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Three Leafs prospects enter CHL playoffs

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With the CHL playoffs just around the corner, let's look back at the regular seasons of each Leafs prospect in the CHL, and ahead to the playoffs.

Francois Laplante/FreestylePhoto/Getty Images

The 2014-2015 season started with four Leafs prospects in the CHL, but as the playoffs kickoff this weekend, only three remain.

Leafs prospect Cody Donaghey, who signed a three-year entry level contract with the team after impressing management at prospects camp and rookie camp, was injured in December following a knee-on-knee collision. And while his Quebec Remparts team will host the 2015 Memorial Cup, Donaghey's surgery proved to be season-ending. Prior to his injury, Donaghey was among Quebec's most relied upon defenders.

Passed up in the draft, Donaghey fielded offers from "four or five teams," including the Sharks and the Leafs, before he chose his boyhood team, according to an interview with The Telegram.

Donaghey finished his campaign with 15 points (four goals, 11 assists) in just 27 games.

Check out the collision that cost Donaghey his season and Moncton Wildcats forward Will Smith a five-game suspension:

The other Leafs prospects in the Canadian junior ranks will each have a chance to play their way through the CHL playoffs. Interestingly enough, there is one prospect in each of the WHL, OHL and QMJHL, giving fans an easy team to cheer for as they race to the Memorial Cup, without any competition from other Leafs prospects.

Rinat Valiev, Kootenay Ice, D (3rd round, 2014)

When the Leafs drafted Valiev as an overager in 2014, there were questions about the young Russian's upside at the pro level. Still, Valiev progressed nicely in his post-draft campaign, starting the year on a torrid offensive pace before slowing down as it progressed on a strong Kootenay team led by Sam Reinhart and cinderella story Tim Bozun.

Valiev is a big, strong, physical defender, who has developed, particularly this year, a mean streak to his game (one that has cost him the odd game-misconduct). After making the transition from the USHL to the WHL as a rookie last season, Valiev has become one of the WHL's more relied upon defencemen, playing big minutes in all situations as head coach Ryan McGill's go-to defender. At the World Juniors, Valiev finished with three assists in seven games but was largely impressive on a Russian team that made it to the Gold Medal Game after an unimpressive round robin performance.

In large part due to lesser games played, Valiev finished 16th among WHL defensemen in scoring with 46 (nine goals, 37 assists) points in 52 games. In points per game (0.88), he finished seventh.

His Kootenay team finished in the first Wild Card position in the WHL's Eastern Conference, and will meet the Calgary Hitmen, an annual WHL contender, in the first round of the playoffs. The Hitmen heavily stack their first line, so Valiev and his defensive partner, Tyler King, will be tasked with handling the trio of Jake Virtanen (VAN), Adan Tambellini (NYR) and Connor Rankin.

If Valiev can find his form, after failing to produce offensively down the stretch, and Reinhart can control the pace (as he does), they might have a chance. Game 1 is Friday, Mar. 27 in Calgary. Following his campaign with the Ice, Valiev is more than likely Marlies bound, making the jump to pro in 2015-2016.

Frederik Gauthier, Rimouski Oceanic, C (1st round, 2013)

The progression that Valiev took offensively, wasn't mirrored by Gauthier. The Leafs top pick in 2013 finished his year, on one of the QMJHL's best teams, with 32 points in 37 games. This actually represented a decline for the third-year QMJHL forward, as his points per game fell from 0.96 to 0.86. He finished fifth on Rimouski in points per game for the second straight year.

This, though, was likely influenced by a campaign where Gauthier couldn't get his legs under him, missing training camp and a good chunk of the start of the year due to injury, only to miss nearly a month towards the end of the year with a concussion.

Still, many were hoping for more a jump in production from the towering centre. On a positive note on the offensive side of things, Gauthier's skating has come a long way, and is no longer something that holds him back. When he entered the QMJHL as a rookie, his stride was shallow and his stance was upright, pushing from the knees. Today, he's got a much wider stance, which allows him to move around the ice more effectively.

It's also important to note that Gauthier is one of the QMJHL's most highly used faceoff men, which leads to him taking nearly every defensive zone draw during tight games. Gauthier took a near-ridiculous 990 faceoffs in just 37 games (28 per game), more than five more per game than the league's leader. Had he played a full year, it wouldn't have been close. He came away winning just shy of 54% of them. In one of my viewings in a Rimouski visit to face the Gatineau Olympiques, Gauthier remained on the ice for six consecutive defensive zone faceoffs with the team holding a late lead.

His Rimouski team was the highest rank QMJHL team in the BMO CHL Top 10 for the majority of the year, and could easily find themselves in the Memorial Cup when its all said and done. There's a good chance they sweep Victoriaville in the first round.

Like Valiev, Gauthier will be Marlies-bound when his season is over, making the jump to pro in the fall.

Carter Verhaeghe, Niagara IceDogs, C (3rd round, 2013)

After a slow start to his year on a depleted Niagara team, Verhaghe picked up his game with the help from an old friend, Arizona Coyotes first round pick Brendan Perlini, who returned to Verhaeghe's wing to kickstart his season. After starting the year with just six points in his first 10 games, Verhaeghe finished strongly, matching his point totals from last year (82).

In January, he was named the team's captain. He's a gifted centre with a solid pair of hands, but what highlights Verhaeghe's game is a relentless forecheck and puck pursuit (he never stops moving).

With the addition of Ho-Sang (NYI) near the deadline, Niagara is a sleeper, and can really score. Verhaeghe enters the playoffs riding a five-game point streak. The IceDogs will meet the Ottawa 67's in the first round and Verhaeghe will be heavily matched against the 67's top defensive pairing of Jacob Middleton and Alex Lintuniemi, a pair of Los Angeles Kings prospects.

Lintuniemi is extremely physical and frequently delivers huge hits, so Verhaeghe an co. will have their hands full, but Niagara, despite finishing below the 67's, enters the series as the favourites, but it will be close.

I will be providing coverage throughout from Ottawa. Game 1 goes Thursday, with Game 2 following on Saturday, both at TD Place.

Following their potential playoff run, Verhaeghe will also be Marlies-bound. He did the same last year, dressing in two games.

The captain was named Niagara's most outstanding player for the regular season.

Keep an eye out for a piece on Verhaeghe from Elseldo, who spoke with him in Niagara last week.

As always, if you have any questions about the Leafs prospects (or the draft), don't hesitate to ask, or shoot me a tweet @scottcwheeler.