Nicholas Abruzzese is our second straight Leafs prospect who a) was drafted in the fourth round last year, and b) had a huge season that led to a similarly huge increase in his T25U25 rankings. In fact, last year he wasn’t ranked at all. He was a D+2 older draft pick who led the USHL in scoring when the Leafs took him, and this year he followed it up by being one of the top NCAA rookies with 44 points in 31 games.

In this sense, Abruzzese seems to be following the Adam Brooks path being a smaller and late blooming forward who has gone gangbusters in his breakout seasons. The difference is that the NCAA is, in general, a tougher league to play in compared to the USHL or WHL, making his big season this year very impressive.

While I’m surprised that Abruzzese wound up being ranked ahead of Abramov, considering that the latter is two years younger, this is a perfect reminder that not all players develop on the same path. Abruzzese may be older, but having his big season in the NCAA is undoubtedly more challenging.

Votes - Nick Abruzzese

PlayerNicholas Abruzzese
2020 Rank13
Average Rank13.50
Lowest Rank18
Highest Rank8
Spread in Rank10
Total Votes12

What Has Fuelled Nick Abruzzese’s Breakout?

Abruzzese is a small, skilled forward — the prototypical Dubas pick. He led the USHL in points last year, and he finished tied for third in the entire NCAA in scoring as a freshman. A slightly older freshman, mind you, but his season still put him in some pretty good company:

Abruzzese’s obsessive hockey mind propelled him to finish tied for second in NCAA scoring this season with 44 points in 31 games. Since 2005-06, the only freshmen to post more points per game than Abruzzese’s 1.42 are Clayton Keller, Kyle Connor, Brock Boeser, Jack Eichel, and Jaden Schwartz.

That is taken from a profile that Joshua Kloke wrote at The Athletic in May, with the headline: “Mind over matter: The gift that defines Maple Leafs prospect Nick Abruzzese”. It goes in deep, with interviews from current and former coaches or teammates on the Chicago Steel and now Harvard.

The theme is all about how smart and analytical Abruzzese is. He’s majoring in psychology in his Harvard classes. He is more obsessed with breaking down video of games, practices, and video of small but elite NHL wingers to find new ways to do things that will let him succeed in spite of his size. Dubas himself remarked on this:

“Our staff was lucky right from the beginning of the season in feeling Nick was a player that fit our profile in terms of what we value in terms of intelligence, instinct, and skill level,” said Dubas.

That profile from the Athletic notes that Abruzzese isn’t just a small zippy winger who can put up points. He was used in all situations, on both the powerplay and penalty kill, and earned the trust of his coaches in both ends of the ice.

Harvard head coach Ted Donato was impressed by Abruzzese’s efforts to improve away from the puck, something that is occasionally a difficult undertaking for offensively-gifted players.

“He used his skill set to take pucks away, and used his speed to take away time and space coming back,” said Donato, who noted how Abruzzese can create separation with his agility and by using others on the ice. “That’s a real credit to his willingness to want to become a 200-foot player.”

[Assistant coach Jim] Tortorella saw that. He describes some players as “robots” who simply report for duty where their coaches tell them to be, shift after shift.

But Abruzzese was generally allowed to find his own space, because, according to Tortorella, his innate hockey sense generally led him to where he could be most effective.

“That’s not something you can teach,” said Tortorella. “You either have it or you don’t. And Nick has it at a very high level.”

What the Voters Thought

Katya is more skeptical of the NCAA as a tougher league idea, but does seem to believe that there might be something real to our less heralded small Nick.

Katya: Let’s just keep it in mind that Nick Abruzzese is Timothy Liljegren’s age, not Mikhail Abramov’s. He’s also just played an award-winning rookie season in the NCAA, where he’s playing against older players than the junior prospects do, who I ranked in the same section of the list. He’s playing Against Men!! Men, it should be noted, who mostly go on to the ECHL at best. In ranking him as high as I did, I had to accept the idea that he is a genuine late bloomer—something I’ve never quite bought in on with Adam Brooks. Like with Abramov, it’s more likely that we’ll rank a new guy too low than too high, so I’m taking a bit of flyer on Abruzzese after only 31 games of success and a season beating up the USHL as a 20-year-old. We’ll see if there’s blooming this NCAA season, if it ever happens.

Fulemin likes what he sees, albeit with a bit of uncertainty:

Fulemin: It’s possible I’m just not sure how to value NCAA players. Abruzzese is certainly a good one, and that makes him interesting. His first year for Harvard was impressive even considering he was 20. Maybe in a couple of years he’s the new cool zippy little winger.

Hardev has noted Abruzzese’s connections with the Leafs through Greg Moore and the Chicago Steel, and has also been seduced by Nick’s two straight years of very exciting play and point totals.

Hardev: Every year at the Draft on the Canadian broadcast, someone will say, “looks like they’re going to stash him away in college for the next four years and see what happens,” which is about the depth of knowledge most Canadians have for the NCAA. And despite trying to figure out the system in the past few years, trying to understand who plays games and when takes me for a spin. He seemed to impress as a rookie in the system, winning the Conference’s Rookie of the Year (I think?). He also connected the Leafs with their Marlies head coach (Greg Moore) and favourite camp invite name (Gunnarwolfe Fontaine) through his USHL team, the Chicago Steel. He got in the news a few times, and people more knowledgeable than me seem to be excited, so he ended up pretty high on my list.

One additional note I found out while researching this is that Greg Moore isn’t the only connection between the Steel and the Marlies. Darryl Belfry is a player development/skills coach for both teams as well.

Abruzzese Highlights

So what do you all think about our small zippy forward with a big sexy brain?

Will Abruzzese have a better career than Adam Brooks?

Probably about the same168