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Photo Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki / USA TODAY Sports

The Leafs might have to walk away from four prospects, and that’s a good thing

The Toronto Maple Leafs have become good at amassing prospect depth. Very good; perhaps too good for their own good. Four Leafs draft picks have been singled out as players that the team could lose if they don’t sign them to contracts by certain cutoffs.

Drafted 2016/17 Season
Player Selected Age Year Rd Pick Team League GP G A PTS PIM +/- NHLe
Dominic Toninato 23 2012 5 126 UMin-Duluth NCHC 42 16 13 29 30 25 24.34
Fabrice Herzog 22 2013 5 142 Zurich Lions NLA 44 9 11 20 14 10 16.02
Nikita Korostelev 20 2015 7 185 Sting/Petes OHL 55 29 35 64 12 1 28.63
Stephen Desrocher 21 2015 6 155 Kingston Frontenacs OHL 65 12 39 51 30 1 19.3

Naturally, the idea of giving up players that the team committed assets to (in this case, four late-round draft picks over four drafts), is a little bit concerning. It seems like poor asset management when you think about it; like you’re throwing players away.

At the same time, though, there are a few other factors at play before one can go screaming for the hills.

First and foremost, when you’re a team that prides itself around amassing depth, even small contracts can be risky ones. Take a player like Korlostelev. Canucks Army’s Prospect Graduation Probabilities System (pGPS), which weights various factors and contributions in a players development career to see how likely he is to have a successful career, ranks him as the likeliest of these four prospects to graduate and play at least 200 NHL games.

That sounds great until you realize that his ranking is just 16.5% and that on a typical NHL team, his likely end destination is as a bottom six or even injury replacement player. For reference, the lowest odds that pGPS gave anybody in our Top 20 this summer that came out of the OHL was 23.9% for Jeremy Bracco, and that was with a career sample that was rooted more into his USHL career with just 58 OHL games to work with. Bracco has seen those odds climb with his Draft+2 season, but that’s what 83 points in 57 games will do for you at that level; Korostelev had some sweet highlights, but only stayed a little bit over a point per game.

That’s not terrible, but for a 6’1, 200-pound skill-based winger who is playing Major Junior at Age 20, you want something more. I was a huge Korostelev booster when they picked him, and if they were to find room for him somewhere in the organization I’d be happy with the decision, but as it stands, it’s hard to feel that it’s vital to keep him.

Keep in mind that he is the brightest light of these four; Desroscher sits at 6.3% (with best case scenario comparables being Greg De Vries and Dalton Prout), Toninato sits at 3% (with Matt Henricks and Chris Porter being best cases), and Herzog has no comparables who have come up with through his path. While he did have a really nice goal against Canada in the World Championships, his regular season consisted of him being doubled in goals and points by his teammate Patrick Thoresen, who’s NHL career peaked with blocking a shot with his groin.

While anything can happen with any of these guys, history sides against all of them in even the most neutral of situations.

2017/18 Toronto Marlies Projected Depth (Not Including UFAs)

Left Wing Centre Right Wing LH Defence RH Defence
B. Leipsic A. Brooks S. Griffith T. Dermott J. Holl
K. Rychel B. Smith J. Bracco A. Nielsen
A. Johnson F. Gauthier N. Soshnikov C. Rosen
T. Moore M. Aaltonen D. Timashov A. Borgman
T. Lindberg T. Cameranesi J. Piccinich R. Valiev
J. Walker

The Leafs organization isn’t the most neutral of situations, though; especially for a group that includes two wingers, a centre, and a left-handed defenceman. The team already has 37 players under contract for next year, and that’s with eight restricted free agents and at least one or two entry-level contracts to potential re-sign and with no efforts to replace any of the various UFAs scattered around the top two clubs. Not to mention, a look at the Marlies (since none of those four would be NHLers) has you wondering where any of them could find a spot.

Korostelev and Herzog would likely struggle to get in the lineup most nights or would have to head to the Orlando Solar Bears to play. That should rule out Herzog, who is already playing pro in Switzerland, immediately; he’s not jumping over here to play ECHL hockey. The only centre of this group (which doesn’t include Brett Findlay, who’s return wouldn’t shock me) that Toninanto stacks up with his former UMD teammate Tony Cameranesi, and even then, we’re talking about a comparison to a player who outperformed him in college and scored only 7 points in 31 AHL games this year. Desrochers would have a much easier route; the 21-year-old would be fighting with at least five other defencemen for a spot on his natural side; two of which are both younger and more established than him.

Sheehy says he will talk to the Leafs about Toninato again on July 3, adding the forward is not interested in an AHL deal.

“Dom’s a good player. Will teams be interested? Yes. There will be many teams interested in him,” said Sheehy. “The process right now is working with the Leafs. They hold his rights till Aug. 16. They have a lot of things that they’re trying to figure out.”

-Neil Sheehy (Toninato’s agent) to the Toronto Star, May 20

The point here isn’t to say that all four of these players are sure-things to never make it that the Leafs are the absolute pinnacle of prospect cultivation. But we’re looking at three players who will likely seek to find entry-level contracts somewhere else in the league, and one who will likely stay across the pond to play professional hockey at home, because those situations are better for them.

A few years ago, that would’ve sounded catastrophic; it would’ve sounded like the Leafs were so much of a mess to take a chance on. Today, though, it’s a different story; one where a “thanks, but no thanks” means that there just might be too much of a traffic jam of similarly aged, similarly styled players who are a little bit better. The opportunities are elsewhere not because of ill-preparedness, but due to the bottlenecking that comes with only having so many contracts and so many roster spots to give.

If they do sign none of the four, it’s possible that the Leafs regret letting go of these lottery tickets (Korostelev, Desrochers, and Herzog on June 1st, Toninato on August 16th). But it’s only because the team has put itself in a position where they’ll have as many or more chances as everyone else does to find more NHL talent through its pipeline for at least the next few years, and that’s encouraging to see.

  • Harte of a Lion

    If the Leafs are to achieve a development system similar to MLB, they must convince these players to sign minor league deals at a higher $$$ amount than they could receive on an NHL contract with another organization. For example take Desrocher, he might find a team that will give him His first 2-way contract however with his current skill set, its likely he ends up on the AHL team earning the stipulated salary. If he chose the Leafs and and AHL contract, he can earn double the salary while utilizing the organizations tremendous development tools. He will be offered an NHL contract when his skills warrant it.
    Since this idea of a multi-tiered development program is foreign to not only the players, their agents and the other 31 teams, it will take time for the hockey world to accept it as another and hopefully a better path to the NHL.

  • Gary Empey

    This will be an ongoing problem as long as the Leafs keep drafting so well in the later rounds. There is only so much room at the inn. Unfortunately even with the best of scouts and player evaluation it is inevitable that with this many good but not fully developed, prospects we will fail to sign some that end up surprising us and go on to have a steady NHL career. Let’s not forget NHL teams are allowed to sign a maximum of 50 players on our roster. Any other we wish to sign will have to accept a contract with the Marlies where there is no limit on the number of players one can sign. Mind you there is a limit on the number of players one can actually use. I think the Marlies had so many players signed they had trouble this year getting some young guys ice time to continue their development. Toninato is a prime example. His agent said he is not interested in signing an AHL contract. He wants an ELC even though he likely expects to be playing in the AHL.

    • Harte of a Lion

      I wonder if that’s Toninato or his agent speaking. I don’t understand a kid turning down double the money to play for an organization with the deep development tools the Maple Leafs can offer. I understand that once he signs his ELC, free agency starts ticking but if he spends the next three years on the farm, or even in the ECHL, is he further ahead? Sounds to me his agent is trying to push Lou and that’s never a good idea. The only reason the Leafs use a SPC on him is their lack of depth at centre. If the Leafs can draft a couple of overage centres, like they did last draft with Brooks, I see them letting him walk.

      • Brooksterman

        The indication from the article from May 20th was that the Leafs want to see where their pro contract situation is after July 1st. Apparently the Leafs offered him an ELC after last year but he turned it down because he wanted to finish his education. So clearly they saw something in him as recent as last year to offer him an ELC. The question is what has changed in a year to change their mind about him if at all. Plus there is one guy we’re all forgetting we could lose at the same time as Desrocher and Korostelev and that is Dzierkals. He needs to sign an ELC or they’ll lose him as well on June 15.

      • Gary Empey

        I think sometimes we all focus on the Leaf’s needs and tend to overlook the player’s point of view. For example if you were a right wing prospect drafted by the Leafs, wouldn’t you have a look at their lineup before signing anything. On right wing last year we had Marner, Nylander, Brown, and Kapanen. There really is not much future for a right wing prospect on the Leafs any time soon. Now in Toninato case I think Babcock emphatically stated we need center depth.

        Dominic Toninato
        Forward — shoots L
        Born Mar 9 1994 — Duluth, MN
        [23 yrs. ago]
        Height 6.02 — Weight 190

        In 42 games last year at U of M, he scored 16 goals, 13 assists, with 30 minutes in penalties.

        • Gary Empey

          It would be nice to know how prospective Leaf centers did on the faceoff draws. Either that information is not available or is not considered important.
          Inquiring minds would like to know.

          • AussieBoy

            It’s funny,it didn’t occur to me until after reading your comment……Tyler Bozak goes soonish,then that face off success rate goes with him….Then what?

      • killerkash

        You have to consider the player’s long term outlook and opportunity. If Toninato were to sign a contract with the Marlies he would not have any guarantee as to how much playing time he would get or even how many games he might dress. If young players don’t get playing time they won’t develop. It’s a real concern for some of these guys.

  • magesticRAGE

    Of those listed prospects, I would try to sign Korostelev. His offense has been inconsistent, but he has improved his two-way game and still possesses a high upside. His game could suddenly click, and he has the physical attributes to take the risk, including his skating improvement. Players like Leipsic could make a splash every year in the AHL or a European league, just not with the Leafs. His passing could make way for Korostelev, as the Marlies could use some more size.