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The Leafs’ core is built primarily upon a foundation of high-end talent that they have drafted and developed, but since the dawning of the Matthews/Marner/Nylander era, the organization has gotten very little in the way of contributions from players on entry level contracts. Yes, the Leafs have traded away some picks and prospects in the last couple of years but the lack of young, NHL-ready talent stems from some poor drafting in years prior.
It appears that the tide may be turning, however, as we have already seen players like @Rasmus Sandin, @Timothy Liljegren, and now @Joseph Woll have positive impacts in the NHL this season – and it looks like the Leafs could be on their way to having a steady influx of young talent to continue to supplement the core of their roster for the foreseeable future.
Let’s get to it.
Joseph Woll | G | Toronto Maple Leafs (NHL)
To say that goaltenders are difficult to project would be a massive understatement. Joseph Woll’s numbers with Marlies through his first three professional seasons weren’t exactly pretty and, in turn, there wasn’t much in the way of expectations or excitement among the fanbase when it was announced that he would make his NHL debut. After all, he was only getting into the net because @Petr Mrazek was injured and @Michael Hutchinson had allowed six goals on just 42 shots over two appearances.
Fast forward three games into Woll’s NHL career and it is safe to say that there is some excitement building around the 23-year-old netminder. After a less than tidy win over the Sabres in his first start, he was perfect his next time out, albeit against a floundering Islanders team, and earned his first career shutout.
That performance on Long Island was enough to make head coach Sheldon Keefe feel comfortable giving @Jack Campbell a rare night off in a non-back-to-back situation when the Leafs took on the Sharks on Friday night. Woll rewarded that confidence with another strong outing, stopping 34 of the 35 shots he faced, including a flurry of big saves with San Jose pressing late in the third.
Campbell has played a lot this season, especially when you consider that the biggest concern surrounding the breakout star was how he would be able to handle a heavy workload. Keeping him healthy and fresh as the season progresses will be an area of focus for the Leafs, and that is part of why Mrázek was signed in the first place. The Leafs wanted Campbell’s tandem partner to be someone who could help carry the burden and someone they could trust to give them solid minutes, rather than someone they only played on back-to-backs simply because they had to. The fact that they have been able to get that out of a young, homegrown goaltender making league minimum has been a pleasant surprise, to say the least.
All that said, it has still only been three games and I don’t think Woll has been quite as impressive as his 1.67 GAA and .939 SV% would suggest. There have been a few shaky moments and a couple of goals he would surely like back but overall, he has been very solid while raising expectations for what he could provide to the team moving forward.
Mrázek returned to the ice earlier this week and has been practicing with the team. There has been no update on when he will be able to return to game action, and with the Leafs having another back-to-back this coming weekend, Woll is in line for at least one more start before heading back to the Marlies with the confidence and belief that he can be an NHL goaltender.
Alex Steeves | W | Toronto Marlies (AHL)
Most NCAA free agent signings never amount to much in the NHL but the Leafs have unearthed a couple of decent players over the years like @Tyler Bozak and @Trevor Moore who was sent to Los Angeles in the deal that saw the Leafs acquire Jack Campbell.
It is still very early in his professional career but Alex Steeves is looking like another potential diamond in the rough. Set to turn 22 in a couple of weeks, the New Hampshire native has gotten off to a torrid start with the Marlies after missing the beginning of the campaign while recovering from a shoulder injury suffered at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament. Through 11 games, he has seven goals and five assists – two points back of the team scoring lead for the season. The offensive production shouldn’t be entirely surprising after he led Notre Dame in scoring in each of his last two seasons of college hockey, but that it has translated to the professional level so quickly has been impressive.
If he can keep up this scoring pace for an extended period of time, one has to wonder if he might earn a look with the Leafs before the season is out. @Kirill Semyonov and @Joey Anderson appear to be ahead of him on the depth chart for the time being but after that, it gets murky. @Nicholas Robertson is still out recovering from a broken leg, Josh Ho-Sang is still on an AHL contract, and Semyon Der-Arguchintsev has to continue to round out his game before being considered a viable NHL option. A couple of injuries could be all it takes for Steeves to get his shot.
It is important to manage expectations and not make too much of a limited sample size, but the early returns on Toronto’s most recent NCAA signing have been encouraging. Steeves looks like a player that will contribute at the NHL level somewhere down the line.
Nicholas Abruzzese | W | Harvard University (NCAA)
After a year off the ice due to the pandemic and a long recovery process from overdue hip surgery, Abruzzese has picked up right where he left off when he led Harvard in scoring as a freshman and racked up plenty of accolades along the way, including ECAC Rookie of the Year. Through nine games so far this season, the 2019 fourth-round pick is tied for the team lead in scoring with Montreal Canadiens prospect Sean Farrell.
Abruzzese was drafted as an overaged player in 2019 after leading the USHL in scoring with the Chicago Steel. The knock on him in the past was that he didn’t have the size or strength to utilize his offensive skills in the pro ranks. While he still isn’t a big, physical player by any means, he is now listed at 5’10” and 174 pounds – big enough to handle the rigors of professional hockey, if nothing else.
More than the added size, what will really help Abbruzzese withstand the added physicality of the AHL and NHL is his IQ. An exceptionally smart player, he has the creativity and elusiveness to weave through checks with the puck on his stick and the awareness to fade in and out of pockets of space in the offensive zone.
Set to turn 23-years-old next June, it will be interesting to see if the Leafs try and get his name on a contract when his college season wraps up. The organization holds his NHL rights until August of 2023 but they might prefer to sign him this year rather than risk allowing him to sign wherever he wants the following summer. Abbruzzese is still a project but he is a project the Leafs will want to continue working on in the coming years.
@Mikhail Abramov | C | Toronto Marlies (AHL)
Abramov was on offensive star for Victoriaville in the QMJHL for the last two years but the production hasn’t shown up in the AHL just yet. He has just one goal and four assists through his first 16 games in the AHL but it hasn’t been for lack of opportunity as he has averaged over 16 minutes of ice time per game, often playing on one of the Marlies’ top two lines and skating on their second powerplay unit.
While the goals and assists haven’t been there in abundance, some of Abramov’s underlying stats paint a better picture. Among regular Marlies forwards, Abramov is tied for the third highest shot attempt share according to InStat, and is sixth on the team in individual shots on goal.
The bigger concerns with Abramov’s adjustment to professional hockey are similar to the concerns surrounding Semyon Der-Arguchintsev’s game that Kyle Cushman outlined in last week’s Leafs Prospect Roundup
. Despite generating chances, the Marlies have been caved in on the scoreboard by a margin of 13-5 when Abramov is out there at even strength. It is important to note that both SDA and Abramov have been tasked with a tall order, being asked to fill out the middle of the Marlies’ top two lines in their first AHL seasons, but they will both need to find a way to limit the chances in their own end and tilt the scoreboard more in the Marlies’ favor if the team is going to find success this season.
Still just 20-years-old, an adjustment period was to be expected and there is still plenty of time for Abramov to figure things out as the season progresses. A small, skilled center, he will have to continue to add strength and explosiveness to his stride in order to replicate his junior success with the Marlies. Abramov’s development could serve as a lesson in patience for Leafs fans.
Notes from the rest of the prospect pool
- Matthew Knies had a strong showing against Penn State that saw him net two goals and three assists in two games last weekend but he had a quiter series against North Dakota this past weekend. Though he generated chances and had some decent looks on the powerplay, he managed just a single assist on an empty netter in Friday night’s contest. For the season, Knies has 15 points in 16 games and is tied for the goal-scoring lead among all first-year NCAA players.
- After a couple of games without a point – a rare occurrence for him this season – Topi Niemelä got back onto the scoresheet on Saturday, picking up a pair of assists in Kärpät’s 5-2 victory over HIFK. He currently leads all Liiga defenders in scoring and and is tops among all U20 skaters with 22 points in 25 games.
- Roni Hirvonen had a solid week, picking up three points in three games. It has been a bit of a slow start to the season for him as he has suffered from an unsustainably low shooting percentage, but it appears that the bounces may be starting to go his way a little more often.
- @Rodion Amirov is back on the ice practicing with his club but there is still no word on when he will return to game action. He has played just three games this season and hasn’t been in Salavat Yulaev’s lineup since September 29th.
- @William Villeneuve has been on fire as of late and is currently riding a three-game point streak that has seen him net two goals and six assists. That is almost half of his production for the season in just three games as he now sits on 17 points through 20 contests. Villeneuve led all QMJHL defensemen in scoring during his draft year so the potential for offense is there and it will be interesting to see if he is able to maintain his production while continuing to improve his defensive game as he has done over the course of the last year.
- Speaking of being on fire, Ty Voit has been a man on a mission through the early part of the OHL season. The 2021 fifth-round pick was held off the scoresheet for just the second time in 18 games as Sarnia was shutout by the Soo Greyhounds on Sunday. He picked up a goal and an assist in Saturday’s 4-3 win over the Flint Firebirds and currently leads the Sting with 23 points in 18 games.
- Continuing with that theme, Joe Miller might be the hottest Leafs prospect of all right now. He scored a pair of goals on Saturday, added three assists on Sunday, and has picked up 16 points in his last six games. After a bit of a slow start for the second-year USHL player, he is currently third in scoring on the Chicago Steel roster.
- On the other end of the spectrum, Artur Akhtyamov hasn’t had the start to his season that he had hoped for after putting up solid numbers across multiple levels in Russia last season. He may be turning a corner, however, and stopped 57 of 61 shots he faced in his last two starts. Through 22 appearances in the VHL so far this season, Akhtyamov owns a 2.78 GAA and .902 Sv% compared to a 1.90 GAA and .927 SV% in 14 games at the same level last year.
- Leafs fans could be forgiven if they’ve forgotten about Vladislav Kara but he is still clinging to relevance in the Leafs’ prospect pool. Selected in the fourth round of the 2022 NHL draft, he has toiled around Russia for the last few years but recently signed on with Yugra Khanty-Mansiysk of the VHL and couldn’t have gotten off to a better start with his new team. Through five games, he has scored five times while averaging about 16 minutes of ice time. Kara is now 23-years-old and isn’t likely to figure into the Leafs plans moving forward but his hot start with his new club is worthy of mention.
(Statistics from EliteProspects.com)