Sometimes an injury at just the wrong time can derail a rookie’s entire year. This happened with highly-touted Tampa prospect Jonathan Drouin, who broke his thumb during training camp and ended up watching games from the press box.
And this happened to last year’s #7 "Top 25 under 25," Leafs prospect and 35th-overall pick in 2012, Matt Finn. Falling to #24 this year, his sparse performance was yet marked by hope.
Everybody knows that young defencemen take longer to mature; everybody knows that this former Guelph Storm C has a lot to offer -- we went over his worth extensively in last year’s Top 25. The question that remains is, can Finn’s monster OHL career, marked by the OHL's best plus/minus, an OHL Championship, and a Memorial Cup All-Star Team nod, successfully transfer to the pros?
Unfortunately, last season was not the break-out season that Finn needed to rise through the defensive ranks. Finn’s 2014-2015 began with an accident.
In training camp, Finn sustained a lower-body injury that had him sitting out the remainder of camp and the first seven games of the season. This injury was described by some sources as being to his knee, which is troubling given a 2012 tear to his MCL and ACL that required six weeks of intensive therapy. There is no evidence, though, that last season’s injury was to the same knee.
After working hard on rehabilitation through September and November of 2014 and failing to stick in the Marlies lineup, Finn was sent down to the Solar Bears in December for a conditioning stint. His smaller size (6’0, 197lbs) and skating, sometimes critiqued for being slow, did not impede him in the ECHL.
Finn played with Orlando from December 9 to December 28th, for eight games total as a Bear. During this stint, he raised his SOG to 3 per game. He scored his first professional point on December 19th against the South Carolina Stingrays, a primary assist alongside the assist of his defensive partner, Blake Kessel.
His first professional goal came on December 28th against the Florida Everblades during his last game as a Solar Bear before being called back to the Marlies. The goal was a slapshot reminiscent of his time with the OHL, powering past Tampa Bay Lightning system goaltender Allen York after a pass from defensive partner Yann Sauve.
Waiting so long for his first professional goal was frustrating for Finn, who said about the experience, "In juniors (with the Guelph Storm) I was an offensive defenceman, so waiting this long to get your first one was a little tough."
The conditioning stint boosted his confidence. In January, Finn talked to reporter Kyle Cicerella about his season, saying: "It’s just a confidence thing for me. I wasn’t playing my game when I was (with Toronto). I was thinking too much and trying too much to make myself perfect. I have to take it shift by shift, you can’t think about the end goal but every day getting better."
Finn cited maturity as the main impediment to transferring his skills. "You’re playing against men, it’s an adjustment period. It hasn’t gone as smooth as I’d like, obviously, but every day you have to come to the rink and learn."
After being recalled to the Marlies, Finn registered 3 points before falling to yet another injury in March. This one, an undisclosed upper-body injury, cost him more games, leaving his total games played for the season at 28.
PPP spoke to Marlies blogger Jeff Veillette about Finn's tumultuous year.
PPP: What happened to Matt this season?
JV: It's hard to say for sure, given the sheer amount of roadblocks that were scattered in his way this year. Finn suffered a lower body injury during a pre-season practice, which took away his opportunity to use the slower start of the season as an adjustment period. By the time he came back, players were in their groove and his teammates had already established roles, making him an after thought.
Injuries continued throughout the year and there were very few opportunities to make a jump up the depth chart. It was the opposite of an opportunistic situation.
PPP: Has this season raised concerns about Matt's ability to thrive at this level, or is this more of a learning experience for a young pro?
JV: It's somewhere in the middle. Obviously, you want your players to be on a much more positive development trajectory than what Finn has shown this year, and an inability to accomplish, well, anything in the span of the year leaves you questioning a player's future. But given the circumstances involved, it's very possibile for him to rebound. If Finn shows up to training camp in the best shape of his life, physically and mentally, there's no reason that he can't move on and pretend that last sesaon never happened.
PPP: Where do you see Finn fitting in on a crowded Marlies blueline?
JV: Hard to say. Depending on who sticks with the Leafs and who goes down to the Solar Bears, the Marlies could start the sesaon with as many as fourteen defencemen. This isn't a particularly likely scenario; TJ Brennan and Martin Marincin will probably stay up, and most of the five defencemen signed to AHL two-ways will likely head south. Petter Granberg will be starting the year injured. This puts Finn in a good position to, if not climb up the pairings, perhaps make it evident that the team should roll their defence out for equal minutes. If he rebounds, he can reasonably be Toronto's third best defenceman (behind Harrington and Percy) while picking up some special teams minutes.
Summarizing the year, Finn’s challenges in 2015-2016 are evident. He has to rely on his strengths in leadership, offensive talent, and vision on the ice to bolster his weaknesses, which are still his size, quickness of skating, and ability to bring a physical defensive presence to a faster game.
He’s also got to keep healthy. A full, healthy season will go far toward measuring his true strength as a defenceman in the professional game, and whether he's been judged too harshly for the purposes of the Top 25 Under 25.