There isn’t much hope left for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 2015-16 season. In fact, the campaign has been lost for quite some time, as the Leafs currently rank last in the league with just 49 points thus far.
But the team’s current storyline doesn’t hinge on 2015-16. The present campaign isn’t a key plot point but rather an eventual bit of background info – likely remembered more for the logo change and eventual draft pick than anything that’s happened on the ice.
However, while the current roster continues to stumble, the Leafs boast a group of lethal young scorers waiting in the wings. With a new leadership group having recently taken control of the organization – most notably Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock – patience remains the central ingredient in Toronto’s future plans. And it seems to be working.
The Leafs have only been good enough this season to put themselves on a path towards a top-tier 2016 draft pick, but their top prospects continue to progress, showing inklings of the promising skill they’ll soon be displaying in Toronto’s blue and white. Let’s take a closer look at how they’re faring for their respective teams.
Acquired by the Leafs in the deal that sent former leading scorer Phil Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins prior to this season, Kasperi Kapanen has had quite the 2015-16.
He’s amassed 20 points in 27 games in his first season with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, ranking him 10th in team scoring despite playing far fewer games than any of the top 19 Marlies scorers.
But Kapanen’s true moment to remember this season came during the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship. With the tournament taking place in Kapanen’s native Finland, the 19-year-old was presented with the rare chance to find international glory on home ice. He certainly didn’t disappoint, scoring a thrilling wrap-around overtime goal in the gold medal game to clinch the hometown victory for his country.
The World Juniors tournament was less of a thrill for 19-year-old Swede, William Nylander. The former eighth-overall draft pick was sidelined in game one of the tournament after a brutal headshot from Swiss forward Chris Egli sent him to the locker room.
It shouldn’t be difficult for Nylander to move on from the international disappointment, however, as he’s in the midst of an exceptional 2015-16 campaign in the AHL. At the time of his World Juniors debut, Nylander led the AHL in scoring with 14 goals and 34 points through 27 games.
Despite missing nearly a month of play due to the injury, he still ranks among the top 15 scorers in the AHL. He’s since returned to the Marlies lineup and looks like he hasn’t missed a beat. In five games since his return, he’s tallied six points to remain among the top three point-getters on the Marlies’ roster.
In only 32 games, Nylander has already eclipsed his total from last season, and the young Swede seems to be picking up steam with each passing game. With 25 contests remaining on the Marlies’ season and Nylander scoring at a clip of 1.25 points per game, the young center figures to finish the year with roughly 71 points – a total that could easily position him as the club’s top scorer once again.
The pride of the Leafs’ prospect crew is none other than Markham, Ontario native Mitch Marner. Selected with the fourth-overall pick in last year’s entry draft, Marner has continued to dazzle with endless highlight reel plays, leaving Toronto fans buzzing at the thought of him suiting up at the NHL level.
After scoring 44 goals and 126 points in only 63 games for the OHL’s London Knights last season – an effort that positioned him as the Knights’ leading scorer and the second-highest scorer in the league – Marner has seemingly found an even higher level in 2015-16.
He’s posted 34 goals and 89 points through 43 games already, giving him an astounding points per game pace of 2.07 – slightly higher than his pace from last season (an even 2 points per game). While his overall production may be similar, Marner has improved noticeably in the goalscoring department. He’s currently tallying at a pace of 0.79 goals per game, taking a step forward from his 2014-15 rate of 0.70 goals per game.
The high-flying pivot isn’t simply wiring in lucky shots either. Rather, he’s terrorizing defenders with awe-inspiring finishes like this one:
While 2015-16 may be a lost season for the Leafs’ NHL squad, and the next few seasons figure to be somewhat rough as well, there’s no denying the fact that the organization has some bona fide superstar potential coming through the development pipeline. With Marner, Nylander, and Kapanen progressing along, and Morgan Rielly looking like the future defensive anchor, Toronto’s core is slowly but surely taking shape.
They’ll likely add another significant piece this summer, as they currently seem like a lock to select somewhere in the top-three come draft day. Picking one more elite scorer to add to the mix won’t be difficult. American pivot Auston Matthews still ranks as the undeniable top prize, but after him, a few other interesting options remain as well.
Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine figure to go second and third in the draft – the pair are fresh off of dominating the World Juniors tournament, combining for 30 points in seven games for the gold medal-winning Finns. The Finland connection could make for an interesting sidenote should Toronto draft one of the two stars, as both have some familiarity with Kapanen.
Should the Leafs fall a little lower down the draft list, there’s an even more interesting bit of familiarity they could tap into, as Alexander Nylander – brother of Leafs prospect William Nylander – is slated to hear his name called somewhere in the top 10 as well. The younger Nylander is in the midst of an exceptional season for the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads, having racked up 69 points in only 47 games thus far.
If Toronto is forced to miss out on one of the elite top three options in the 2016 draft, grabbing Nylander to unite the brothers could be an excellent move. The Swedish siblings are lethal scorers in their own right, but developing them together to create a Sedin-esque duo could become a long-term game-changer for the Leafs.
Regardless of who they add this summer, there’s no denying that the future is bright in Toronto. A true resurgence is still years away, but it seems the club is finally on their way back to legitimacy after a decade of disappointment.
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