Sitting in the Budweiser Gardens in London, watching the Toronto Maple Leafs’ rookies defeat the Chicago Blackhawks’ rookies 4-2 on Saturday night, I couldn’t help but be impressed with what the future might hold for the Blue and White. The annual rookie tournament provided some insight for coaches, scouts and fans into what the upcoming season, and seasons to come, might hold for the teams involved.
Starting with goaltending, Garrett Sparks was solid, if not spectacular at times, on Saturday. He is looking to take over as the Marlies starter this season, after spending parts of last season backing up Drew McIntyre. Sparks went an impressive 11-6-1, with a 2.63GAA, in 21 games for the Marlies last season. With McIntyre’s departure for Carolina, there is a great battle brewing to take his place. Sparks’ performance Saturday certainly let the Leafs management know that he is going to be a favourable option.
Chris Gibson, who struggled late in Sunday’s 6-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators’ rookies, is also going to be in the discussion for the Marlies’ goaltending opening. Like Sparks, he spent portions of last season backing up McIntyre, going 5-6 with a 2.66GAA in 12 games with the Marlies.
Antoine Bibeau, touted by some as the goalie of the future in Toronto (try not to think about Justin Pogge), will also take a solid run at the Marlies’ goal. He played Tuesday afternoon, shutting out the Pittsburgh rookies in a 2-0 Leafs’ win. Bibeau was 8-11-5, with a 3.29GAA, for the Charlottetown Islanders (QMJHL) before being traded to the Val-D’Or Foreurs (QMJHL), where he finished the season 13-7-1, 3.03GAA and a trip to the Memorial Cup. It will be interesting to see what the Leafs do with Bibeau, as it seems likely they will want him playing regularly, refining his game, not sitting on the bench watching Sparks or Gibson.
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Safe to say, though, the Leafs have created some depth in goal, with three pretty solid youngsters developing behind incumbents Jonathon Bernier and James Reimer. This is good news for the long-term future of the club, but well be an important short-term factor, as it may allow the team to deal one of Bernier or Reimer (clearly, Reimer is the most likely to go) for needed parts closer to the trade deadline, or even next summer.
Defensively, the Maple Leafs have some very big kids waiting to get their shots. Matt Finn really impressed me on Saturday, playing a strong, physical game and getting involved offensively, scoring one of the Leaf goals. Finn had 14G, 47A for the Guelph Storm (OHL) last year, and won a Memorial Cup.
Both Viktor Loov and Tom Nilsson were impressive as well, seemingly playing heavier minutes than others and having little difficulty moving the puck out of their own end. Loov, in particular, seems to see the ice well, making a smart play to set up Finn’s goal in the Saturday game. He will be on the bubble for making the team, and may find himself returning to Sweden if he doesn’t suit up for the Leafs. Along with Eric Knodel, who also impressed, Nilsson is likely destined to get regular time with the Marlies this season.
With young defencemen Jake Gardiner and Morgan Reilly patrolling the blue line in Toronto, some of the other youngsters may have to wait for some veteran players to move on before they find themselves with regular ice time with the Maple Leafs. However, it is exciting to see future depth at this position.
The forward positions were somewhat less impressive, at least offensively, but still provide some hope for years to come. Obviously, William Nylander was the focus of much of the attention during the Rookie Tournament, and he proved to be an exciting player to watch. The crowd jumped to its feet on Saturday when he was sprung on a first period breakaway, only to slump back into their seats when he was smartly stopped by Blackhawks goaltender Mac Carruth. I would describe Nylander as fearless, playing on the edge at times, and not afraid to initiate contact. However, he is small and was seemingly picking himself up off of the ice every shift. It will be very interesting to see how the Maple Leafs handle Nylander. He is going to be a good player, but a year with the Marlies might not be a bad idea.
Jun 27, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; 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. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
One forward who might spend a good part of the season with the Maple Leafs is Josh Leivo. He is a big, impressive forward who doesn’t seem to have any problem going to the net, or the corners, and getting physical. He scored a nice goal on Saturday and had Blackhawks’ defenders looking over their shoulders when they chased down pucks in the corners. The Leafs could use the big winger, and his scoring, though some of the players they have picked up in the off-season (eg, David Booth, Matt Frattin) may make it difficult to keep Leivo.
Two other players, both likely destined for the Marlies, who stood out in London were David Broll, who wore acted as the rookie team captain, and Carter Verhaeghe. Broll played a very physical game, throwing his body at anything that moved on Saturday night. He was in the middle of everything, it seemed, and brought to mind the word “truculence”, thrown around by former GM Brian Burke. Verhaeghe impressed me, not because of his offensive presence, but for his defensive responsibility. He seemed to back-check better than any other forward on the ice and broke up several rushes by the Blackhawks on Saturday. Again, though, with similar players already on the roster of the Maple Leafs (guys like David Clarkson, Troy Bodie, for example), they are likely destined to refine their talents with the Marlies.
Players who I was excited to see, but either didn’t stand out, or disappointed, were Tyler Biggs (played more of a physical game than I expected, but still appears to be lost during the play) and Fredrik Gauthier (another big forward, but doesn’t appear to like to use his size and avoids contact). Both players will need time with the Marlies to develop and prove their worth. It would appear they have a long road ahead, with many players ahead of them on the path to the Maple Leafs.
So, as the “Go Leafs Go!” chants echoed around the Budweiser Gardens throughout the tournament, and the Leafs left London winning two of their three games, I am left with hope for the future, and a hunger for the NHL season to get rolling. The Toronto Maple Leafs certainly appear to have a number of young players in the system who will soon be contributing to the big club down the road. The future appears bright.