The Toronto Maple Leafs iced one of the youngest teams in the NHL last season, as players like Nazem Kadri and the departed Matt Frattin took the next step last season, seeing significant time with the big club. The youth movement in Toronto has left the prospect cupboards a little bare.
Overall, the Leafs' prospect pool lacks top-end talent up front and between the pipes, yet boasts formidable depth on defense—a stark contrast from what the team possesses at the NHL level.
The prospect cupboards may be a little bare, but they're far from empty.
Here are the top five Leafs prospects.
Frederick Gauthier has only been a member of the Maple Leafs for six weeks but should already be considered one of the team's top prospects.
Standing tall at 6'5" and weighing a burly 214 lbs, Gauthier has considerable size, especially for an 18-year-old. He uses his frame well to win battles in the corners and skates well for a player of his size. Gauthier's bread and butter is his responsible defensive play, which will likely allow him to have a solid career in the NHL.
It's important to remember that Gauthier has only one season of Major Junior hockey under his belt, and as such he is probably at least five years away from seeing action at the NHL level. A couple more years in Rimouski will offer him the opportunity to work on his raw offensive game, which is the main knock against him.
If he's able to improve that aspect of his game, he'll be worth the wait.
Perhaps the word most commonly used to describe Stuart Percy is "calm."
At the Major Junior level, the former first-round pick has displayed an impressive ability to alleviate pressure in his defensive zone, slow the game down and get the puck out of his zone effectively and efficiently.
At the other end of the ice, however, Percy has yet to fully develop the offensive side of his game. He showed flashes last season with the Mississauga Steelheads of the Ontario Hockey League, scoring 13 goals with 32 assists in 68 games, but he will need to prove he can contribute consistently at the AHL before the Leafs entertain a call-up.
Perhaps what should excite Leafs fans the most about Percy is an established chemistry with Jake Gardiner, despite minimal time playing with each other. In a 2012 article, the National Post's Michael Traikos wrote: "Watching Gardiner and Percy together, it is sometimes hard not to get caught up in their potential. They are a natural fit, like Chicago’s Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook".
It remains to be seen if the pair can be that good, but the fact that the comparison exists says a lot about the potential Percy possesses.
Matt Finn was the Maple Leafs' second-round pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, despite the fact that many pundits pegged him as a first-round talent.
Finn isn't spectacular in any particular area but is solid in all aspects of the game.
Chris Edwards from NHL Central Scouting had this to say about Finn in May 2012:
"He's a real smart guy. Along the same lines, he doesn't make any mistakes. He keeps it simple. He's got enough poise and ability that he can skate the puck out of trouble, he makes real good outlet passes, simple and safe.
He's got a real good head. He's poised and calm, used in all situations. I've just noticed that since the start of the year he has been a very, very effective player. And a high-end defenseman. I came into the year not knowing much about him, but now I'm pretty confident he'll be a top-two defenseman in the NHL for a long time."
The other element of Finn's game that Edwards didn't touch upon was his strong ability to run a power play, which he's done for the last two seasons for the Guelph Storm. His captaincy says a lot about his leadership as well.
Finn's size and mediocre skating ability will be challenged at the pro level, but the future appears bright for the 19-year-old.
At the time of the trade, fans were hopeful that the Leafs had finally found the big-bodied and offensively gifted center the team has been desperately seeking since the departure of legend Mats Sundin.
Kaberle's precipitous decline has made the deal look like a steal for the Buds, but Colborne has yet to live up to expectations, and many fans have grown impatient waiting for the big center to see regular playing time with the Leafs.
The wait appears to be over.
After posting 30 goals and 81 points over two seasons with the Marlies to go along with a cameo in a pair of playoff games for the Maple Leafs this past season, Colborne appears to be on the brink of being an everyday NHL player. With Matt Frattin now residing in Hollywood and cap space at a premium, it appears unlikely the Leafs will seek options outside of the organization to fill the vacancy on the third line, and Colborne is the likely choice.
What's less clear, however, is if the 23-year-old will play up the middle (his natural position) or on the wing. His sub-par defensive game suggests he could be moved to the wing, but his superiority on the draws over current Maple Leafs pivots Nazem Kadri and Dave Bolland and his impressive size say otherwise.
Regardless of what position he plays, Leafs fans should be excited to see what Colborne can do at the NHL level. His penchant for inconsistent play may force the Leafs to scratch him or even demote at times during the season, but if Colborne shows growth in his game, 2013-14 should be seen as a successful campaign.
Morgan Rielly is without a doubt the best prospect the Leafs have had in their system in a long time. Around the league, the consensus opinion of the 19-year-old is that he's a future superstar offensive defenseman, a sentiment echoed by Central Scouting's B.J. MacDonald before the 2012 draft to NHL.com:
I've seen Rielly do things on the ice that nobody else was doing. I saw him make those little passes to guys who weren't expecting the puck to get there. He's the type of player who can lead the rush and he'll be the first guy back. I think his creativity makes him one of the top players in the league...He's like a chess player; he's thinking one or two moves ahead. He sees stuff coming that a lot of players don't see.
Rielly, like all teenage hockey players, isn't without fault. His defensive game is raw and will need to get better before he's given the chance to compete at the NHL level.
With the uncertainty around Dion Phaneuf's future in Toronto, having a future stud who could step in as early as next year should be comforting for the team and its fans.