Toronto Maple Leafs: Top 5 NHL Prospects

James Onusko@@jonuskoContributor IIIJune 28, 2015

Toronto Maple Leafs: Top 5 NHL Prospects

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    With this year's NHL draft completed, the Toronto Maple Leafs have added more prospects as the organization continues to change its future course. Selling hope seems much easier with head coach Mike Babcock leading the team, some bright additions to the management team and a growing list of blue-chip prospects.

    The process of identifying and developing impact NHL players is not easy. Take a look around the league, and you'll see many teams miserably fail at this vital component of building a team.

    It requires diligence and patience, something many fans (and some NHL management teams) do not have time for when winning now is everything for most.

    Let's take a look at the Maple Leafs' top five NHL prospects following the 2015 NHL draft. The criteria is that these are the players most likely to play big roles with the Leafs when they become NHL regulars. They should crack the NHL roster in the next 18 months and have shown good development in the recent past.

    Honorable Mentions: Connor Brown, Brendan Leipsic, Rinat Valiev and Carter Verhaeghe.

5. Josh Leivo, Winger

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    Josh Leivo brings a lot to the table as an NHL prospect. At 6'1" and 173 pounds, he has the physical tools to fill a spot in the Leafs' middle six.

    Leivo brings size, good speed and a willingness to play in the high-traffic areas of NHL rinks. Leivo isn't going to overwhelm anyone with his puck skill, but his defensive awareness, combined with his ability to read the developing play, is sure to serve him well under Babcock.

    Leivo had a good AHL season with 32 points in 51 regular-season games. He added six points in five playoff games. 

    The former Sudbury Wolves star won't be counted on to produce a lot offensively at the NHL level. However, if he can earn 20-30 points, play well in all three zones and be a physical presence on a regular basis, he'll be a valuable part of the team for several years.

4. Stuart Percy, Defenceman

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    Stuart Percy has all of the qualities that Babcock seems to value in his defenders. Percy is a good puck-moving blueliner who makes the simple play.

    He doesn't make many mistakes, has good defensive awareness and can contribute offensively when needed.

    Percy isn't going to bowl anyone over in any one department, yet he has no apparent weaknesses. He can separate offensive players from the puck without having to deliver a huge hit. He is rarely out of position.

    He's smart with his stick and knows how to use his teammates to their advantage by making good, crisp passes out of his defensive zone. Percy battled injury in 2014-15, but look for him to bounce back this season.

    He's another viable candidate to be a full-time NHLer this fall.

3. Frederik Gauthier, Centre

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    Frederik Gauthier has continued to develop his game in major junior hockey. He's completed three seasons in the QMJHL and is ready to embark on a pro career.

    Gauthier will not be a first-line centre, but he has developed a good all-around game that features an ability to play against opposing teams' best players. He's great on faceoffs, and at 6'5" and 214 pounds, he can be matched up against anyone in the NHL.

    He's an underrated playmaker who had 32 points in 37 games. He contributed another 16 points in 20 playoff games with a strong Rimouski Oceanic team.

    Gauthier is a long shot to make the Leafs in 2015-16 out of training camp, but he could see some NHL play this upcoming season. He's the kind of player who brings poise and stability to every shift.

    He can be counted on in all game situations, which bodes well at the pro level.

2. William Nylander, Forward

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    William Nylander has puck skills that few players develop, and he can play the game with tremendous speed without sacrificing those skills.

    Nylander turned 19 in May. He made the jump to the AHL this past season and had 32 points in 37 regular-season games with the Toronto Marlies. He added three more points in five playoff games.

    Babcock has had great success with smart, highly-skilled forwards who can execute his high-pressure system that requires great skaters. Players must be dogged puck pursuers, so Nylander should excel under Babcock's tutelage.

    Nylander has the chance to be not just a good NHL player, but a great one. The Leafs won't want to rush him before he's ready to play big NHL minutes and be a regular scorer in the world's most demanding league.

    That may be this fall, but it is more likely that Nylander will spend some more time honing his skills in the AHL.

1. Mitchell Marner, Forward

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    The Maple Leafs selected Mitchell Marner with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2015 NHL draft. While there were some talented defencemen still available, the Leafs chose a smallish centre who projects to be a top-line NHL forward.

    He may not break in as a centre, but Marner should be able to play there with some pro development. Marner is an exceptional puck handler with vision well beyond his years. 

    The Thornhill, Ontario, native will be playing for his hometown Leafs when he makes the jump to the NHL. While that transition won't be easy, needless to say, Marner won't need to find any additional motivators to play for the Leafs.

    Marner demonstrates a great attitude at all turns. He's also shown excellent development in the past two seasons.

    He had 59 points in 64 games with the London Knights in 2013-14. In 2014-15, he had 126 points in 63 OHL regular-season games and followed that up with 16 points in seven playoff contests.

    Marner may play another year in junior, but he'll be turning heads this fall at the Maple Leafs training camp with his combination of speed, skill and smarts.