Toronto Maple Leafs prospect report: An intriguing group of AHL defencemen

The Maple Leafs selected Timothy Liljegren with the No. 17 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft. (Dave Sandford/Getty)

“I don’t know if anyone saw the lineup for the Marlies last night,” Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said one recent morning at Air Canada Centre.

“The back end of the Marlies—that’s all-world for the American Hockey League.”

Yes, the Leafs’ big-league defence is far from polished, but they have plenty of intriguing blueliners coming, and the organization’s young strength on the wings is second to none.

So deep are the Leafs at forward, that some blue-chip wing prospects are either getting healthy scratched in the AHL (see: Bracco, Jeremy) or must continue their development in junior or overseas to fetch the ice time they need to groom.

And that’s with AHL starter Kasperi Kapanen freeing up a minor-league spot with his recent recall to the Leafs (he was sent back down on Tuesday).

“We’ve got way more depth. We could still have more depth at centre. But I think you’re a work in progress,” Babcock said. “You want to have guys ready to come.”

Here’s a look at the early-season returns from 12 of Toronto’s most notable prospects in the system.

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AHL

Jeremy Bracco, 20, RW
Drafted: Second round, 61st overall, 2015
Season to date: 4 GP | 0 G | 1 A | 1 P | EV +/-

How deep are the Marlies at wing? So deep, they’ve found it difficult to squeak Bracco, an elite playmaker and CHL champion, into their lineup. The 2015 second-rounder has been healthy-scratched for the bulk of his AHL rookie season thus far. In the four games he has skated, Bracco has fired three shots, picked up two minor penalties and recorded an assist. He’s still searching for his first goal as a pro.

Reason for optimism…

“We’ve really been working on him with his fitness and his strength,” Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe told reporters.

“Despite not playing, he has just had a terrific attitude. He has worked every single day, hasn’t complained once, and that has me really excited over what’s to come for him because he’s got elite offensive abilities.”

Adam Brooks, 21, C
Drafted: Fourth round, 92nd overall, 2016
Season to date: 9 GP | 0 G | 2 A | 2 P | +5

It wasn’t until Brooks’ third season in the Western Hockey League that he found his stride, but the smallish centre absolutely exploded offensively in junior years four and five, putting up a combined 250 points over his two most recent campaigns.

The shift to pro has seemingly nudged Brooks back to Square One. He has two points (both assists) through nine appearances with the Marlies.

“There’s definitely been a learning curve,” Brooks told reporters. “It’s not like junior where you have a little open time, you have to create space by yourself and use your body in different ways that you wouldn’t have to in different leagues.”

Keefe has had Brooks centreing linemates including Ben Smith and Colin Greening, a couple of veterans with NHL experience who can help the kid learn.

“He’s making some plays. He’s a smart guy, so structurally he’s in the right spot. He’s winning pucks back. He’s getting chances,” Keefe said. “We want him to be a little more hungry around the net, and take the puck to the net and be a guy to make the play or pull the trigger himself. Right now, I think he’s still kind of in pass mode, to make everyone else look good, but that’s in his nature.”

Travis Dermott, 20, D
Drafted: Second round, 34th overall, 2015
Season to date: 11 GP | 0 G | 3 A | 3 P | +9

The trouble with the Marlies defensive depth is dolling out ice time between veterans like Martin Marincin, Justin Holl and Vincent LoVerde and the younger, high-expectations group of Dermott, Calle Rosen, Rinat Valiev and Andrew Nielsen.

“It’s a full house, but it’s also a luxury,” Keefe told reporters. “Our depth is the most I’ve ever had here and sometimes it’s too much.”

Despite his disappointment in not making the big club out of training camp, Dermott remains a top development priority on the Marlies’ blue line.

He’s been firing that dangerous point shot at will (16 shots on net already), but discipline has been an issue. Dermott leads the Marlies with 20 minutes in penalties, averaging nearly a minor per game.

Calle Rosen, 23, D
Drafted: N/A
Season to date: 9 GP | 0 G | 4 A | 4 P | -5 (NHL and AHL)

The stronger, nastier Andreas Borgman seized the Maple Leafs’ third-pairing left defence position from fellow Swede Rosen by late October, and the signing of veteran Roman Polak pushed the skilled 23-year-old down to the American League. The speedy Rosen is still adjusting to the North American game. He has one assist in the NHL and three in the AHL, but has been a minus defender. Give him time to develop; the expectation is he’ll be an NHL player.

Timothy Liljegren, 18, D
Drafted: First round, 17th overall, 2017
Season to date: 9 GP | 1 G | 4 A | 5 P | +5

The AHL transition of Liljegren, the Maple Leafs’ top pick in the ’17 draft, has been eased with his two seasons of pro hockey in his native Sweden.

“He’s played with men before,” Keefe told reporters. “I’d say he’s been looking more comfortable on the ice.”

In his first season on North American ice, Liljegren has started to develop chemistry with Dermott — who could be his Leafs D partner of the future — and has flexed his offensive flair. The teenager has more points (five) and is averaging more shots (nearly two per night) than any other Marlies defenceman.

Andreas Johnsson, 22, LW
Drafted: Seventh round, 202nd overall, 2013
Season to date: 10 GP | 5 G | 3 A | 8 P | +1

The Leafs keep pillaging Sweden of its young talent. A seventh-round flyer on Johnsson in 2013 is increasingly looking like it’ll pay off.

The winger is second on the Marlies in goals and has been a threat on the man-advantage, with four points on the power play already.

After scoring twice against Laval last Wednesday, Keefe described Johnsson as “outstanding.”

With a couple of Maple Leafs left wings on expiring contracts (Leo Komarov, James van Riemsdyk), we wonder if Johnsson — who’s been groomed well overseas and is now well on track for a second straight 20-goal AHL season — might be able to make the leap in 2018-19.

“The only thing on my mind was to work hard and skate hard,” Johnsson said after his stellar performance last week.

Mason Marchment, 22, LW
Drafted: N/A
Season to date: 9 GP | 5 G | 6 A | 11 P | +6

After bouncing around the OHL, the undrafted Marchment turned heads in 2016-17, when he put up 20 points in 37 games with the ECHL Orlando Solar Bears. The big forward—he’s 6-foot-4, and heavier and stronger at 200 pounds—is making the most of his serious AHL look, jumping off with four goals and a pair of assists in October, then claiming AHL Player of the Week honours in early November.

“Every player’s development is different and calls for different plans. He’s a good example of a guy that just stuck with it and did the work,” Keefe told reporters. “We felt he was one player that what he needed was time away from games, if that makes any sense.”

OHL

Eemeli Rasanen, 18, D, Kingston Frontenacs
Drafted: Second round, 59th overall, 2017
Season to date: 17 GP | 3 G | 11 A | 14 P | +3

The right-shot giant is off to an excellent start to his sophomore season in the Ontario Hockey League, producing points and cutting down on his defensive mistakes.

Rasanen has earned an alternate captaincy with the Frontenacs, and a four-point performance in a big early-season victory over the London Knights has propelled him among the OHL scoring leaders for defencemen.

Nikita Korostelev, 20, RW, Peterborough Petes
Drafted: Seventh round, 185th overall, 2015
Season to date: 15 GP | 7 G | 13 A | 20 P | -1

In his fifth OHL season and first one beginning in Peterborough, Korostelev has picked up where he left off—putting up better than a point a game, no worries. Yes, it’s another right wing in the Leafs system who can create offence.

That Korostelev remains in junior is a testament to the forward depth of the Marlies, but he’s no longer a teenager and it’s getting close to time we see the Russian compete against men to see just how strong of a player he can be.

KHL

Yegor Korshkov, 21, RW, Yaroslavl Lokomotiv
Drafted: Second round, 31st overall, 2016
Season to date: 29 GP | 6 G | 6 A | 12 P | +7

Yegor Korshkov’s numbers don’t leap off the page, but he’s been a solid third-liner in the KHL who’s gotten hot of late. After mustering just a single assist in Lokomotiv’s first 13 contests, the second-rounder erupted for eight points in eight games. The 6-foot-4 two-way wing is a solid bet to set a career high in goals this season, his fourth as a Russian professional.

SHL

Carl Grundstrom, 19, LW, Frolunda
Drafted: Second round, 57th overall, 2016
Season to date: 10 GP | 5 G | 1 A | 6 P | +3

Carl Grundstrom made a little noise in the AHL playoffs and in Leafs training camp, but had to be returned to his Swedish club team this season. The hardworking, aggressive winger already found the net five times for Frolunda and continues to remain an intriguing forward prospect on a franchise overflowing with them.

NCAA

Joseph Woll, 19, G, Boston College
Drafted: Third round, 62nd overall, 2016
Season to date: 3-4-1 | 1.62 GAA | .905 SV% | 0 SO

Woll told us this summer that he was aiming to be Team USA’s starter in the world junior tournament. October brought a rocky start, however. The 19-year-old surrendered 19 goals in six appearances through the month at Boston College and locked down just a single victory. He’s started much better in November, though, and his numbers have started to recover.

Pegged as a guy who should emerge as one of the NCAA’s top netminders this season, Woll will be looking to clean up his crease this month. In his defence, BC has been way too prone to penalties and Woll has faced an inordinate amount of work on the penalty kill.