The Maple Leafs are suddenly fun to watch

The Toronto Marlies Maple Leafs are fun!

The Maple Leafs have been a drag to watch for the majority of the 2015-16 season. The club sits last in the league with a measly 53 points, not due to a lack of effort, structure or planning, as losing was expected while the Leafs were focusing on development at the expense of the NHL team. The Leafs simply weren’t talented enough to compete because of a poor roster.

With 20 games to go and plenty of trades and injuries, the Leafs have called on a bevy of prospects from the American Hockey League, a move which has transitioned them from laughing stock to intriguing and fully watchable.

The Leafs called up five Toronto Marlies last week, including top prospects Kasperi Kapanen, William Nylander, Zach Hyman and Nikita Soshnikov. All four forwards have had varying amounts of success playing on the best team in the AHL and are key players in the future of the Maple Leafs. This had fans in Toronto justifiably hyped. With the call-ups, instead of watching a roster full of scraps, fans in Toronto now get a glimpse into a sparkling future.

Nylander, the 8th overall selection in 2014, has flat-out dominated with the Marlies posting 18 goals, 27 assists and 45 points in just 37 games as a 19-year-old. If it wasn’t for a head injury in the world juniors, he’d probably be leading the minors in scoring – a tremendous feat at his age. Nylander is an A prospect, an explosive goal scorer, a good passer and skater who can control the puck. His first NHL goal is a good indicator of the talent he possesses.

You have a feeling he’s going to do that for a very long time in Toronto.

Soshnikov went undrafted and signed with the Maple Leafs last offseason. In his first pro season in North America he’s delivered showing promise as middle-six winger and hard-worker with goal-scoring upside. He’s scored 18 times with the Marlies, and through five  games he’s scored twice and added an assist, fired 16 shots on goal (including six against the Senators on Saturday) and delivered 19 hits. He’s been all over the place, but Soshnikov has shown a motor which should serve him well.

I mean, look at this snipe.

Coach Mike Babcock is a fan.

“I loved him,” Babcock told Sportsnet. “If you play hard and you’ve got a skill-set and you’re determined like that and you have no fear you find a way to play a long time.”

Kapanen was the biggest piece in the Phil Kessel trade with Pittsburgh and he’s shown promise with 22 points in 32 AHL games, and no points in four Maple Leafs appearances. The speedy forward is still 19, and is far from a finished product, but has shown potential of being a top-six forward.

Hyman meanwhile isn’t the biggest name among the group, but he’s impressed Maple Leafs brass with his all-around game and surprising offense prowess. Sportsnet’s Steve Glynn did an excellent piece on how he’s surprised everybody in the organization. The Maple Leafs acquired the 23-year-old, who’s put up 33 points in 54 Marlies games, for the small cost of Greg McKegg, and he’s got a real shot at being a good middle six-forward for the club going forward.

The prospects will be in-and-out of the lineup as the Marlies are challenging for the Calder Cup and the Leafs want to manage their contracts properly.  The absurd thing is, reinforcements are still on the way for Toronto. Goaltender Garret Sparks and Brendan Leipsic have already made contributions to Toronto this year while Frederik Gauthier, Connor Brown and Colin Smith are all in the picture for call-ups this season. These prospects aren’t saviours, and won’t be for some time, but it’s fun to see what the Leafs could look like in a couple years.

The Maple Leafs prospect cupboard was an embarrassment just a couple seasons ago, and now it’s an embarrassment of riches. Brendan Shanahan, Kyle Dubas, Lou Lamoriello and the rest of Leafs management have done a masterful job acquiring prospects and are starting to see some return on their investments. Seeing the prospects play games even if they aren’t meaningful finally makes the Leafs worth the price of admission. This should have Toronto fans positively thrilled about the future of the team – which is an amazing thing to say about the ever-hopeless Leafs.

About Liam McGuire

Social +Staff writer for The Comeback & Awful Announcing.