This year’s Top 25 Under 25 vote on the Toronto Maple Leafs prospects marks our eighth year and ninth list (there were two in 2012). The lists from those past seven years cover the period from just before the great collapse of the team and through the rapid rebuild. They span the Phil Kessel years and the Auston Matthews years, and looking at all the names in one place is a reminder of how incredibly different this team is now to then.
To get a feel for how well all those players we chose as the best have fared, this is a colour-coded list of all our T25 lists that tracks their NHL games played. You can view it on the web. Or right here:
Another way to judge our selections is to see where these players are today:
If you look at the second version and see all the NHL players and AHL hopefuls (every prospect will make the jump!) you can decide that the prospects — defined as anyone under 25 — have improved dramatically. But look back at the first version and you see how many of those NHLers on the recent lists are still sipping coffee, or are working on their 100 games at best.
Look again, and you see the pattern where a player gets of a few games in the NHL, more AHL time, then even more AHL time, until finally, when a player can admit he will turn 30 soon, he heads to Europe where the money is. On the oldest lists, a lot of those European-league players have just finished or are about to start their first season out of the AHL. They are just the right age to be making a last run at playing a significant role for more than AHL money.
I defined top-level leagues in Europe as the KHL, SHL, Liiga and NLA and low level as everything else so this is a crude measure. For Europeans, sometimes that decision of where to play is more about being at home than ability. For North Americans who move over to Europe it can be a choice about language and money or a coach they know, so reading too much into it about ability is a bad idea.
July is a tough time to figure out the current status of some players. There’s a few who are without contracts, so I’m guessing about where they’ll end up. And there are players from the more recent years’ lists who are teetering on the edge of falling out of the NHL. Connor Carrick, Garret Sparks, Calle Rosen, Brendan Leipsic and even Carl Grundstrom might go the way of Nikita Soshnikov or Peter Holland, who is heading to the KHL this season.
There might be some AHL players who are on the edge of falling out of the AHL too. In part, what these lists show is the process where first an ELC and then a short contract while the player is an RFA without arbitration rights keeps players in the NHL or AHL until about age 25 when they are either established or they sift out of the North American machine and find their level. Stu Percy is the odd man out, that he’s stayed in the AHL on an AHL deal for so long.
A deeper dive into our total “misses”, the players who aren’t career NHLers, reveals that we weren’t really way off on the top half of the list. Most of the European league players in the top half of every year’s list are top-level players, and many of them: Cody Franson, Matt Frattin, Jesse Blacker, are very successful in the KHL, playing significant or even elite-level roles on good teams.
Many of the lower-level European league players on the older lists are just moving down after a lot of higher-level success. Jussi Rynnas, for example, has been in the Liiga for years and has moved down a level after a season of discovering he had to become a backup to stay there.
None of these players washed out of hockey. And Luca Caputi is the only one chased all the way out by injuries, although Joe Colborne was helped along by too much damage to his body, so overall, they were all good enough players to continue playing for a full career.
Some of the “hits” are a little bit astonishing. Korbinian Holzer and Luke Schenn still have NHL contracts, although Holzer hasn’t played more than 34 NHL games in a season ever (that was with the Leafs).
One of the things we can always see in these lists is that the players we are most wrong about are usually just drafted players we rank too low, and their votes rise in subsequent years. They are the hardest for most voters to fit into the ranks of those already in the NHL. The other thing we might be right or wrong about, depending on how you view things, is that group of players who make the NHL, but aren’t good at it: Holzer, Schenn, Frederik Gauthier. None of those players make significant impacts on their teams, no matter how many minutes they play. Even players like Holland and Josh Leivo, who need to be on rebuilding teams short of roster players to find a job are not making a major impact in the NHL.
This year’s eligibility list is an interesting one with no first round pick from this year’s draft, and fewer hot prospects than the recent years. Whatever our votes end up as, we might find things to laugh over in a few years.