In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I will share news about Maple Leafs prospect Justin Brazeau’s success through the organization, consider the possibility of Nikita Nesterov returning to the NHL, and suggest that former player Alexander Mogilny should be elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame this week.
Item One: Justin Brazeau on His Way up the Ranks
After a strong season with the Newfoundland Growlers of the ECHL, Brazeau played a single game with the Toronto Marlies in 2019-20. He’s likely to play lots more according to his “now” former coach with the Growlers John Snowden. Although Snowden enjoyed coaching Brazeau last season, he believes the prospect’s time in the ECHL is over.
In a nice article about Brazeau in the Toronto Sun today by Terry Koshan, Snowden noted that “I have no plans of coaching him next year. His sights should not be anywhere close to the ECHL. It’s just my opinion.” (from “LEAFS PIPELINE: Big Justin Brazeau set to put ECHL tenure behind him,” Terry Koshan, Toronto Sun, 19/06/20).
Snowden added that the American Hockey League (AHL) is a “big step with the speed and ability of players, but he (Brazeau) has all the tools. He just has to put it all together. I think he can do that. His goal should not be here.”
After the 6-foot-6, 226 pound right-winger signed a two-year AHL contract by the Marlies in April 2019, Brazeau played well with the Growlers. He led all rookies with 27 goals and finished second in rookie scoring with 55 points in 57 games.
Because of his size, when Brazeau played in the OHL with the North Bay Battalion, he had a relatively easy time exacting his will on opponents. His 113 points (61 goals and 52 assists) in 68 games in 2018-19 offers such proof. However, with the Growlers, he had to change his approach to be effective. He did.
As Snowden reported, “That’s where he really found his game. It was: ‘OK, I’m not just going to bowl guys over, I’m going to have to use my skill set and get myself out of situations.’ … As the season went on, you could see that he figured out his problem-solving abilities and got himself out of spots, got good space.”
Snowden’s assessment is that, even at 22 years old, “He (Brazeau) still has a lot of maturing to do (physically), but once he gets it all together, he is going to be a scary player.”
The organization expects Brazeau will continue his diligent work ethic and progress up the ranks. He’s been a worker so far, and that’s made a difference. In addition, his leadership has been obvious. With the Battalion, he was a 13th-round pick but was named team captain by the time his junior career was over.
Never an NHL draft choice, Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas found and signed him. In some ways, he differs from a more-typical signing in that he isn’t under-sized. But he does share Dubas 4-D’s — Drive, Determination, Diligence, and Dedication.
Former coach Snowden summed it up, “He is a ‘prove-you-wrong’ kind of guy and I think those guys are dangerous, especially with his size and ability. He has the want and the will to work… There is no question that he wants to be a hockey player and he is going to do everything he can to do that.”
You can hear that echoed in Brazeau’s voice when he said, “Basically, since midget, a lot of people have had doubts in me and my skating. I always had the confidence in knowing that I could play at that next level and I’ll keep pushing forward.”
Item Two: Nikita Nesterov Is Leaving the KHL for Where?
When Moscow CSKA president Igon Esmantovic spoke about his club’s plans for the coming year, he announced that former NHL bottom-pair, left-shot defenseman Nikita Nesterov had changed his mind about staying with the Moscow-based KHL club and wanted to return to North America.
Esmantovic noted that, “We agreed on the conditions, gave him everything he wanted. But a week ago, he decided for family reasons to go to North America. We thanked him for three years at CSKA and wished him good luck.”
Related: The Story of My Russian KHL Odyssey
In the end, Esmantovich seemed puzzled, but generous. What makes this interesting for the Maple Leafs is that last October general manager Dubas met with both Mikhail Grigorenko and Nikita Nesterov in Russia. Grigorenko has since signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Now we know Nesterov wants to come back to North America for “family reasons.”
Certainly, when Mike Babcock was the coach, his attraction to Nesterov seemed obvious. He’s a physical player who can log big minutes. In fact, he averaged over 20 minutes a game in his KHL tenure. Whether Dubas remains interested with Babcock gone remains a question. I think not.
Since last October, a lot of things have happened with the Maple Leafs’ roster and the team’s gone in other directions. Specifically, it signed Mikko Lehtonen, has given Rasmus Sandin an extended look with the big club, has transitioned Timothy Liljegren toward the team’s roster, and decided to re-sign both Justin Holl and Martin Marincin.
So, although rumors link Nesterov to the Maple Leafs, I don’t think anything will come of them. Even if there isn’t a big trade, the team already has Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, Travis Dermott, Sandin, Lehtonen, Marincin, and Calle Rosen fighting for ice time either on the left or moving to the right with Liljegren and Holl.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
The week coming will be interesting because the Hockey Hall of Fame meets on Wednesday (virtually of course) to decide who’s part of the 2020 NHL Hall of Fame class. Former Calgary Flame Jarome Iginla will certainly make it, and perhaps even former Ottawa Senators star and great two-way player Marian Hossa.
But, is there a chance former Maple Leafs player Alexander Mogilny could be voted in? He might not have the numbers, but I believe he was a huge part of NHL history and his defection from the former Soviet Union is a great story.
I think there’s a chance he will be enshrined, and I believe he should be. For Maple Leafs fans, during his seasons with the team, 2002-03 was his best. In 73 games, he scored 33 goals and added 46 assists for more than a point-a-game average.
It will be interesting to see what others think.