Led by AHL all-stars Travis Dermott and Kasperi Kapanen — c’mon, they’re NHL-ready already! — the Toronto Marlies have shot to the top of the North Division and boast a roster brimming with prospects who could earn a big-league chance when some Toronto Maple Leafs veterans move on this summer, or be dangled as trade bait.
Toss in some intriguing European pros and a pair of world junior medal winners, and the cupboards look stocked.
Here’s a peek at a mixed bag of mid-season returns from 13 of the most notable prospects in the Leafs system.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
Kasperi Kapanen, 21, RW
Drafted: First round, 22nd overall, 2014
Season to date: 28 GP | 12 G | 8 A | 20 P | +5 (NHL and AHL)
Remember him? The most NHL-ready of wingers in the Leafs system, Kapanen has already enjoyed a six-game, two-goal peek at the NHL this season — matching the length and output he had during the playoffs last spring. But when all forwards are healthy, Kapanen is still a prospect. Along with Dermott, the Son of Sami rightly earned an AHL All-Star Game invite and is simply biding time as he awaits that Ricoh-to-ACC cab ride.
AHL, TORONTO MARLIES
Travis Dermott, 21, D
Drafted: Second round, 34th overall, 2015
Season to date: 26 GP | 2 G | 15 A | 17 P | +15
Upon calling up Dermott for a two-game look with the big boys this month, Leafs coach Mike Babcock revealed that had the Marlies’ best defenceman been born a right shot, he would’ve been an NHLer all season long.
Morgan Rielly has called Dermott one of the best skaters in the organization, and yet he’s fighting with Connor Carrick and Andreas Borgman to be a fixture on the Leafs’ third pair heading into the season’s second half.
After being used exclusively on his natural left side last season, Dermott has played a handful of AHL games on his unnatural right to prepare him for the NHL club’s greatest need. It’s worked OK, considering he earned an invite to the AHL’s All-Star Game.
“Mentally, you have to prepare a bit differently because you’ll be getting the pass from a different angle,” Dermott says. “You usually had three lefties and three righties growing up, at least on my teams. But hockey’s hockey, and you end up in weird positions on the ice.”
Since registering an assist in his NHL debut, Dermott has been returned to the AHL but is champing to get up and stay up.
“I’m not intimidated by this opportunity,” he says. “The nerves are pretty much gone. Time to go to work.”
Timothy Liljegren, 18, D
Drafted: First round, 17th overall, 2017
Season to date: 17 GP | 1 G | 8 A | 9 P | +6
Honoured to just make the Swedish world junior team let alone play on the power-play and win a silver medal, the Maple Leafs’ top pick in the ’17 draft has looked strong during his first half-season on small ice.
There’s expectation Liljegren will develop into the top-four right shot Toronto craves, but that’ll take another year or two. Maybe more. For now, the teenager is simply content with his decision to work on his craft in North America as opposed to returning to the Swedish pro ranks.
“I play a minimum of 15 minutes a game for the Marlies, so that’s been good,” Liljegren told the Toronto Star. “To really belong to one team is something that I wanted, so it’s been good.”
— Janik Beichler (@JanikBeichler) January 3, 2018
Calle Rosen, 23, D
Season to date: 34 GP | 0 G | 9 A | 9 P | -9 (NHL and AHL)
Earlier this week, Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello singled out the edgy Andreas Borgman as the club’s pleasant surprise. Remember when Borgman and fellow undrafted Swedish discovery Rosen were in a dogfight to stick in the bigs?
The speedy Rosen is still adjusting to the North American style and is settling into a steady defensive role in the AHL. The offensive upside here appears low, and the left shot will have to hop over Dermott, Borgman and possibly 21-year-old Marlie Andrew Nielsen to make the cut.
Jeremy Bracco, 20, RW
Drafted: Second round, 61st overall, 2015
Season to date: 21 GP | 2 G | 7 A | 9 P | -3
Frequently healthy-scratching Bracco at the beginning of his first pro season, Toronto has no reason to rush a skilled right winger up to a big club that already has too many of those to squeeze into its top nine. For both player and team, patience is the approach here. Bracco’s ice time and production both jumped significantly in December. It took until Dec. 10 for the CHL champion to light the lamp in a Marlies uniform, but teammate Kasperi Kapanen called it “one of the best first goals I’ve ever seen.”
Adam Brooks, 21, C
Drafted: Fourth round, 92nd overall, 2016
Season to date: 27 GP | 3 G | 3 A | 6 P | +3
As dynamic Marlies rookie forwards go, it took 130-point WHLer Brooks even longer than Bracco to pot his first goal, but the 5-foot-10 talent has recently seen action on the top line.
Coach Sheldon Keefe has asked for more hunger from the undersized kid in the O-zone, but is impressed by his intelligence and positioning. Brooks himself admits he’s had to adjust to the evaporating time and space he enjoyed in junior.
— Toronto Marlies (@TorontoMarlies) December 31, 2017
Andreas Johnsson, 23, LW
Drafted: Seventh round, 202nd overall, 2013
Season to date: 32 GP | 14 G | 11 A | 25 P | +7
A seventh-round flyer on Johnsson in 2013 is increasingly looking like it might just pay off.
With two veteran Maple Leafs left wings on expiring contracts (Leo Komarov, James van Riemsdyk), we wonder if Johnsson — who’s been groomed well overseas and is now well on track for a second straight 20-goal AHL season — could make the leap in 2018-19.
Among all Marlies, the 23-year-old ranks second to Ben Smith in both goals and points and has been a beast on the man-advantage, with 10 power-play points.
Garret Sparks, 24, G
Drafted: Seventh round, 190th overall, 2011
Season to date: 21 GP | 14-6-0 | 1.83 GAA | .937 SP | 2 SO
Despite a swelling number of supporters and a spectacular start to Sparks’ season, when it came time for the Maple Leafs to recall a goaltender, they instead opted for Calvin Pickard, who is a year older and has 70 more NHL appearances under his belt. That shows you where Sparks slots in the organizational depth chart: fourth. But goalies take longer to groom. The Leafs have two in the AHL who are at least worthy of a long look as an NHL backup, if not in Toronto then elsewhere. At a bargain $675,000 cap hit through 2018-19, Sparks gives the Buds options.
Eemeli Rasanen, 18, D, Kingston Frontenacs
Drafted: Second round, 59th overall, 2017
Season to date: 33 GP | 3 G | 20 A | 23 P | +7
The right-shot giant is off to an excellent start to his sophomore season in the Ontario Hockey League, producing points and cutting down on his defensive mistakes.
Rasanen has earned an alternate captaincy with the Frontenacs and was selected (albeit barely) to Team Finland’s slightly disappointing world junior squad. Heavy game, heavy shot.
Nikita Korostelev, 20, RW, Peterborough Petes
Drafted: Seventh round, 185th overall, 2015
Season to date: 37 GP | 18 G | 29 A | 47 P | -4
In his fifth OHL season and first one beginning in Peterborough, Korostelev has picked up where he left off—filling nets at better than a point-a-game, no worries. Yes, it’s another right wing in the Leafs system who can create offence.
That Korostelev remains in junior is a testament to the forward depth of the Marlies, but he’s no longer a teenager and it’s getting close to time we see the Russian compete against men to find out if he can be a legitimate pro.
Yegor Korshkov, 21, RW, Yaroslavl Lokomotiv
Drafted: Second round, 31st overall, 2016
Season to date: 48 GP | 8 G | 15 A | 23 P | +4
Due to a sluggish start, Yegor Korshkov’s numbers don’t leap off the page, but he’s been a solid third-liner in the KHL who’s heating up lately. After mustering just a single assist in Lokomotiv’s first 13 contests, the 6-foot-4 two-way wing already has career highs in goals and assists this season, his fourth as a Russian professional. Korshkov has added an edge to his game and will easily double his career-high in penalties.
Carl Grundstrom, 19, LW, Frolunda
Drafted: Second round, 57th overall, 2016
Season to date: 18 GP | 7 G | 2 A | 9 P | +2
Carl Grundstrom made noise in the AHL playoffs and in Leafs training camp, winning over some of the diehard fans, but had to be returned to his Swedish club this season. The hardworking, aggressive winger found the net seven times in 18 contests for Frolunda before falling to injury. Grundstrom underwent surgery to repair his left knee and isn’t expected to return until later this month.
Joseph Woll, 19, G, Boston College
Drafted: Third round, 62nd overall, 2016
Season to date: 7-6-2 | 2.90 GAA | .898 SP | 0 SO
Woll told us last summer that he was aiming to be Team USA’s starter in the world junior tournament, and he did represent his country in the semifinal — only to get victimized by the dangerous Swedes. After getting pulled in the semis, the U.S. sat him in the bronze medal game.
Boston College has taken a step back in the NCAA ranks, and the teenager has watched his save percentage plummet below the .900 threshold.