8 Maple Leafs prospects who could help next year
Toronto Maple Leafs' Nick Robertson attends a practice session in Toronto, on Saturday July 25 2020. Photo by Chris Young/CP

It must have been music to their ears.

The in-betweeners in the Maple Leafs organization heard something from Kyle Dubas during season-ending meetings that they couldn’t previously count on: Dubas dangled a pretty big carrot last week by telling prospects that a true competition for NHL jobs is coming this fall, especially for those capable of bringing utility to the bottom-six forward group.

“What their opportunity is going to be in training camp was made abundantly clear, what they’re competing for,” Dubas explained. “We do need those players to begin converting from being good prospects and good Marlies to good players for the Leafs.”

It’s something the very best organizations find a way to do.

The Tampa Bay Lightning are loaded with elite talent, but they also grabbed Yanni Gourde as an undrafted free agent and more recently graduated 2016 fourth-round pick Ross Colton to a 20-goal scorer on the NHL roster. The Colorado Avalanche saw former University of Denver forward Logan O’Connor become a regular this season after playing more than 100 games with their American Hockey League affiliate.

The Leafs have had some hits, too, with seventh-rounder Pierre Engvall the best example. He’s become a solid contributor.

But in a flat-cap league, there is continued pressure on the organization’s player development system to find more winning tickets. All of the holes can’t be plugged in free agency.

“I think not only just the players that are the obvious ones, that are higher picks, but also as you look at the bottom of our forward lineup in particular. Guys that may not have as high a profile but can play specific roles and provide specific elements,” said Dubas. “Whether it’s speed, physicality, power and presence.”

Here’s a look at the internal candidates most likely to push for a forward job with the Leafs next season:

Denis Malgin
Age: 25
Cap hit: TBD
Lowdown: If the Leafs signed a European free agent with Malgin’s level of offensive production, there would be considerable hype. Instead, he’s something of a forgotten man after staying home in Switzerland the last two seasons. But he remains Leafs property and is likely to return to North America after putting up a point per game in the NLA and leading the ongoing IIHF World Hockey Championship in scoring through the preliminary round. With Malgin there is only a question of fit – he’s listed at five-foot-nine, 177-pounds and may be best suited for an offensive role. That may not be available to him in Toronto. Still, Malgin has considerable NHL experience with 192 games and should be given another chance to play more.

Joey Anderson
Age: 23
Cap hit: $750,000
Lowdown: It was telling that Anderson took part in a morning skate with the main group during the Leafs first-round series with Tampa. He didn’t get a chance to play, but he wasn’t too far down the depth chart if injuries had arisen. Anderson already has 58 NHL appearances under his belt and will be under strong consideration for a more permanent role next season. He’s a good skater capable of getting in on the forecheck and winning puck battles.

Nick Robertson
Age: 20
Cap hit: $796,667
Lowdown: It’s easy to forget that Robertson still isn’t old enough to legally buy a beer in the United States. He’s had three separate stints with the Leafs and dealt with a couple of significant injuries the past two seasons. While the 2019 second-rounder is still waiting for his NHL breakthrough, he has shown plenty of offensive flair in the AHL with 16 goals in 28 games for the Marlies this season. The best sign of all? “We felt he played his best hockey at the end of the year,” said Dubas. Robertson still has two years left on his entry-level contract and should be capable of challenging for a full-time role with the Leafs next season.

Pontus Holmberg
Age: 23
Cap hit: $827,500
Lowdown: Something clicked for the 2018 sixth-round pick during a championship run with Vaxjo HC last year. He led the team in playoff scoring and saw a dramatic bump in production this season. Holmberg joined the Marlies at the tail end of their season and “played exceptionally well for them,” according to Dubas. “We feel he’ll challenge for the roster here next year.” Working in Holmberg’s favour is his significant experience in pro hockey – including parts of five SHL seasons and an appearance at the 2022 Olympics with Sweden. He’s primarily a playmaker known for having a good hockey sense.

Curtis Douglas
Age: 22
Cap hit: $837,500
Lowdown: Douglas is a project. At six-foot-eight, 249-pounds, he’s a massive one. But he’s coming off an AHL season where he produced half a point per game for the Marlies while largely playing down the lineup in a defensive/penalty-killing role. Said one scout from a rival NHL team: "There's something there. He's nuclear tough.” The former Dallas Stars draft pick was rewarded with his first NHL contract in March and there’s a world where he challenges for a spot on the Leafs fourth line next season.

Bobby McMann
Age: 25
Cap hit: $762,500
Lowdown: A former Hobey Baker nominee, McMann travelled the long road to his first NHL contract. He started last season in the ECHL with the Newfoundland Growlers and wound up being one of the Marlies better players. That put him on the Leafs radar. McMann scored 24 AHL goals, but he’s most likely to graduate to the NHL as an energy player who kills penalties and enthusiastically blocks shots.

Nick Abruzzese
Age: 22
Cap hit: $850,000
Lowdown: Abruzzese got a nine-game look with the Leafs after leaving Harvard to sign an NHL contract this spring. Slightly built at five-foot-nine, 160-pounds, he’s a major power-play threat and will likely benefit from some AHL grooming next season. Should the Leafs find themselves with a need on a scoring line, Abruzzese could get a look.

Alex Steeves
Age: 22
Cap hit: $834,167
Lowdown: An undrafted college free agent signing, Steeves is coming off a solid first year in professional hockey. He was one of the Marlies most productive players with 46 points in 58 games and got rewarded with a three-game callup by the Leafs. Similar to Malgin, Abruzzese and Robertson, though, the biggest barrier he’ll face is carving out a role not predicated on his ability to create offence.

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