It’s the end of March, and right around this time is when the NCAA season winds down and teams sign college free agents, whether they’re undrafted or their own property. The Maple Leafs have done this in the past with players such as Casey Bailey and, more recently, Alex Steeves in 2020-21.
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With the Maple Leafs gearing towards an intense stretch to the playoffs, all eyes have been on a pair of their top NCAA prospects in forwards, Matthew Knies and Nick Abruzzese. Knies’ Minnesota Golden Gophers are still competing, but just the other day, Abruzzese signed a two-year, entry-level contract with the Maple Leafs. Even more recently, he joined the team in Boston and took some reps on the fourth line skating alongside Colin Blackwell and Jason Spezza.
The Maple Leafs haven’t been shy about giving their younger AHL players looks in the bottom-six. The aforementioned Steeves got an opportunity earlier this season, and we’ve seen players like Brett Seney and Joey Anderson get a couple of games here and there too. Heck, even top prospect Nick Robertson spent a couple of games on the fourth line. But really, the 22-year-old Abruzzese couldn’t be joining the team at a better time, and if he impresses early on, the job could be his for the foreseeable future.
Abruzzese Progressed Faster Than Most Maple Leafs Prospects
Let’s go back to the 2019 NHL Draft when the Maple Leafs brought Abruzzese into the organization. An interesting little tidbit of information off the top; the fourth-round pick used to select Abruzzese was acquired from the St. Louis Blues in a trade that sent former KHL signing Nikita Soshnikov back the other way. I wrote about the Maple Leafs’ history of trade deadline deals a little over a week ago, and this trade could become relevant for a future rendition of that piece.
Anyways, back to Abruzzese. I’ll be the first one to admit that when the Maple Leafs drafted him, I wasn’t overly thrilled. Between the fact that he was an overage winger and only 5-foot-9 (the Maple Leafs didn’t draft a single player over six feet tall that year), I worried that he would end up like another Adam Brooks type, something the Maple Leafs didn’t really need. But the New York native was quick to prove me and his other doubters wrong.
He responded with a very impressive freshman season with Harvard University, tallying 44 points in 31 games in 2019-20. All of a sudden, Abruzzese found himself in the Maple Leafs’ top ten prospects. Unfortunately, his development hit a bump in the road when hip surgery forced him to miss the entirety of the 2020-21 season. In hindsight, it was probably the right move, seeing that he was able to get the surgery out of the way, and all he missed out on was one season in the middle of the pandemic.
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Fast forward to this season, and he’s back doing the things that caught people’s attention in 2019-20. His 33 points in 28 games were enough to earn him an entry-level contract. And if that wasn’t enough, he was rewarded with an opportunity to represent Team USA at the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, where he registered four points in four games. All in all, Abruzzese went from an overage fourth-round pick to a contender to suit up for the Maple Leafs as soon as two seasons after he was drafted, which says a lot about how far he’s come.
Maple Leafs’ Fourth Line Desperately Needs a Boost
In my opinion, there are certain prospects you can get away with playing on the fourth line, and some where it would just be a waste. Take Robertson, for example. For a player with an offensively-driven, shot-heavy style of game like him, playing him for six minutes a night on the fourth line isn’t helping him or the team in any way. But Abruzzese has the energy and the smarts at both ends of the ice to justify playing him in that role, even if he’s not seeing a lot of ice time.
Look, as much as I love Wayne Simmonds and Jason Spezza, I don’t think it’s ideal for the Maple Leafs to roll with both of them on their fourth line at this point of the season. Simmonds hasn’t scored a goal since December, and Spezza only has three goals and ten points in 33 games during the calendar year. I think both veterans serve a purpose on this team, and their presence in the locker room is where you’re getting most of their value, but playing both of them on the fourth line makes it noticeably slower. The same goes for fellow veteran Kyle Clifford.
With no timeframe on a return for Ondrej Kase, the Maple Leafs should look to turn their fourth line into more of a speed threat, and the addition of Abruzzese could be a perfect start to this. Having him and someone like Blackwell on the fourth line with one of the aforementioned veterans there to complement them would give the Maple Leafs a perfect blend of speed and IQ and would ensure the Maple Leafs are a speed threat regardless of which line is on the ice.
Abruzzese Contract Gives Maple Leafs More Options For Next Season
When analyzing Abruzzese’s entry-level contract, it’s important to consider all factors, which include the benefits that come outside of the Maple Leafs’ success this season. If Kase comes back fully healthy and they don’t have a spot for Abruzzese anymore, he can join the Toronto Marlies as they push for the Calder Cup Playoffs. Honestly, it would even serve as a good experience to just have him on the roster while the Maple Leafs are in the playoffs, even if he’s not playing every day.
The big thing for me is the opportunity with the Marlies next season. The Maple Leafs only have so much space in their forward group, and you can expect players like Steeves to push for full-time roster spots next season. You could include Abruzzese in that group as well, but if he doesn’t crack the roster, it will be super intriguing to see what he makes out of a full season in the AHL.
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The selection of Abruzzese in 2019 shows why it’s always best to draft the best player available rather than drafting for specific needs. The Maple Leafs have more value in Abruzzese now than I think anybody expected he would have at the time, and even if he doesn’t end up making the team immediately after this season, the worst-case scenario is he could be used as a trade chip. But that’s a problem for next season. Right now, the bottom line is about getting him into games, and whether it’s unknown if he’ll make his debut tonight against the Winnipeg Jets or Saturday against the Philadelphia Flyers, it’s around the corner either way.