The TLN Exit Interviews are still trucking along and today we take a look at three players who made their NHL debuts this season. Arguably all three did better than expected but how much of a future do they have with the Leafs? How many Dubas heads did they earn? These are the important questions we will answer.
William Nylander was the biggest reasons for optimism in Toronto this season even before he was promoted to the Leafs. Scoring at above a point per game pace heading into the World Junior’s the first half of the season was spent anticipating when Nylander would be a Leaf. A concussion in the first game of the World Junior Tournament slowed his arrival with the Leafs, but post trade deadline he proved he was worth the wait.
Nylander would finish the year scoring at a rate that would be good enough for leading the Leafs this season, and doesn’t look out of place in the NHL. It’s safe to say that after the Marlies Calder Cup run this spring his AHL days will be behind him.
Right now, I think it’s safe to say that most of us are looking forward to at least the next decade of Willie being in the Leafs top six. As of today he looks like he’ll be joining Kadri as one of the centers on the top two lines.
That’s not to say that Nylander is exactly where the Leafs need him to be. He still needs to improve his play away from the puck, he needs to adjust to playing in his own zone at the highest level, and he’ll need to be prepared for lining up against tougher competition in the future as well.
Of course his speed and puck handling is magical and that will go a long way at any level.
There aren’t too many players deserving of a perfect five out of five on the Leafs, but Nylander is pretty close. He exceeded all expectations of a rookie making his debut, and he dominated the AHL. All and all that’s probably good enough for a 4.5 score, but once you factor his beautiful hair and piercing eyes and you have to consider him perfect.
Zach Hyman finished his senior year at the University of Michigan with some incredible numbers. Of course he was playing with Dylan Larkin who had a strong start to his NHL career as well. Hyman didn’t seem interested in signing with Florida and the Leafs picked him up for the low, low price of Greg McKegg, reuniting Hyman with his former advisor (read: agent) Kyle Dubas.
Like Nylander, Hyman had a solid year with the Marlies, and will add tremendous value to their playoff run, but what was surprising was that Hyman adjusted so quickly to the NHL. Playing 15 minutes a night and picking up six points was better than expected, and with Babcock giving him the vote of confidence that he’ll be a Leaf next season seems like the cherry on top of an impressive year.
Despite the vote of confidence from Babcock, Hyman’s spot on the Leafs roster is far from determined. He finished the year playing third line minutes, but on a competitive Leafs team Hyman might be better suited on the fourth line.
If the Leafs are deep and Hyman would be relegated to thirteenth forward duties it’s much more likely that he returns to the Marlies. On a team with Laich, Bozak, Greening, Komarov, Froese and Michalek all still occupying bottom six roles it could be tough for Hyman to break into the NHL immediately, but with changes promised, the Leafs could be making room for Zach.
As a college senior who was acquired for peanuts the expectations weren’t particularly high for Zach. We were to assume he’d be better than McKegg and potentially be an NHLer, but that can mean a lot of things. Hyman ended up looking like someone that could be an affordable option in the bottom six, and that’s pretty swell, so he gets 3 and a half Dubases.
At the beginning of the year it was hard to imagine that either Sparks or Bibeau would find their way up to the Leafs, but Bernier’s early struggles and Reimer’s injuries forced the hand and Sparks got the call.
The fact that Sparks entered the league with a shutout in his debut gave Leafs fans a lot of hope that their future goaltender had arrived. It was a game that was arguably the best on ice moment for the Leafs the Leafs this season. After that initial game Sparks played in 16 more, but only had a save percentage above .900 in six of them. The fact that he finished the year with five straight losses doesn’t bode well for Sparks starting the next season with the Leafs.
As a restricted free agent there’s a possibility that we’ve seen the last of Sparks in the Leafs organization, though that seems unlikely given his age, the Leafs current goaltending depth, and cost to keep him.
Sparks will likely be one of three goaltenders competing for time on the Marlies next season, and given Bibeau’s struggles and Kaskisuo still being a relatively unknown commodity at this point, Sparks could be the Marlies workhorse next season.
If all goes well for Sparks he’ll establish himself as a future backup on the Leafs, which isn’t a particularly exciting upside.
Overall it wasn’t a great year for Sparks. So his score is based on three things
1. His debut shutout being a great game
2. Stepping into the backup role before he was ready
3. His contribution to the Leafs tank.