Toronto Maple Leafs Prospect Report: Top 5 players in the system

Garret Sparks has been loaned back to the Marlies. (Frank Gunn/CP)

Is it time for us to stop categorizing Travis Dermott and Kasperi Kapanen as prospects?

Sure they’ve both played the bulk of 2017-18 in the American Hockey League — and were named to the minor circuit’s all-star class for their efforts — but the manner in which they’ve performed during their calls up to the Toronto Maple Leafs leaves little doubt they are NHL talents.

Dermott’s speed, vision and possession metrics have captured the imagination of Leafs Nation on the grand stage, and his first NHL goal — a strike so beautiful, it pushed Dermott’s dad to tears — Wednesday felt like an arrival.

Subbing in for checker Matt Martin, Kapanen has three goals in his past six games skating on the Leafs’ fourth line, but with his speed and hands, the 21-year-old winger should be a fixture on the Leafs’ (or some NHL team’s) top nine sooner than later.

So for the purposes of ranking the top five prospects in the Toronto system, we’ll look at the crew of hopefuls who’ve yet to be promoted this season.

Join Jeff Marek and Sam Cosentino for all the CHL and NHL prospect talk you can handle.

1. Timothy Liljegren, 18, D, Toronto Marlies
Drafted: First round, 17th overall, 2017
Season to date: 21 GP | 1 G | 9 A | 10 P | +8

A silver medallist with the Swedish world junior team at the top of January, the Maple Leafs’ top pick in the ’17 draft has looked excellent during his first baby steps on small ice.

There’s expectation Liljegren will develop into the top-four right shot Toronto craves, as fans dream of a Dermott-Liljegren pairing for years to come.

“Every time I get an opportunity to hit a guy, I will, but it’s not something I’m looking for,” Liljegren, more of a play-maker, told reporters last week.

The Leafs’ message to the kid? You’re on the right track. Keep doing what you’re doing. Gain confidence.

2. Andreas Johnsson, 23, LW, Toronto Marlies
Drafted: Seventh round, 202nd overall, 2013
Season to date: 39 GP | 20 G | 12 A | 32 P | +11

What a find. The seventh-round flyer Toronto took on Johnsson back in 2013 is looking like it’ll pay off. With two veteran Maple Leafs left wingers on expiring contracts (Leo Komarov, James van Riemsdyk), Johnsson is making a solid case for an October graduation to the bigs. The 23-year-old leads the Marlies with 20 goals, aided in part by his power-play execution, and shone at the AHL All-Star Game on Monday.

3. Garret Sparks, 24, G, Toronto Marlies
Drafted: Seventh round, 190th overall, 2011
Season to date: 21 GP | 17-6-1 | 1.60 GAA | .944 SP | 4 SO

Name a major goaltending stat. Save percentage, goals-against average, shutouts, wins—Sparks ranks either first or second across the entire AHL in every category. Those who believed Sparks’ early-season numbers were unsustainable were right—they’ve only gotten better. Dude is dialed in.

En route to claiming AHL Goaltender of the Month honours, Sparks posted a 5-0-0-1 record through January, with two shutouts. In six January starts, he recorded a 0.98 GAA and .966 save percentage. Sparks has shut out opponents over his last 154:01 of play.

The trick is, with Calvin Pickard playing well too, the Leafs have two AHL goalies worthy of a longer look in the NHL. If not in Toronto, then perhaps the Leafs use one of them as a trade chip later this month.

4. Eemeli Rasanen, 18, D, Kingston Frontenacs
Drafted: Second round, 59th overall, 2017
Season to date: 42 GP | 3 G | 22 A | 25 P | +10

The 6-foot-7, right-shot giant has taken a step defensively as an OHL sophomore, but his production has curiously cooled off. The Frontenacs’ alternate captain played a minor role on Team Finland’s disappointing world junior entry and admitted to The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler that he’s been frustrated and homesick.

“It has been a hard year for me,” he told Wheeler after a late-January loss.

“Hockey hasn’t been going well. I have to keep getting better. My skating and my stick, I just have to be more alert all the time when I’m on the ice. It has been tough being away from family. I didn’t spend too much time with them during the summer. I was [in Toronto] for a month [in August], and it showed me where I got to be if I want to play there.”

5. Carl Grundstrom, 20, LW, Frolunda
Drafted: Second round, 57th overall, 2016
Season to date: 25 GP | 8 G | 4 A | 12 P | +3

The sturdy Swede’s sophomore campaign for Frolunda HC suffered a set back when he needed mid-season surgery to repair his left knee. Since returning to the pro league in January, however, the two-way winger has three points in seven games. He’ll be gunning to crack what should be a significantly tweaked Leafs forward lineup in the fall.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Dmytro Timashov, 21, LW, Toronto Marlies
Drafted: Fifth round, 125th overall, 2015
Season to date: 41 GP | 9 G | 13 A | 22 P | +4

The Maple Leafs are so flush with young talent at right wing, this season’s accelerated development of Timashov should be taken as a sign of encouragement for the organization’s left side depth chart. The 21-year-old Ukrainian ranks fifth in Marlies scoring and is well on his way to crushing last season’s 24-point performance. Though a little small at 5-foot-10, Timashov fiercely hunts down pucks and his shooting percentage (9.72) leads us to believe his enhanced production is no fluke.

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