At the start of every National Hockey League season, the announcement of development camp rosters begins a season-long scramble for information on players. NCAA free agents, CHL tryouts, European prospects, and other undrafted players get an opportunity to make a name for themselves at these development camps, and NHL teams get another chance to lay claim to them.
Since Kyle Dubas took over as General Manager, the Leafs have invited more players to development camps than any team I can think of. While they have not used the loophole that allows teams to sign draft eligible players like Philippe Myers or Michael McNiven through development camp, the Leafs have still been able to utilize the camp to find players for AHL depth or assess their most recent draft prospects.
I decided to pick one player from the AHL, ECHL, OHL, WHL, QMJHL, and NCAA who have shown great development as their respective regular seasons come to a close. They were all expected to participate in the Leafs 2019 development camp if not for injury, and all of them have yet to start an Entry Level Contract.
These players are what I consider part of the Leafs “rainy day fund”, not part of the current NHL considerations but available exclusively to them as their depth needs change.
I was fortunate enough to attend the Leafs 2018 training camp in Niagara Falls, where I first saw Kristians Rubins.
He was one of over 70 players listed on the roster, but one of very few with no prior connection to the Leafs. At first he caught my eye because of his size (6’4″), but he was paired with Timothy Liljegren and played a lot in the games I watched. He could move the puck pretty well and wasn’t a bad skater for his size, so I made note of him and awaited the roster cuts.
Eventually Rubins was also cut from Marlies camp but signed an ECHL deal with the Growlers. I wasn’t sure what to expect from a 20 year old Latvian with two years of North American experience, but he signed an AHL deal before November could roll around.
This year Rubins has spent the full season with the Marlies, with 14 points in 45 games to date. His combination of size and puck moving ability are difficult to find in the AHL, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Leafs sign the 22 year old to a 2 year ELC in the offseason.
JUSTIN BRAZEAU with the HAT-TRICK 🎩
— Newfoundland Growlers (@NLGrowlers) March 1, 2020
That is a man who likes to score goals.
Conveniently he added a 4th in that game to make it 25 on the season, putting him in the top 10 for single season goals by a u22 ECHL player over the past 10 years.
This should not be news to anyone who anyone who saw him score 60 goals in the OHL last year, but players with Brazeau’s talent rarely play in the ECHL. The fact that he’s 6’6″ makes him a very interesting project for the Leafs.
Brazeau’s skating has historically been the limiting factor to his success, but he is undoubtedly spending a lot of time with skating coach Barb Underhill. He is going to be a long term project, but he should at least be taking a step up to the Marlies on the 2nd year of his AHL deal.
It is too early to say if Brazeau can transition to the speed of the AHL and develop into an NHL prospect, but there is the potential for him to have a strong AHL rookie season alongside Semyon Der-Arguchitsev. More on that in the OHL section.
This was originally going to be a list of unsigned players, but I had to bend the rules to include Nic Robertson. A 2nd round draft pick, I would be genuinely surprised if I was the first to tell any Leaf fan he has 50 goals in 43 games for Peterborough.
He has a higher goal per game ratio than Alex Debrincat in his D+1 year, or any other CHL player since at least 2005 for that matter. This can’t turn into a Nic Robertson appreciation post, so here’s some more reading on him if you are interested. His ELC technically does not begin until he plays 10 games, so he still counts towards the rainy day fund.
As I mentioned earlier, Robertson’s teammate SDA might be more interesting for Marlies fans. Next year he will be eligible to play for the Marlies, unlike Robertson due to the NHL-CHL agreement, and his skill set could be a strong fit with Brazeau. SDA has 67 points this season but 59 of those are assists, as he often defers to Robertson for a shot.
Brazeau is a great shooter with size and SDA is a great passer that lacks size. With Jeremy Bracco becoming waiver eligible next season and Robertson confined to the NHL or OHL, this pair of rookies could end up with a much larger role than anticipated. Of course the Marlies are continuously one of the deepest teams in the AHL, and they could sign veterans to fill those roles, but it may be in the best interest of the Leafs to let these two develop alongside one another.
Filip Kral started the season off strong with Spokane, floating around the top 3 for WHL scoring by defencemen for a couple months. He’s cooled off slightly, but still has 49 points in 52 games, good for top 10.
A 5th round pick in 2018, Kral has shown continued improvement since his draft year. Besides getting stronger, he upped his point total each season in the WHL and has taken on a leadership role with the Chiefs.
A 20 year old defenceman putting up a point per game in the CHL isn’t the same as an 18 or 19 year old, but Kral may be proving he’s worth an ELC. His rights expire this summer, and his hands and skating in traffic would be a good asset for the Marlies.
Depending on how Kelowna performs in the playoffs, we may get an early look at him with the Marlies down the stretch.
Mikhail Abramov’s numbers so far this year are exciting, but he has a long ways to go before he’s ready to play pro.
At the draft he was slated as an undersized forward with a high hockey IQ and great passing ability. From what I’ve seen he still fits that description, but he has added a scoring touch to his game. 35 of Abramov’s 74 points are goals, in just 61 games.
Abramov really seems like another boom or bust pick, but any chance you get in the 4th round to draft a player with that upside you take it. He still has not turned 19 yet and currently sits tied for 14th in QMJHL scoring.
If the Leafs decided to sign Abramov this summer he would still be eligible for an ELC slide before turning pro in 2021-22.
Nick Abruzzese was drafted in the 4th round in 2019, as a 20 year old Harvard commit. At 5’9″ and 161 pounds, he would have to make a pretty big impact this year to get on the radar as a legitimate prospect.
Luckily for the Leafs, he has.
#ECACHockey Rookie of the Month: Nick Abruzzese.
The @HarvardMHockey earns his THIRD straight Rookie of the Month honor after leading all rookies in scoring with 12 points. He's now fourth in @NCAAIceHockey (first among freshman) in points per-game. pic.twitter.com/rSui0CWUa7
— ECAC Hockey (@ecachockey) March 3, 2020
Abruzzese now has 39 points in 29 games, which is a higher point per game rate than current Leaf Alex Kerfoot had at the same age. It’s higher even than Kerfoot’s 45 point final season at Harvard. His production is absolutely in line with that of a future NHLer, but there is more parts of his game to round out. I have not watched him play enough to say what exactly he needs to work on, but Abruzzese may end up spending another couple of years at Harvard.
Regardless, once he has decided he’s ready to go pro the Leafs will add a player with a lot of upside on an ELC. Even going back to the days of Dominic Toninato and Tony Cameranesi in the system, the Leafs have not had a player like this in the NCAA for a long time.
I’ll start off by saying Nick Robertson has a chance to play in the NHL next year. While Debrincat was slightly over 2 p/g, Robertson is scoring goals at a faster rate and Debrincat scored 28 NHL goals in his D+2 year. I think a lot will depend on how Robertson does in the playoffs and who the Leafs move in the summer, but Robertson on the 3rd line for $821,666 is pretty tempting. Perhaps just for 9 games. If Robertson is returned to the OHL again next season his contract will slide again, either way he is exempt from the expansion draft.
Just due to the nature of his rights expiring this summer, Kral is next on the timeline. The Leafs will need to decide if he’s worth an ELC by June 1st, if they do it will be a 3 year contract. Next year the Marlies likely will not have Rasmus Sandin on the left side, and it’s no guarantee Martin Marincin or Calle Rosen end up in the AHL. That leaves Teemu Kivihalme for LHD, and a big opening for a player like Kral.
Speaking of Marlies LHD, Kristians Rubins is going to be an important player for them next season. I said earlier that I believe he’ll earn an ELC, in which case it would be a 2 year contract.
Justin Brazeau has another year left on his AHL deal, it makes the most sense that he would play that out for the Marlies and decide what the plan is from there. If he signs an ELC before January 1, 2022 it would be a 3 year deal.
As I mentioned earlier Abramov could sign this summer and have his ELC slide for a year, but the Leafs could just as easily wait until the summer of 2021 and sign him to the same contract. Since he was taken in the CHL import draft and not loaned to Victoriaville, he isn’t eligible to play in the AHL until 2021-22.
Finally there’s Abruzzese, who could be a while until he turns pro. The Leafs hold his rights until 2023, when he would finish his 4 years at Harvard. Just based on his production as a freshman I could see him leaving school early, but there is many more personal factors that weigh into the decision. It’s always nice though to have a prospect in the NCAA who could potentially join your roster for a playoff push, something in the rainy day fund.