2 OHL Prospects the Toronto Maple Leafs Should Keep Their Eye On

Nico Gross (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Nico Gross (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

The Toronto Maple Leafs are always searching for talent. Though they’ll need to be patient, there is a path to acquiring a pair of former first-round draft picks.

A professional sports team needs to always be thinking about both the present and future of their roster. The Toronto Maple Leafs are no different, which is why their scouts are actively watching and evaluating players around the world.

There are currently players in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) who would fit nicely in the Leafs system.

Two of them, in particular, would be excellent additions. The best news for the organization is that they wouldn’t have to part with any assets to bring these players to Toronto.

Players the Toronto Maple Leafs Could Easily Acquire

The Toronto Maple Leafs should have their eye on Blade Jenkins of the Saginaw Spirit and Nico Gross of the Oshawa Generals.

Jenkins, an American, has been playing well this season after being named an assistant captain. The winger was drafted by the Spirit fourth-overall in the 2016 OHL Priority Selection first round. The Swiss defenseman, Nico Gross, was the first round, 40th overall pick of the Generals in the 2017 CHL Import Draft.

In 2018, both these players’ rights were picked up by NHL clubs. The New York Islanders took Jenkins in the fifth round of the NHL Draft at 134th overall and the New York Rangers chose Gross 101st overall in the fourth round.

Jenkins is a highly skilled player with a great upside. He has shown flashes of brilliance with Saginaw, using his creativity to help create offense for the team. He entered the OHL with a high hockey IQ and continues to prove that he has above average on-ice vision. Gross is an offensively minded blueliner with a booming shot.

The New York teams continue to own these players’ rights, which makes getting them without providing assets in exchange currently impossible for the Leafs

. However, Article 8.6, Reserve List-Exclusive Rights, in the NHL players’ collective bargaining agreement dictates that a team forfeits their rights to a player four years after he is drafted. That is true so long as the player does not sign with their draft team. Neither Jenkins nor Gross has yet inked agreements with their NHL clubs, which means they can be free agents in 2022.

Leafs winger, Alexander Kerfoot, has already navigated and mapped out this path for others to follow.

Like Jenkins, Kerfoot was selected in the fifth round. He went 150th overall in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. Instead of signing with the New Jersey Devils, the team that drafted him, Kerfoot decided to spend four years at Harvard getting an education.

While there, he played for the Crimson men’s ice hockey team and earned his degree in economics. When the Devils draft rights expired, Kerfoot was able to choose whichever team he preferred to join in the NHL. The only catch was that they had to want him too.

If Jenkins and Gross remain unsigned and continue to play well in the OHL, they will have options available to them in the future.

Last season, Jenkins was very productive. In 67 games the left winger scored 23 goals and had 36 assists for a total of 59 points. He then picked up five goals and four assists in the 17 postseason games he played. In his first 28 games of this season, Jenkins already has seven goals and 14 assists.

Gross has been plying his trade in both the OHL and IIHF. He most recently joined the Swiss team at the 2020 World Junior Championship (WJC). It was his second time playing in the U-20 tournament.

Gross also made Swiss WJC U-18 teams, playing internationally twice there. He has also played for Switzerland many times in International-Jr. With his club team, the Generals, this season Gross has put up good numbers. He has 7 goals, 12 assists, and 32 penalty minutes while going +4 in 27 games.

When Jenkins and Gross graduate from playing Major Junior hockey they will have choices to make. One option they won’t have available is to play in the NCAA and follow Kerfoot’s footsteps. They lost their eligibility the moment they signed their CHL contracts.

If these players desire to wait out their NHL rights period, their best bet might be to spend time playing overseas when they’re done with the OHL. It is an especially natural fit for Gross, who has already played 33 games in the Swiss League (NLB). The players can also play U Sports men’s ice hockey for a Canadian University, but that route makes making the NHL significantly more difficult.

For the Toronto Maple Leafs, keeping an eye on these young talents is worth their time. If strides are made in their development and they do become free agents, it is worth extending them an offer to bring them into the fold.

The Leafs have already done a good job adding depth throughout the organization. Kyle Dubas spent the summer signing a large number of players to play in both the AHL and ECHL. The value in this is that by casting a wide net, it gives the Toronto Maple Leafs a better opportunity to find people who may one day add value to the big club. Even if they don’t become NHL regulars, it’s worth the Leafs signing Jenkins and Gross if the opportunity arises.

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Watch out for both Jenkins and Gross as they continue to sharpen their skills. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for the pair and whether the Leafs will be a part of their individual futures.