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Photo Credit: Nick Barden

The 2021 Top 20 Leafs Prospects: #8 Nick Abruzzese

One of my favourite and not-as-well-known prospects in the Leafs’ system is Nick Abruzzese. We at The Leafs Nation love our Nicks, between staff writer Nick Barden, my co-contributor Nick Richard (one of our resident prospect wizards), and some guy named Nick Robertson who might be pretty good, and now Abruzzese, who is a legitimately interesting prospect coming through the ranks.

Now in his draft+4 season, and his junior year with Harvard, Abruzzese is climbing up my list of favourite prospects (and favourite Nicks, watch out Nick Richard!). Here’s his basic information, from Elite Prospects:

Position: Center 

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Age: 22

Height: 5’9″ / 175 cm

Weight: 161 lbs / 73 kg

Drafted: By Toronto, 124th overall, 2019 NHL Entry Draft

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2020-21 Team: Harvard University Crimson (did not play)

2020 Prospect Ranking: #10

Abruzzese is not well known at this point, and was even less well known when the Leafs drafted as a double-overager in 2019. His main exposure to scouting was his time with the Chicago Steel of the USHL. The Steel have developed a unique training program through Darryl Belfry, who is a specialized hockey trainer who works with some of the league’s biggest stars, including our own Auston Matthews.

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Despite being a bit under the radar, he’s built up a good reputation as a scorer at the college level. In his most recent season, he put up a really solid 0.94 points per game in his draft+3 season, good for 5th in NCAA among players in their draft+3 season or younger. Below are the top 15 of that same group, from Pick224:

LEAGUE NAME DY+/- POS SEASON GP EV P1/GP PP P1/GP P1/GP eTOI/GP P1/e60 DRAFT YEAR NHL DRAFT DRAFT TEAM NHL TEAM
NCAA Jack Drury DY+2 F 2020 28 0.6429 0.5 1.1429 22.69 3.0219 2018 CAR (2018) – #42 CAR CAR
NCAA Tyler Madden DY+2 F 2020 27 0.7037 0.4074 1.1111 23.91 2.7879 2018 VAN (2018) – #68 VAN LAK
NCAA Alex Newhook DY+1 F 2020 34 0.6765 0.2059 1 17.96 3.3413 2019 COL (2019) – #16 COL COL
NCAA Tyce Thompson DY+3 F 2020 34 0.5588 0.3824 0.9706 20.25 2.8755 2017 NJD (2019) – #96 NJD NJD
NCAA Nicholas Abruzzese DY+3 F 2020 31 0.5806 0.3548 0.9355 20.41 2.7494 2017 TOR (2019) – #124 TOR TOR
NCAA Morgan Barron DY+3 F 2020 29 0.5862 0.3103 0.8966 19.75 2.7237 2017 NYR (2017) – #174 NYR NYR
NCAA Logan Hutsko DY+3 F 2020 30 0.6333 0.2333 0.8667 18.88 2.7537 2017 FLA (2018) – #89 FLA FLA
NCAA Jack Rathbone DY+3 D 2020 28 0.3571 0.5 0.8571 25.37 2.0273 2017 VAN (2017) – #95 VAN VAN
NCAA Griffin Loughran DY+3 F 2020 37 0.5676 0.2703 0.8378 19.94 2.5206 2017
NCAA Cole Caufield DY+1 F 2020 36 0.5 0.3333 0.8333 19.86 2.5171 2019 MTL (2019) – #15 MTL MTL
NCAA Trevor Zegras DY+1 F 2020 33 0.4545 0.3636 0.8182 20.27 2.422 2019 ANA (2019) – #9 ANA ANA
NCAA Jakov Novak DY+3 F 2020 35 0.4 0.2857 0.7714 18.78 2.465 2017 OTT (2018) – #188 OTT OTT
NCAA Noah Cates DY+3 F 2020 34 0.4412 0.3235 0.7647 18.62 2.4643 2017 PHI (2017) – #137 PHI PHI
NCAA Mathias Emilio Pettersen DY+2 F 2020 36 0.3611 0.3889 0.75 17.1 2.631 2018 CGY (2018) – #167 CGY CGY
NCAA Curtis Hall DY+2 F 2020 28 0.6071 0.1429 0.75 17.65 2.5495 2018 BOS (2018) – #119 BOS BOS
NCAA David Farrance DY+3 D 2020 34 0.3529 0.3824 0.7353 24.35 1.8115 2017 NSH (2017) – #92 NSH NSH

As you can see, he topped even the likes of Cole Caufield and Trevor Zegras, though of course they are 2 years younger.

Abruzzese is a scoring-type forward, which tends to translate well to the NHL. He was Harvard’s top line center in 2019-20, and led the team with 44 points. Unfortunately, Harvard did not play the 2020-21 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, obviously. Missing last season is certainly a hurdle in his developmental path, but given how well he performed in the 2019-20 season, he deserves the staying power in our prospect rankings. It’s also likely that all prospects felt some kind of disruption this past year, like all of us. Maybe the year of games and focusing on off-ice training will be good for him.

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He also suffered some hip problems near the end of the 2019-20 season, and ended up having surgery that offseason.

“It’s something that was bothering me so it was a good time to get it done. I won’t be missing any games for school now so if there was ever a time to get it done, this was it. I’m just trying to focus on the recovery and trying to get back to being as healthy and as productive as I can be. Hopefully, I can start skating in the near future and be able to start ramping things up soon.”

Below is a great thread of highlight clips from that 2019-20 season by friend-of-the-blog Kevin Papetti. Click the link to see all of the videos in a thread!

You can see from the above highlights that he’s a very shifty player, and quick with the puck. He’s able to use those skills to generate chances on the rush regularly. He’s also got the kind of shot that (at the NCAA level at least) you’re trying to set up on the powerplay.

What to expect

Abruzzese is one of those prospects that is somewhat boom-or-bust, to use an overused phrase. He’s got the kinds of offensive skills that, if they translate to the NHL, will see him easily attain a top-9 forward position. However, if he can’t get those skills to translate, there’s little else he could do for an NHL team. That’s not to say he’s bad defensively, it’s just that that isn’t his best skill set. It’s really tough to say whether that’s going to happen or not. If I could tell you, I’d be getting paid a lot more. What I do know is that scoring points in the development leagues does generally translate to being useful in the NHL, whether that’s in a scoring role, or transitioning to a two-way or shutdown role. Offensive skills come from talents that can translate to defensive skills, with sufficient coaching and training.

He will be back in college this year for his junior year, though it will only be his second NCAA hockey season. Many prospects transition to the pro leagues after their junior year, but some finish their degrees. It’s hard to say in which camp Abruzzese will be, but my assumption is that he will join the Marlies for the 2022-23 season.

In this year, as the whole Ivy League restarts, it will be important for Abruzzese to focus on getting back into the groove of playing hockey, testing out his hip surgery, and building up the strength needed to transition to pro hockey. Seeing Cole Caufield and Trevor Zegras succeed at the NHL level is a good sign for Abruzzese, because he fits a similar mold, though he is a little older. It’s not fair to expect that kind of success. But, he does have the tools to do something that approaches that, in time.