The Toronto Maple Leafs’ Forgotten Prospect

To say the Leafs are stacked with elite young talent would be an understatement of massive proportions.

Up front, in particular, the Maple Leafs boast an immense amount of skill. Auston Matthews, the first overall selection in the 2016 NHL Draft, quite obviously, leads the way, while Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Connor Brown, Nikita Soshnikov and Zach Hyman round out an exceptional core of young talent. Just to name a few.

Yet, when the focus turns to defense and goaltending, Toronto’s prospect situation is much vaguer. In the midst of a rebuild, the Leafs lack a significant amount of up and coming young players in these two essential positions.

[Related: Ranked – 1-30: The NHL’s Top Farm Systems]

On defense, newly signed Nikita Zaitsev is arguably one of the most promising young defenders within the Leafs’ system, while Rinat Valiev, Victor Loov, and Travis Dermott all remain quality yet fringe prospects. Meanwhile, in net, Antoine Bibeau and Garrett Sparks, despite showing inconsistent flashes of brilliance, are not projected to become future starters at the NHL level. Of all, Joseph Woll, the Leafs’ first goaltending draft pick in the past three years, could, in fact, retain the greatest potential of the three, with the 6’3″ netminder bound for Boston College in 2016-17.

However, arguably lost in the seemingly endless number of Maple Leafs prospects is Andrew Nielsen, a budding defender who was a third-round pick, 65th overall of Toronto in the 2015 NHL Draft.

Flying Under the Radar

Seemingly hidden within Toronto’s plethora of prospects, Nielsen’s game has been rapidly developing in Lethbridge, Alberta.

As a member of the Western Hockey League’s Lethbridge Hurricanes, Nielsen’s breakout season in 2015-16 should have firmly established himself as one of the Maple Leafs’ top prospects, yet, due to the overwhelming quantity and quality of Toronto’s young talent, Nielsen’s impressive and certainly notable play has seemingly fallen by the wayside.

In his second season with the Hurricanes in 2015-16, Nielsen exploded for 70 points in just 71 games played; his 18 goals and 52 assists both career highs, combining for an amazing 46 point increase from his rookie season. In addition to his incredible offense, Nielsen was also a defensive stalwart who established a gritty edge to his game. These qualities were highlighted by not only a +30 plus/minus rating, but also 122 minutes in penalties.

Heck, Nielsen was so successful last year that he even skated in five games with the Toronto Marlies, where he recorded his first two professional assists.

Tools of the Trade

Unlike some prospective young players who can produce incredible offensive numbers yet otherwise are strictly one-dimensional skaters, Nielsen has all the tools necessary to carve out a highly successful career in the professional ranks.

Firstly, there are Nielsen’s sheer physical attributes. Standing 6’3″ tall and weighing in at 210 pounds, Nielsen is a strong and solid specimen who is in no way afraid to play a physical brand of hockey. In fact, he thrives on it. His ability to intimidate opposing players is a major facet of his game, and Nielsen retains the ability to punish opposition in his own end or to step up and put an abrupt end to developing offensive rushes.

Further, there are Nielsen’s abilities with the puck. In combination with his excellent vision on the ice, one of Nielsen’s best qualities is his ability to move the puck quickly and effectively. His hard, crisp, and accurate passes are a major reason why the bulking blueliner recorded 52 assists last season, as he has the capability to dish the puck to his teammates despite their position or coverage.

Oh, and he also has a wicked, powerful shot.

Next, there is his defensive prowess, an aspect of Nielsen’s game which he puts a terrific amount of pride into. When it comes to defending his own zone, it is the combination of his size, vision, and ability to predict the play which allows Nielsen to shut down opposing forwards. One aspect of Nielsen’s game which is improving and will stand to benefit him defensively is his skating. While he is an adequate skater and has no problem traversing the ice, his agility is improving and will, over time, make Nielsen even more difficult to evade.

Predicting the Future

Given his incredible skill-set, experience, and success in the WHL, the 2016-17 season could see Nielsen jump to the American Hockey League and a full-time job with the Marlies. Due to a late birthdate, falling on Nov. 13, Nielsen is in a beneficial situation for both himself and the Leafs’ franchise, as he can either return to the WHL or leap to the AHL.

The major question facing the decision is whether or not Nielsen’s game will continue to develop if he returns to the WHL. After posting 70 points from the blue line, is Nielsen truly ready for the professional game, or was his amazing season with the Hurricanes simply an outlier?

If Nielsen really is as good as his numbers indicate, which he very well likely is, then there would, in reality, be no reason to return the blue liner to the WHL. In all, given Nielsen’s size, offensive prowess and defensive ability, the Red Deer, Alberta, native projects to be one of, if not the best defensive prospect within the Leafs cupboard. If he can make the jump to the AHL and have yet another sensational season, chances are Nielsen could break through with the Leafs come the 2017-18 campaign.

In short, despite being a relative unknown for the Leafs in terms of their prospect pool, Nielsen is an excellent prospect, and surely one to watch for both the Leafs and their fans moving forward.