#15 – Rinat Valiev
Nobody was quite sure what to expect out of Rinat Valiev in his first professional season. The 20-year-old Russian had made a huge leap in his final year of junior, nearly doubling his point production to 46 points in 52 games while playing on a relatively weak Kootenay Ice roster. At the same time, it was his first crack at playing against men, and such situations are often a crapshoot, especially with defencemen.
However, he hasn’t looked out of place on a dominant Marlies roster. Typically paired with team Captain and grizzled veteran Andrew Campbell, Valiev has played in most of Toronto’s games this year, usually only being rotated out when there are 3-in-3 weekends or similarly tough stretches of the schedule.
In 32 games this year, Valiev has ten points, good for fourth among Marlies defencemen behind Stuart Percy, the aforementioned Campbell, and AHL superstar TJ Brennan.
Most of Valiev’s offence creation comes from his strong skating ability and puck dispersal skills, though it wouldn’t hurt him to shoot more; he’s currently at a relatively sustainable 9.7% shooting percentage, but averaging less than a shot per game. He also is second on the team to Campbell in plus/minus; the two are usually paired with the teams higher-scoring lines at even strength to be available in event of a turnover.
Comfort level plays a huge part into both his development, and his own value. Campbell has taught him a lot and he’s adjusted to the city well, but just as importantly, Valiev has helped Nikita Soshnikov adjust to the country and develop a bond with his teammates, despite the language barrier.
Valiev isn’t quite ready for the NHL, but he’s doing a lot of the right things to ensure that he’ll be a useful player in due time. – Jeff Veillette
#14 – Martins Dzierkals
Before this season, Martins Dzierkals was a relative mystery man. You won’t find much of his past from Martins’ Dzierkals HockeyDB page – his leagues played before this season include the Russian U22 MHL and the Latvian U20 league – not exactly a widely followed hotbed for prospects. Currently, he’s putting up 42 points in 34 games with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in the high-scoring QMJHL in his first year of North American hockey, which ranks him 37th in league scoring.
Dzierkals is an interesting case, as it’s clear he can generate offence – he put up 68 points in 23 games in 2014-15 – but again, not at a level really comparable to most other top prospects, as he was playing in a Latvian junior league. It’s clear he’s got some talent and has been putting up respectable numbers for a third-round pick following his draft year, but he still likely needs more time under the North American microscope before it’s really clear what his future may be with the Leafs’ organization. – Adam Laskaris
#13 – Andrew Nielsen
With names like Blake Speers and Mitchell Vande Sompel on the board, the Leafs selected Andrew Nielsen in the third round of the very deep 2015 draft and with that selection, begged the question, “Who the hell is Andrew Nielsen?”
Nielsen was very much off the radar because the Hurricanes were rarely on the radar as they had been poorly run under GM Brad Robson and Coach Drake Berehowsky, but thankfully the Leafs were at least paying a little attention to what was going on there and now that the team is thriving under Peter Anholt and Brent Kisio, they are looking like geniuses in tracking down Nielsen.
Last season the numbers for Andrew Nielsen painted him as your traditional stay at home defender, who was willing to drop the gloves, and he picked up the handful of points, but really not enough to take notice.
This season, thanks to his booming point shot, Andrew Nielsen is the top scoring defenseman in the WHL, and has 46 points in his first 42 games (though 23 of those points are secondary assists).
Nielsen’s offensive game is likely to take a bit of a step back as he moves up the ranks, and the need to address his skating will likely become more of a priority. The fact that he Nielsen possesses a smart and physical game make him an interesting prospect and could make him somewhat of a Dion Phaneuf light (not a bad thing, remember you’re not paying him $7M).
Realistically, Nielsen’s style give him a high probability of at developing into someone who can get a taste of some bottom pairing NHL time, and is a definitely a step ahead of Andrew MacWilliam, Petter Granberg and others who’ve played that role in the past. – Jon Steitzer
#12 – Nikita Soshnikov
When word came out that the Leafs were signing a young KHL player last year, there was a little confusion when Nikita Soshnikov’s name was announced rather than say…Artemi Panarin. Soshnikov was a player that literally no one other than Mark Hunter knew anything about. Quick video studies showed some promise, and his numbers in the KHL backed it up. But signing a 21-year-old isn’t a sure thing.
It seems like Mark Hunter truly did know something nobody else did.
Soshnikov has been playing for the Marlies this season and has been all sorts of impressive. A quick look at his numbers may not impress – 17 points in 32 games is decent, but not great. But Soshnikov has been playing in almost an entirely 4th line role alongside Fredrik Gauthier and Rich Clune. In doing so, the skilled and tenacious Russian has given up potential points to instantly shed any worries about him being a small Euro-type player. In fact, Soshnikov thrives on the forecheck and is already a borderline NHL-elite level puck protector. It’s astonishing to watch.
Nikita has jumped up our prospect rankings, and with more viewings and exposure will continue to do so. With his commitment and continuing transition to the North American game, as well as his dedication to working out and nutrition, I see a real shot for Soshnikov to at least be an offensively-skilled third liner, with the potential to be an engine driver on a potent offensive top six line. Think a more skilled Leo Komarov mixed with some Nikolai Kulemin. If and when Soshnikov makes the Leafs, expect him to become your new favourite player. – Bobby Cappuccino
#11 – Brendan Leipsic
Once dubbed “the most annoying prospect in hockey”, Brandon Leipsic joined the Maple Leafs organization just under a year ago and looks to be a legitimate piece of the team’s future. The overlooked piece of the Franson/Santorelli trade with Nashville last February, Leipsic has proven to be an impact player for the Marlies and looks like he might be in line for a bottom-6 role with the Leafs next season.
When speaking with the Habs fans that are unfortunately ever-present in my life, they realize that Carey Price is who the team relies on but they are quick to point to Brendan Gallagher and his injury this year as a secondary reason why the team is struggling. Gallagher is the type of player Leaf fans should be hoping Leipsic will turn out to be. A secondary scoring option that is beloved by his own fans but hated everywhere else. After putting up big penalty minutes in junior, Leipsic has learned to play a much more controlled game in the AHL that will go a long way in allowing him to focus on the offensive side of the game.
Being waiver eligible at the beginning of next season, we are likely to see Leipsic with the Maple Leafs to start the 2016-17 season at the very least and depending on how many bodies are shipped out at the trade deadline it could be earlier than that. While he may not be one of the most talked about prospects in the system, Brandon Leipsic definitely has the ability to make a significant impact on the future of the team. – Tom Hunter