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What the Toronto Maple Leafs Are Getting in Nick Abruzzese

Drafted as an overage player in 2019, Abruzzese has made himself known as a prospect after a successful tenure with Harvard and USA's Olympic team. What role will he play with Toronto?
Nick Abruzzese

The Toronto Maple Leafs have found success recently drafting outside of the first round recently. They had to, considering they've had just one first-round pick in the last three years.

From Nick Robertson (2019 second round) to Topi Niemelä (2020 third round), the Leafs' scouting staff 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 hope to go on a playoff run.

Toronto’s most recent signing of winger Nick Abruzzese is yet another example of the team's ability to identify talent outside of the top round. A fourth-round pick in the 2019 draft as an overage player out of the Chicago Steel, Abruzzese moved on to play for Harvard to embark on a solid college career.

Abruzzese made his mark immediately, recording 44 points in 31 games as a freshman in 2019-20. During that shortened season, Abruzzesse’s list of accolades was lengthy and included the NCAA (ECAC) All-Rookie Team, NCAA (ECAC) First All-Star Team, NCAA (ECAC) Rookie of the Year, NCAA All-Ivy League First Team, NCAA Ivy-League Rookie of the Year among other honors. 

To say that Abruzzese had himself an outstanding year would be an understatement.

With COVID forcing Harvard and the rest of the Ivy League to cancel what would have been his sophomore season, Abruzzese took advantage of the timing and underwent surgery for a lingering hip issue. The surgery would have kept him out of commission for an extended period of time as it was so the Leafs’ prospect’s timing was about as perfect as it could have been for an injury as unfortunate as any injury is.

Returning to action this season with Harvard, Abruzzese was named captain of the Harvard squad this year and was once again named to the NCAA (ECAC) First All-Star Team. His counting statistics didn’t quite pace out to the rate he was producing in his freshman year but after a year off of competitive hockey, it was a welcome sign to see him continue to be an impactful player. He began rounding back into form post-hip surgery around Christmas and then hit another level upon returning from the U.S. Olympic team.

Playing a top-six role during his appearance with the America Olympic team, Abruzzese was paired with fellow Leafs’ prospect and NCAA star Matthew Knies on the team’s second line. Abruzzese had four points in four games, trailing only Sean Farrell on the U.S. squad. USA ultimately was out after the quarterfinals, but Abruzzese showed some real potential playing against men.

Now freshly signed to an entry-level contract, he's 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 jobs on the fourth line with a fully healthy lineup.

Blackwell and Spezza seem to be the most secure in their jobs at the moment, so it will be up to Abruzzese to unseat one of the other established NHLers for the final forward spot in the lineup. 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 helps a bit as well.

Abruzzese, the now-former Harvard captain, plays a highly intelligent game. He has focused on building his body physically with excellent work on and off the ice over the last three years while at Harvard. The hard work paid off as he began playing through contact more often and showed a willingness to use the feistiness that’s 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 utilizes his reads to find the developing play and put his teammates in the best position to succeed. The newest Leaf sees passing lanes developing and understands the timing of a play quite well. Too soon or too early could mean the pass is blocked or out of the reach of its recipient and Abruzzese knows that.

Developing his shot and becoming a bit more of a dual-threat this season was a focus for the final pick of the fourth round in 2019. While it certainly has improved from his time with the Chicago Steel, there will still be more work to be done now that Abruzzese is taking the step into pro hockey.

Abruzzese's two-way game has come a long way from his time in Chicago as well. A more consistent effort in his own end has been noticeable, particularly this year as he took more of a leadership role with Harvard. Continuing to get stronger and mature physically will aid in his development as a 200-foot player but the signs of promise are evident.

Abruzzese’s long-term future likely involves time with the Marlies next season where he can play a role more indicative of where Kyle Dubas and the Leafs envisioned him on draft day, playing in the top-six and taking advantage of his high skill and excellent playmaking ability. 

Much like Nick Robertson, another high-skill forward prospect who is a bit undersized, Abruzzese profiles best in an offensive role so playing on the fourth line is likely a temporary spot.

Abruzzese could very well be in the lineup getting a taste of NHL action for just a few games as we get to the final stretch of the regular season. Inserting Abruzzese into the lineup in a regular-season game in a March game is a bit different than relying on him in the postseason. It will be a tough task and a big ask for Abruzzese to jump from the NCAA to the NHL and play a pivotal role for a team very much looking 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 very well fit the role of what the Leafs want on the fourth line a bit better with the size and physicality he brings to the game on top of adding some scoring touch to the bottom of the lineup. Who knows? Abruzzese and Knies could very well find themselves getting game action together on the fourth line in hope of reigniting the chemistry the duo found on the American Olympic team’s second line.

With that said, Abruzzese is one of the team’s most intriguing prospects and his progression 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 may be perfect heading into an offseason where Abruzzese will be looking to work on the little things that go into being a pro hockey player.

Regardless of whether Abruzzese plays a few games or finds himself a fixture in the lineup this year, the Leafs have yet again found a way to unearth an unexpected gem in the prospect world. 

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