*This is the first in a series of reports on select Toronto Maple Leafs prospects.
November 3, 2016
Kitchener 3 – Sarnia 5
On November 2nd I had the opportunity to view two of the Maple Leafs’ most highly touted prospects in one go, as the Kitchener Rangers rolled into Sarnia to face the hometown Sting. Jeremy Bracco and Nikita Korostelev were the main attractions, both Leafs draft picks that have been tearing up the OHL this year, leaving both fans and team personnel figuratively drooling in anticipation of the future.
Here is what I took away after studying their play over the years and finally getting a chance to witness the both of them in action together.
As most Leafs fans know, Kitchener is the Junior home of Jeremy Bracco, the skilled, scoring winger Toronto drafted in the 2nd round, 61st overall in 2015. The American left Boston College after just five games last season and had an excellent first season in the OHL, recording 64 points in 49 games, and tallying another 14 points in 9 playoff games.
Heading into this season, much was expected out of Bracco. No one really expected him to make the Leafs out of training camp, and he was an early cut and was sent back to Kitchener. He stormed out of the gate, winning both the OHL and CHL Player of the Week honours early on in the season. Currently, he sits second in team scoring for Kitchener, behind only Adam Mascherin, with 9 goals and 18 assists (27 points) in 14 games.
This particular game wasn’t fantastic for Bracco. His speed and hustle in the offensive end was immediately apparent, and his sheer offensive ability was notable. As expected, speed and offence were the aspects he was strongest in, although I did notice some slight defensive improvements from last year.
He blocked a Korostelev slapshot early in the second period, after a relatively nondescript first frame, and although this was the highlight for him defensively, it’s still an improvement from the past. The Kitchener coaches do not seem to trust him fully in the defensive end, seeing limited defensive zone draws. That’s not to say that the coaches decision was not justified.
Bracco still floats at times defensively, and consistently looks lackadaisical on the backcheck. He circles the neutral zone looking for the breakout pass and waits for opportunities to come to him, something that will absolutely not work at the NHL and will be beaten out of him by Mike Babcock and the rest of Toronto’s coaching staff, assuming he makes it to that level.
There were four notable bad moments for Bracco in the second and third periods, starting with a bad shift on the powerplay.
Bracco plays the point on the powerplay, understandable as he likes to play “point guard” on the PP and completely control the play. However, on this particular second period powerplay, the decision to put Bracco on defense almost cost Kitchener. Sarnia got the puck and broke through the defense for a shorthanded 2-on-1 and Bracco completely abandoned his man on the rush, resulting in a fantastic scoring opportunity for the Sting.
The second notable bad play was another odd man rush he allowed on the powerplay, and once again he looked lackadaisical and uninterested in coming back to help out defensively.
The third black spot was not a defensive miscue, but a moment where he completely failed to control his emotions and looked immature and childish in the process. Now, Bracco is still a teenager and it’s expected that he’s going to show moments of immaturity, but this moment still stuck out to me. Bracco threw the puck towards the Sarnia net, with heavy traffic in front, and it looked like there was a great scoring opportunity in the making for Kitchener, but the referee lost sight of the puck and blew the play dead. Bracco threw his arms in the air in exasperation and noticeably whined and pouted to the ref like a petulant child. Again, it’s normal to get frustrated with calls that are not going your way, and normal to mouth off a bit, but this particular moment looked incredibly childish and very much not the Mike Babcock way of doing things. Like every other player in junior hockey, Bracco has some growing up to do.
The fourth, and worst, Bracco miscue was once again a defensive one. Late in the game, with the score 3-2 in favour of Sarnia, he once again looked lackadaisical on the backcheck, barely skating back and not covering his man. The Sting took advantage this time, with Jordan Kyrou scoring Sarnia’s fourth goal of the game, effectively putting an end to a real shot at a Kitchener comeback.
Now, we got the bad stuff out of the way, it’s time to take a look at the good things Jeremy Bracco did in this game.
He was undoubtedly the fastest player in this game, he completely paces the opposition when he gets going and his explosiveness is off the charts. The problem is, he only seems to turn the jets on when he spots a prime scoring opportunity. Great for his scoring numbers, but it would be nice to see him put the same effort in his backchecking.
As stated before, he’s the “point guard” on the powerplay, and has outstanding passing and playmaking skills, showcasing elite cross-ice vision and tape-to-tape passing.
While not overly physical, understandable as he is a small, skilled player, he shies away from corners but is not afraid to crash the net hard.
His speed and chemistry with Mascherin was apparent, resulting in a number of scoring opportunities, especially in the third period when Kitchener was trailing late. He showed good patience with the puck, going cross-crease to Mascherin late, but the latter could not convert the chance.
Bracco did notch an assist in the game, early in the third period, when he patiently held the puck behind the net before spotting Joseph Garreffa on D. He sent the puck back to the blueline with a laser tape-to-tape pass, which Garreffa took full advantage of, tying the game for the first and only time.
Overall, I was a little disappointed in Bracco’s game. His defensive deficiencies are impossible to ignore, and he needs to up the compete level if he wants to crack a Babcock lineup. His offensive skills are off the charts, and he has shown the ability to dominate a game offensively at the OHL level, but we already knew he had that power. Now it’s time for Bracco to tighten up defensively, show more effort on the backcheck, not constantly cherry pick and wait for opportunities in the neutral zone and create more offensive chances himself.
The sheer skill is undeniable, but it’s very clear to me that sending Jeremy Bracco back down to the OHL this year was the right call.
Sarnia Sting right winger Nikita Korostelev is an interesting case. The Moscow, Russia native moved to the Toronto area as a teenager and played midget and minor midget hockey in Toronto and nearby Vaughan before entering the OHL with the Sting. He’s developed a scoring touch in recent seasons, but was previously more known for his all-round play and surprising physicality. His move to Canada at a young age is apparent in his style of play, as he plays a more physical brand of hockey than the majority of Russian forwards. His tenacity, toughness, scoring ability and overall all-round play has made him one of the more intriguing prospects the Leafs have, despite being picked late in the 2015 draft, in the 7th round, 185th overall to be exact.
Korostelev put up 53 points in 55 games in his draft year, fell a little last season with his point totals and was on the verge of losing his late-round draft steal status, but has flown out of the gate this season. In fact, he’s currently tied with Jordan Kyrou for the Sarnia scoring lead with 24 points in 16 games.
Nikita Korostelev outshone Jeremy Bracco in this particular game. While Bracco was sporadic at best on defense, Korostelev was a factor in every zone and was a massive part of Sarnia’s win.
Upon first live glance, it became obvious that at this point Korostelev is a more complete player than Bracco. Yes, he’s less speedy than the Rangers player, and Bracco’s off the charts offensive instincts trumps Korostelev’s, but the Russian born winger dominated aspects of the game that Bracco didn’t even get near, while maintaining a heavy offensive presence and often times leading Sarnia’s scoring rushes.
Right off the bat he had a good shot attempt early in the first period, nearly beating goaltender Dawson Carty on the high glove side. That was just the beginning of the offensive onslaught Korostelev had planned for the night.
He continuously looked for offensive breaks in the neutral zone and cycled the puck well in the offensive zone, eventually leading to a Sarnia goal from Brady Hinz. Korostelev retrieved the puck and held on to it through Kitchener’s defense and started the offensive cycle. The end result was Hinz’s goal, giving Sarnia the 1-0 lead late in the first period.
Coach Derian Hatcher clearly likes to use Korostelev as a guy to run the offence around, the first time in Korostelev’s four years with the team that he’s been thrust into this role. Sarnia saw prized forwards Travis Konecny and Pavel Zacha graduate to the NHL this year, and Hatcher has since leaned heavily on Korostelev, along with Jordan Kyrou, to be the go to guys offensively.
Korostelev possesses a heavy, NHL ready wrist shot that he will unleash from anywhere in the opposing teams end, but is particular lethal in the high slot. In fact, he used that deadly wrist shot to score what was at the time the go ahead 3-2 goal after taking a pass from Franco Sproviero while entering the offensive zone.
He’s a constant threat with the puck, regardless of what zone he starts in, and it’s a near guarantee that there will be a scoring threat when he gets his stick on the puck. His puck vision is elite, and although he has 14 goals compared to 10 assists, he still has a knack for playmaking, favouring the cross-ice/crease centring pass. Late in the third period he impressed with a quick shot on goal from the left side of the slot before grabbing his own rebound and showcasing a nifty drop pass that Sarnia wasn’t able to convert.
Pure offensive ability aside, what really impressed me with Korostelev’s play compared to Bracco’s was the physical and defensive sides of his game.
Korostelev is still prone to floating at times on defense, understandable for a teenager who’s main role is to score goals, but he seemed to snap out of it and help out on defense a lot quicker and a lot more frequently than Bracco. He’s improved steadily in the defensive end, and his hustle and backchecking skills put him on the ice in nearly every game scenario, which we cannot say about Bracco.
Korostelev’s physicality was mentioned before, and was noted in previous prospect reports from seasons gone by. This game was no different, as he threw his body around with skill and finesse, not looking for the massive, game-breaking, open ice Scott Stevens hit, but was physical through other means. He crashed the net effectively, didn’t shy away from chippy board play, and effectively used his body to tie up opposition both offensively and defensively.
My final thought about Korostelev was “I can see this guy buying into the Babcock system rather quickly”, completely contrasting my final thoughts on Bracco.
I would give Jeremy Bracco a B- for this game, while giving Nikita Korostelev an A.
Both players are exceptionally talented, especially compared to the majority of their OHL peers, and both players are heavily relied on by their respective teams in the offensive zone.
The main difference between the two players is that Bracco at this point is a purely offensive player that contributes little else to the game. That’s something that needs to change if he wants to make a Mike Babcock team, or even survive at the NHL level at all. There’s countless examples of elite level offensive talents that couldn’t survive long term on the game’s biggest stage because they couldn’t adapt and develop the other aspects of the game. Jeremy Bracco has significant improvement to do if he wants to avoid being put in the same category as the likes of Robbie Schremp.
At this point, Nikita Korostelev is the more complete prospect. His skill in all zones, his acquired defensive acumen, all-round hockey sense and physicality gave him the advantage in this game. While it remains to be seen if he can take these abilities to the next level in the NHL, the early look points to him being a top notch late round steal for the Maple Leafs.
Regardless of who won this game and who outperformed who, Toronto fans and management have a lot to look forward to when it comes to watching the continuing development of Jeremy Bracco and Nikita Korostelev.