With the Toronto Maple Leafs abysmal 2015-16 season finally over, fans can begin to look towards a bright future.
Much of the year was spent tracking the progression of the Leafs’ top prospects, instead of watching the standings and any potential playoff pushes.
While their AHL affiliate, Toronto Marlies, have enjoyed their best season in franchise history, many of the team’s top contributors spent parts of March and April in the NHL, trying to make an early impression on Leafs’ management before 2016-17 training camp.
In the CHL, Toronto had property of many of the league’s top producers for the season. The Leafs have stocked up on CHL prospects over the last few years, and the results should begin to show next year.
As for the Leafs’ Prospect of the Year, there are several outstanding candidates. Some players instilled further confidence in their true abilities and NHL potential, while others seemed to turn the corner and establish themselves among the Leafs’ top prospects.
This is not to be awarded to the Leafs’ best prospect, but rather, to the prospect who had the best 2015-16 season and most enhanced his value and ranking in the Leafs organization.
Candidates are ordered alphabetically, according to last name.
Martins Dzierkals (RW)- Rouyn-Noranda Huskies (QMJHL)
- Drafted 3rd round, 68th overall in 2015
- 24 G, 43 A and 67 points in 59 games
Dzierkals made a seamless transition into the North American game in 2015-16, playing his first season outside of Latvia. The 19-year-old winger was drafted 22nd overall in the 2015 CHL Import Draft by the Huskies and quickly became one of their more dependable forwards. At the end of the regular season, Dzierkals sat third in both goals and points for the Huskies, with 24 and 67, respectively.
Dzierkals is a smooth skater with good vision and understanding of positioning. He has the ability to find open space for himself, giving his teammates a safe passing option. His shot is decent, and has the potential to be great. Dzierkals and his Huskies are currently entering the second round of the QMJHL playoffs, ranked as the top team in the entire CHL.
Despite being ranked as a fourth-round prospect by ISS Hockey before the 2015 NHL Draft, the Leafs had some extra insight on the Latvian, who spent his draft year in the MHL. A year after being drafted, Dzierkals looks like a very smart selection at 68th overall.
Andreas Johnson (LW)- Frölunda HC (SHL)
- Drafted 7th round, 202nd overall in 2013
- 19 G, 25 A, 44 points in 52 games
Johnson has quickly risen up the ranks in the Leafs system since being drafted. He has spent the last three seasons in the SHL, the top league in Sweden. He has seen improvements each year, and kept that trend going in 2015-16. This year, Johnson led Frolunda in goals with 19 and was second in points, with 44.
As a 21-year-old, Johnson led all players under 24 years of age in production this year, establishing an eight point gap between himself and the closest competitor. In a men’s league, he has been able to standout as one of the best, and should be welcomed with open arms in North America very soon.
Originally, Johnson did not garner a ton of interest from NHL teams. However, a few years later, he has risen to be one of the Leafs’ top prospects. Johnson is a solid skater who can stick-handle well and create space for his teammates. He has a good release and a nose for the net, which drives his goal scoring. Johnson has the potential to be the steal of the 2013 NHL Draft.
William Nylander (C)- Toronto Marlies (AHL)/Toronto Maple Leafs (NHL)
- Drafted 1st round, 8th overall in 2014
- 18 G, 27 A and 45 points in 37 games (AHL)
- 6 G, 7 A, 13 points in 22 games (NHL)
Perhaps the Leafs’ top prospect, William Nylander spent his first full year in North America in 2015-16. As a member of the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, Nylander ranked fourth in the league in points per game, scoring 18 goals and 45 points in 37 games. He was called up to the NHL after the trade deadline, and played well offensively, scoring six goals and 13 points in 21 games.
Nylander continued to improve on his offensive abilities this year, even proving his worth in the NHL as a 19-year-old. He has elite hockey sense and creates time and space for his linemates with ease. At the same time, he also showed some areas that were lacking, which are necessary to be relied upon as a first-line center. Too many turnovers and being out of position defensively put the Leafs in a tough spot, more than a few times.
In all, Nylander used the 2015-16 to further instill confidence in his outstanding offensive abilities. While he has some improvements to make, he is still extremely young, and a full season spent under Mike Babcock will likely clear up any imperfections, which should come in the 2016-17 season.
Mitchell Marner (C)- London Knights (OHL)
- Drafted 1st round, 4th overall in 2015
- 39 G, 77 A and 116 points in 57 games
Coming off of a year which saw Marner rank second in points per game in the OHL, behind only Connor McDavid, it would be tough for him to make any improvement offensively in 2015-16. However, the kid with silky smooth mitts made it possible. His points per game increased from 2.00 to 2.04, again ranking second in the league, behind his teammate, Christian Dvorak. Marner totalled 39 goals and 116 points in just 57 games.
Marner was drafted for his elite offensive abilities, stemming from his work ethic and insane knowledge of the game. He can stick-handle in a phone booth and has the ability to read a developing play ahead of his opponents. He is a dynamic playmaker who skates well and has terrific agility. Despite being just 5’11 and 163 pounds, Marner always engages in puck battles and back-checks responsibly each shift. Marner’s play resembles Patrick Kane’s, and he has the potential to rack up an immense amount of points in the NHL.
Like Nylander, Marner used the 2015-16 to solidify his potential to be an elite point producer in the NHL someday. While he remains in the playoffs as a member of the London Knights, Marner will likely spend the 2016-17 season with the Leafs in the NHL.
Prospect of the Year:
Many Leafs prospects had a very successful 2015-16 campaign, making the decision for Prospect of the Year a difficult one. With that, it was a year which turned cautious optimism, into confident optimism. The Leafs’ system is becoming a deep one, with elite talent at the top. If they can have another successful draft in 2015, their prospect pool will become one of the best in the league.
Without further ado, the Toronto Maple Leafs Prospect of the Year is…
Andrew Nielsen (D)- Lethbridge Hurricanes (WHL)
- Drafted 3rd round, 65th overall in 2015
- 18 G, 52 A and 70 points in 71 games
Andrew Nielsen made the Leafs a very happy organization in 2015-16. After an outstanding season, the Leafs are undoubtedly beaming with delight that they were able to scoop up the star defenceman in the third round at last year’s draft.
Although several Leafs prospects had terrific seasons in 2015-16, Nielsen stood out for his enormous improvements, as well as the fact that the Leafs were in dire need of elite defensive prospects.
Nielsen was a bit of a surprise selection near the start of the third round in the 2015 draft, being projected as a fifth rounder by most respected draft outlets. Much like Dzierkals, after a year of development, it looks like the Leafs may have found a hidden gem. Nielsen finished the 2015-16 season with 18 goals and 70 points in 71 games for the Hurricanes, ranking third among WHL defencemen.
Nielsen is terrific at setting up a power play and getting pucks to the net, with 29 of his points coming on the man advantage. He is a great skater with the ability to read developing plays one step ahead of his opponents. Not only does he make a safe first pass on the breakout, but he has also gained the confidence to rush the puck through the neutral zone. Defensively, Nielsen is smart with his stick, responsibly taking away passing lanes and breaking up plays. He also has the size to separate opponents from the puck, while maintaining the awareness to not take himself out of position.
The 19-year-old, standing at 6’3, 207 pounds, has a physical edge that the Leafs lack, and may also be the most prolific offensive defenceman in their system. After a standout season, Nielsen was signed to an amateur try out with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, after Lethbridge was eliminated in the first round of the WHL Playoffs. He will spend the playoffs in the AHL, hopefully proving that he is more than ready to not only compete with men, but even excel.
With this year being just his second WHL season, Nielsen will very likely return to Lethbridge in 2016-17 for one final junior season. If he is able to continue to make improvements in becoming a more all-around defenceman, then the future is extremely bright for the Red Deer, Alberta native.
Make sure to keep your eye on this budding young superstar, Leafs fans.
Disagree? Let us know who you feel should be the Leafs Prospect of the Year in the comments below!
Contributor for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Prospects. Scout with the Oakville Blades of the OJHL. For questions, concerns, or comments, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter @SlawsonTHW.