Nick Abruzzese quickly became a known name for Leafs fans last season after making his NHL debut and scoring his first career goal in a season where he also graduated college and played for Team USA at the Olympics. The young centre impressed as a dependable fourth liner who showed exactly what you would hope to see from fourth liners — work within the system, don’t mess up, don’t take penalties, and maybe score once in a long while.
And in a season (like most years) where the Leafs’ fourth line was a mess with Nick Ritchie, Kirill Semyonov, the last drops of Jason Spezza, Wayne Simmonds, way too much of Kyle Clifford, Brett Seney, and Michael Amadio, it was nice to see fresh young, exciting faces like Joey Anderson, Colin Blackwell, Alex Steeves, and of course Abruzzese.
But last year was in the past and this year Abruzzese and his cohort are looking to try and make the NHL roster full-time, not just to play some games at the end of the season when players are injured or being rested.
This year’s fight for the bottom three jobs brings in new competitors and new twists when it comes to waivers and such. For the likes of Abruzzese, Steeves, Nick Robertson, and Pontus Holmberg (as you well know by now if you’ve been in our comments during this series), they are on the back foot as both can be sent to the minors without needing waivers. That cannot be said for Nicolas Aubé-Kubel, Adam Gaudette, Simmonds, Anderson, and Denis Malgin.
The last few years of training camps for the Leafs haven’t resulted in major changes to the roster through waivers. Robertson hasn’t cracked the lineup, Adam Brooks couldn’t until he needed waivers, neither could Pierre Engvall or Mason Marchment. So if you’re expecting the most likely scenario, the Leafs’ fourth line will start out as Aubé-Kubel, Gaudette, and Simmonds.
But that might not be how it ends, as the first couple months tend to wash out players the coach just doesn’t want to play anymore (Ritchie, Semyonov, Amadio from last year alone). Pierre Engvall earned a full-time job because he had a blistering start to his Marlies campaign while those cuts were happening. This is what I see as the path for one (or two) of Abruzzese, Robertson, Holmberg, and Steeves as they try to make the Leafs.
Their opportunity is not going to come in training camp, it’s going to come after about 20 real games have been played and players evaluated. At least that’s what I think.
Now that we’ve talked about Abruzzese’s situation at length, let’s properly talk about him as a player.
Drafted in the fourth round in 2019 ahead of Mike Koster and behind Mikhail Abramov, Abruzzese spent three years at Harvard before graduating to the Leafs. Actually, he only spent two seasons there because in 2020-21, Abruzzese had hip surgery (always a good thing to see for a hockey player!) and Harvard didn’t play the year. Apparently during that time he fast tracked his studies and after putting up 33 points in 28 games in 2021-22, he was happy to leave school and cut it with the Leafs.
With the Leafs, Abruzzese scored a goal in nine games at the tail end of the year and stayed with the Leafs on their reserve squad in the playoffs. He is most likely to start this season on the Toronto Marlies, but hopefully not too long as his aspirations are very clearly set on the Leafs.
In terms of Abruzzese as a player, the best way to describe him is as a distributing centre who’s very strong at supporting the defense and being exactly where he needs to be in breakouts, supporting the wingers up the ice, and working hard in the middle of the offensive zone to create chances for others. He doesn’t have an especially strong shot, his skating is above average, but the way he gets production is by doing everything right and reaping the rewards of good positioning and smart tactics. In short, he’s a coach’s dream.
What will hold him back is his ceiling. He can do all these things very well in the NCAA and it’ll get him first line points, but in the NHL I don’t think he has a future above being the eighth or ninth forward on the team. I wonder after some time in the NHL and getting a handle on the league whether he’ll be able to find a role akin to David Kämpf’s, but unfortunately I think an Alex Kerfoot career is out of reach for the 23 year old.
One other thing I’ll mention is his size: he’s 5’10” depending on who you ask and by EP he’s only 161 lbs. You wouldn’t believe these numbers after you’ve watched him play, especially in the dirty areas, especially against men. Just like Pontus Holmberg, size is great when you know how to use it (there I go bringing up Nick Ritchie again), but it also doesn’t matter if you know how to use what you have and your “give a sh*t” meter is better than the other guy’s.
Here are two major goals and one assist from Abruzzese last season. This list includes his first career NHL goal, his first (and only) goal at the Olympics, and an assist on Matthew Knies’ goal also at the Olympics. If you go to this link, you can see all his Harvard highlights nicely compiled by the amazing Brigstew.
His first NHL goal, tipping Morgan Rielly’s point shot.
GET THAT PUCK!— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) April 29, 2022
Abruzzese tips home his first career NHL goal 🚨 pic.twitter.com/CtaMGJ8cOW
His goal at the Olympics (use this link if you love freedom and hate funding schools).
And here is Abruzzese making a falling pass around the back of the net for Matthew Knies in front of the net for a goal.
I ranked Abruzzese 10th in my ranking, behind Pontus Holmberg and ahead of all the other fourth line hopefuls. I did this because I think Holmberg has a higher chance of playing above the fourth line within the next two years but it was a close battle otherwise. I like Abruzzese, I think he’s a good player for the fourth line already. I just think the conversation about him making the team is one for November and not September. We’ll keep a close eye on him as he plays on the Marlies. If he can put together an impressive start as the 1C on that team, he’ll be in the NHL after Diwali but before Christmas.
Nick Abruzzese Votes
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dhammm: Lots of reasons for optimism: had a great college year, went pro, got some NHL experience, potted a goal. I have concerns about the way the Leafs like to stack min-salary bodies in front of their prospects and whether that will allow Abruzzese specifically to build off his NHL experience or whether he’ll get stashed in the Marlies for a season of seasoning that goes on forever (see: Joey Anderson). Abruzzese is, after all, in his D+5 year. But he is a prospect that has surprised me every step of the way from the moment he was drafted. I can only hope he demolishes the AHL and looks every bit the part of a credible call-up option.
Brigstew: I’m assuming he starts the year on the Marlies just given how crammed the Leafs’ fourth line depth is. He could likely use some time to acclimate himself to pro hockey beyond his little stint at the end of last season. In college he was a leader in every sense. He played in all situations, he could drive a line’s offense as Harvard’s top center, and he didn’t look completely out of place at the Olympics or in his cup of coffee in the NHL. Now that he’s had a taste, it will be interesting to see how he adjusts to pro hockey in the AHL and if he winds up getting any call ups this year if required. He’s a real smart offensive player, could play on the wing or at center. I’m still not sure how good he can be in the NHL since he’s already 23 years old, but I think there’s potential there.
TomK421: He was very unnoticeable at the end of last season, and is older than I think he is in my head. Pretty sure he’ll be a full time Marlie this year unless he really surprises. I’m cool with being wrong though, very used to it.
Katya: I liked Abruzzese during his cup of coffee last year. I think you’ll see him be a project of importance on the Marlies this year, and it makes me sad I ranked him as high as I did, because he’s Kerfoot lite at best, but that’s where we are.
What happens to Abruzzese this season?
|He pre seasons the preseason so well he beats out a guy who requires waivers to make the roster for opening night
|He plays for the Marlies and gets the call after 20 games
|He spends the whole season with the AHL team and comes up in April
How many NHL games does Abruzzese play this season for the Leafs?