Skip to main content

William Nylander poses for a photo with team officials after being selected as the number eight overall pick to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft at Wells Fargo Center.Bill Streicher

It's a dead horse that has been beaten so thoroughly it's a wonder there's anything left. But with the Toronto Maple Leafs set to embark on another season by first embarking on another rookie camp this weekend in London, Ont., we must venture there yet again.

Yes, it's time to talk prospects.

No one would argue the Leafs are a model citizen on this front. How could an organization be when it didn't even make a first-round pick in 2003, 2004, 2007 and 2010?

And traded another away, in Tuukka Rask, who became one of the best goaltenders in the league with a division rival? And wasted others still on players with limited upside given where they were taken? (Hello Tyler Biggs.) So there's that dead horse again.

Now, ranking a franchise's prospects is a feat best left to the experts, and when it comes to the NHL, there are few. Ryan Kennedy of the Hockey News is one, and his publication put the Leafs' prospects at 29th out of 30 NHL teams in the magazine's Future Watch issue back in March before the draft. ESPN's guru Corey Pronman, meanwhile, upgraded the Leafs to 17th from 24th the year before, largely on the strength of picking William Nylander eighth overall in June as the Brendan Shanahan era began in Toronto.

Pronman's evaluation, however, came with a key caveat. "There are still reasonable concerns about how many really good prospects are in this system beyond the top few names," he wrote.

Over all, it's not a great developmental picture for an organization that has the seventh-fewest points in the league the past five seasons– a direct result of all the high picks dealt away or whiffed on. The Leafs are beginning to build a stable of mid- to late-rounders that could turn into something, but there aren't many sure things. Some of that is because the players with the highest upside are already in the NHL. Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner and Nazem Kadri are all still young and have considerable developing to do, and the Leafs modest playoff hopes this year (and likely next) are largely tied up in how quickly they improve.

But this is a team that needs more top-end talent at the NHL level, and when the biggest issue with the prospect base is that it lacks players that project to be potential stars, that's a problem. It's not a new one for the Leafs either.

The Leafs' top prospects to watch

William Nylander: Yes, he's young. He's small. He slipped in the draft. But he's also remarkably talented, and the Leafs have the unique option of developing him in the NHL, AHL or overseas. You don't get sure things at eighth overall, but the son of long-time former NHLer Michael Nylander was worth betting on.

Stuart Percy: A late first rounder three years ago, Percy already has put a full season in the AHL under his belt and hardly looked out of place. The organization is very high on his development primarily due to his hockey sense, and he could see some games on the Leafs blueline in case of injury. Not taking part in rookie camp this weekend.

Matt Finn: His eye-opening point and plus-minus totals as captain for a very good Guelph team obviously bode well for his development into one of a handful of similar candidates to play big minutes for the Toronto Marlies. There are questions about his skating but none about his work ethic and intangibles.

Andreas Johnson: A wild card. Taken in the seventh round only a year ago, Johnson was a long shot to ever make an impact at the NHL level, but he surprised with 24 points in 44 games with Frolunda in Sweden's top league as a teenager and has overcome some health issues in doing so. Will continue developing overseas but worth keeping an eye on as one of several late-pick Swedes the Leafs appear to have something in. Not taking part in rookie camp as he's already begun his season back home.

Connor Brown: A sixth rounder two years ago, Brown exploded to lead the OHL in scoring with 128 points. He is years away from the NHL but one of the reasons Pronman was confident in bumping the Leafs ranking up into the middle of the NHL pack.

Josh Leivo: Another very young player that put in a full season in the AHL and showed well with 23 goals in 59 games. Needs to gain strength more than anything but has some offensive skills that could translate to the next level.

Petter Granberg: Definitely on the Leafs' radar after getting a brief audition last year. Not flashy or a big offensive producer, he could have a little of former Leaf Carl Gunnarsson in him. Not taking part in rookie camp as the organization believes he's almost ready for the next steppotentially as the Leafs seventh defender this year if he beats out some of the competition.

Frederik Gauthier: The fear here is his low offensive upside, with many projecting him as only a third- or fourth line-centre at the professional level. Gauthier didn't show a lot of growth offensively in his second junior season, but he has an excellent reputation as a checker and likely factors in down the road as a depth forward.

Carter Verhaeghe: Basically doubled his point totals in his third OHL season with Niagara to raise his profile in the organization dramatically. Verhaeghe was extremely young in his draft year as a mid-August birthday so may be more of a late developer than some of his peers.

Viktor Loov: Yet another Swede in the Leafs' system that could potentially make the jump to the NHL. A seventh-rounder two years ago, he has blossomed into a steady defenceman in Sweden's top league and is considered a terrific skater. If he impresses with the Marlies, could get a look although defence is the one area where there's some competition among Toronto's prospects.