2018 TLN Prospect Ranking: N/A
Draft Information: 4th round, 124th overall in 2019
In our next edition of Long Shots, TLN features Nick Abruzzese.
Drafted 124th overall, in the 4th round of the 2019 NHL Draft by the Leafs, Abruzzese was in his third year of draft eligibility. The 20-year-old is off to Harvard University this fall, where he is likely to spend the next few years continuing to develop.
An interesting point when it comes to Abruzzese is the small degree of separation between him and the Leafs. Abruzzese played the last two seasons for the Chicago Steel of the USHL, who have a very public skills partnership with Leafs Skills Consultant Darryl Belfry and Stride Envy Hockey’s Adam Nicholas.
More on that in a bit, though, when we discuss his development.
Why He’s in this Tier
Abruzzese is a newcomer, so putting him in long shots is not a slight on him. The reality is he’s a 20-year-old, in his third year of eligibility, with just one impressive USHL season. While there is upside, and he’ll continue to develop at Harvard, it will be a couple of years before Abruzzese gets consideration for the Marlies, never mind the Leafs.
Another harsh reality is that he’s 5’9, and while the NHL is becoming a safer place for the smaller, skilled players, not every 5’9 guy turns out to become Johnny Gaudreau. The positive of playing in the NCAA, is it tends to develop more complete, pro-ready players. NCAA graduates typically have a more seamless transition to the AHL/NHL because NCAA teams play a more “pro” style than CHL hockey.
While he’s a long shot to make the Leafs, don’t be surprised if Abruzzese ends up contributing at the AHL level.
Now that we’ve established his tier, let’s talk about his tools. Why would the Leafs take a chance on a 20-year-old with one good season? Scouting Director John Lilley said,
“He’s underdeveloped for a ’99. When you look at him, you’d think he’s an ’01. He’s an older kid, but still has room to grow and mature physically.”
The thing about the Leafs’ development philosophy is that they don’t apply the same timeline and model to each player. They understand players develop on different timelines and create the individual plan based on that. When you look at Abruzzese, what Lilley said is accurate. He looks like he’s 18. Players who are physically immature (who aren’t of the special variety) don’t tend to perform well in the USHL at a young age.
However, there was a lot to like about the season Abruzzese had. 2018-19 saw him earn point streaks lasting: 8 games, 6 games, 9 games, and a span of 10 points in 4 games. Overall, he registered points in 47 of the 62 games he played in the regular season, along with 8 of 11 playoff games. That means Abruzzese earned at least one point in 75.3% of the games he played.
Considering he had just 36 points in 56 games the season prior, that’s a sizeable jump in both totals and consistency.
Abruzzese does a lot of things that smaller players don’t do. Leafs fans, think Trevor Moore. While he’s very clearly not the biggest, a ton of the points he registered were as a direct result of him either winning a puck possession battle, or getting to the harder areas in the middle of the ice to make plays. His shot is not a strength, but as he matures physically, it would stand to reason that his shot strength will improve. Apart from his ability to effectively play in the dirty areas, Abruzzese is an above-average playmaker and routinely uses his footwork and stick to make time for his teammates. Any player who shows a willingness to get into traffic to retrieve pucks and score, especially at that size, is going to endear themselves to coaching staffs and teammates.
This brings us to Abruzesse’s biggest asset: his brain. Anyone who has had experience working with him raves about Abruzzese’s learning capacity. His hunger for learning and innate ability to compute things at an elite level is the most impressive thing about him. This is likely the biggest contributing factor to Abruzzese’s development explosion this past season.
A player’s learning capacity is a key indicator of how well they will develop as a hockey player. This is where working with Darryl Belfry, Adam Nicholas, and the rest of the development staff will have a big impact.
Belfry pours over hours of video to watch how each of his players play, and therein helps them build skills that will make them more dangerous. In his skill sessions, Belfry creates drills that are game-like, allowing his clients to practice the skill he’s teaching, in the same way in which they’d use it in a game. This is called “training to game transfer”.
Belfry’s Instagram has many examples of this. When you have a high learning capacity, you are able to intake more, compute more, and therefore, are able to train your brain to make better decisions, and more quickly. With Belfry’s long track record of building individual toolboxes for his clients, and the explosion Abruzzese had last season working with him, it is likely Belfry/Nicholas will continue to build the toolbox while Abruzzese is at Harvard.
As discussed earlier, Abruzzese has already shown his willingness and ability to play in traffic. Many in hockey believe that can’t be taught. Belfry and Nicholas will be able to use his playmaking ability, and willingness to go to the dirty areas to create situations where he can be most dangerous using those attributes.
Given Abruzzese’s size, he will also need to learn to create space for himself to make plays, and to avoid getting hit. He’s already got a high hickey IQ, so developing tools like knocking a stick out of a lane (watch Brad Marchand on the rush) could give him the extra moment to read the D and make a play.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say the best-case scenario for Abruzzese’s career is that he ends up with a similar path to Conor Sheary or Brett Seney. With the way he plays in traffic, he likely finds himself in a role similar to Trevor Moore. This means at least a two years each in the NCAA and AHL.
In order to get there, a lot is going to have to go right for Abruzzese. He’s got a couple of things going for him, though. First off, he’s had the luxury of working with Leafs development staff already (Belfry/Nicholas) in the USHL. They know his strengths/weaknesses and how to improve the parts of his game that he’ll need to hit his ceiling. While NHL teams have less control over their NCAA players, don’t be surprised to see Abruzzese make big strides under the watchful eye of the Leafs development staff.
Second, and this cannot be underestimated, is his learning capacity. I’d take an undeveloped body over an underdeveloped brain 100 times out of 100. It is a lot easier to put on muscle and learn to play with your given size than it is to boost your learning capacity. The potential is so much greater when you have a greater learning capacity, which is why I wouldn’t be shocked to see Abruzzese develop into a Sheary/Seney/Moore type.
Worst case scenario, Abruzzese doesn’t develop as much in the NCAA and struggles to find his footing.
This would likely delay his jump to the AHL which, objectively speaking, is a harder league to play in for the smaller, skilled types. If this happens, Abruzzese likely plays the full 4 years in the NCAA – at Harvard or elsewhere – and the Leafs lose him as a free agent.
That is the worst of the worse. I don’t see that happening. But, in a scenario where he plays out his school eligibility, the worst case is he’s a skilled AHL player or goes to Europe to play on bigger ice. Think where Nathan Gerbe is now.
Taking a swing on a skilled player, who has physically developed slower than his peers, but has a higher learning capacity, is exactly the type of player that could turn out to be a home run in a few years. If I’m the Leafs, I’ll take my chances on someone like that in the 4th round, over someone with a lower ceiling, but a more sure bet to contribute at the AHL level. You’re trying to draft and develop NHL players, and the more successful you are in your draft, the better off your team is. The Leafs took a shot with Abruzzese, and that’s the type of mentality you want your management to have, especially with the resources available to them.