It’s the 4th of July, and while that means the U.S. is partying up a storm and celebrating their independence, there’s a bit of a different reason for people to be celebrating today up here in Toronto. Today officially marks the beginning of Toronto Maple Leafs development camp, and that means 40 young players are currently undergoing physicals in Toronto before heading off to Niagara Falls for the rest of the week.
Every player that was just drafted, yes that means Auston Matthews and Friends, are invited, as well as most other recent draft picks, a number of players picked up for the Marlies last year on Amateur Tryouts (ATO’s), and a few players here on camp invites. There are names here that every Leafs fan should recognize, starting with Matthews, moving on through Mitch Marner to Dmytro Timashov to Travis Dermott, but there are some other intriguing names on the list as well. On a side note, two sons of former NHLers are at camp in Anthony Brodeur and Mason Marchment, sons of Martin and Bryan, respectively. Neither is expected to get close to making the team, it’s an AHL deal or nothing, but that’s beside the point here. Camp is off limits to spectators up until Friday at 10:00 AM at the Gale Centre in Niagara Falls, where a free scrimmage (they’re asking for food donations) will be held. If you can, I highly recommend going, and without further ado, here are 10 players to watch during this current edition of Leafs development camp.
- Auston Matthews
Well, let’s start by getting the obvious ones out of the way, and that begins with the latest saviour of the franchise, Mr. Auston Matthews. Much has been said over the last couple of years about Matthews, obviously his immense skill set, his decision to play overseas in Zurich rather than going the traditional NCAA or Junior route, the fact that he’s not from a traditional hockey market, and finally, his being drafted by the Maple Leafs. We all know Matthews can play, if the kid doesn’t end up a franchise player the entire hockey world will be shocked, but what should fans be looking for in particular during this prospect camp? For one, it’ll be interesting to see if he develops any immediate chemistry with a fellow prospect. Matthews is expected to be playing centre, but there’s been talk of Mitch Marner playing on the wing. Will Matthews immediately spark up chemistry with Marner? What about with Dmytro Timashov, or Nikita Korostelev? Or perhaps Nolan Vesey or Jeremy Bracco? Not all of these players are making the big squad out of camp along with Matthews, but nonetheless, it’ll be interesting to see the kind of impact Matthews has on his teammates right off the bat. Keep an eye on his elite skating acceleration, his power forward tendencies, his precise passing and his ability to create scoring chances from anywhere.
2. Mitch Marner
Marner, the slightly undersized 4th overall pick from 2015, has absolutely torn up the OHL with the London Knights, recording 302 points in 145 regular season and playoff games over the last two seasons, including 44 points in 18 playoff games last season en route to the Knights winning the Memorial Cup. It’s pretty clear that he’s a step above the OHL, but is too young and not eligible to play in the AHL with the Marlies, a place where he’s probably best suited to go for at least part of next year. This camp, along with the regular pre-season camp in September, are crucial for Marner, as his play will decide whether he’s ready for immediate NHL action, or if another year dominating the OHL is better for his development. The jury is out on whether or not throwing a small, green player to the NHL wolves in what’s going to be a rebuilding year for the already youthful Maple Leafs is the best option, and honestly, it’s a shame that he’s not eligible for AHL play. In an ideal world with no restrictions and no contracts, I’d be giving Marner an NHL audition for a few games, and potentially be sending him to the Marlies if it was apparent that he wasn’t quite ready for The Show. However, that’s not possible, and it’ll be interesting to follow Marner throughout the development and training camp journey. Keep an eye on his ability to play with Matthews, his elite speed and puck vision, and his innate ability to score from anywhere.
3. Dmytro Timashov
Timashov was Toronto’s 5th round pick at 125th overall during the 2015 draft, and is looking like quite the steal at that spot. He’s been ripping up the QMJHL over the past two years with the Quebec Remparts and Shawinigan Cataractes, winning Rookie of the Year in his first season in the “Q” and has been a force for the Swedish Junior team as well. He was a point per game player in last years World Juniors and has been averaging well over a point per game in the Quebec league. The Leafs are big on this guy and it’s easy to see why with his quick, fluid skating, his on ice vision and hockey IQ, and his ability to score, dangle through opponents, and find open teammates. There’s hope that in a couple of years the Leafs may have found themselves a Mats Zuccarello type player, but in the meantime we’ll see if he can develop chemistry with Matthews and/or Marner and force himself onto the Leafs roster. My bet is him having a strong camp, but spending the majority of the season with the Marlies, continuing his development.
4. Travis Dermott
The 34th overall pick in 2015 made his pro debut last year with the Marlies, playing 1 game in their playoff run. The d-man also made the OHL 2nd All-Star Team and was a dominant force for the Erie Otters during their playoff run, showing leadership intangibles along the way while wearing an “A” for a very good Otters squad. He’s a smart, mobile, two-way defenceman with great hockey IQ and an ability to capitalize on offensive chances while not sacrificing the defensive side of his game. Great in every zone, he’s a little undersized and his physicality matches that, and how effective he is against NHL talent remains to be seen, but he’s a highly intelligent player that has shown great decision making, which could make up for his lack of size. Dermott is probably the best defenceman in this development camp, edging out Andrew Nielsen, and Leafs brass is hoping that he’s a key part of their future.
5. Jeremy Bracco
Bracco was a bit of an interesting case last season, originally committing to Boston College, playing in 5 games for them, before crossing the border and deciding to go the OHL route with the Kitchener Rangers. Nonetheless, the 61st overall pick in 2015 had a stellar year with the Rangers, recording 64 points in 49 regular season games, to go along with 14 points in 9 playoff games. The 5″9 forward is obviously undersized, but makes up for it with his hockey IQ, work ethic, on ice vision, overall skating ability and his offensive skills. In fact, Bracco does a most on ice things very well, with the main knocks against him being size related and a less than stellar backchecking resume. Bracco has time to develop, and I’m confident that being in the current Leafs system will change his ways regarding defensive play and backchecking. I expect Bracco to be back with Kitchener next year, with a late season or playoff callup to the Marlies depending on when the Kitchener season ends. Bracco’s another player that I’m interested in observing with Matthews and/or Marner.
6. Nikita Korostelev
In my eyes, Korostelev is one of the most intriguing prospects in hockey right now, a player drafted in the 7th round, 185th overall, yet plays an immensely skilled, puck-possession driven game. The Sarnia Sting forward has been producing steady numbers for three straight seasons now, and is expected to fully break through this year. He’s incredibly gifted with the puck, with the ability to not only dangle through defenders and unleash his bullet of a shot, but also deftly set up teammates with a tape-to-tape pass. He’s relentless on offense, and I believe he hasn’t yet scratched the surface of his true offensive abilities. If and when he does, whether it’s with Matthews, Marner, William Nylander or whoever, Korostelev projects to be a key secondary offensive option with the Leafs in the near future, with the potential to move into a primary offensive role. What’s most intriguing about Korostelev is the fact that although he was born in Russia, he’s been in Canada for many years, even prior to going the OHL route. He’s played on bantam and midget teams in Toronto and nearby Vaughan, and his style of play represents his playing in Canada during his prime developmental years. The Russian stereotype of the crafty, offensive force is forefront, but Korostelev does not shy away from physical hockey in the slightest, showing a will to throw his weight around in a prototypical “Canadian style” fashion. I have high hopes for this kid.
7. Andrew Nielsen
My second ranked defenseman in this camp after Travis Dermott, Nielsen is a bit of a different player than Dermott, to say the least. The knock against Dermott is his size. The 6″3 207 pound Nielsen doesn’t have that problem. Nielsen is in many ways an old-school defenseman, going against the trend of small, speedy defensemen that focus on offense and use their speed to rush back when the puck is back in their zone. The 2015 3rd rounder shows immense physical maturity and is an overbearing defensive presence that causes turnovers and shuts down the opposition with his size and defensive steadiness. However, Nielsen isn’t just a pure defender that can’t chip in on offence, he produced at nearly a point per game, recording 70 points in 71 games for the Lethbridge Hurricanes, being named to the WHL (East) First All-Star Team along the way. He also made his pro debut with the Marlies, playing in 5 games down the stretch. Although not quite NHL ready, I expect Nielsen to push for a roster spot in the near future, after a little more seasoning in the minors. This camp, watch how he dominates the game physically, I’ll be interested in seeing how he does against some of the bigger offensive names in camp.
8. Carl Grundstrom
The 57th pick in the latest draft, Grundstrom may very well be looked at as a huge steal a few years down the line. Personally, I thought he’d go in the early 2nd round, and I was thrilled when the Leafs ended up nabbing him. The MODO trained winger has been a staple on the Swedish international junior scene for years, lauded for his work ethic and locker room persona. A very popular player wherever he goes, the leadership intagibles here are huge. He’s not an elite player by any means, he does nothing spectacularly, but has no glaring holes in his game either. His work ethic is infectious, he’s a staple on the penalty kill, can contribute offensively, is strong on his skates and great near the boards. Players like Grundstrom are useful on any team, if only for his sheer intensity and leadership skills. He’s expected to play for Frolunda in the SHL next year, but should be a key piece for the Leafs down the road. Watch for his in-game “coaching” ability, his interactions with players both on the ice and on the bench, and his sheer hustle factor.
9. J.J. Piccinich
Now one of the older guys in camp, Piccinich has been around a little longer, drafted in the 4th round in 2014. He moved from the NCAA, where things weren’t exactly working out with Boston University, to the eventual Memorial Cup Champ London Knights, playing on the same team as Marner, and produced at a point per game rate last season. A natural playmaking forward with great vision and offensive creativity, consistency is his biggest knock. Time in the AHL will hopefully help iron out his deficiencies, and Piccinich is another player that could potentially help Toronto with secondary offensive contributions. He should get ice time with the elite prospects, both in this camp and in September, and it’ll be interesting to see how he gels with Toronto’s natural scorers.
10. Kasimir Kaskisuo
The man with the most interesting name on this list is also one of the more intriguing players in camp. Signed out of the University of Minnesota-Duluth late last season, the Finnish netminder will be sharing crease time with recent draft pick Joseph Woll and camp invites Anthony Brodeur, David Ovsjannikov and Chris Nell. Kaskisuo made his pro debut last year, getting into two games with the Marlies, and as of right now slots in as the third minor league goalie option after Antoine Bibeau and Garret Sparks. The 22 year old netminder might end up usurping both Bibeau and Sparks down the stretch, and has the potential to be a number 1 goalie in the NHL, at best case scenario. He’s calm in the net and strong mentally, highly athletic and has great overall technique in net. His main knock is his rebound control, which has improved over the last couple of seasons. Kaskisuo is a bit of a wild card, that’s for sure, but could end up being one of the better prospects in camp when it comes down to it.
The full development camp roster can be found below.