Saturday, July 22, 2017

31 Teams in 31 Days - Toronto Maple Leafs

The Leafs love them some OHL players, so this will be quite the lengthy write up. Although, their higher end players from the league have recently graduated.

1. Jeremy Bracco - Windsor Spitfires
An interesting year for Bracco. His production really dropped after the trade from Kitchener, but that was quickly forgotten after his performance in the Memorial Cup. After a first round loss to London in the OHL playoffs, many were left wanting more from Bracco and were wondering where the production was. But the Spits brought him in to help win a Mem Cup title (as hosts) and he did just that. Before I talk about his progression on the ice, I think it's worth mentioning that Bracco visibly matured this year as a young man. Body language, the way he conducted himself in interviews, and overall attitude on the ice was noticeably different (for the better). On the ice, I think there are still some consistency issues that need to be ironed out. His skating took a massive step forward this year IMO and that was the most noticeable difference. Really added some explosiveness to his stride to make him more difficult to stop off the rush. And his vision and creativity as a playmaker remain his bread and butter. There are still some consistency issues away from the puck, as a fully engaged player at both ends, but hopefully that is something that can be improved as he moves to the pro level. Bracco remains a high upside offensive player, although admittedly, I still have some reservations as to how well his game will translate to the AHL next year.

2. Eemeli Rasanen - Kingston Frontenacs
Rasanen, the Leafs 2nd rounder in 2017, is the very definition of a project. He's an absolutely hulking defender at 6'6 and he has some real intriguing qualities (big point shot, projection as a puck rusher, great reach defensively, great open ice hitter). But there are also some areas of his game that need a lot of work (decision making under pressure, physical intensity in high traffic areas, overall mobility). Good news is that Rasanen hasn't been playing at a high level of hockey for very long and he's a kid who is very moldable. He'll have a few years to really gain confidence in his puck skill and his ability to defend. An adjustment to having to make quicker decisions on the small ice is also likely. We could start seeing a big improvement as early as next year when Kingston will once again be a solid team in the Eastern Conference. Rasanen will be a top 3 defender for them and a big part of their powerplay (someone has to replace Desrocher). As such, I really see him getting close to that 10 goal mark and over 45 points. But more importantly, I think we need to see a step forward at the defensive end. Really want to see him become a physical beast in his own end.

3. J.J. Piccinich - London Knights
Even though the offensive production didn't really take a step forward, I don't necessarily think it was a poor year for Piccinich. I think the rest of his game really took a step forward this year. He served as the captain for the Knights this year and most definitely became a more engaged player without the puck. He developed into a quality penalty killer and his overall defensive awareness improved a lot. This was critical IMO, as Piccinich is going to need to prove that he can be a reliable energy guy to make the NHL. That said, I think the Leafs were smart to have him sign an AHL deal rather than give him an NHL deal right away. They still retain his rights but have a chance to see how his skill set translates to the pro level first. You can't overlook the fact that he had one goal in this year's playoffs and his goal production was overall disappointing this year. Don't know if he's skilled enough to play as a top 6 player at the next level, which means that the rest of his game will really need to continue to improve (as I alluded to). I would expect he splits the upcoming season between the AHL and the ECHL and we'll see how he performs and whether Toronto ends up offering him a contract.

4. Fedor Gordeev - Flint Firebirds
Like Rasanen, Gordeev is a hulking, raw defender. But, unlike Rasanen, Gordeev is actually a very good skater for a big defender. His plus mobility, in combination with his reach and his physical bravado, could make him a terrific stay at home defender down the line. His defensive game (IQ) is still a work in progress, but his game really progressed late in the year with Flint as he emerged as a top four defender for them. How much offensive upside he possesses remains to be seen. I know those who watched him in minor midget contend that he can be a quality offensive player at the OHL level, but I'm not quite as sold. I think his puck skill and decision making will need to improve for that to happen. But it's certainly possible. He'll return to Flint and push for a top four spot again on a quality young team. If he can really improve defensively and chip in a bit more offensively (maybe 30 points), I think that would be a very successful season for Gordeev next year.

5. Keaton Middleton - Saginaw Spirit
Not a lot of players had great years in Saginaw this past year. The team was a disappointment in a stacked Western Conference. That said, Middleton was one of the few players on that team that had a good year IMO. It speaks volumes to Keaton's character that he was named captain already as an 18/19 year old. He was a great partner to Filip Hronek (another player who had a solid year), playing the stay at home role so that Hronek could utilize his offensive gifts without truly hurting the team. Middleton's mobility took a step forward this year, as did his decision making with the puck. And with his reach, he's a tough player to match up against offensively. I think there are still some limitations to his game (which is why I rank a guy like Gordeev ahead of him right now), but he's progressed relatively well. It will be very interesting to see if Saginaw wants more out of him offensively next year with Hronek and Niemelainen gone. I think it's likely we see a jump in production. Nothing substantial, but I could see him hitting the 30 point mark. Then again, Saginaw could ask him to play a similar role, paired with OA Marcus Crawford. We'll see I guess.

6. Ryan McGregor - Sarnia Sting
Early on in the year, I felt like McGregor could be on track to be a top 100 selection in 2017. He had a great rookie year and started strong this year too. But he ultimately hit a wall and his production fell off a cliff. He's got speed to burn and the hands to be a good goal scorer. But he needs to get stronger, on and off the puck, so that his energy can consistently create scoring chances. I think it also remains to be seen just how good his hockey sense is in the offensive end. Just what type of upside are we looking at as a scoring winger? These are all questions that could be answered as early as next season where McGregor should have an inside track at a top 6 role with some quality linemates (like Jordan Kyrou or Adam Ruzicka). That could mean an uptick in production. Heck, if he can just sustain the type of production he had in the first half, with some minor tweaks, a 25/25 year is a very realistic expectation. Anything more would be gravy IMO.

7. Nicolas Mattinen - London Knights
On the positive side, Mattinen got into the Knights' lineup every day. Even if it was as a third pairing defender with some sheltered minutes, it was still consistent playing time, something he did not get in his draft year. Mattinen is a huge defender, just like Rasanen, Gordeev, and Middleton, but IMO, he's not at the same level as those three quite yet. His play with the puck is not as smooth as Rasanen and he doesn't possess the offensive potential that he does. His skating is not as good as Gordeev's. And his defensive IQ is not as good as Middleton's. With Mattinen, we've still got a work in progress who needs to grow at both ends to be a solid NHL prospect. But he's going to get great coaching in London and if he's willing, he will continue to improve. Next year, depending on what happens with guys like Juolevi or Crawley, he could easily be a top 4 defender for the Knights. It's worth noting that Mattinen paired with Evan Bouchard a lot this past year and Bouchard is a guy who is going to get an increased role next year. The coaching staff may choose to keep them together as part of a top four pairing. Like Middleton, I could see Mattinen in that 30 point range next year. 

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