1. (NR) Morgan Rielly, D, 8.5C
Drafted 1st round, 5th overall, 2012
An injury riddled WHL season that limited Rielly to only 18 regular season games, did not sour scouts opinions of the young defensive talent. Rielly is the highest selection the Maple Leafs have made in the draft since selecting Luke Schenn fifth overall in 2008. Unlike Schenn, Rielly's game is based around his ability to move the puck at both ends of the ice. He possesses elite offensive ability and top-end skating ability even after recovering from a torn ACL.
Maple Leaf fans had a taste of what Rielly offers in early August when he suited up for Canada in the Canada/Russia Challenge. The 18-year-old defenseman was one of the clubs stronger defensemen in the tournament. He recorded one goal and three assists in four games. With a shortened 2011-12 WHL season, it's a strong bet that Rielly returns to the WHL. He projects as a top-pairing defenseman who excels in transition and has elite offensive ability from the blue line.
2. (1) Nazem Kadri, C, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 7th overall, 2009
Many have waited for a consistent version of Kadri to emerge from the Toronto Marlies the last few seasons. This last year he was a strong player through the regular season, and was one of the Marlies go-to players in the postseason before succumbing to a shoulder injury just prior to the Calder Cup Final. He recorded 18 goals and 22 assists through 48 AHL regular season games last year with the Marlies, and went on to tally three goals and seven assists in 11 playoff games.
While 2012-13 is not necessarily a make or break year for Kadri, a summer spent training with Gary Roberts has expectations heightened that he can come to camp in the best shape of his professional career. Skill has never been in question when it comes to Kadri, but it can only get you so far. He will have to continue working on all elements of his game to find a consistent spot with the Maple Leafs. He still projects as a top-six player at the NHL level, and should he add the necessary strength to his frame, he could become a more versatile threat.
3. (3) Joe Colborne, C, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 16th overall, 2008
After a year of injuries and general bad luck, the 2012-13 season could be a breakout year for the 22-year-old Joe Colborne. He's shown flashes of dominance at the AHL level, but has yet to put it together on a consistent basis. He's had to deal with a serious wrist injury and also a small growth-spurt that effected his knees mid-season. The 6'5 forward possesses all the traits of an ideal top-two center: size, skill, and solid skating ability. While he had issues packing on pounds, it is an issue that should sort itself out as he matures.
The questions entering the season are what type of player will Colborne be in his third AHL season. He has shown what he is capable at when on his game, but also shown how far his game can fall when dealing with certain hardships of a long, physical season. In any case, Colborne remains a key prospect moving forward and another year of AHL seasoning should be in the cards for the 2012-13 season.
4. (4) Jesse Blacker, D, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 58th overall, 2009
Defenseman Jesse Blacker followed up a successful OHL career, with a solid rookie campaign with the Marlies this past season. Like Colborne, Blacker had to deal with his own injury woes at points during the season which limited his overall effectiveness as a top-six defenseman. He suffered a neck injury mid-season which kept him out briefly, an injury to his oblique suffered in February, and then a shoulder injury which shut him down the remainder of the season.
Blacker offers a unique blend to the defensive system in that he plays with a great amount of sandpaper, but can also be a threat offensively. His skating ability, matched with his strong play at both ends makes him an interesting prospect moving forward. He requires the standard adjustment period to the pro game, but is definitely one of the clubs top defensive prospects. He's expected to take a primary role in the Marlies top-four next season.
5. (NR) Matt Finn, D, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 35th overall, 2012
Matt Finn joins a growing group of Marlies defensive prospects that is starting to give the system a solid jolt of skill in the back-end. Finn was the Guelph Storm's go-to defenseman last season playing tough minutes in all situations. Much like Blacker, Finn possesses a solid all-round game and already has a thick build at roughly 6'0, 200lbs. It's hard for Finn to do much more than he did last year for Guelph, but he should have a deeper supporting cast this season.
Over time, Finn could prove to be an astute pick for the Maple Leafs in the second-round. For now, he projects to be a top-four defenseman with all-round ability.