The 2016 NHL Trade Deadline ushered in the future for the Toronto Maple Leafs. With many forwards injured or shipped out via trade, opportunity knocked for many of the Leafs young prospects. Granted, it has only been 5 games, so an evaluation is hard. But, immediate impressions on each of the young guns is positive. Positivity is a start, considering it has been a long time since there was any hype surrounding a prospect in Toronto. The kids are still adjusting, but none of them look out of place, or even close to that. There will be ups and downs, Babcock praise and Babcock chagrin (already seen), but it is a positive look to the future, something that hasn’t existed in well over a decade.
William Nylander: Let’s start with the obvious, shall we. He is the most highly touted “seasoned” prospect that I can remember (Morgan Rielly never really played in the AHL). His skill level is evident, look at the pass he fed Greening v. Buffalo, which would’ve made for one of the prettier goals this season by a Leaf. His shot is very deceptive and highly accurate, see his goal v. Ottawa. He has the ability to take pucks off of players and hang onto it for just the right amount of time, a skill that will serve him very well. Nylander isn’t great in his defensive zone, but he is significantly more aware and responsible than I expected him to be. He isn’t going to be a 2-way centre, but he likely won’t be a liability either. One thing is exceptionally clear: Nylander is ready for the NHL, and as long as his work ethic matches his skill level, he is going to be a very good player for a very long time.
Kasperi Kapanen: He will be forever linked to Phil Kessel as the key prospect fetch in the trade with the Penguins (along with the pending draft pick). Kapanen started slowly in the AHL this year and a bout with the flu didn’t help either. The World Juniors provided him the opportunity to boost his confidence and he delivered, scoring the golden goal. Since his return, Kapanen has been a different player, scoring more regularly and playing as many expected him to when he was drafted. In the games he played, Kapanen was impressive. He was tenacious on the forecheck, his skill level was very evident in generating scoring opportunities for his line mates. According to HockeyViz, Kapanen was one of the Leafs best 5v5 shot players, with a positive shot generation in his stint. In the game against Tampa, he was arguably the Leafs best player, generating scoring chances regularly and looked particularly dangerous in the 3rd period. Kapanen’s defensive zone play needs some work, his skills need some smoothing, but the combo of him and Nylander was very dangerous, and should be for years to come.
Nikita Soshnikov: He is without a doubt been the most impactful and surprising rookie of the crop. He’s played professionally in the KHL and signed as a free agent for this season. While he wasn’t particularly impressive in the AHL, his ability and willingness to do the little things is no doubt what Babcock & Co. like. Soshnikov is physical, so much so that he nearly concussed himself against Buffalo trying to run a player through the boards. He plays bigger than his 183 lbs frame, is relentless on the puck, is very difficult to move. His shot is NHL level elite, there is no doubt about it. His goals against Washington and Ottawa show his potential to be a scorer in this league. On both, he used the D-man and his hands to deceive the goalie and rifled the puck in the twine. The way in which he releases the puck is special and couple with his hard-work, drive the net mentality could make him a successful NHL player. What shouldn’t be overlooked is his ability to pass, see the Komarov goal he set up less than a minute in against Buffalo. This will keep the goalies guessing as they have to respect his shot, likely opening up passing options for him going forward. He is my player to watch for next season.
Zach Hyman: For Greg McKegg and a conditional 7th rd. pick, Hyman is turning out to be quite the player. Babcock admitted he liked him since his days at the University of Michigan, always a good sign. There’s not a lot to dislike about his game, and there is a lot to like. He is a speedy player, out skating d-men on a nightly basis. He is very responsible defensively, evident by Babcock’s use of him on the penalty kill. He is the hard nosed, drive the net, battle in the corners type of player who can score too. He is not as skilled as the other 3, but on a line with Kapanen and Nylander, he gives them balance. When Babcock put the 3 together, they generated multiple scoring chances and were a threat on almost every shift. He can bring stability to a skilled line, and can be the net presence on the PP. It will be interesting to see how Babcock uses him going forward, could be another key piece of the puzzle, especially if he has chemistry with some of the higher end players.
All 4 of the players recalled have been impressive for different reasons. Each of them bring a different, and much-needed dimension to the Leafs lineup and will likely be key pieces if they team is going to succeed in the future. Brenden Leipsic has been up and down this season, and I like his versatility. He, along with at least 3 of these prospects should be up with the Leafs full-time next season. The big club is about to get a big dose of skill in the lineup for next year, that is excluding the possibility of Mitch Marner and whoever they draft in the 1st round in the upcoming draft. A summer of hard work with the Leafs strength staff will do the prospects good in preparing them for what is to come over an 82 game NHL schedule. We’ll see what happens. But for now, the future is looking bright on Bay Street, and it is about time.