The Toronto Maple Leafs’ prospect pool, like that of the Jets before them, has become one of the most enviable in the entire NHL.
Even with a relatively healthy big club, the Leafs haven’t hesitated to pull from their farm system this season. And whenever they go digging—Kasperi Kapanen, Travis Dermott, Andreas Johnsson, Justin Holl—they come up with a mitt full of gold.
“There’s nowhere to hide,” says Toronto coach Mike Babcock of the close ties, both geographically and systematically, between the Leafs the Marlies.
The toast of the minors, the first-place Toronto Marlies (50-18-1-1, 102 points) broke an AHL record with their 29th road win on Saturday (all in regulation), despite already graduating their three best players mid-season.
“When I get here it’s nothing new, really,” says Andreas Johnsson, who praises Sheldon Keefe & Co. for developing his skills. “They really prepared me for this opportunity.”
With a tip of the cap to goalies Garret Sparks and Calvin Pickard—the AHL’s best tandem, easy—here are a few more skaters in the Leafs system who could make the leap in 2018-19.
Justin Holl, D: When I asked Travis Dermott to tell us the next Marlies member who could come up to the Leafs and stick, he raved about Johnsson and was pretty accurate in his prediction.
So Monday night, after Johnsson registered his first multi-point NHL game, we asked the same question. Who on the Marlies can make the jump yesterday?
“We have a lot of guys,” Johnsson said. “Justin Holl is down there. He was up here two games and did really good—he scored two goals. He can play here.”
Yes, Holl enjoyed 2017-18’s most delicious cup of coffee and could pack it up now and retire as a goal-per-game NHL player who got to bring his dad to every road game he ever played. More likely: The right-shot defenceman fights his way to a roster spot in October.
With the returns of Roman Polak (UFA) and Connor Carrick (RFA) uncertain, Nikita Zaitsev is the only righty on the Leafs’ blue line signed for 2018-19—and none of those three have had the type of season that makes them untouchable.
So, does Toronto break the bank to land a brand name (John Carlson won’t come cheap) or give the late-blooming Holl a chance to stick? The 26-year-old has been a solid plus-24 for the Marlies in his all-star season, contributing 26 points and firing 118 shots on net. Holl, too, will be a restricted free agent this summer, but he should be retained so the Leafs don’t feel forced to rush…
Timothy Liljegren, D: Remember, the kid is still only 18 and has been playing regularly on North American ice for less than 10 months, but the flashes of offence and maturity in the teenager’s game have impressed all watchers in the AHL. Liljegren — or, as Babcock has referred to him, “Lily Pad” — cracked Sweden’s silver-medal world junior squad and has featured prominently on one of the AHL’s best blue lines, putting up 15 points and a plus-18 rating. He should be left to steep one more season in the minors and, like Dermott, be over-ready when he arrives.
Andreas Borgman, D: The bruising Borgman lasted longer in the NHL this fall than countryman Calle Rosen, but both of the mature Swedish prospects appear to be wrapping up their first year abroad with a legitimate run at the Calder Cup. More polished and confident, Borgman should have a great shot at the big roster in the fall. Oh, and he may just have scored the best goal of the entire AHL year:
Miro Aaltonen, C: The riches the Leafs can roll out on the wings is tempered with their dearth of dependability up the middle of the ice. Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri are a wonderful one-two punch, but with Tyler Bozak, Tomas Plekanec and Dominic Moore all walking toward unrestricted free agency and Frederik Gauthier failing to wow in his 2017-18 call-up, a window should open for Aaltonen—one of the final cuts at the 2017 camp—to earn a third- or fourth-line pivot spot. A 2013 sixth-rounder who sharpened his skills as a pro in the Finnish Elite League and KHL before flying west this season, Aaltonen has scored 41 points through 60 games and plays the type of responsible defensive game that pleases coaches.