We start the 2019 Pension Plan Puppets Top 25 Under 25 prospect ranking with a player that fits all of GM Kyle Dubas’ stereotypes. Duszak is small, skilled, smart, and a right-handed defenseman that the Marlies will have lots of fun developing.
Out of our 17 voters this year, eight did not have Duszak on their ballots, including five from the masthead. The remaining nine voters placed him in the 21-25 range, which was just enough to put him above Dmytro Timashov, who was 22nd last year and 26th this year. Enjoy that little tidbit in the comments.
Since Duszak has never been ranked in the T25U25 before — in fact he’s only been in the organization for a little over four months — here’s his backstory.
Dubas signed Duszak out of the Mercyhurst University in Pennsylvania to a two-year entry-level contract starting this upcoming season. Despite going undrafted in 2015, 16, and 17, Duszak worked hard enough in his three years in the NCAA to find himself as one of the most highly-regarded college players available to NHL teams last spring. In fact, he was nominated for the Hobey Baker Award for the top NCAA men’s hockey player. He ended up making the top-10 but landed just shy of the top-three.
“Our program would like to express its thanks to the Mercyhurst University Men’s Hockey Team and Coach Gotkin for their role in Joey’s development on and off the ice. The work Mercyhurst has done with Joey and his work in maximizing his opportunity during his three years as a Laker is what caught the attention of our program and made signing Joey to an NHL contract a priority for us. We look forward to welcoming Joey to Toronto and working to pick up Joey’s development from Mercyhurst,” said Maple Leaf general manager Kyle Dubas.” - Mercyhurst Athletics
#NCAA Defenseman who are leading their team in points.— NewHavenMaven (@DHoranNHL) January 17, 2019
Joseph Duszak (29pts) #MSU
Cale Makar (24pts) #UMA
Adam Fox (23pts) #HAR
Cooper Zech (22pts) #FSU
Quinn Hughes (22pts) #MIC
Philip Beaulieu (21pts) #NMU
Dante Fabbro (17pts) #BU
K'Andre Miller (17pts) #WIS#ncaahockey #nhl
Scoring leaders by Undrafted players in #NCAA hockey. #NHL— NewHavenMaven (@DHoranNHL) February 6, 2019
Taro Hirose (15G-46Pts) #MSU
Joseph Duszak (14G-39Pts) #MRC
Odeen Tufto (13G-35Pts) #QU
Blake Christensen (13G-34Pts) #AIC
Alex Limoges (13G-33Pts) #PSU
Patrick Khodorenko (16G-33Pts) #MSU
Nico Sturm (12G-32Pts) #CLK
As you can see by the scoring charts in January and February, Duszak was running the show from the back end and putting up lots of points. By the end of the season, he and New York Rangers top prospect Adam Fox (who is a year younger than him) had tied for fourth in league points.
At first glance, the Leafs giving a nobody prospect out of college an ELC seemed like a really weird move, but when you compare Duszak to the peers around his draft class, he’s right there.
With 99 points (30g, 69a) in 101 career NCAA games, Duszak beat every single defenseman from his draft year that came out of the NCAA in points. Top-10 picks like Noah Hanifin and Zach Werenski left their teams within a year or two, so their stats aren’t really a comparable, but for everyone else in the field who completed three or four seasons, Duszak beat them all.
For example, Christian Wolanin was taken 107th overall (fourth round) and is the most successful NCAA defender outside the first round in that year. He played in 109 games, and scored 72 points (22g, 50a). There are only four players (all forwards) from that draft year who had more points than Duszak and three of them are in the NHL. Adam Gaudette, Troy Terry, and Brett Seney.
Now, I could get carried away and say he deserves a spot on the Leafs out of training camp, but I won’t because points are an unreliable way to evaluate players. It tells only one side of the story, and there are lots of asterisks that muddy the waters (power play time, quality of team, ice time, etc). Unfortunately, for most prospect work, points are the best we’re going to get.
Luckily, Duszak played a handful of games in the AHL at the end of the season after signing an ATO with the Toronto Marlies. He got two games in the regular season and four in the playoffs, notching one point (a goal) on 14 shots.
The lone goal came against Cleveland in Game 2 of the series and was a bit of revenge for him as the last regular season game he played was against the Monsters and they shelled a B-version of the Marlies 5-1, out-shooting them 18-41. It was an ugly night for everyone on the Toronto side, but mostly for Duszak, who was on for three goals against while playing on the top pair with Kristians Rubins.
You can hear the pain in my voice as I recapped that game.
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One thing that game did provide, though, was a chance for us to have a good long look at Duszak. The Marlies usually give their new defense prospects the most sheltered minutes to ease their transition into the game. The Marlies did that in Duszak’s AHL debut, playing him with Rubins on the third line.
I thought both players on that pairing looked good — I kind of hoped Rubins would get a shot at the Marlies next season but that looks unlikely now — with both players able to move the puck swiftly from the defensive zone into the offensive zone. As a pair, they looked really funny because there is a six-inch height difference between the two but both were able to skate and do the things they needed to do really well.
Unfortunately in the first Monsters game, that optimistic play started to disappear as the two started to really struggle playing against a playoff team’s top lines. Duszak just seemed a bit off when it came to his decision-making. My notes say he got stuck in his own zone a lot and his forwards were either uninterested or unable to help him.
I guess from a Marlies perspective, the jury’s still out on Duszak. I think he’s going to slot in on the bottom pair to start next season in order to help him get acclimated to the league and the speed. He’ll be 22 all season so there is lots of time with him.
Right now, he’s definitely well behind Timothy Liljegren on the depth chart. To me, Liljegren is the best prospect in the Leafs organization and has spent a year and a half playing top competition in the AHL as a teenager. The next tier of RHD after him are Mac Hollowell, Duszak, and Jesper Lindgren.
The three of them are probably going to fight for a spot in the top-four next year, with the other two either rotating in on the third pair or being sent to the Newfoundland Growlers. It’s going to be really interesting to see how head coach Sheldon Keefe manages the minutes of his army of skaters. There are just too many for my novice brain to comprehend.
We’ll go through a few different scouting reports on Duszak, including some words from the Marlies head coach. But first, here’s what the PPP masthead has to say about Duszak as a prospect.
First, a punt from Brigs.
Brigstew: I’ve been burned too often in the past by college free agents. For every Bozak and Hyman, there’s a pile of guys like Frattin, Hanson, Bailey, and others I can’t even remember the name of. He JUST missed being in my T25, but that could quickly change for next year if he has a good AHL season.
Kevin comes in with a good point that Duszak is more of what we’ve seen before regarding puck-moving, offensive defensemen vs shutdown defensemen.
Kevin: Duszak played in a handful of games with the Marlies at the end of last year, and looked like he belonged. He’s slightly undersized, and he probably won’t be a shutdown type, but there’s some offensive talent to dream on here. He scored a ton of points at Mercyhurst, and he’ll look to prove that he can generate plenty of scoring chances at the AHL level this year. Given that he’s only played six games at the professional level, he’s still a major unknown, but it’s nice to see a right-shooting defenceman who is competent at moving the puck.
Katya coming in lukewarm with the realism.
Katya: Joey Duszak didn’t make my ranking because I had to essentially guess on his place relative to two other newcomers who arrived on the Marlies at the same time. I thought both Jesper Lindgren (who I did not rank) and Mac Hollowell (who I did rank) were a little bit better. I don’t see the probability swinging Duszak’s way, but a full season on the Marlies will tell us more clearly.
And Fulemin comes in strong with the hope.
Fulemin: I ranked him because he’s a right-shooting defenceman and I think that gives him a slightly better chance of being somebody, here in the land of faint hopes. It was close between him and Jesper Lindgren (who is also an RHD and a good skater); I wound up breaking the tie because the ceiling seems more set on Lindgren and I can still dream a little on Duszak.
I feel like the four opinions above cover all the thoughts we as a fanbase could possibly have on Duszak as a prospect; he’s new, but shows promise. He’s in a position of high value, but also surrounded by comparable players.
Here’s what I said a week ago on Duszak in the AHL. Again, it’s such a small sample size that it’s hard to tell if what we were seeing was an accurate read of his play or not.
Duszak is a small but dynamic defenseman who is very good at playing up and down the right-side boards. He mostly stayed in those areas — which I assume are where a lot of the play happened in the NCAA — during his stint with the Marlies. His next step will be moving to the middle of the ice in the offensive and defensive zone. Once there, we should hopefully see some offense and the type of defensive frame the Leafs have in him. That said, six games into his Marlies career, and he already has a goal. Can’t complain too much.
Maple Leafs Hot Stove spoke with Duszak’s college coach Rick Gotkin. The interview they had was really interesting and definitely something I recommend giving a few minutes to.
Joseph Duszak signs with the Toronto Maple Leafs: Q&A with Mercyhurst College HC Rick Gotkin | Maple Leafs Hotstove
From his college coach to his pro coach, here’s what Keefe had to say about Duszak after his second game with the team. It was a tough game for the Marlies but Sheldon did a really good job of keeping things in context.
Watching some 2019 Dev Camp video and I really like how mobile and aggressive Joseph Duszak (#79) is. He gets the puck in the offensive zone, goes for a net-front pass, then gets the puck back and perfectly times a pass to the slot for a goal for Riley Woods. #Marlies #Leafs pic.twitter.com/JHKP3HYb1l— Summer Lad 🏳️🌈 (@HardevLad) July 29, 2019
So it sounds like the Leafs are about to sign NCAA free agent RD Joe Duszak. His biggest strengths are his skating and puck movement. Here's a tremendous outlet pass to set up a goal pic.twitter.com/MygkyWLNUs— Tom Hunter (@PuckDontLie) March 12, 2019
Is Joeseph Duszak in your T25?