2014 – 2015 Toronto Maple Leafs Establish New Multi-Tiered Prospect System

With summer free agency looming, there is a pretty good chance that the Toronto Marlies along with their East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) affiliate Orlando Solar Bears will be pretty busy this summer. Both clubs managed to secure playoff berths this year but were unfortunately eliminated in the first round of the Calder and Kelly Cup playoffs respectively. With changes coming at MLSE in both their approach and philosophy on how to best leverage an ECHL affiliate, a new multi-tiered prospect system appears to have been proposed where both the ECHL and the AHL will serve as legitimate destinations for prospects. With that in mind, there is a pretty good chance that both teams will be fairly active on the trade and or acquisition front this summer and although these moves will most likely not be reported in the mainstream media, none-the-less could significantly increase the number of legitimate prospects the Maple Leafs would have in their system moving forward.

The assumed multi-tiered approach especially for a team with the kind of financial backing the Leafs have makes too much sense and it is strange that they didn’t implement it earlier. There are always going to be late round picks and undrafted players who will excel at different rates and being able to bring those types of players that show long term potential while being able to keep a close eye on them could increase the ability of the organization to discover and essentially hold the rights to these diamond in the rough type players. Examples for the sake of argument of such players that have attended Leafs prospect camps in the past included Charles Sarault and Adam Hughesman who are 23 and 24 years old respectively. Both took longer to establish their professional games but both have made their way up to the AHL and shown consistent progress. Dane Fox was in a similar situation this past year, after going undrafted the 21 year old was signed by the Vancouver Canucks and put up solid numbers (30 goals) in his first professional year with the ECHL Kalamazoo Wings. Its these types of players that teams really should have invested more time in but they had neither the roster space, cap space or the patience.

On the players side of the equation it use to be more lucrative to head to Europe if you didn’t make the NHL after a couple of years after turning pro instead of continuing to stick it out in the AHL/ECHL. With the new multi-tiered approach, if you offer prospect players, especially the younger ones a more structured environment with the potential to move up through the organization from one of the proposed tiers (AHL or ECHL) and give them access to first class facilities, living arrangements, staff, coaches etc. then it becomes a lot more desirable for those players to stick it out in North America. It may not be all that well known but the Orlando Solar Bears are an absolute first class organization who are well supported within their community, have great facilities and have plans to build another training facility consisting of two practice pads at nearby Winter Gardens, Florida in the near future. Let’s also not forget that getting paid to play hockey in Florida could be a fairly desirable for a young prospect and these examples of the tangible differences could very well sway some prospects to join the organization over another.

In previous postings on this blog we covered some of the players the Maple Leafs had already started to acquire with this multi-tiered system in mind. It is quite plausible that recently acquired players like T.J. Foster and Erik Bradford start their professional careers in the ECHL and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. They will be given every opportunity to play much larger role along with more minutes as opposed to sitting in the press box with the Marlies all season but will also push them to succeed given the opportunity to move up in the organization if they exceed expectations at that level. The same can be said for players that are not performing at the AHL level, they could be move to Florida to work on their game, reestablished their confidence and play more meaningful minutes. It’s a win win situation no matter how you look at it.

If we apply the thinking expressed above to the acquisition of longer term projects/prospects for the ECHL affiliate there are a couple of players currently playing in that league that the organization should consider taking a look into acquiring especially given the success they found with Byron Froese.

Matthew Register is a 25 year old native of Calgary, Alberta that has been plying his trade as a defenseman in the ECHL and is showing progress each year after turning professional. Solid +/- while putting up on average 45 points over the last two years in the ECHL, he recently spent 6 games with the Chicago Wolves (AHL) and put up 4 points. At 6’2”, 205lbs (Wikipedia has him at 6’4”, 200lbs), the undrafted defenseman has size and the innate ability to put up points that might make him ready to make a jump to the AHL but at minimum could be a solid acquisition for the Orlando Solar Bears next season.

Jason Bast is a 25 year old center from Regina, Saskatchewan who finished up a Canadian university career with St. Francis Xavier two years ago before turning pro. In his first full year with the ECHL Idaho Steelhead, Bast put up 52 points in 52 games, 30 of which were goals. Although slight at 5’10”, 190lbs he may have shown enough skill to consider taking a closer look at so that the team can more appropriately determine his potential at the AHL level and at worst he could also assist the Solar Bears next season. There was a great article about Bast on Hockey’s Future found here:

http://www.hockeysfuture.com/articles/10741/off_the_radar_jason_bast/

Tyler Barnes, a Burnsville, MI product plied his trade with the University of Wisconsin for four years before turning professional and joining the ECHL Toledo Walleye. Possess soft hands putting up 74 points in 71 games and as a rookie joined the ECHL All-Star squad. May very well be another dark horse the Marlies should consider given their lack of depth scoring the teams appears to be suffering from. Decent size at 6’0”, 198lbs, Hockey’s Future had this to say about Barnes earlier in his career:

“Barnes is a competitor, who shows a positive character at all times. His key strengths are his ice awareness, creativity with the puck as well as being noted as a goal scorer. He’s also noted for having a good shot and good hands. Though Barnes has not quite stopped growing, he plays big for his size. He has earned a lot of praise when he plays hard and does not shy away from physical game. Said to have limitless potential if he continues to develop at the base as he did over the last 2 years. He does need to display a consistent hard work ethic, gain overall strength, and learn to use his speed more effectively.”

With the additional roster space that may finally be realized now that the Maple Leafs will have more flexibility to send younger prospects to the Orlando Solar Bears to play more meaningful minutes and the likes of Colton Orr and Fraser McLaren unlikely to return to the team there is the potential that the Toronto Marlies may still yet sign more players over the summer to fill out their roster. In my opinion below are some of the players the organization should consider acquiring if they are not resigned by their current clubs (it is believed most are restricted).

Greg Nemisz’s career has in short been plagued by injury and if ever there is a team to take a more long term position with him, it is the Maple Leafs organization as they won’t have any need to fast track his career and have the resources to assure he is given every opportunity to succeed. At only 24 years old there is still time to turn it around for the former first round pick (25th overall Calgary Flames in the 2008 NHL draft) and he has shown flashes at being an effective center with the size 6’3”, 197lbs to back it up. Nemisz signed a one-year contract with the Carolina Hurricanes in July 2014 and may be available this summer. Hockey’s Future has this to say about Nemisz:

“Nemisz, a former first round pick by Calgary, has the size and hands to be an NHL forward, but needs to avoid injuries and put everything together to get back on track. When healthy he can drive the net hard while showing his soft hands in tight and has solid decision-making skills along with good defensive instincts. The lanky winger needs to increase his overall strength to help the physical side of his game in order to become a power forward in the NHL.”

Given his most recent injury there may be a chance the Hurricanes decide not to resign him and in my humble opinion the Leafs should consider adding him to their system given the potential risk/reward.

Danny Kristo was drafted in the second round, 56th overall by the Montreal Canadians in 2008 but was included in a trade to the New York Rangers during his four year tenure at the University of North Dakota. A former Fighting Sioux teammate of Matt Frattin, Kristo’s AHL numbers look almost identical to Frattin’s and at only 24 years of age may be another ‘tweener’ that the Leafs should consider as a potential player for the upcoming NHL season if he can crack the roster at camp. There is still every possibility that the Rangers attempt to keep Kristo but his prospects to play in the NHL may be greater with the Leafs. Here is what Hockey’s Future had to say about Kristo:

“At times, Kristo lacks the consistency and the work ethic needed to play at the NHL level but definitely not the skills. He has quick acceleration, a powerful stride and uses his explosive speed to help make space for him offensively. The talented winger is equally fast with or without the puck and has developed the ability to shoot the puck while in full stride toward the net with a quick, accurate release.”

Tomas Kundratek has been quietly plying his stay at home defensive skills in the AHL and been patiently awaiting an opportunity to join the Washington Capitals full time. The 25 year old Czech Republic native appears to be a fairly solid all round defender with some ability to put up points and is essentially in the same position as TJ Brennan, one of the best defenseman not yet in the NHL. If something can be worked out with Washington and/or they do not resign him for some reason, this may be another prospect worth taking a shot at. Here is what Hockey’s Future had to say about him:

“Kundratek is a solid all-around defenseman with a good cognitive game in both the offensive and defensive zone. He possesses a good shot and a solid first pass out of the zone while still being capable in his own end. While he could definitely improve his reads defensively and his strength, Kundratek has developed well since his early days in the Czech Republic and his curve has been a positive one. He could still stand to pack on a bit of muscle as well.”

“Tomas has been slowly developing over time in the AHL and got a solid stay in the NHL in 2012-13. He very much is on the cusp of being a mainstay in the NHL. While he doesn’t do anything spectacular he has been solid in many regards for a young dman still finding his game.”

So there you have it, there are prospects out there at the lower levels that the Maple Leafs organization should consider looking into and really no stone should be left unturned this summer. Now that there is a new structure in place there is no excuse to acquire a significant number of prospects over the summer outside of the draft. With that being said with respect to the upcoming draft there is a good chance that there will be a couple of players that go undrafted that may be worth taking a risk on and the club should immediate attempt to sign them to AHL contracts. Could be a really interesting summer if this keeps up.

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