The Toronto Maple Leafs have come to be defined by their exceptional young talent.
Boasting the likes of Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Kasperi Kapanen, and Travis Dermott, the Leafs’ youth movement is in full swing and, fortunately, shows no signs of slowing down. And while the vast majority of Toronto’s exceptional young players have ascended to the NHL-level, a number of others continue to steadily develop within a slew of other notable leagues.
Although these particular individuals do not boast the same potential as those named above, their continued progression as Leafs prospects will afford their NHL organization with an additional layer of depth and skill in the coming years.
So, who are these notable Leafs prospects which have continued to state their cases as quality NHL hopefuls?
Here are Toronto’s top-five prospects to watch in this, the 2017-18 season, and long into the years to come.
Drafted: Round: 2 (61st), 2015 NHL Draft
Although his potential at the NHL-level remains uncertain, Jeremy Bracco has done everything in his power to cement himself as a legitimate prospect of the Leafs.
Following a Gold Medal with Team USA at the 2017 WJC and a Memorial Cup championship with the Windsor Spitfires in 2016-17, Bracco has enjoyed a seamless transition to the professional ranks. Currently in his first season of play with the Toronto Marlies, Bracco has rebounded following a slow start to the 2017-18 campaign and has begun to generate offence on a relatively consistent basis.
Despite his small frame — standing 5-foot-9 and weighing 180-pounds — Bracco is quickly learning how to play a style of hockey bigger than his stature. Infinitely aware of his on-ice positioning as well as the location of his opposition while in possession, Bracco’s growing vision and ample creativity with the puck have combined to make him a lethal offensive threat. And, although he doesn’t boast an overpowering shot, Bracco’s ability to pass the puck alongside his crafty skating have merged to work in tandem in order to deceive opposing defenders.
Ultimately, Bracco has the potential to become an excellent professional player. However, he will first have to prove himself time and time again with the Marlies before he is afforded an opportunity to succeed at the NHL-level, and especially so given the Leafs’ loaded roster.
Drafted: Round: 5 (141st), 2017 NHL Draft
As a late selection in the 2017 NHL Draft, chances are you’ve yet to discern a considerable amount of information regarding Fedor Gordeev. However, if there is one thing well-known about Gordeev, it is his immense size.
Gordeev says he started crying when the Leafs took him. Extremely happy.
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) June 24, 2017
Standing 6-foot-6 and weighing in at 215-pounds, Gordeev is an incredibly intimidating defender who uses his size to his advantage. Capable of protecting the puck from opposing players with ease before bulldozing his way up the ice, Gordeev plays a strong two-way game defined by deft scoring touch and defensive responsibility.
However, there is far more to Gordeev’s game than simply his size. Blessed with soft hands and excellent vision, Gordeev fires crisp breakout passes with ease and, as a result, facilitates strong transition play for him and his teammates. Further, given his raw strength, Gordeev boasts a strong shot and one which he is capable of placing on goal through the thickest traffic.
Quiet in his game yet bursting at the seams with untapped potential, Gordeev will be an interesting Leafs prospect to watch in the coming years given his towering frame, excellent skating, and undervalued potential. Currently skating with the Flint Firebirds of the OHL, Gordeev has the ability to play an additional two seasons in Flint before jumping to the professional ranks.
Drafted: Round: 2 (57th), 2016 NHL Draft
Carl Grundström signed his entry-level contract with Toronto on Apr. 28, 2017, and then competed in six playoff games for the Marlies. Yet, what has the sensational ‘Swede accomplished since his return to Sweden?
Well, not surprisingly, Grundström has continued to develop at a rapid pace. In fact, through his 32nd game of the season, Grundström had already set a new career-high in points with 21, while his 14 goals already matched his total from the entire 2016-17 Swedish Hockey League campaign. What makes Grundström such a unique player, however, is his personal drive and determination to improve his individual game.
Relentless in his pursuit of the puck and aggressive in board battles, Grundström’s ability to battle for, secure, and then maintain puck possession frequently leads to the generation of quality scoring chances for him and his team. Not afraid to throw his weight around and extremely strong on his skates, Grundström’s versatility and success on both the power play and penalty kill combine to make him the definition of a coach’s dream.
Given his professional playing style, ample size, and track record of success competing against stern competition, it would appear to be only a matter of time before Grundström arrives in North America on a full-time basis. More than ready to play for the Marlies and undoubtedly capable of battling for a job with the Leafs, Grundström’s mature game has made him a diamond in the rough given his somewhat late draft status.
Drafted: Round 1 (17th), 2017 NHL Draft
The Leafs have long lacked a definitive number-one defenceman. Fortunately, the franchise may have ended this drought through the selection of Timothy Liljegren, a tremendously talented defender who has already drawn comparisons to Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators.
As a smooth skating defender, Liljegren’s value lays in his impeccable two-way game.
Boasting the agility necessary to defend with ease and the offensive instincts required to contribute in the opposing zone, Liljegren’s ability to flourish at both ends of the ice will surely lead to a long and prosperous NHL career. Further, Liljegren owns a strong shot and creative playmaking abilities, two facets of his game which not only ensure puck possession but create an ensemble of scoring opportunities for his team.
Of decent size standing 6-feet tall and weighing 190-pounds, Liljegren will become increasingly difficult to play against over time as he continues to strengthen his slender frame. Currently in the midst of his first professional campaign in North America, Liljegren’s play with the Marlies thus far in 2017-18 has been cautious and calculated. While the Leafs would surely like to see him bulge the twine more often, Liljegren’s remarkable defensive play has been promising and has, arguably, accelerated his NHL timeline.
Keep an eye trained on Liljegren, as we could see him in a Leafs uniform much earlier than expected.
Drafted: Round 2 (59th), 2017 NHL Draft
Eemeli Räsänen’s game is defined by his towering 6-foot-7 frame. However, there is far more to like with respect to the Joensuu, Finland native’s game than simply his physicality.
Although he tips the scales at 210-pounds, Räsänen is surprisingly light on his feet and has no trouble navigating both ends of the ice. Capable of dominating opposing players within his own zone in order to secure the puck, Räsänen makes crisp and accurate breakout passes once in possession and has proven himself as crucial to the Kingston Frontenacs’ transition game. While his speed could come into question within the professional ranks, Räsänen’s ability to read developing plays and react accordingly should allow for his successful transition to the AHL following his major-junior career.
In the midst of a highly successful season in Kingston, Räsänen has continued to display the qualities which made him a second-round pick in last year’s NHL draft. Although he isn’t likely to top his career-high point total of 39 which he set last campaign, Räsänen’s defensive game has grown immensely throughout the 2017-18 season — characterized by a +14 plus/minus rating, 21 points better than he achieved last season.
Ultimately, Räsänen is a defender of immense potential for the Leafs, as his size, skill, and skating abilities should allow for his fairly smooth transition to the professional level. However, don’t expect to see Räsänen in a Leafs uniform in the immediate future, as he will undoubtedly require seasoning in the AHL before ascending to hockey’s highest level.
Brett Slawson is a four-year veteran of The Hockey Writers who covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL prospects, and the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads.
Contact Brett on Twitter @brettslawson92, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.