on cheap veterans in the offseason, it was clear the intention was to let the kids play and develop with the Marlies until the time was right to get their call to the NHL. That time is now. Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve had the chance to look into the future. We’ve seen Maple Leaf debuts from Nylander, Kapanen, Carrick, Hyman, Leipsic and Soshnikov. We’ll likely see most back with the Marlies in the near future to go on a deep playoff run, but odds are that if this rebuild is going to work as we’ve planned we’ll be seeing a big impact from this group in the coming years.
So who were the writers at TLN most impressed with in their first few games with the Toronto Maple Leafs?
Earlier this week Kyle Dubas told our pal Dangle that Zach Hyman is arguably the best puck possession player on the Marlies. And while he’s only three games into his NHL career, you can start to see why. He’s stood out as a tenacious forechecker from the start of his debut against the Lightning, and is just relentless in his puck pursuit. He’s listed as 6’1 but he seems to play a lot bigger, and you can tell he’s likely going to be relied upon by Babcock going forward as an all-situations guy if he stays on this sort of track. And Hyman isn’t just some sort of fourth line chip-and-chase guy; his puck retrieval skills look great and he has the skill to make plays when he gets it. When the Leafs acquired Hyman and Casey Bailey, who both came to the Marlies after four years of college, we had to remind ourselves that they were two older prospects and the team would be extremely fortunate if either of them could turn into a serviceable NHLer. Toronto shipped out Bailey earlier this month, but it looks like the other guy could be well on his way to being a Leafs mainstay.
Last season when the Maple Leafs swindled the Nashville Predators in the Cody Franson trade, they acquired “the most annoying prospect in hockey”. When the trade was made, many fans focused on the 1st round pick, but Brendan Leipsic could end up being the most valuable piece of that trade. On February 13th, Leipsic made his NHL debut against in Vancouver, he scored a goal and looked like a man who was trying to impress not only his parents who were in attendance but also Leafs management and fans. Gaining the reputation of being a pest, led many to underestimate Leipsic’s offensive talent. He averaged over 100 points in his final two WHL seasons and has shown an ability to contribute points through a season and a half in the AHL. In his first five games with the Leafs, Leipsic has done everything you could ask of him and looks like he has all the tools necessary for an NHL career. He plays with energy and causes a sense of havoc on the ice that could go a long way to establishing himself as on a 3rd line winger when this team is ready to be competitive. I don’t know about you but from these eyes he looks an awful lot like Brendan Gallagher on the Habs. Through a very small sample size, he’s looked pretty much as advertised, a relentless forechecker that can give you some secondary scoring. He’s still got a long way to go but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we saw him in the lineup to start the 2016-17 season.
It’s no surprise that Nikita Soshnikov has had an impact so far in his short NHL career. Coming from the KHL, it’d be easy to think of him being a small, skilled player. But as he had shown this season in the Marlies, his game is a lot more complete. Sure he can score (did you see his shot the other night? Hooo boy), but he isn’t afraid to get in the face of opposing players and throw some hits. He fits into a similar mold as Leo Komarov and Brendan Leipsic in that he competes and has skill – the kind of combination that Mike Babcock is sure to love. That’s the reason Nylander and Kapanen aren’t effective in the NHL, and likely never will be – they think they should have everything handed to them because they have skill. They don’t work hard. I’m actually shocked that Lou didn’t make Nylander wear #81. It’s that complete game and combination of skill and compete that makes it more and more obvious that Soshnikov is the Leafs best prospect.
William Nylander hasn’t done anything spectacular in his time with the Leafs so far, but that’s not to worry.
Nylander himself hasn’t isn’t a human highlight reel, just a very, very talented player. We at TLN were having a chat about how he’s not going to blow you away with any one particular skill, but rather come at you with an arsenal of above-average moves.
Nylander hasn’t been on the ice yet for any goals at either end of the ice, but you have to feel like the luck will turn in his favour sooner of later. Just last night, Nylander himself created five individual scoring chances at 5 on 5, via war-on-ice.com. The Leafs in total had 21.
Nylander’s shown that he can compete and produce as an elite player at the SHL and AHL levels, and it’s really only a matter of time before he starts translating his game into the NHL level. While he might not have registered any points through his first three games, it’s no denying that a quick look at some of his underlying numbers look very good for a teenager getting his feet wet in the league.
New guy I’ve been most impressed with? Call me biased, but Garret Sparks. He’s been consistent and uncomplaining all year, traveling to the ECHL to get a start and standing behind some pretty miserable lineups during his time in Toronto. Young goaltenders are oftentimes at their most fragile development-wise at the age that Sparks is now, but he’s handled everything like a seasoned pro – that’s something that really shows he may have a ton of staying power for this franchise. I’ve loved what I’ve seen from the young guys up front as well, but goaltending has long been the Achilles heel in Toronto – so even if he hasn’t been as flashy (although his pads certainly catch some eyes) as some of the other young guys, he’s made the biggest impression on me.
**Editors note: we told Cat that Sparks doesn’t apply to the question but she was having none of it. He’s impressed her and the world will hear about it. That’s why we love Cat.