The Toronto Maple Leafs have placed a high priority on acquiring speed and skill through the NHL Draft and in trades. In an attempt to change the culture of the organization, Toronto is grooming prospects from within.
Many of the Maple Leafs' top prospects had success in the American Hockey League with the Toronto Marlies, and some are expected to push for jobs in the NHL this season.
Here are the Maple Leafs' top five prospects, according to NHL.com:
1. Auston Matthews, C
How acquired: Selected with No. 1 pick of 2016 NHL Draft
Last season: Zurich (Swiss League): 36 GP, 24-22-46
Matthews, 18, was the top pick in June after playing professionally for Zurich SC in Switzerland last season. The Scottsdale, Ariz., native is a solid package of speed and skill, at his best when the game is on the line. He looked very much at ease playing for the United States at the 2016 IIHF World Championship.
"He is the real deal," said Marc Crawford, who coached Matthews (6-foot-2, 216 pounds) in Switzerland. "He reminds me a lot of (Los Angeles Kings forward) Anze Kopitar with how he carries his speed and drives to the net and the overall game that he has. He has an NHL shot and the quickness and agility in the offensive zone of a Johnny Gaudreau (Calgary Flames forward)."
2. William Nylander, C
How acquired: Selected with No. 8 pick of 2014 NHL Draft
Last season: Maple Leafs: 22 GP, 6-7-13; Toronto (AHL): 38 GP, 18-27-45
A gifted offensive force, Nylander, 20, looked right at home during a 22-game audition with the Maple Leafs last season. Strong on his feet and hard to knock off the puck, Nylander (5-foot-11, 190) has an NHL shot, featuring a quick release. He put up good numbers in the AHL, with 77 points (32 goals, 45 assists) in 75 games over two seasons, but his performance slipped in the playoffs.
3. Mitchell Marner, C
How acquired: Selected with No. 4 pick of 2015 NHL Draft
Last season: London (OHL): 57 GP, 39-77-116
Marner, 19, was the most decorated player in junior hockey last season, leading London of the Ontario Hockey League to the Memorial Cup title. He had 44 points (16 goals, 28 assists) in 18 playoff games with the Knights and two goals and 12 assists in four Memorial Cup games.
After three seasons of junior, Marner (5-foot-11, 160) likely has learned as much as he can at that level and is likely to at least start the season with the Maple Leafs, who hope he is able to report to camp in the neighborhood of 170 pounds. Despite being slight, Marner's game has an edge to it.
4. Nikita Soshnikov, LW
How acquired: Signed as free agent, March 20, 2015
Last season: Toronto: 11 GP, 2-3-5; Toronto (AHL): 52 GP, 18-10-28
Soshnikov, 22, was among a handful of prospects given a look with the Maple Leafs late last season and seemingly passed the audition, playing with speed and physicality with a willingness to play the role of an agitator. The 5-11, 186-pound left wing is best suited for third- or fourth-line duty but has shown a nice touch around the net that suggests he'll be a reliable secondary scorer in the League.
5. Nikita Zaitsev, D
How acquired: Signed as free agent, May 2, 2016
Last season: CSKA Moscow (KHL): 46 GP, 8-18-26
The Maple Leafs have had their eyes on Zaitsev, 24, for the past year and expect him to crack their top six this season. Zaitsev's 13 points were tied for most among KHL defensemen in playoff scoring last season. He also played for Russia in the IIHF World Championship, where he was named to the all-star team.
Zaitsev (6-foot-1, 176) is solid on his skates, tough to beat in 1-on-1 puck battles and has a hard shot from the point.
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