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30 in 30

Top prospects for Toronto Maple Leafs

Auston Matthews, William Nylander expected to play big role

by Mike Brophy / NHL.com Correspondent

NHL.com is providing in-depth prospect analysis for each of its 30 teams throughout August. Today, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have placed a high priority on acquiring speed and skill through the NHL Draft and in trades. In an attempt to change the culture of the organization, Toronto is grooming prospects from within.

Many of the Maple Leafs' top prospects had success in the American Hockey League with the Toronto Marlies, and some are expected to push for jobs in the NHL this season.

Maple Leafs 30 in 30: Season outlookFantasy outlook | Burning questions, reasons for optimism 

Here are the Maple Leafs' top five prospects, according to NHL.com:

1. Auston Matthews, C

How acquired: Selected with No. 1 pick of 2016 NHL Draft

Last season: Zurich (Swiss League): 36 GP, 24-22-46

Video: Auston Matthews reflects on 2016 NHL Draft

Matthews, 18, was the top pick in June after playing professionally for Zurich SC in Switzerland last season. The Scottsdale, Ariz., native is a solid package of speed and skill, at his best when the game is on the line. He looked very much at ease playing for the United States at the 2016 IIHF World Championship.

"He is the real deal," said Marc Crawford, who coached Matthews (6-foot-2, 216 pounds) in Switzerland. "He reminds me a lot of (Los Angeles Kings forward) Anze Kopitar with how he carries his speed and drives to the net and the overall game that he has. He has an NHL shot and the quickness and agility in the offensive zone of a Johnny Gaudreau (Calgary Flames forward)."

Projected NHL arrival: This season

2. William Nylander, C

How acquired: Selected with No. 8 pick of 2014 NHL Draft

Last season: Maple Leafs: 22 GP, 6-7-13; Toronto (AHL): 38 GP, 18-27-45

A gifted offensive force, Nylander, 20, looked right at home during a 22-game audition with the Maple Leafs last season. Strong on his feet and hard to knock off the puck, Nylander (5-foot-11, 190) has an NHL shot, featuring a quick release. He put up good numbers in the AHL, with 77 points (32 goals, 45 assists) in 75 games over two seasons, but his performance slipped in the playoffs.

Projected NHL arrival: This season

3. Mitchell Marner, C

How acquired: Selected with No. 4 pick of 2015 NHL Draft

Last season: London (OHL): 57 GP, 39-77-116

Marner, 19, was the most decorated player in junior hockey last season, leading London of the Ontario Hockey League to the Memorial Cup title. He had 44 points (16 goals, 28 assists) in 18 playoff games with the Knights and two goals and 12 assists in four Memorial Cup games. 

After three seasons of junior, Marner (5-foot-11, 160) likely has learned as much as he can at that level and is likely to at least start the season with the Maple Leafs, who hope he is able to report to camp in the neighborhood of 170 pounds. Despite being slight, Marner's game has an edge to it.

Projected NHL arrival: This season

Video: Mitch Marner Highlights- May 25, 2016

4. Nikita Soshnikov, LW

How acquired: Signed as free agent, March 20, 2015

Last season: Toronto: 11 GP, 2-3-5; Toronto (AHL): 52 GP, 18-10-28

Soshnikov, 22, was among a handful of prospects given a look with the Maple Leafs late last season and seemingly passed the audition, playing with speed and physicality with a willingness to play the role of an agitator. The 5-11, 186-pound left wing is best suited for third- or fourth-line duty but has shown a nice touch around the net that suggests he'll be a reliable secondary scorer in the League.

Projected NHL arrival: This season

5. Nikita Zaitsev, D

How acquired: Signed as free agent, May 2, 2016

Last season: CSKA Moscow (KHL): 46 GP, 8-18-26

The Maple Leafs have had their eyes on Zaitsev, 24, for the past year and expect him to crack their top six this season. Zaitsev's 13 points were tied for most among KHL defensemen in playoff scoring last season. He also played for Russia in the IIHF World Championship, where he was named to the all-star team.

Zaitsev (6-foot-1, 176) is solid on his skates, tough to beat in 1-on-1 puck battles and has a hard shot from the point.

Projected NHL arrival: This season

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