We’ve spent a lot of time over the past month talking about players who will come in and fix the Leafs. Either via trade, the draft, or free agency, I’m sure we’ve left many of you hoping we’d talk about anything but those topics on the site. Well consider this your palate cleanser. A brief amuse-bouche before we go back in to the land of speculation and possibility that precedes every draft, trade deadline, free agency period and always leaves us wanting.
No today we focus on much more of a universal truth, and that is that the players who are on the Leafs today need to play better if they are going to have success, and Alex Pietrangelo (mentioned here for SEO purposes) isn’t a silver bullet who fixes the Leafs. Here are our picks for in house helpers for the Leafs next season…
I was originally going to choose Andreas Johnsson to bounce back after an injury-plagued season, but it’s not guaranteed he’s coming back next year. And then I was going to choose Travis Dermott after a year of stagnation, but even he’s not guaranteed to come back either, especially if Dubas lands the prized fish in this year’s free agency class. So I guess I’ll say Rasmus Sandin? He seems like a quasi-safe bet to be on the Leafs come whenever the 2020-21 season begins.
As is to be expected from a 19-year-old playing his first half-season in the NHL, Sandin was very hot and cold in his rookie year. He possesses the skills and the smarts to be a high-impact NHL defenceman one day, and he will only benefit from more experience as his career progresses. Sandin at times struggled with the physicality of NHL hockey this season, so he would benefit from further physical development as he enters his early twenties. One thing to watch is what happens with Travis Dermott this offseason. With Rielly and Muzzin locking down the top two spots on the left side, Sandin would be left battling with Dermott for playing time on the third pairing if nothing else changes on the roster. Sandin might even find himself down on the Marlies in this scenario, with the tie going to the waiver-ineligible Dermott and Sandin being better served getting top-pairing minutes on the Marlies than eating SBA press box popcorn. BUT if my suspicions are correct and big changes are afoot, I’m expecting Sandin to continue showing excellent zone entry defence and chipping in a few points here and there with his made-for-tips wrist shot.
From the broader organization, I’m expecting Yegor Korshkov to take a step forward. At 24 years old, he’s entering “he is what he is” territory, and what he is right now is a borderline NHL player with good size and finishing talent who does not drive his own offence. I expect him to put up near a point-per-game pace in the KHL during his loan to Yaroslavl Lokomotiv this fall, and for him to be a difference-maker on the Marlies top line should he come back from overseas once the AHL returns. I want his play to dictate that he should be our first call-up once injuries inevitably occur, and when he gets here I want him to use his frame to his advantage while establishing a net-front presence the Leafs sorely lack.
I am going to take the easy route and pick Nick Robertson as my candidate to take a step forward. Because really, he seems to be on track to make an immediate impact in the lineup and we saw flashes of it during the play-in round. This is a guy who worked his butt off just to be in the lineup and made the most of the opportunity (even if the stat sheet doesn’t show it). While Robertson may have only scored one goal, his shot looked confident and he looked solid in the offensive zone. His defensive game still needs work and he learned quickly that the physicality in the NHL is no where near where it is in the OHL. Now that he has the four playoff games under his belt, I think we will be seeing an improved Robertson who could easily slot into the top six by the end of the season.
In terms of prospects, I have a feeling Mac Hollowell is going to be better in 2020-21. His pro season saw him split time between the Marlies and Growlers, and he looked decent in both leagues as a result. He put up 12 points in 34 AHL games and 13 points in 19 ECHL games. I believe this season will see Hollowell spend the entire year with the Marlies and make strides in his development as a two-way threat. I’m high on him and hope to see him succeed, so hopefully he is able to continue his growth as a reliable defender this coming season.
Brendan Mori (@bmori98)
Alexander Kerfoot – Had a rough first season with the Leafs, due in large part to injuries, expectations and a slow transition. I thought Kerfoot looked better as the year progressed and by the time the Play-Ins rolled around, looked more comfortable playing center.
If he’s here next season, I think Kerfoot is primed for a breakout season (or at least a return to his Colorado form). I would expect Kerfoot to have Robertson on his LW and potentially Barabanov on his RW. Both are unknowns but Robertson is a natural goal-scorer and we saw a glimpse of the chemistry he has with Kerfoot in the Play-In round.
Timothy Liljegren – It’s a shame so many people have soured on him just because his development is going slower than other prospects in the system. Player development in hockey is not linear. It’s also easy to forget that Liljegren basically lost an entire season (his draft year) due to mono, and had to spend the following season building himself back up to where he was prior to the illness.
I got to watch a lot of Liljegren last season while working at Marlies games. He was routinely the Marlies best or second best player, night in and night out. He has started to develop consistency to his defensive game and because of that, he’s now been unleashed offensively again.
I don’t expect Liljegren to make the Leafs next season, but I do think this upcoming season in the AHL (or wherever he plays) is super important for him. It’s time for him to dominate both ends of the rink.
I think the safest (and probably the most accurate) answer here is Travis Dermott but I’m going to go off the board with Denis Malgin. The Leafs are going to need cheap forwards to fill out their bottom six and Malgin could provide that. This pick heavily depends on the contract Malgin receives this offseason as an RFA. If it’s under ~900K per year, I think he has a good chance of cracking the Leafs lineup. He’s clearly an NHL player to my eye and has the dynamic skill set that should help Toronto’s bottom-six on both ends of the ice. He can also be plugged into the top six with good players as he was this past year. His resume includes 192 NHL games plus some time spent playing center. If Malgin can impress and solidify himself as a strong everyday bottom-six contributor, I would consider that a step forward for the 23-year-old.
My pick for the Marlies breakout player is easily Joey Duszak. He’s a crafty offensive defenceman who really helps the Marlies on the powerplay and in transition. While many of them came on the powerplay, Duszak had 18 points in 23 games last year and should add to those totals this year. He needs to improve defensively, specifically when defending in one on one situations as well as in front of the net. I expect Duszak to take a step forward this season and emerge as one of the Marlies’ best defencemen (behind Liljegren). It’ll be tough for him to crack the crowded Leafs defense in the upcoming years but at 23 years old, it’s a bit too early to count him out given his skillset and resume.
I’m going to go with Ilya Mikheyev for breakout player on the roster, he’s going to get a lot of opportunity especially if he can ink a multi-year deal. Kapanen is gone, Johnsson is uncertain, and what’s left on the left wing is Hyman, Mikheyev, Robertson, and Engvall. He’s going to get stretches in the top 6 and potentially on the top line, if he can stay healthy he can be a 40-50 point guy easily. Mikheyev’s speed and size make it tough to focus on the primary threat at center, whether that’s Matthews or Tavares. He should be more comfortable after a full year with the team, plus he will have another Russian in Barabanov to talk to.
I’m going to go off the board with my prospect pick, Ponuts Holmberg of the Vaxjo Lakers. He’s 21 and he had 17 points in 52 SHL games last season, but the departure of two top 6 forwards means he has a chance to claim a top 6 role. If Holmberg can produce over 0.5 p/g in his age 21 season he could prove to be another late round Swedish gem.
Scott Maxwell (@scotmaxw)
If he’s still on the team come next season, I think Alexander Kerfoot is probably the best candidate to take a step forward next season. His first year as a Leaf was plagued with injuries, having to learn two systems on the fly, and even a suspension. Despite all that, his underlying numbers were still pretty impressive, and would probably get more credit for his defensive game if not for having a horrendous on ice save percentage, which isn’t exactly his fault. I think that and getting a fresh start with a team he’s now familiar with will allow him to have a much better season.
I’m going to split my vote on the second one, and say that one of Woll or Scott breaks out for the Marlies this season. With Frederik Andersen likely gone next year, if not this year, there’s a vacancy for a long-term option in the net, and as far as prospects go, these two are our best bets. I could see one of them capitalizing on this opportunity and really impressing this year, with the potential of making the Leafs next season.They could also both flame out next season, who knows. Goaltending is voodoo and pure randomness.
The benefit of being the one who compiles these posts is that I get to read everyone else’s answers before weighing in myself, and in this instance a lot of the best options have been taken. I think Scott particularly got it right with the idea of one of Woll or Scott stepping up next year, and I don’t think the Leafs future in net looks too bad at the moment, regardless of what they do at the draft.
I wanted to say Auston Matthews, but it doesn’t really seem fair to expect much more of what he’s brought the past season and especially in the return to play. So while I think he still has a gear beyond this one, it’s not something I’m going to say here. Instead I’m going to with Jack Campbell. While I’m reluctant to consider Campbell a tandem goaltender and view him more as a backup, I expect he’ll prove me and others wrong to some degree because there doesn’t seem to be a timeline on when goaltenders can grab the starters job.
As for non-roster players I think will step up, I am going to go with a Marlie I haven’t had too high of expectations for and say Adam Brooks. Brooks has a cap hit that will afford him some opportunities with the Leafs either out of camp or as a frequent call up, and I think his hockey smarts in a fourth line role could pay off big for the Leafs. While I worry he might still be too light on skill, I’m excited to see what he can do and if he dares to add some Trevor Moore or Connor Brown edge to his game, he will have a regular NHL job in no time.
So what do you think? Who got it right, who got it wrong? Who should we have mentioned? Tell us in the comments.