Tonight marks the last night of NHL play before the All-Star break, no NHL games will be scheduled tomorrow night, and the professional ice hockey you’ll get this weekend will be 3 on 3’s featuring players who were unsuccessful at faking injuries this week to get out of going.
You’re in luck if you want to watch worthwhile hockey, though. Thursday is the CHL Top Prospect game, and unlike the NHL All-Star Game, this showcase actually sees players compete at their highest level, is fast paced, and potentially there are more Leafs in this one (we just don’t know who they are yet).
Why Should I Care About the CHL Prospects Game?
Besides being an exciting game to watch where you focus on individuals rather than the final score, it plays nicely into the fact that The Leafs Nation has now become The Tank Nation. While we want to keep as many eggs as possible in the Auston Matthews basket as possible, and the two Finns are lovely consolation prizes, additional contingencies are needed thanks to the new lottery format, and after that top pick is made, the Leafs still have 10 other picks to work with, including another 1st thanks to the Penguins climbing into a Wild Card spot Tuesday night.
Today and tomorrow Tom Hunter and I will be previewing the two teams. Today I get to tell you about Team Cherry, which despite being named for and coached by Don Cherry is a team I am rather fond of. The team seems to be made up of players who fit specific Leaf needs. The forward group lead by Michael McLeod (see profile by Tom Hunter here), Max Jones (profile here), and Julien Gauthier (profile in here) all address the Leafs need for players with size and skill that can play in the top six.
Chychrun, Day (profile here and here), Clague, and Girard all have the potential to be an important answer for the Leafs on the blueline and have the right balance of smarts and skill to be top four defensemen in the NHL in a very short time.
And of course in net, Zach Sawchenko is a goaltender that makes perfect sense for the Leafs, and would give the club a legitimate goaltending prospect to develop since the cupboards could not be barer at the moment.
The full roster is as follows:
Interesting to note, all of the defensemen on Team Cherry are left handed shots, so the search for the right side solution may need to be conducted elsewhere.
FIVE TO WATCH
A case can be made for watching any of these players, and I’m sure that you’ll make your own decisions on who’s worthwhile, but a few players really stick out to me from a Leafs perspective.
As I mentioned earlier in this post, the Leafs lack any sort of a goaltending pipeline, and given the difficulty to project who’s going to be a standout goaltender five years from now, a high draft pick isn’t usually best used on one.
Luckily for the Leafs, Sawchenko projects to be more of an early-to-mid round player, but there are a few things that stick out to me that make him more worthwhile than even players projected to go ahead of him.
First off, you’d be hard pressed to find a junior goaltender who has seen more ice time than Sawchenko has in his junior career. Sawchenko turned 18 last month and already has 107 games to his name. Not only is he getting the majority of the starts for the Warriors this season, he had the net the majority of the time in his 16/17-year old season.
The big difference is that Sawchenko has taken that .896 Sv% from last year (not horrible by junior standards) and turned it into a .921 Sv% this season. While the Warriors have been an improved team, they are still outshot most nights, and Sawchenko has been a key factor in keeping them on the right side of the score sheet.
Looking to the Soo has worked well for the Leafs so far. They’ve landed an up and coming NHL executive in Kyle Dubas, they’ve brought in a head coach for the Marlies in Sheldon Keefe who is running away with the lead in the AHL right now, but amazingly the Leafs prospect cupboard is bare with former Greyhounds.
Tim Gettinger, a 6’6 American forward could occupy a lot of space in that cupboard. Like Sawchenko, Gettinger is not someone you’d be looking to use a high pick on, but instead, would give the Leafs the opportunity to address an organizational need, and that’s size that can play up and down the forward lineup.
His point totals are somewhat underwhelming at this stage having just 9 goals and 23 points in 37 games, but this will easily be an improvement over his 25 point total last year, and Gettinger was a point per game player for Team USA during the Ivan Hlinka tournament.
Improving speed will be an issue, and Gettinger appears to be more of a project than someone who we can expect to see in the NHL in a couple of years, but while size isn’t everything, it’s often not a good idea to build a roster completely devoid of it. Gettinger has that, has the offensive upside, and the physical presence to be worth a look.
Kale Clague- D
Kale Clague is one of the names that has slowly been sliding out of the first round whenever updated draft listings come out. At this point, Sportsnet is the only major outlet with him still in their top 30, and by next month, Clague could unanimously be regarded as a 2nd/3rd round guy.
That could be good news for a team like the Leafs that still need to focus on finding high-end defensive talent, and a big part of Clague’s slide is attributed to the fact that the Wheat Kings have made it impossible to supplant their 1-2 D, as Macoy Erkamps and Ivan Provorov have solidified their positions at the top of depth chart.
Clague’s got all of the tools to be a top offensive defenseman in the NHL. He’s got the shot, he makes the smart pass, his skating is certainly near the top level of players in the WHL, but when he put up 13 points in 20 games last season before being injured, there was certainly a hope that he’d be better than 19 points in 47 games this season. It’s easy to point fingers at his injury in 2014-15 as the reason for this set back.
There are a number of swing-for-the-fences defensive prospects who could come up in the 2nd and 3rd rounds – Clague’s Team Cherry teammate Sean Day being another – but few have the raw talent of Clague, and while this year has been an offensive setback it’s likely something that can be turned around.
Dillon Dube- F
Death, taxes, and me pumping the tires of a Western Hockey League centerman come draft time. Initially I thought my target would be Sam Steel (who is still very good), but the more I’ve seen of Dillon Dube, the more I believe that he could sneak his way into the conversation for being an option with the Pittsburgh first round pick, or being an absolute steal with the Leafs second round pick.
Having a player like Nick Merkley to work with certainly helps Dube, but in many ways we’re already seeing Dube pass him and become the driving force of the Rockets offense with 46 points in 40 games in the lower scoring WHL.
While the offensive side of Dube looks strong, with his near elite skating looks to be his biggest asset. He’s still got some work to do in his own end, which when you’re saying that about a junior player it’s usually one hell of an uphill climb. Size factors into this, as Dube is 5’10, but the fact that his line with Merkley and Tyson Baillie really is designed for pure offense likely also plays a role.
It’s highly likely that although listed as a center, Dube could be one of the players moved over to the wing for the prospects game, and the team that drafts him might develop him along those same lines.
Jordan Kyrou- F
Good Toronto kid looking to play for his hometown team some day. We’ve heard this story a thousand times, but we’ll tell it again for the sake of looking at Kyrou, who could be a steal with the Leafs 3rd but could still climb his way up higher on draft lists.
Kyrou is a very smart playmaker who primarily gets used on the wing. Second only to Pavel Zacha, a top ten pick last season, on the Sting in scoring, Kyrou has been an important part of what hasn’t been exactly the greatest offensive team in the league.
Kyrou seems to have an above average skillset across the board, but doesn’t particularly standout in anyone area of his game, that leaves me to wonder if he’s going to look good against his CHL peers, and possibly do well at the AHL level, but not be capable of taking that next step. It’s usually this type of analysis that leads to players like Matt Barzal being overlooked because they don’t have a particular ‘wow’ factor or skill.
Kyrou is potentially a safe a pick, but he’s a smart one. It will be interesting to see where he winds up.
The Leafs are tied for league worst point total at 43 heading into tonight’s game in Tampa Bay, and have a lot of draft picks with more likely on the way. Furthermore, there are 40 players in this game who are expected to go in the first three rounds of the draft where the Leafs presently have five picks. It’s time to educate yourself on junior hockey, or if you already follow junior hockey, enjoy some of the best face off against each other.