Few NHL teams depend on an annual influx of prospects to the big time as the Toronto Maple Leafs do — and that is by design.
Since Kyle “We Can and We Will” Dubas committed to four high-priced core forwards, an emphasis on filling in the roster gaps with value talent on entry-level contracts has become a necessity to the club’s salary-cap puzzle.
Glancing ahead to 2020-21 — when we expect NHL newbies like Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren to graduate to the full-time roster — let’s look at the five most intriguing prospects within the Maple Leafs’ system.
To be clear, this isn’t a ranking of the best prospects or the ones most likely to make the cut out of training camp, but rather the five players whose development we’re most interested in seeing play out in 2020-21.
5. Joseph Woll, G
GP: 32 | RECORD: 11-16-3| GAA: 3.75 | SV%: .880
Goaltending depth — or lack thereof — has been a significant talking point around the Maple Leafs since Oct. 2, 2018, the day the organization lost both Curtis McElhinney and Calvin Pickard on waivers. Hopes that Garret Sparks or Michael Hutchinson could become a solid No. 2 were dashed, so GM Kyle Dubas traded for Jack Campbell this year and brought some stability to the position.
But Campbell’s contract is up in a couple years, and undisputed No. 1 Frederik Andersen will be due a significant raise under tight cap circumstances in 2021. Just ask the Philadelphia Flyers how nice it would be to have an entry-level goalie supplying wins.
Toronto is taking its time to groom the 21-year-old Woll, whose stellar showing for Boston College didn’t immediately translate to pro showings.
Playing behind a severely depleted Marlies blue line in 2019-20, Woll had a losing record and a sub-.900 save rate but didn’t lose his optimism or desire.
“He works incredible hard every day. His attitude is great,” Marlies assistant coach A.J. MacLean said. “He smiles all the time. You literally have to drag him off the ice every day. He’s a true professional. I have no doubts in his game any time he’s in the net.”
The athletic Woll has an opportunity to take a giant step in his second pro campaign and alter how we view the organization’s goaltending depth chart for the future.
4. Alexander Barabanov, RW
GP: 43 | G: 11 | A: 9 | PTS: 20
The 25-year-old Olympic gold medallist selected Toronto over several other franchises that expressed interest as his contract with SKA St. Petersburg expired in Russia.
Dubas signed the undersized talent to a $925,000 one-year, entry-level deal on April 7 and hopes Barabanov can follow in the footsteps of 2019’s KHL import, Ilya Mikheyev: overachieve in third-line minutes, pitch in on the penalty kill, create scoring chances and help alleviate the club’s salary-cap challenges.
“We’re really excited to add another player to the fold here that we think’s got great experience and a great skill-set; very high character as well,” coach Sheldon Keefe said. “He just checks a lot of the boxes that you’re always looking for when you’re adding a player that you fully expect to step in and be an important part of your team.”
Despite his soft shot and short height (five-foot-10), the two-time Gagarin Cup champ will be given a long look in camp to make the cut.
“Barabanov’s definitely got what it takes to be a full-time NHL player,” tweeted KHL reporter Igor Eronko. “He won’t be a star, but he could become a great third-line player with ability to move up to replace injured guys. His skating is great as well as his work ethics, he’s very strong, he’s a beast one on one.”
3. Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, C
GP: 55 | G: 12 | A: 63 | PTS: 75
Playing Adam Oates to Nick Robertson’s Brett Hull on the Peterborough Petes, Der-Arguchintsev’s lopsided stat line screams puck distributor: 18 goals to 103 assists over his past two OHL seasons.
Adorable isn’t an adjective normally associated with hockey players, but the kid they call ‘SDA’ is as likeable as he is diminutive. That the 19-year-old’s skill is so outsized in relation to his five-foot-10, 163-pound build makes him a fascinating test case for the prototypical Dubas prospect.
Der-Arguchintsev can’t learn much more in juniors after four tours, but how he swims around the angry shoulders of professional grown-ups will be something to see.
2. Jeremy Bracco, RW
GP: 44 | G: 4 | A: 30 | PTS: 34
The 23-year-old finds himself high on our ‘intriguing’ list for not entirely great reasons.
It is telling of how the organization views Bracco that of the six Marlies forwards given a look with the big club in 2019-20, he was not one — even after his record-setting 2018-19 performance in the AHL, in which he posted a line of 22-57-79.
Bracco, who terrorizes defenders on the power play, followed that up with just four goals, 34 points and a minus-10 rating this season. He found his name volleyed in trade rumours (undenied) and took some time away from the Marlies in February on a personal leave.
The kid’s hands and vision are such that it’s too early to write him off, but Bracco will need a resounding bounce-back, a change of scenery or both in 2020-21. An up-and-down prospect trajectory that’ll be worth following in the coming months.
1. Nick Robertson, LW
GP: 46 | G: 55 | A: 31 | PTS: 86
We’ve written extensively about Toronto’s 2019 second-round knockout pick, whose history is even more fascinating than his future.
When you treat the Ontario Hockey League like your own personal bubble-hockey game and rip 55 goals in 46 games, you’re going to garner a little attention as an 18-year-old.
The last player under age 19 to match Robertson’s 1.20 goals-per-game pace in the OHL was some guy named Eric Lindros, who set the historic mark of 1.25 way back in 1990-91.
Dubas said last week he will give Robertson every opportunity to make the Leafs’ opening-night roster in 2020-21, and the left flank of the club’s top nine does present more room for improvement than the right.
Robertson has the shot, determination and personality to survive under the bright lights as a teenager. His size, strength and defensive responsibility will all be challenged.