Toronto Maple Leafs Prospect Report: Which 2017 picks are worthy of WJC?

Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe joins Sportsnet's Starting Lineup to discuss the development of Maple Leafs' prospect Timothy Liljegren so far in 2017-18.

No fewer than three members of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 2017 draft class have a legitimate chance at showcasing their skills at this month’s IIHF World Junior Championship, improved stat lines abound (despite a few minor injuries), and the Toronto Marlies (18-5) are the toast of the American Hockey League.

“They’ve got an unbelievable team,” says Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “They’ve got an elite D down there. They do a good job and they win games and they develop players for us.

“Ideally, there’s a few more guys there that are going to end up playing for us.”

In this month’s Toronto Maple Leafs prospect report, we focus exclusively on the players selected by the club in the most recent draft—a group led by Timothy Liljegren—to see how their games have developed since having their name called.

Timothy Liljegren, 18, D, Toronto Marlies

Drafted: First round, 17th overall, 2017
Season to date: 14 GP | 1 G | 7 A | 8 P | +5

Reason for optimism: Considered a Round 1 steal in June, Liljegren has grown more comfortable in North America since the decision was made to develop him an overpass cab ride instead of an overseas plane ride away from the Maple Leafs.

The right-shot defenceman has found his own Toronto condo and has made a significant impact on the Marlies whenever he’s healthy enough to be in the lineup. (The kid sat out six games in November to heal an upper-body injury.)

Liljegren has found an ideal partner in left-shot Travis Dermott (a top-four Leafs pairing in 2019-20?) and managed already to drive play for an upper-echelon American League squad.

Adjusting to a faster pace and smaller ice surface, the youngest defenceman in the AHL is getting giddy about making a splash at the world juniors later this month.

“It’s something every kid dreams about in Sweden,” Liljegren told the Toronto Star. “We’re one of the top teams every year so it’s always fun to come together and play with your national team.

“I don’t think we’ve lost a game in the preliminary round since 10 years back so obviously that’s a huge part that you try to work on as a group — to compete all the way, not be satisfied with semifinals.”

Liljegren could be leaned upon to move the puck on his nation’s top pairing.

Eemeli Rasanen, 18, D, Kingston Frontenacs

Drafted: Second round, 59th overall, 2017
Season to date: 26 GP | 3 G | 18 A | 21 P | +12

The right-shot behemoth has taken another giant step in his sophomore campaign in the Ontario Hockey League. The Frontenacs’ 18-year-old alternate captain is not only producing offensively — he’s on track to easily eclipse the 39 points he put up as an OHL rookie — but he has trimmed out some of his defensive gaffes en route to swinging from a minus-7 player to a plus-12.

Rasanen hits harder than he shoots, and he shoots hard. Some are calling for him to let that clapper blast more often. Like Liljegren, Rasanen also missed a couple games in November due to an undisclosed injury, yet he still leads his team’s blueliners in scoring and is a significant reason why Kingston is right in the mix to finish first in the OHL East.

Rasanen spent time on Finland’s bottom pairing during the national team’s summer showcase in preparation for the world juniors and will be in the conversation to suit up for the 2016 champions. With so many first-round Finnish defenders to consider, however, it’ll be a tough squad to crack. It’ll be bottom pairing or bust for Rasanen at the showcase tournament.

“Good to have some healthy competition,” Finnish defenceman Urho Valimaki told NHL.com. “[Defence] is obviously a big strength for our team.”

Ian Scott, 18, G, Prince Albert Raiders

Drafted: Fourth round, 110th overall, 2017
Season to date: 15 GP | 7-6-1 | 3.08 GAA | .908 SV%

Viewed as an elite minor-league goaltender during his development years in Calgary, Scott’s save percentage has taken a giant leap this season, his third in the Western Hockey League.

Scott posted an .892 rate as a Prince Albert rookie, then nudged his mark up to .895 with double the workload as a sophomore. This season he’s posted a winning record for a rather mediocre Raiders team and escalated his save rate over .900. The teenager is already tall — 6-foot-3 — and once he fills out, who knows? He could develop into that big goalie Babcock is so fond of.

Vladislav Kara, 19, LW, Ak Bars Kazan

Drafted: Fourth round, 124th overall, 2017
Season to date: 10 GP | 0 G | 0 A | 0 P | -2

Unranked by prominent scouting services, the Leafs’ Round 4 Russian pickup was a bit of a draft mystery. Born in a remote arctic town of Salekhard, Kara made his KHL debut this season for Ak-Bars but has yet to register a point and has only seen 10 games’ worth of action.

The power forward did not attend the Maple Leafs’ prospect camp over the summer, but did earn an invite to November’s Canada-Russia series. He is in contention to suit up for Russia at the world juniors, but no sure thing.

Fedor Gordeev, 18, D, Flint Firebirds

Drafted: Fifth round, 141st overall, 2017
Season to date: 27 GP | 3 G | 8 A | 11 P | -20

Go big or go home? Toronto went both, taking a 6-foot-6, 211-pound local boy in Round 5 of the June draft. Gordeev and Flint weren’t quite sure if the player was a forward or a defenceman, but he’s strong and can run a power play, so the Firebirds, who acquired Gordeev in a trade with the London Knights, are developing him as a blueliner. The teenager has been forced to sharpen his game in a losing environment: Flint sits last in the OHL standings and has surrendered a league-worst 137 goals. Hence, Gordeev’s ugly minus-20 rating.

Ryan McGregor, 18, C, Sarnia Sting

Drafted: Sixth round, 172nd overall, 2017
Season to date: 29 GP | 8 G | 12 A | 20 P | +14
The third-year OHL forward credits the Maple Leafs prospect camp this past summer for improving his game and opening his eyes. McGregor, a native of Burlington, Ont., is on pace for a career season offensively for Sarnia — an OHL power that boasts nine players with 20 points.

Ryan O’Connell, 18, D, Penticton Vees

Drafted: Seventh round, 203rd overall, 2017
Season to date: 25 GP | 3 G | 11 A | 14 P | EV

Toronto’s last pick of the ’17 draft made the jump this season from St. Andrew’s College to the BCHL’s Penticton Vees and has committed to Boston University’s high-profile NCAA program in 2018-19. An offensive left-shot defenceman, the Ontario-born O’Connell continues to produce points while staying out of the penalty box.