Maple Leafs’ Nick Abruzzese: Small in Stature, Huge in Brain & Skill

For Nick Abruzzese’s former coach with the USHL’s Chicago Steel and now Toronto Marlies’ coach Greg Moore, the Toronto Maple Leafs prospect’s success is simple. “Nick has a lot of tools, but what separates him from everyone else is his brain,” Moore posited. (from Mind over matter: The gift that defines Maple Leafs prospect Nick Abruzzese, Joshua Kloke, The Athletic, 25/05/20)

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Late in May, the just-turned 21-year-old Abruzzese was named the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) rookie of the year after scoring 44 points (14 goals and 30 assists) in 31 games. His points-per-game average of 1.42 tied him for second-highest in the NCAA. Chief among his skills, according to those who know him, is his brain.

His Harvard Crimson assistant coach Jim Tortorella, who’s the brother of Columbus Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella, suggested, “I’m not sure his brain shuts down at night. He’s always thinking.”

John Tortorella Blue Jackets bench (2)
John Tortorella, Columbus Blue Jackets Head Coach (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

For Maple Leafs fans, although the story differs a bit, Abruzzese’s success echoes that of another of general manager Kyle Dubas organizational gambits. Dubas has a plan, which seems to be working. Draft young hockey players (although their first name doesn’t necessarily have to be Nick) who are smart, who ooze drive and determination, who have great character, and who are passed on by other teams because they’re smaller physically.

Obviously, I’m thinking of young prospect Nick Robertson who had an incredible season with the OHL’s Peterborough Petes (scoring 55 goals and 31 assists in 46 games), was named the CHL’s Sportsman of the Year, and has since been invited by the Maple Leafs to be part of the team’s postseason roster.

When You’re Small, You Have to Be Smart

If the young left-winger eventually makes the Maple Leafs roster, he’ll do it in part because he has what his coaches have described as a “world-class” brain. Abruzzese loved hockey, but his small stature made him have to work for his success. He became analytical because he needed to.

According to The Athletic, former Boston Bruins scout and current Chicago Steel general manager Ryan Hardy remembers Abruzzese as a bantam playing in his native New Jersey. Hardy recalled Abruzzese, “So small. Maybe, like, 5-foot-2.”

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Abruzzese, who’s now 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds (Robertson’s listed at 5-foot-9 and 164 pounds), knew he would never outmuscle opponents. So he worked to process the game quicker than they did. He studied film of his own shifts to answer the questions he designed: What did I originally see on the ice? When watching plays again, did I see everything I could have?

He’d then ask his coaches: Did I miss something? Abruzzese noted, “Getting all those ideas together is a way that I’ve been able to continue to grow my hockey sense and be able to get a multitude of different angles and approaches.”

Now he’s going to see if a combination of this approach and his skills will allow him to play with the Maple Leafs.

When Did Nick Abruzzese Become a Maple Leafs Fan? Immediately!

In writing about Abruzzese on June 11, the Toronto Sun’s Terry Koshan reported that it didn’t take Abruzzese any time at all to become a Maple Leafs fan. All it took was for the organization to call his name in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. Then, one minute a New York Rangers fan and the next a Maple Leafs fan. (from “THE PIPELINE: Abruzzese’s fine freshman season with Harvard puts him in future Leafs conversation, Terry Koshan, Toronto Sun, 11/06/20).

How long did it take for the Maple Leafs to become a fan of the young Abruzzese? They were obviously inclined enough to draft him during the fourth round in Vancouver last year, and they’re even more inclined after the season he had as a freshman with the Harvard Crimson in 2019-20.

Abruzzese grew up a Rangers’ fan, but noted his switch to becoming a Maple Leafs fan “was pretty quick.” He explained, “The biggest thing is they have young, exciting players to watch. Guys like (Auston) Matthews and (Mitch) Marner and (William) Nylander, a lot of really good young forwards. It’s easy for me to put on the TV and watch them, because they play such a fun, exciting game.”

Toronto Maple Leafs Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Mitchell Marner and Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

Although it’s probably more difficult for Matthews, Marner, and Nylander to stream a Harvard game, if they were able they’d have watched Abruzzese move from his natural position at center to the left-wing – a move that (along with playing with his Ivy League partners Jack Drury and Casey Dornbach) helped Harvard put up the best power-play numbers in the NCAA. The team’s 31.2% success rate was obviously stellar.

Abruzzese’s personal NCAA success has seldom been matched. Since 2005-06, the only freshmen to score more points per game than Abruzzese’s 1.42 were Clayton Keller, Kyle Connor, Brock Boeser, Jack Eichel, and Jaden Schwartz. That’s good company.

What Do Abruzzese’s Teammates Have to Say?

An article in The Crimson speaks to the success of the team’s first-year forward. Three times Abruzzese scored two goals during in his rookie season, including in a rivalry game against Yale where he led them back from a 4-1 deficit to a 4-4 tie. 

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Abruzzese’s assist rate also more than doubled his goal total, and he averaged almost an assist per game by feeding the puck to his sophomore teammates Drury (who scored 20 goals) and Dornbach (who scored 12 goals).

As Drury noted about Abruzzese, his “vision, his skating, his hands are all incredible. He understands how to play give-and-go hockey. He’s one of the best passers I’ve ever seen… It’s been nice to at least find a little chemistry this year.”

Crimson head coach Ted Donato discussed the line’s ability to complement each other, “As far as Dornbach, Drury, and Abruzzese [are concerned], I think they’re real students of the game,” Donato said. “They found ways to share the puck and utilize each other’s strengths to be successful.”

Abruzzese underplayed his Rookie of the Year Award saying that the award “speaks more to the type of team we had that allowed me to come in and have the success we did.” But he did admit, “looking back, I think I had a pretty good year and was able to accomplish a lot.”

Harvard head coach Ted Donato, himself once captain of the Harvard team, who played more than 500 NHL games during the 1990s (mostly with the Boston Bruins), and who’s turned Harvard into a perennial NCAA contender in his 17 seasons as their coach, found Abruzzese to be a hard-working and competent player.

[As an aside, Donato is a story himself as the successful head coach for this prestigious Ivy League school. Any fan interested in reading about him can follow the link. One thing I found interesting was that his phone number is included on the Harvard Crimson hockey website. What does that say?]

What Does Donato Have to Say About Abruzzese?

Donato knew the young man was offensively talented and would have an impact, but he also believed Abruzzese put in the work “to really develop his all-around game to a point where we could have him on the ice if we were trying to protect a lead or killing a penalty or playing four on four.”

Donato noted that Abruzzese was fearless. Although his young player wasn’t bowling opponents over, his compete level was over the top. That drive, when combined with his skills, was a winning combination. Donato also said that Abruzzese “has the ability to make you miss, he is quick, his overall speed continues to get better, and he is competitive around the tough areas of the ice.”

The Harvard coach compared his player to others he’s seen in his long career as a coach and player: “There are a lot of guys who have talent and skill, but it’s that compete level, especially for the undersized guys, that really allows them to have success and Nick has that.”

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He added: “I give him a lot of credit because he goes to the hard areas of the ice to score goals, bringing the puck to the net from tough angles and hanging around the front of the net for rebounds and other opportunities. And he’s a guy who really knows how to utilize the strengths of other people on the ice with him.”

What Are Abruzzese’s Plans?

Right now, Abruzzese enjoys watching Marner and also Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks. He likes that they aren’t the biggest guys, but they create offense. He admits, “I’m not a very big guy. I can’t go out and overpower guys with physical play, so I have to use my head around the ice.”

Patrick Kane Chicago Blackhawks
Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

Abruzzese’s an intelligent young man both on and off the ice. He obviously realizes there’s life past hockey and isn’t missing his chance at a world-class Harvard education. He notes that he’s “focusing now on going back and having a really good strong second year at Harvard and see where I can go from there.”

If he can better his first season, he’ll be special. After all, he had the best freshman season at Harvard since Donato took over as coach in 2004. He led all NCAA rookies in scoring, scored 18 power-play points (six goals and 12 assists) on the NCAA’s No. 1 power play, was named to first-team all-ECAC Hockey and all-rookie team, and had a team-high 14 multiple-point games.

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Welcome to the Maple Leafs organization. There’s a good chance he’s already become part of the conversation when the team looks towards its future. Abruzzese sums up his goals, “If I can continue to get better every day and make strides in my game, one day I hope I will be able to play for the Leafs. It’s what I am working toward.”

Although there remains a few NCAA seasons to complete, Maple Leafs fans will be watching.