Expect a Leafs lineup full of prospects next season

Jun 2 2016, 3:15 am

The Toronto Marlies may be out of the Calder Cup race, but that’s not to say things aren’t looking up for the blue and white. For the first time in over a decade, Maple Leafs management is making all the right moves, and you’d be ignorant to think otherwise.

Following the likely Auston Matthews acquisition later this month, Toronto is not far away from becoming a powerhouse. The keys to success are talent and time, and given the depth of Toronto’s prospect pool the Leafs have an ample amount of each.

The forward talent is already there, as top assets Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and the highly anticipated Matthews are almost sure locks to make the team next season. Connor Brown, Zach Hyman, Nikita Soshnikov, and Kasperi Kapanen were also strong in the Marlies postseason, each likely lacing up for Toronto next year.

Should Toronto select Matthews in round one, the Leafs centre ice depth will be at its strongest in recent memory. Matthews, Nylander, Nazem Kadri, and Byron Froese – who went 48 per cent in the faceoff circle last season – form a lethal combination up the middle.

Froese is a solid, and much cheaper option beside Tyler Bozak’s $4.2 million cap hit, a skater I expect to be dealt later this offseason. The Leafs have $22 million in cap space and with veteran centre Brooks Laich in the mix, Bozak’s days seem limited. Laich has one year remaining on his current deal, which carries a $4.5 million cap hit.

Finally, Peter Holland is currently an RFA, though after ranking fourth in total shots last season wiring 138, he, too, remains a viable asset. Still, given the depth at centre I’d be surprised if Holland made the opening night roster.

So let’s take a look at Toronto’s offensive talent to get a sense of what things could look like next season.

James van Riemsdyk Auston Matthews Milan Michalek
Leo Komarov William Nylander Mitch Marner
Nikita Soshnikov Nazem Kadri Connor Brown
Kasperi Kapanen Byron Froese/Brooks Laich Zach Hyman

As the table indicates, the Leafs may look completely different – and a whole lot younger – than last season’s lineup. Considering seven of the 12 spots are filled by prospects, this upcoming campaign could be unlike anything Toronto has seen in quite some time.

Brown finished last season with six points in seven games for the Leafs, Marner was recently named CHL player of the year, while Hyman and Soshnikov combined for 11 points to close out the year with the big club. As for Matthews, he’s been lighting up the Swiss pro league as a 17-year-old, the youngest player on the team.

What’s more exciting, though, is that Toronto’s defensive core is also brimming with potential. Morgan Reilly enters the first year of his $30 million contract, and Connor Carrick – one of Toronto’s few right-handed blue liners – is showing signs of NHL stardom. The 22-year-old led the Marlies with 18 points in 15 games this postseason, an impressive total considering he was a 2012 fifth round selection.

Additionally, Frank Corrado (another young fifth rounder) registered 6 points in 39 NHL games last season. Though in addition to Corrado and Carrick, fans should keep an eye on newest Leafs defender Nikita Zaitsev. The Russian UFA went fourth overall in the 2009 KHL draft, and was pursued by five NHL teams other than Toronto back in October. In each season with his most recent KHL team, Zaitsev led team defencemen in points and has played with current St. Louis Blues stars Vladimir Tarasenko and Jori Lehtera.

Below are the defenceman I expect to make the final opening night cut.

Morgan Rielly Matt Hunwick
Jake Gardiner Connor Carrick
Nikita Zaitsev Frank Corrado/Stuart Percy

Aside from Matt Hunwick, each defenceman listed is 25-years-old or younger, an exciting sign moving forward. Moreover, Travis Dermott and Stuart Percy are young assets in the system, and I view Percy as a viable seventh option on the back-end.

In goal, however, things aren’t so positive. Sure, Garrett Sparks ended the season on a high note and Antoine Bibeau played well for the Marlies this season, but nothing is conclusive. Sparks played just 17 NHL games and Bibeau had arguably the strongest AHL core in front of him, so to truly excel the Leafs need a top tier prospect in the crease. A depth chart consisting of the shaky Jonathan Bernier, and the inexperienced Sparks, Bibeau, and Kasimir Kaskisuo (an undrafted 22-year-old Finnish goalie who’s played a total two AHL games) is nothing to get excited about.

In February, the Leafs brought in former 2005 Sharks fourth round selection Alex Stalock, but he too has yet to prove himself. The 28-year-old played three games for the Toronto Marlies this season and is a UFA this summer. Given the current situation, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Sparks re-sign and start behind Bernier in October.

Jonathan Bernier Garrett Sparks

In today’s NHL, average teams can go far with elite goalies and the Leafs so desperately need one. Toronto had more goals than only the New Jersey Devils and Vancouver Canucks last season, and with so many young players entering the fold, strong goaltending is vital. The Leafs gave up the 10th-most shots last year (30.5), so hopefully their new forward stars can keep the puck in the offensive end.

And so now with Bernier and Sparks in the mix, that’s a total 22 players I’ve selected to lace up opening night. Each team is allowed 23 active skaters leading to the trade deadline, and I think acquiring another goalie would be the right decision. The Leafs are just a few pieces short of turning the tide, and Toronto essentially has its first line centre in Auston Matthews.

The next step is for management to devote all its energy to defence and goaltending, so to not make the same mistakes as the Edmonton Oilers.

By no means should we expect Toronto to make the playoffs next season, but I don’t expect them to finish last place, either. This current roster is young and buzzing with talent, so don’t be surprised when you see the Leafs climb the standings. The best part about finishing last is that odds are you’re going to improve.

The Leafs have come a long way – and they still have a long way to go – but love them or hate them, this team is going to be good.

Andrew RobertsAndrew Roberts

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