After the Toronto Maple Leafs development camp, the team’s prospects quickly turned things around to take part in the rookie tournament that was being held in Traverse City, Michigan.
It was the perfect opportunity for players to get back into the swing of things and to even prove their worth. While many of the players may start off with the Toronto Marlies in the American Hockey League, it’s the beginning for them to have a long career at the pro level.
There were a number of old and new faces that continued to shine throughout the tournament. As the point totals suggest, there were a lot of players that made quite the impression. With the tournament over, here is a quick recap of the standouts from the rookie tournament for the Maple Leafs.
All eyes were on Nick Robertson during the development camp and he made sure to get all the attention, as he was extremely impressive with his play.
Throughout the tournament, Robertson showed no signs of slowing down. In the first game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, he intercepted the puck in the neutral zone and then makes a nice pass to Alex Steeves in the slot to make it 1-0. He made a similar read earlier in the team’s development camp. He knows exactly when to attack and create an odd-man rush.
Robertson’s shot was also on display as he scored two goals (one being an empty net goal) in their game against the Dallas Stars. Early in the game, Semyon Der- Arguchintsev was down low in the Stars’ zone while four players were solely focused on him. Robertson was able to find the open space in the slot to receive a pass and was able to rifle one to give the Maple Leafs an early 1-0 lead.
Robertson’s speed was a major factor on the forecheck to force turnovers and take advantage of mistakes. He always wants to be a difference maker and is always involved in the play. We all saw that energy and drive that he always plays with and it’s something that will always be a big part of his game. He showed amazing puck skills and awareness even in difficult situations.
There were times where he did try to do a little too much. In one instance, he created a turnover leading to a goal in their game against the Stars, but most of the time, he had great control and always came out on top. He also showed his aggressive side, where he wasn’t going to be pushed around.
Not known for his offense, Matt Hellickson has great vision to spot his teammates to create plays and is a very strong skater. His smarts and composure with the puck were on full display, as he looked comfortable with Joseph Duszak as his defensive partner. A former seventh round draft pick of the New Jersey Devils in 2017, the Marlies signed Hellickson to an AHL contract.
Hellickson scored only one goal last season at the University of Notre Dame and played in nine games for Team USA at the World Hockey Championships. Head coach for the tournament and the Marlies, Greg Moore was really impressed with his play after their 4-3 loss to the Blue Jackets, stepping in with very little practice time and playing the way he did. Moore stated that, “He’s a defenceman we’re really excited about.” (from ‘Leafs prospect Matt Hellickson makes good first impression after dance with the Devils’, The Toronto Star– 9/16/21).
Hellickson isn’t known for his production, but he looked like a player on a mission, as his offensive presence was a standout. He scored three goals in three games, all of which were perfectly executed shots that found it’s way to the back of the net.
While he’s most likely destined for the AHL, Hellickson does provide a lot of upside that has already caught the attention of many within the organization.
Heading into the tournament, Jeremy McKenna was one name that I was keeping a close watch on. After scoring 85 goals and 179 points in his final two seasons with the Moncton Wildcats of the Quebec Major Junior League, he would eventually sign a two-year AHL contract with the Marlies. McKenna had a strong showing in 2020-21, recording 13 points in 28 games.
What caught my attention with McKenna’s game is that his motor is always running. He doesn’t take a shift off and is always making life difficult for the opposition. That intensity was noticeable during the tournament. He scored three goals in four games, all of which were a result of following up on the play and crashing the net. They say good things will happen when you go to the net and McKenna was always there at the right time.
McKenna looked to have had some great chemistry with Pavel Gogolev and Mikhail Abramov, as this line had a really great balance when in the attacking zone. He was the one to always get into the tough areas to gain possession and start up an attack. He made a dangerous hit in the final game, where he needs to know when to back off and ease up in a dangerous situation.
The Maple Leafs fourth-round pick in 2019, Mikhail Abramov was above a point per game during the shortened season in the QMJHL with 30 points in 25 games. It seems that he’s proven to move onto the next chapter of his development and play at the pro level.
Abramov’s playmaking abilities stood out during the rookie tournament. He was creative with his passing and his vision was extremely noticeable to locate his teammates. He was the hero in the Maple Leafs’ second game against the St. Louis Blues, scoring the game-winning goal at a nearly impossible angle.
Signing a one-year, two-way contract earlier in August, Joseph Duszak was probably one of the most consistent players throughout this tournament alongside Robertson. He had excellent chemistry with Hellickson and they were always noticeable when they were on the ice.
He was a go-to player for the Maple Leafs in any situation. He was constantly engaged in every play in the offensive zone and was a great setup man with his passing. He showed excellent poise and confidence with the puck and displayed excellent smarts with his decision-making. You can get a sense that he was one of the leaders on this team and it showed especially when he scored the tying goal in the final game against the Blue Jackets.
He’s looked very impressive with the Marlies, as he’s tallied 30 points in 50 games to date. He’ll look to get top minutes with the team this year, but has shown that he does have the smarts to possibly earn a call-up to see what he can do in the NHL.
Honourable Mentions and Notes
- Alex Steeves was another player that stood out during development camp and looked great early on in the rookie tournament. He scored the first goal for the Maple Leafs after a nice feed from Robertson. However, he would miss the rest of the tournament due to a shoulder injury. Steeves is a name that could fly under the radar in the Maple Leafs system.
- Der-Arguchintsev is known as a playmaker, but what was really noticeable was his shot, as his goal scoring and offensive awareness were on full display. He got better as the tournament progressed as he’s starting to become a shooting threat. You noticed his improved strength, as he was able to hold his own and engage in puck battles.
- Curtis Douglas was really fun to watch. At 6-foot-8, 249 pounds, he’s definitely not a player you want to battle against. He has a great work ethic and plays an aggressive game while having some offensive upside scoring a goal and adding three assists. He fills out the Marlies roster for the upcoming season and could be a player that may fly under the radar.
- When given the opportunity Braeden Kressler made a major impact, getting in the opponent’s faces. He even scored in their final game against the Blue Jackets. If there was any player looking for an entry-level contract, he is definitely at the top of the list.
Who impressed you the most at the rookie tournament? Have your say in the comment section below.
Peter is in his third year with The Hockey Writers, covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and heading the Draft and Prospects section. He has previously interned at The Hockey News and worked on Toronto Marlies broadcasts for Rogers TV. He currently is the co-host of the podcast Sticks in the 6ix and a frequent guest on Maple Leafs Lounge. Aside from hockey, he also enjoys drumming, animation and impressions/ voices.