The Toronto Maple Leafs have recently found success in drafting outside the first round recently. They had to, given that they have only had one first choice in the last three years.
From Nick Robertson (2019 second round) to Topi Niemelä (2020 third round), the Leafs’ scouting team has used their resources wisely and found a way to maintain a solid stream of prospects while the NHL team looks to upgrade each season as they hoping to go to a playoffs.
Toronto’s latest signing of winger Nick Abruzzese is another example of the team’s ability to identify talent outside the top round. A fourth-round pick in the 2019 draft as an excessive player from Chicago Steel, Abruzzese went on to play for Harvard to embark on a solid college career.
Abruzzese made his mark right away, picking up 44 points in 31 games as a rookie in 2019-20. During the shortened season, Abruzzo’s list of awards was long and included the NCAA (ECAC) All-Rookie Team, the NCAA (ECAC) First All-Star Team, the NCAA (ECAC) Rookie of the Year, the NCAA All-Ivy League First Team, NCAA Ivy-League Rookie of the Year among other honors.
To say that Abruzzese had an excellent year would be an understatement.
When COVID forced Harvard and the rest of the Ivy League to cancel what would have been his second season, Abruzzese took advantage of the timing and underwent surgery for a persistent hip problem. The operation would have kept him out of action for an extended period of time, as it were, so Leafs’ prospects were about as perfect as it could have been for an injury, as unfortunate as any injury is.
When he returned to action this season with Harvard, Abruzzese was named captain of the Harvard squad this year and was again named the NCAA (ECAC) First All-Star Team. His counting statistics did not quite match the speed he was producing in his first year, but after a year’s break from competitive hockey, it was a welcome sign to see him continue to be a strong player. He started rounding back into shape after hip surgery around Christmas and then reached another level when he returned from the US Olympic team.
Abruzzese played a top-six role during his appearance with the U.S. Olympic team, and he was paired with other Leafs prospects and NCAA star Matthew Knies on the team’s second line. Abruzzese had four points in four games and was only behind Sean Farrell on the American team. The United States were ultimately out for the quarterfinals, but Abruzzese showed real potential by playing against men.
Now he is newly signed to an entry-level contract and he is on the verge of his NHL debut
Can Abruzzese find a home on the Maple Leafs’ fourth line? A rotation of names, including Colin Blackwell, Jason Spezza, Kyle Clifford, Wayne Simmonds and Pierre Engvall, have all found themselves competing for fourth-line jobs with a fully healthy lineup.
Blackwell and Spezza appear to be the most confident in their jobs at the moment, so it will be up to Abruzzese to dedicate one of the other established NHLs to the last forward spot in the series. He certainly presents a bit more offensive upside than a Simmonds or Clifford. Engvall seems to have found his role on the third line at the moment, which also helps a bit.
Abruzzese, the now former Harvard captain, plays an extremely intelligent game. He has focused on building his body physically with excellent work on and off the ice over the past three years while at Harvard. The hard work paid off as he began to play through contact more often and showed a willingness to use the cowardice that has always been in his game in the dirty areas more consistently.
Abruzzese reads the action on the ice at a high level. He is a playmaker who uses his readings to find the evolving game and put his teammates in the best position to succeed. The latest Leaf sees passing lanes evolve and understands the timing of a game quite well. Too early or too early can mean that the passport is blocked or out of reach of the recipient, and that at Abruzzese.
Developing his stroke and becoming a little more of a double threat this season was the focus of the final pick of the fourth round in 2019. While it has certainly gotten better from his time with Chicago Steel, there will still be more work to pick up. done now that Abruzzese is taking the step to pro-hockey.
Abruzzese’s two-way play has also come a long way from his time in Chicago. A more consistent effort at his own end has been noticeable, especially this year as he took on more of a leadership role at Harvard. Continuing to become stronger and more physically mature will help in his development as a 200-foot player, but the signs of promise are clear.
Abruzzese’s long-term future is likely to include time with the Marlies next season, where he can play a role more indicative of where Kyle Dubas and the Leafs imagined him on draft day, playing in the top six and taking advantage of his high skill and excellent play. . ability.
Like Nick Robertson, another skilled striker who is a bit undersized, Abruzzese profiles himself best in an offensive role, so it’s probably a temporary place to play on the fourth line.
Abruzzese could very well be in line and get a taste of NHL action in a couple of games when we reach the final part of the regular season. Putting Abruzzese in the ranks of a regular match in a match in March is a little different than trusting him in the off-season. It will be a difficult task and a great desire for Abruzzese to jump from the NCAA to the NHL and play a central role for a team that would very much like to compete for a Stanley Cup.
The expected arrival of Matthew Knies when his season with the University of Minnesota is over could also throw another wrench into the equation. Knies may well fit a little better into the role the Leafs will have on the fourth line, with the size and physical attribute he brings to the game, in addition to adding some scores to the bottom of the row. Who knows? Abruzzese and Knies could easily think of playing action together on the fourth line in the hope of reviving the chemistry the duo found on the American Olympic team’s second line.
That said, Abruzzese is one of the team’s most exciting prospects and his progress over the last few seasons makes him a valuable asset for the club. A taste of NHL action and being around the big club on their playoff run can be perfect heading into an offseason where Abruzzese will work on the little things it takes to be a professional hockey player.
Whether the Abruzzese play a few games or find themselves a solid part of the ranks this year, the Leafs have once again found a way to uncover an unexpected gem in the prospect world.