Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas confirmed last week what this rapidly unfolding NHL off-season has already made evident: With the Leafs facing a cap crunch and the potential of significant personnel turnover, the team will be relying on prospects to fill gaps on the roster this September.
“There’s also going to be huge opportunity for a whole litany of players that have been with the [American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies] for two, three years,” Dubas said at the NHL’s scouting combine in Buffalo on May 30. “It’ll be one of the more exciting training camps that we have in terms of battles for actual roster spots on the team. And that’ll be great.”
There are short-term roles with the club that will need addressing, as off-season surgeries for Zach Hyman (torn ACL) and Travis Dermott (shoulder) project to keep them out of action until late October and November, respectively.
Then there are the other, longer-term holes Dubas will likely need to plug.
Defenceman Nikita Zaitsev’s public trade request could well be fulfilled by the Leafs before fall, while pending unrestricted free agent Jake Gardiner will almost certainly have signed elsewhere by July 1. Add in Ron Hainsey’s murky future as he mulls coming back for a 17th season and a large swath of the Leafs’ top-five defensive spots from last season could require reworking over the summer.
Veteran forward Patrick Marleau, with a $6.25 million cap hit in the final year of his contract, is rumoured to have been shopped to Los Angeles and Arizona.
And then there’s the Leafs’ restricted free agent class, led by burgeoning superstar winger Mitch Marner. While his RFA counterparts Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson are more frequently mentioned as potential trade pieces, Marner should be a cornerstone of the franchise if Dubas can find the right number to get him signed.
Any would-be NHLers on the Marlies couldn’t ask for a better scenario from which to break through. One year removed from winning the franchise's first Calder Cup championship, the Marlies overcame a terrible first half to clinch a playoff berth in the final week of the regular season.
From there, the team rattled off seven straight wins en route to an Eastern Conference Final appearance that ended with a Game 6 loss to the Charlotte Checkers.
There were bright spots all along the way for the Marlies though. Below are five standout players who could push for NHL roster spots this fall:
Jeremy Bracco, 22, RW
2018-19 season: The disappointment of being a healthy scratch in all but four playoff games in 2017-18 wasn’t easy for Bracco to shoulder, but Marlies’ head coach Sheldon Keefe told Bracco during the team’s Calder celebration that his time to lead the group was coming. Bracco took that encouragement to heart, delivering on his coach’s expectations with a sensational 2018-19 season. Not only did Bracco pace all Marlies with 79 points (22 goals, 57 assists) in 75 regular-season games, those numbers were good for second overall in American Hockey League scoring. The Freeport, N.Y. native added another 16 points in 13 playoff games, the most of any player in the Eastern Conference. Listed at 5-foot-11 and 171 pounds, Bracco bears a physical resemblance to Marlies’ NHL graduates Trevor Moore and Johnsson, both of whom carved out niches in Toronto as valuable pieces of the team’s offence.
Bracco: “It’s been a crazy 12 months. If anyone tells you everything is going right all the time, they’re lying right to your face. So I just stayed on the course. A big thing here is the process. The way things evolve is something the front office and management have talked about, and I like to think I’ve had a plan since being drafted in 2015 [second round, 61st overall], and I like to think things have been going well.”
Coach Sheldon Keefe: “He was never short on confidence, but there was some insecurity there because he hadn't proven himself at this level. Clearly he’s gotten over that. I think he’s more than proven himself throughout this season and throughout this playoff. It’s a sign of his character that he’s taken on some responsibility here given to how important he is to our team.”
Timothy Liljegren, 20, RD
2018-19 season: If it weren’t for the high ankle sprain Liljegren suffered on Dec. 1, his sophomore AHL season might have looked quite different. Liljegren began the year on the Marlies’ top pairing with Calle Rosen, while also contributing to both special teams. There were rumblings the Leafs were planning to recall him to the NHL around mid-winter. The ankle sprain prevented that from happening, and forced Liljegren out of representing Sweden at the World Junior Championships. He returned to the Marlies on Feb. 15 looking even better defensively than before getting hurt, but Liljegren’s offensive output slowed with only one goal in the final 24 regular-season games. In all, Liljegren notched three goals and 15 assists in 43 appearances, plus five assists in 13 playoff games. While it wasn’t quite the season he expected, Liljegren is a prized right-shot defenceman who is only months removed from his 19th birthday. He’s also already experienced the pressure of seven playoff rounds in two seasons.
Liljegren: “After my high ankle sprain, I think I took big steps in my development and I got a lot of ice time from Sheldon. My defensive game has stepped up; that’s the area I’ve improved the most. I stood still in my offensive side, so I need to improve on that. I want to bring the second half of my season into training camp next year.”
Coach Sheldon Keefe: “Liljegren coming back from his injury the way he did and blossoming and being such a responsible and reliable defensive player to go with the offensive attributes he has, that helped us tremendously.”
Rasmus Sandin, 19, RD
2018-19 season: Sandin endured a less than ideal start to his first professional season when his AHL debut was delayed due to a thumb injury. Once he got going though, Sandin was terrific, hardly looking his age (18) as he battled players with twice his experience. Just as he was really rolling, another injury befell Sandin, this time a hyperextended elbow while he was representing Sweden at the World Juniors. Sandin didn’t appear to miss a beat when he returned to the Marlies on Feb. 9, earning more ice time from Keefe as the season went on and becoming an integral part of their push deep into the playoffs. Sandin finished the regular season second among Marlies’ defencemen with six goals and 22 assists in 44 games, and he paced blueliners in playoff points with 10 assists in 13 outings.
Sandin: “I think on the ice, you really have to be prepared for everything, for taking a hit, giving a hit. They play quicker. Off the ice, just taking care of my body – taking care of myself a little better. [I’m] better overall, a little bit more [aware] of what I’m doing, being one step ahead.”
Coach Sheldon Keefe: “Coming in as an 18-year-old first-year player, playing with a great level of poise and dealing with his own injury issues and responding well to that, that just really helped us. All [he and Liljegren] need is an opportunity to show what they can do.”
Pierre Engvall, 23, LW/C
2018-19 season: Engvall started his first full AHL season on the wing, but Keefe always planned a shift to centre eventually. Engvall excelled when the time came, capitalizing on his strength and reach while showing off a strong transition game. Through his rookie campaign, Engvall produced a respectable 19 goals and 13 assists in 70 games and added another goal and six assists in 13 postseason tilts. Engvall’s greatest value is in his size (6-foot-5, 214 pounds), offensive versatility and penalty-killing ability, making him an intriguing candidate for the Leafs’ fourth-line centre slot.
Engvall: “I think I developed a lot in my defensive play because I got to play centre. It helped me a lot to grow in certain areas on the ice. I liked it a lot. I get to use my speed even more. I get the puck down low and get to skate it up and I like that. I think it’s better for me in many areas.”
Coach Sheldon Keefe: “He had an open mind [about playing centre]. He has the skill set. He’s such a great skater; he’s a big strong guy. The extra physical confrontations in the faceoff dot or down low in his own zone were not an issue for him and in fact I think it really helped his game. He felt more engaged in the play because he was constantly having to battle for position.”
Egor Korshkov, 22, RW
2018-19 season: It took nearly three years from the time Toronto drafted Korshkov 31st overall in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft to get him playing in North America, but the Russian quickly immersed himself in a new league and a new culture. Korshkov recorded his first AHL goal in his North American debut with the Marlies on May 3, the only point he would register in nine playoff games.
Coach Sheldon Keefe: “He’s certainly got size [6-foot-4, 180 pounds]. He’s a presence out there, but I also like how he skates and shoots the puck…he seems to have a real good sense around the rink, on the ice and where to go and what’s required.”