Toronto Maple Leafs’ five most NHL-ready prospects

Toronto Marlies players Adam Brooks and Jeremy Bracco discuss what Sheldon Keefe meant to them as their head coach, and a person, and are very excited for his next chapter as Maple Leafs head coach.

In the shadows of the gargantuan hype machine that is the refreshed Toronto Maple Leafs and their 2-0 record since last week’s coaching change, lurks an AHL force known as the Toronto Marlies.

Since Sheldon Keefe graduated from the farm, the Marlies have gone a perfect 3-0, outscoring opponents 10-4 and improving their points percentage to a league-best .809.

“I was very happy,” Marlies assistant coach A.J. MacLean said after a tumultuous but victorious five days. “With everything that went on this week, I thought the guys, for the most part, were very focused, were dedicated to the plan.”

The Marlies have yet to name Keefe’s successor, so MacLean has temporarily been tasked with running the most expensive and deepest bench in the AHL. And he’s been quick to give praise to the foundation Keefe laid for the Leafs’ prospects.

“For here with the development of all the Marlies, he’s been absolutely incredible,” MacLean said. “If somebody cares about you, you go through a wall for them — and that’s what you see almost all the time here with the Marlies. The guys go through the wall for him. They really want to get better because us as a staff really want to see every player reach their potential, and it all starts with him.”

Toronto’s farm system bubbles with NHL experience.

Leading scorers Pontus Aberg (19 points) and Kenny Agostino (18 points) could slide on to a big-league bottom six with relative ease. And it’s not out of the realm of possibility that ex-NHLers Matt Read, Ben Harpur, and Jordan Schmaltz could all grind their way back to the show at some point and keep the dream alive.

But for our purposes here, we’ll take a look at the kids — those Marlies 23 or under — and check in on the Maple Leafs’ five most NHL-ready prospects.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Rasmus Sandin, D
GP: 11 | G: 2 | A: 7 | PTS: 9

Sandin has looked predictably fantastic since being returned to the Marlies after an impressive six-game stint with the big club in October. Although one could make the case for Sandin getting a recall as soon as yesterday, the theory here is that the poised 19-year-old’s development is being better served by getting top-pair minutes on the farm. We’re still not ruling out a mid-season return to the big club, as Sandin has cleared every obstacle thrown his way. He kills penalties, contributes on the power play and is a plus-3 despite getting fed a steady diet of the opposition’s best forwards.

Egor Korshkov, LW
GP: 18 | G: 8 | A: 4 | PTS: 12

The degree of effectiveness between an AHLer like Korshkov and an NHLer like, say, Dmytro Timashov is minimal, and in an organization thinner on the wings, perhaps Korshkov would’ve already made the leap. The 6-foot-4, 214-pound Russian is accustomed to battling for pucks with men, having played five KHL seasons prior to chasing his dream in North America. The big man’s transition to the small ice has been relatively seamless. His eight goals rate him third on the Marlies, and he’s been contributing to both specialty teams. Because the Leafs’ 24th-ranked PK needs help, Korshkov moves to the front of the line.

Jeremy Bracco, RW
GP: 18 | G: 2 | A: 13 | PTS: 15

A playmaker extraordinaire, Jeremy Bracco is the type of creative yet undersized talent who — despite his gaudy assist totals — was not considered NHL-ready by the Leafs’ previous coach. The knock on Bracco, a power-play wizard and point-per-game threat wherever he’s played, has always been his 200-foot game. Under Keefe’s tutelage, Bracco grew the hard way; he was healthy-scratched during the Marlies’ run to the 2018 Calder Cup and responded with a record-breaking, 79-point campaign in 2018-19. They know each other well. The question will be, does Keefe view Bracco as responsible enough to thrive at the top level?

“I think you know where you stand,” Bracco told reporters upon Keefe’s promotion. “You know where you are in the lineup, you know what you need to do, you know what you need to do to contribute to play a lot and he expects you to be better in the areas that you’re not so good at. He’s very easy to talk to about life, not even hockey. I’ve gone to him about multiple different things and he’s been there, open door policy, and I think that’s something they’ll appreciate up there.”

Timothy Liljegren, D
GP: 16 | G: 2 | A: 8 | PTS: 10

Liljegren, the top right-shot defender in the system, failed to deliver his optimal performance at training camp. But he’s responded the best way possible: by jumping off to his strongest season since turning pro. By a long shot. The slick-skating 20-year-old has seen an uptick in minutes, an increase in responsibility and is reaping the benefits on the scoresheet. He hit the 10-point mark over the weekend, is a plus-7 despite being tasked with some more difficult matchups, and appears to be enjoying a boost in confidence.

Joseph Woll, G
GP: 7 | RECORD: 4-1-1-1 | GAA: 3.09 | SV%: .902

Do we think a 21-year-old Woll is beating down the door to the NHL? No, not yet.

But an organization desperately thin at the position values the goaltending prospect enough that they had Woll travel with the core throughout the Bruins series last spring even though he’d yet to dress for a single pro game. And if this week’s recall of Michael Hutchinson (0-4-1) doesn’t bear fruit for the Leafs, you have to wonder about next steps. Woll made 31 saves in Sunday’s victory over Manitoba, his fourth in seven appearances, and was crowned the game’s first star.

“When I was down there, there’s no shortage of questions. He’s always asking me about different situations and things to do. I was really impressed with his mental makeup,” says Leafs backup Hutchinson. “He’s a big goalie and does use his [6-foot-4, 203-pound] size, but he’s also an extremely athletic goalie and his flexibility is off the charts.”

MacLean has been blown away by Woll’s work ethic and positive approach to the job.

“He smiles all the time. You literally have to drag him off the ice every day,” MacLean said. “He’s a true professional. I have no doubts in his game anytime he’s in the net.”

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