Let’s face it, this season had a few ups and downs for the Toronto Maple Leafs. They started the year blowing out teams, but showed signs of scoring troubles when adversity hit. Notwithstanding their small mid-season slump, the Leafs easily qualified for the playoffs. This is more impressive when you consider that Auston Matthews was out of action for 20 games.
Mitch Marner, who was playing on the 4th line early in the season, quickly returned to form by the playoffs. He started out in Mike Babcock’s doghouse and finished the year as his go to guy. Meanwhile, William Nylander seemed to have had the opposite kind of season, starting strong and ultimately winding up on the 4th line by the end of the playoffs. Many believe Nylander will be used as potential trade bait for a top right-handed defenceman, but it seems unlikely. It’s clear that the Leafs’ big three certainly learned from this past season, and they seem primed to make some more noise next year.
It would not be extremely difficult to assume that the Leafs will be at the top of the standings next season. They have the top-end talent to drive the opposition crazy and the scary part is there is more to come. The Maple Leafs have some of the deepest prospect pools in the NHL, and some would even say it’s underrated. Although many of their recent draft picks are already playing on the big club, the Leafs’ prospects are itching for a chance to make the big club.
The proof is found in the success of their AHL affiliate Toronto Marlies. The Marlies have been a top team in the AHL for over three years now and it is due to the insane influx of talent. The majority of these players are young prospects that required the extra year or two of development. Fresh off another sweep in this year’s AHL playoffs, let us look at the potential prospects that could have an impact as soon as next season for the Toronto Maple Leafs:
Andreas Johnsson: Toronto’s JVR Replacement
One of the pleasant surprises this year was the emergence of the Leafs’ second wave of NHL prospects. Andreas Johnsson, drafted by Toronto in the 7th round of the 2013 NHL Draft, jolted up the ranks this year. His impressive play for the Marlies, 54 points in 54 games, earned him a call-up late in the season. Although he had to fight for playing time after the acquisition of Tomas Plekanec, Johnsson could not be ignored. He suited up for all 6 Leafs playoff games and put up a respectable 2 goals and three points in 6 games.
After the Leafs were eliminated by the Boston Bruins, Johnsson was returned to the Marlies for their Calder Cup Playoffs. So far, he’s been instrumental in their playoff run with 15 points in 9 games. He has been a force for the Marlies in the playoffs and is being played in all situations. Leafs management has to be convinced that the young winger is ready to take the next step very soon. Leafs fans can expect Johnsson to make the Leafs out of camp as early as next year. With the potential departure of James Van Reimsdyke, there’s a spot on the 3rd line with Johnsson’s name on it.
Travis Dermott: Top-4 D in The Making
Another great surprise this year was the continued progression of defenseman Travis Dermott. After a strong junior career with the powerhouse Erie Otters team, Dermott wanted to prove himself to Leafs fans. He wasted little time doing so, as he put up 18 points in 28 games for the Marlies. His speed and excellent skating stride allowed him to blow by the opposition rather easily. He was a strong shot from the point and has excellent vision when used on the power play. Kyle Dubas was said to be enamored with Dermott and pushed the rest of management to call him up.
When he was called up to Toronto, many didn’t know what to expect from Dermott as a 21-year old rookie. Needless to say, by February, everyone knew that they were watching the rise of a defensive beast. He fit right into Mike Babcock’s system with his fluid skating and excellent puck handling. At first glance, many would say Dermott was sheltered while playing behind Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly.
Indeed, the left-side of the Leafs’ defensive corps is an organizational strength and thus allowed Dermott to be eased in. However, he went from sheltered passenger to noticeable contributor quite quickly. He was even outplaying Jake Gardiner on most nights and saw his minutes rise accordingly. Unless Gardiner is traded this summer, Dermott should slot into the same spot on the third pairing in September. Expect Dermott to make some serious strides this year en route to becoming a solid top-4 D for the Leafs.
Grundstrom’s Successful North American Debut
Although he didn’t suit up for the Maple Leafs this season, Carl Grundstrom certainly got their attention this spring. The Leafs’ 2nd round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft has been nothing short of exceptional since being selected by Toronto. He lit it up in the SHL for Frolunda this year, posting 17 goals and 24 points in 35 games. That’s quite an offensive output for a 20-year old in the lower scoring Swedish Hockey League. When his season with Frolunda came to an end, the Leafs reassigned the young winger to the Marlies for their playoff run.
Grundstrom arrived to play the last two games of the Marlies’ regular season and put up 3 points. He followed that up with a solid playoff performance with the Marlies, scoring many clutch goals. His 6 goals and 10 points in 13 games are impressive for a team of impressive young players. He’s one of those players that can score a clutch goal and doesn’t look too far from an NHL player. If he can continue on his momentum, then Leafs fans will be in for a treat. At this point, Grundstrom continues to be one of the most dangerous offensive weapons for the Marlies. Expect him to challenge Johnsson for one of the few available forward positions on the Leafs this fall.
Miro Aaltonen’s Gamble to Pay Off
The third member of the Toronto Marlies helluva top line is 24-year old Miro Aaltonen. Signed last summer as a free-agent by the Leafs, Aaltonen played the entire year in the AHL. In 64 games this year, Aaltonen put up 20 goals and 43 points in 64 games. He would have most likely played on an NHL roster with less center depth, but wanted to prove himself to Leafs management. The adjustment to the North-American game took a little while for the young Finnish center. He started off a little slow but really began to pick up his scoring pace by the end of the regular season.
He followed up a stellar season for the Marlies with a strong performance in the playoffs on their first line. His 10 points in 13 games have shown that he continues to progress on the Marlies roster. He has even caught the eye of Leafs Head Coach Mike Babcock during the last few games he has attended. Aaltonen could realistically come into next season challenging for the third line roster spot. His continued progression and offensive prowess make him ideal depth for a stacked Maple Leafs roster. Look for him to create some headaches for Leafs management come September.
A Bright Future for Young Maple Leafs
Although Timothy Liljegren or Jeremy Bracco could also have made this list, many believe they are not yet ready to make the jump. However, Leafs fans have nothing to worry about, as they are simply very young at 19 and 21 respectively. Needless to say, both the Leafs and the Marlies look poised to do some serious damage next year with such a strong influx of youth, speed, and talent. If the Marlies do indeed win the Calder Cup, you can certainly expect some of the aforementioned players to graduate to the NHL. Expect the Leafs to continue to turnover some talented young players for many years to come, as they continue one of the biggest youth movements in recent NHL history. Until then, Go Marlies Go!