TORONTO — What Mike Babcock tells a prospect when he cuts him from training camp is short and bitter: “This is your lot in life.”
“Lots of times when you send a guy down, he doesn’t hear a word you say. He’s just mad he’s going down,” the Toronto Maple Leafs head coach explains.
“A week later when you talk to him, you try to make it clear: ‘If you have a good attitude and you work hard, things work out for you. If you don’t, things don’t go the way you want.’ The best players are going to play on the team. We might not always get it right in the short term, but we’ll get it right.”
The strength of the Leafs’ forward core — a collective that should contend for this winter’s goals-per-game crown — has resulted in a wealth of intriguing prospects up front that will have more time to develop, whether they need it or not. Sprinkled among the stickhandlers and shooters are a few good defencemen (one even shoots right!) and a teenage goaltender aiming to take another step.
Depth — all hockey types say it’s a good problem to have.
Or as Babcock puts it: “The Marlies are going to have a heck of a team this year, to say the least.”
1. Kasperi Kapanen, RW
Drafted: 22nd overall, 2014
What more does the 21-year-old Finn need to do to crack an NHL lineup? All the high-flying Kapanen did last spring was score two of the biggest goals in recent franchise history: the tying goal in the playoff-spot clinching game versus the Pittsburgh Penguins and an even more clutch double-OT playoff game winner against the Washington Capitals. Yet the son of 800-game NHLer Sami doesn’t need to clear waivers to be sent to the American Hockey League and, thus, will start another season in the minors, where he’s already proved to be a point-per-game forward.
“When you have the depth we have, you have to make those decisions,” Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello said Monday, after demoting Kaspanen and 23-year-old wing Nikita Soshnikov. “They’re knocking on the door. They’ll be back in the NHL.”
Lamoriello’s message to the overripe prospect?
“Yes, be disappointed, but don’t let up on the gas. You have to continue to force us to get you back.”
2. Jeremy Bracco, RW
Drafted: 61st overall, 2015
The 20-year-old playmaker inked his entry-level deal with Toronto in late March, then went out and capped off his spectacular sophomore junior season as first star of the Memorial Cup championship game. Bracco’s 83-point tear in 2016-17 featured a record-setting 25-game point streak and world junior gold. The queue for skills-blessed wing prospects waiting their turn with the big club, however, stretches halfway up Bay Street. After two video-game-like OHL campaigns, the prospect named after Jeremy Roenick (his parents’ favourite player) hopes to learn Toronto’s systems with the Marlies.
3. Calle Rosen, D
Drafted: N/A (Undrafted)
The roster battle for third-pair left defence came down to the final day of training camp, as both Rosen, 23, and Andreas Borgman, 22 — a pair of shrewd, swift-skating Swedish discoveries by director of player evaluation Jim Paliafito — have transitioned to the North American game faster than anticipated.
The bruising Borgman scored the Opening Night nod over his new friend and countryman, but only slightly.
Rosen can move the puck, possesses great hockey sense, and some time with the Marlies should only help get him accustomed to working the angles on small ice.
“We obviously have not been disappointed,” Lamoriello said of the duo, who have fast become friends as well as rivals. Alas, until injury strikes, there is only room for one on the Maple Leafs.
4. Travis Dermott, D
Drafted: 34th overall, 2015
The most promising under-21 defender in the Leafs’ system was in contention for a third-pairing spot to the left of Connor Carrick up until Monday, when Rosen and Borgman hopped ahead of him. Though Dermott suffered a high-ankle sprain last October, the 20-year-old Newmarket, Ont., native battled on to put up 24 points and a plus-9 rating in his first year as a pro. Babcock is quick to praise the 6-foot, 208-pounder’s game but believes more AHL shifts will prepare him for the rigours of the NHL.
5. Adam Brooks, C
Drafted: 92nd overall, 2016
With the Maple Leafs’ centre depth set to thin out in June with the expiring contracts of Tyler Bozak, Dominic Moore and Eric Fehr, the future of the 21-year-old is an intriguing one. A slow but steady developer in junior, the 5-foot-10 Brooks improved his production over the course of his five seasons with the WHL’s Regina Pats. Amazingly, the prospect went from 11 points as a WHL sophomore to a gaudy 130 points in 66 games last season as a super senior. Light it up with the Marlies, and Brooks’ promotion to Toronto’s roster could be expedited.
6. Timothy Liljegren, D
Drafted: 17th overall, 2017
A severe case of mononucleosis lowered Liljegren’s draft stock enough that the Leafs felt fortunate to snag him in the 17 hole of this year’s draft. With an imbalance of defence talent that tips heavy to the left side, Liljegren is a right-shot defenceman with natural playmaking talents. The hope is the agile Swede will learn the North American game and evolve into a top-four fixture with some grooming in the AHL. Agile and smooth, Liljegren wants the puck on his stick. And when he has it, he makes smart, crisp passes or can let loose with a heavy slapper.
“His progress has just been outstanding,” says Lamoriello.
Liljegren will continue to skate with Marlies for as long as possible but may eventually be sent back to develop in the Swedish pro circuit.
7. Miro Aaltonen, C
Drafted: 177th overall, 2013
Aaltonen used a breakout KHL campaign — 19 goals and 44 points in 59 games for Vityaz — to springboard into a training-camp conversation for the Leafs’ fourth-line centre. The 24-year-old Finn is fast and sees the ice well. He also can be sent to the AHL sans waivers, which is what the Leafs decided to do Monday.
“What I’ve learned over time in training camp is you go, ‘Isn’t that kid great! Isn’t that kid great! Isn’t that kid great!’ Then he’s minus. ‘Isn’t he great!’ He’s minus. Then 10 games in, you look up and he’s minus-10 and you wonder why you have him there,” Babcock said of the decision to go with experience.
“If the kid’s ready, he’s ready. If it’s close, why not tie go to the veteran and he can continue to develop. We expect Aalts to play in the National Hockey League — that’s isn’t a question at all. It’s just when.”
8. Carl Grundstrom, RW
Drafted: 57th overall, 2016
Yep, another right-winger with NHL potential. The 6-foot, 194-pound Grundstrom made his presence known in camp by battling hard for pucks and going toe-to-toe with Max Pacioretty along the boards. Grundstrom returned to Sweden this week. He’ll continue to hone his skills with Frolunda HC, for whom he scored 14 goals in 45 games last season.
9. Joseph Woll, G
Drafted: 62nd overall, 2016
If a Maple Leafs goaltender goes down with injury, Marlies netminder Garret Sparks should be the first phone call, but when it comes to goaltending prospects in the system, Woll is the one who’s ceiling intrigues us most. The 19-year-old is entering his sophomore season with Boston College and has his sights on becoming the starting netmider for Team USA at the world juniors this Christmas.
“To start for the Maple Leafs, that’s my goal,” the affable and confident Woll said at Leafs development camp. “I want to play here, and I want to be a guy who can lead this team to a Stanley Cup.”
10. Yegor Korshkov, RW
Drafted: 31st overall pick, 2016
Let’s toss a wildcard in here.
A somewhat forgotten commodity, the 6-foot-4 Russian winger has already begun his fourth professional campaign, all with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the KHL. An off-the-board draft selection last year, the powerful and lanky Korshkov can drive to the net but has yet to flex his offensive flair against grown men in Russia (13 goals total in his first three KHL campaigns).
Still, he just turned 21 this summer and is an intriguing prospect worth keeping tabs on.