by Kyle Cushman
For nearly two years, Leafs Nation has been enthralled by the “Shanaplan”. The rebuild to this point has been smooth sailing for Leafs management, with few tough decisions regarding the future of their prospects having to be made.
That all changes starting this summer. Each NHL team must not exceed 50 standard player contracts (SPC), a rule that will put the Leafs player evaluation to the test. With the mass of picks the Leafs both own and have used, Toronto will soon be faced with an arduous task.
Decision Day Looming for Five Toronto Maple Leafs Prospects
The Toronto Maple Leafs currently own 16 selections over the next two drafts. The Maple Leafs also hold the rights to 20 players that have yet to receive an SPC. This poses a dilemma, as the Leafs presently sit at the maximum 50 SPC limit. The good news is that this number drops to 30 come the off-season, with 10 unrestricted free agents and 10 restricted free agents. However, there is an obvious problem that is soon to arise.
The Toronto Maple Leafs do not have enough room to keep all of their prospects.
Tough decisions are ahead, and that begins this summer. The Leafs have five players whose rights expire at different points this offseason.
In true NHL fashion, it gets a bit confusing as to when certain player’s rights expire. CHL players expire on June 1st, European players expire on July 1st, and NCAA players expire on August 15th.
The Leafs five players that expire this summer are Teemu Hartikainen, Fabrice Herzog, Dominic Toninato, Stephen Desrocher, and Nikita Korostelev. Of those five names, only three have a real chance of receiving an NHL contract with Toronto, but let’s take a look at each player’s situation and if they will be a Toronto Maple Leaf come next season.
Most Leafs fans have probably forgotten about Teemu Hartikainen, but Toronto still does have his NHL rights. Drafted way back in 2008 by the Edmonton Oilers, Hartikainen played three seasons in their system. The big Finn played 164 games in the AHL with the Oklahoma City Barons where he scored 111 points, but could never quite make it in the NHL. He played just 52 games over three seasons with the Oilers, registering just seven points in a depth role.
Following the 2012-13 season, Hartikainen left the Oilers system to join Salavat Yulaev Ufa of the KHL, where he has stayed for four years. In those four seasons in Ufa, Hartikainen has 145 points in 207 games. On January 31, 2014, Toronto acquired Hartikainen’s rights alongside Cameron Abney in exchange for Mark Fraser.
Hartikainen expressed an interest of a return to the NHL in December in an interview with Finnish newspaper Savon Sanomat. He turns 27 in May and would serve as a bottom-six player at best in the NHL. Hartikainen could find his way back to North America, but it is unlikely to be in Toronto. If he does sign in the NHL, it would be after July 1st, when his rights expire and he becomes an unrestricted free agent.
Similarly to Hartikainen, Fabrice Herzog is often forgotten about by Leafs fans. Drafted 142nd overall in 2013 by the Maple Leafs, Herzog is a tall scoring winger. Following his selection in the NHL Entry Draft, he joined the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL, where he scored 58 points in 61 games. Herzog played five games with the Marlies on an amateur tryout following the QMJHL season.
Then, in an unexpected move, Herzog left Quebec in favour of his home country of Switzerland. He returned to EV Zug, the Swiss team he was drafted out of. Since then, Herzog has joined the ZSC Lions (Auston Matthews‘ Swiss team) but has yet to really find the scoring touch he had back in his junior days. He seems comfortable in his homeland and will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1st.
The captain of the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, Dominic Toninato is the first real candidate for an NHL contract to be discussed. A fifth round pick in 2012, Toninato played a season in the USHL before beginning his collegiate career, giving the Maple Leafs his rights for five seasons. In the midst of his senior season at UMD, Toninato has led the Bulldogs to the number three ranking in the country. In 145 career NCAA games, the big two-way center has 87 points.
This season, Toninato has been solid offensively, with 25 points in 36 games, his best totals since his sophomore campaign. Listed at 6’2″ and 194 pounds, Toninato has the size to be an NHLer. The problem is the age. He is already 23 years old and has yet to put up real impressive numbers in the NCAA. It is unlikely he gets an NHL contract, however, it is still a possibility with Toronto’s lack of center depth.
The more likely scenario is an AHL contract with the Toronto Marlies. His former teammate at Minnesota-Duluth, Tony Cameranesi, is a perfect comparison. Cameranesi had a good senior season at UMD with 39 points in 38 games, but the Maple Leafs opted not to sign him to an NHL deal. Instead, he signed with the Leafs AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies. This way, the Leafs can keep their fringe prospects in the system, without having to use an SPC.
The lone defenceman on this five player list, Stephen Desrocher was drafted in the sixth round of the 2015 draft by Toronto. He was an overage draft pick, following an impressive season with the Oshawa Generals in which he won the Memorial Cup. In 2015, he was traded to the Kingston Frontenacs, where he is still playing as an overage player. Since his selection in the NHL Entry Draft, Desrocher has developed into one of the premier shutdown defenders in the OHL.
He has also developed offensively, improving from 23 points in 2014 to 48 points in 2017. Serving as captain this year, Desrocher has been impressive in his final OHL season. He has led Kingston to a playoff spot, where the Frontenacs are currently battling for the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.
An important part of Desrocher’s game is his handedness. Right-shot defencemen are always valuable in the NHL, and the Toronto Maple Leafs do not have much depth in the system on the right side. The Toronto Marlies have played most of the season with just one right-shot defenceman signed to an NHL deal in 25-year-old Justin Holl.
Due to his progression both offensively and defensively, an NHL contract for Stephen Desrocher makes a lot of sense. Listed at 6’4″, and 205 pounds, he has the size to be a top six NHL defender. Desrocher is 21 years old and has time to develop. Although it wouldn’t be surprising if Stephen Desrocher doesn’t receive an NHL contract, it would definitely be a little disappointing.
A steal back in the seventh round of the 2015 draft, Nikita Korostelev is the best of the players whose rights expire. He has been a force in the OHL since his debut season. Going into the NHL Entry Draft, the winger had a 53-point campaign with the Sarnia Sting of the OHL. Receiving a second round grade, Korostelev dramatically fell all the way to the 185th selection, where he was taken by the Maple Leafs.
The following season was a disappointing one for the Russian, as his point total fell to 42. Korostelev needed a big 2016-17 to get back on the Leafs radar and earn an NHL contract. He’s done exactly that.
In 31 games with the Sting, Korostelev had 35 points before being traded to the Peterborough Petes. Since the deadline deal, he has been on fire, with 28 points in 22 games with the Eastern Conference-leading Petes. That’s good for a total of 63 points in 53 games, easily his best year to date.
The knock on Nikita Korostelev is his skating. It is the reason he fell to the seventh round, and the reason why his NHL future isn’t a certainty. However, the Leafs should absolutely sign the Russian winger.
Frederik Gauthier has had his skating questioned his entire career. When he was called up this season to the Leafs, his skating was noticeably improved. This is the result of Leafs skating consultant Barb Underhill, a former figure skater who has been with the Leafs since 2012. Korostelev’s offensive abilities are worth investing in, and with Underhill’s coaching, could become a top-nine NHL winger. He has size and knows how to use it, something many of the Leafs wing prospects does not have.
Tough Decisions Ahead
The Toronto Maple Leafs will have to start making tough decisions this off-season. With the many up-and-coming prospects and draft picks without contracts, good prospects will have to be let go for free. The next few months will be a stressful time for some of these names looking to earn themselves an NHL deal.