Stop me if you’ve heard this before: We’re going to talk about Toronto Maple Leafs rookies.
Instead of talking about Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and so on, we’re going to look forward at the Leafs’ rookie crop for next season.
Many times over the past two weeks I’ve read people saying, “Kasperi Kapanen is in the NHL to stay.” Well, he’s back in the AHL for the Calder Cup playoffs, but what about next year?
Kapanen’s season began with 33 points in 33 AHL games. Then he got injured, putting him out of action for nearly two months. When he returned, he scored 10 points in 10 games, exactly one point per game again.
So Kapanen can put up points. Great. The Leafs have plenty of players and prospects who can do that, though. What just might earn Kapanen a spot on Toronto's NHL roster next season is his ability to kill penalties. In eight regular-season games and six playoff games, Mike Babcock trusted Kapanen with the fourth most short-handed ice time per game among Leafs forwards, unless you count the one game Eric Fehr played. Could Kapanen take the place of a guy like, say, Nikita Soshnikov?
As a point-per-game player in the AHL, a guy who had 23 power-play points in just 43 AHL games, and as a potential PK option in the NHL, Kapanen is probably the Leafs prospect most likely to jump to the NHL full time next season.
*Technically, Kapanen has used up his rookie eligibility by having played in more than six games in each of the past two NHL seasons, but for the sake of this exercise he gets a mention.
The Toronto Marlies had three players score a point per game or more this season: Kapanen, Seth Griffith, and Brendan Leipsic. Kapanen and Leipsic have been a dynamic duo in the AHL all season. Recently in the Calder Cup playoffs, they did this:
And then this.
Just like Kapanen, Leipsic missed nearly two months from late January to mid-March due to injury. And just like Kapanen, Leipsic's production stayed strong when he returned, scoring 13 points in 15 games.
Leipsic can score by rushing the puck, on the power play, or battling in front. He lead the Marlies in power-play assists (25) despite only playing 49 games.
I'm certainly not about to suggest Leipsic can or should replace James van Riemsdyk. JVR is 6-3, 210 lb., while Leipsic is listed at 5-9 and 181 lb. That being said, I'm looking at what Leipsic can bring and where holes on the Leafs roster might be. If the Leafs choose to deal JVR, which is a pretty big if, I think Leipsic can help soften the blow.
The problem for Leipsic is what holes do the Leafs even have on the wing? Look at the Leafs lineup from the playoffs. Kapanen was a more-than-capable call-up and behind him as a scratch or injured was Soshnikov (56 games this season), Josh Leivo (10 points in 13 games), and Eric Fehr (562 NHL games).
So if I say something like "if they trade JVR", you'll have to forgive me because, well, how the heck does a new winger make this team?
Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick are unrestricted free agents. Martin Marincin or Alexey Marchenko may get claimed in the expansion draft. What if - gulp - Zaitsev decides to leave? Unlike the logjam of wingers the Leafs seem to have, there may be an NHL spot or two open for a defender.
Like a lot of players on the Marlies this season, Rinat Valiev missed time due to injury and played in just 47 games. Unlike other defensive prospects like Andrew Nielsen and Travis Dermott however, Valiev has some experience playing for Mike Babcock. Granted, it was just 10 games during the Leafs' miserable end-of-season stretch the year they finished 30th, but it's experience nonetheless.
Valiev is a left-handed defender who often plays the right side, which Babcock has done at times with Morgan Rielly. Valiev isn't a huge point producer but he's listed at 6-2, 214 lb. He has some snarl and will fight, too.
I've been saying Nielsen is a guy to watch for a while now.
Nielsen was tied for first among AHL rookie defenders with 14 goals and was fourth in scoring with 39 points. He'll also still be 20 when next season starts.
Nielsen is even bigger than Valiev at 6-3 and 220 lb. He gets into the occasional scrap, as well.
Like most young defenders, Nielsen has some defensive blemishes. An occasional call-up if the Leafs have injuries could make sense but a full-time spot? Maybe not just yet.
Another exciting young defensive prospect for a team who many say doesn't have any defensive prospects.
Dermott's season began with nagging injuries and just seven points in his first 23 games (0.3 points per game). In his final 36 games of the season following that stretch, he had 17 points (0.47 points per game).
Something to consider when comparing Dermott's offence to Nielsen's: power-play points. Nielsen had four goals and 16 assists for 20 points on the power play while Dermott had just one goal and seven assists for eight. On one hand, Nielsen has been a fantastic player with the man advantage. On the other hand, this means Nielsen had 19 points at even strength or short-handed while Dermott had only three fewer despite playing in 15 fewer games.
Like Nielsen, Dermott won't be 21 until next season. The last time Dermott was on a team with Connor Brown they lit it up in the OHL. Sure, they had Connor McDavid with them, but Matthews is OK, right?
Trevor Moore is a 22-year-old winger who has had a decent rookie AHL season with the Marlies after finishing his time with the University of Denver.
Andreas Johnsson, another winger, will turn 23 early next season. After just five points in his first 16 games this season (0.31 points per game) he scored 42 points in 59 games (0.71).
Kerby Rychel - yet another winger - had a brutal start to the season with just six points in 17 games (0.35 points per game). After that, he put up 46 points in 56 games (0.82 points per game). Unlike Moore and Johnsson, Rychel has a little bit of NHL experience, too.
Garret Sparks, if the Leafs struggle to find a backup this off-season. He had the AHL's 10th-best save percentage (.922) despite battling injuries. Would he look better with the Leafs this time around now that they're not literally the worst team in the league?
Rookies had an easier time cracking a wide-open Leafs team this season. This upcoming season won't be nearly as easy.