Once a player joins the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, it becomes pretty difficult to be considered “underrated”.
With garnering the most coverage in the entire NHL, merely signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs as an undrafted free agent usually results in numerous articles and trending hashtags across Canada. The glamour of a new addition or a recent draft pick takes over the fan base, especially after the season has ended.
But with this hype comes an area that is often overlooked by Leafs Nation. Readily accessible at home (for most) are the Canadian Hockey League and American collegiate hockey, where a bulk of Leafs prospects play throughout the year. Naturally, players such as Ian Scott, Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, and Mac Hollowell receive plenty of discussion over the season, as they play in Canada.
Then we have the new additions – this year being Egor Korshkov, Ilya Mikheyev, and Teemu Kivihalme. As the “shiny new toys”, this group of players can go from relative unknowns to nationwide trending topics after signing in Toronto.
The group that is often overlooked, however, comes from overseas.
These are players that have yet to sign entry-level contracts, or are playing on loan, and are out of the limelight for most Toronto Maple Leafs fans. Unless a high draft pick is playing overseas, such as William Nylander in 2014, little thought is given to the players playing in the top ranks of European hockey throughout the season.
Just look back to last season to find an excellent example. Entering his final year to earn an ELC, Pierre Engvall was relevant to few. A seventh-round draft pick in 2014 that had yet to appear in Sweden’s top league, little was made about Engvall heading into the season.
He would go on to post an impressive rookie season in the SHL but would garner most of his attention upon arriving in Toronto and posting eight points in nine games with the Marlies. Engvall then appeared in every game for the Marlies in the playoffs en route to a Calder Cup championship, receiving an ELC shortly thereafter.
Today, Engvall is being discussed as a potential depth option in the NHL following an rookie AHL season in which Engvall scored 19 goals and made a late-season transition to centre.
Jesper Lindgren’s Unheralded 2018-19 Season
The player that could make a similar impact on the fan base this time around is another Swede, but one who comes from the neighbouring Finnish Liiga.
Jesper Lindgren was a third-round selection in the 2015 draft, the first run under the direction of Kyle Dubas. He was one of Dubas’s first official additions to the Toronto Maple Leafs roster, signing Lindgren to an ELC on the same day as Pierre Engvall, Par Lindholm, and Igor Ozhiganov, therein preventing him from becoming a free agent with his rights set to expire last summer.
Lindgren was loaned back to HPK for 2018-19, largely due to the logjam that was forming in the AHL on defence. Back in Finland, he would play consistent top-four minutes in a tough league before joining the system full time in 2019-20.
After a fairly disappointing 2017-18 season, Lindgren became a legitimate top defender in Finland. He doubled his point total in the regular season, jumping up to 18 in 45 games, and helped his fifth seed HPK team win the Liiga playoffs.
While this is impressive, it’s not much to write home about for a 21-year-old prospect.
What really sets Lindgren apart as one of the most underrated prospects in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization is his underlying numbers. The Finnish Liiga is one of the only leagues outside of the NHL to provide public advanced statistics. Though the information is still relatively basic, only providing some possession and PDO numbers, it’s still much more than what we get from the rest of the hockey world.
In 2017-18, Lindgren was still a raw prospect. He played top-four minutes for HPK, averaging over 20 minutes a game, but was not very effective when on the ice. His 45.5 per cent Corsi-For was second worst among defenders on his team, only ahead of Edmonton Oilers prospect Markus Niemelainen. Given the context of his performance a year, it only makes his 2018-19 numbers more impressive.
Heading back for one final year in Finland, Lindgren’s game took another step. His time on ice dropped to 18:56, yet was still third on HPK in average time on ice with the team dividing minutes more evenly across their defencemen. Lindgren’s biggest jump was not, in fact, his scoring, but in his possession.
This year, Lindgren skyrocketed up to a 58.3 per cent Corsi-For, a 12.8 per cent swing. He finished the season second in Corsi-For percentage among all Liiga defencemen, only trailing HIFK veteran Teemu Eronen.
While his boxscore numbers were solid, the Liiga’s public data helps to show why Jesper Lindgren is such an intriguing prospect for the Toronto Maple Leafs. His points per game trails the likes of Otto Leskinen (Montreal), Oskari Laaksonen (Buffalo), and Tarmo Reunanen (Rangers), but his possession numbers exceed them significantly.
The following shows U22 defencemen from the Liiga that made the jump to North America the following season, showing their production on a per game basis and their possession (the overlapping points show Markus Nutivaara and Joonas Lyytinen):
Looking at these recent comparables, it’s noteworthy that Lindgren’s 58.3 per cent Corsi-For is the highest mark for a U22 defenceman playing regular minutes in the league since it began being tracked in 2013-14. As for the closest comparables, Dallas’s duo of Miro Heiskanen and Esa Lindell are far from a match. Much closer in terms of age, production, and possession is an interesting name in Markus Nutivaara.
Nutivaara, a 2015 seventh-round draft pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets, jumped straight from Finland to the NHL following the 2015-16 season. Nutivaara’s numbers were very similar to Lindgren’s, within 0.02 points-per-game and 2.2 per cent Corsi-For.
Now, Nutivaara wasn’t all that effective in his rookie season in the NHL, finishing with seven points in 66 games. In his sophomore season, however, he leapt up to 23 points in 61 games, becoming a legitimate NHL option for the Blue Jackets in a third pairing role.
If the Toronto Maple Leafs are able to get a possession-driving, third pair defenceman out of Jesper Lindgren, it’s a win for all parties involved. Lindgren is expected to play for the Marlies the rest of the way in the Calder Cup playoffs and join the team full time for the 2019-20 season. If he were to follow the same progression as Nutivaara, he would be NHL ready by 2020-21, where he will still be on his entry-level contract and cost the team just $775,833 in cap space.
With all of these factors laid out, it’s easy to see why Jesper Lindgren has quickly become the most underrated prospect in the Leafs organization, but I can’t imagine it will stay that way for much longer.