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In the Pipeline: Abbott playing bigger than his body

by Joe Yerdon

TORONTO -- If the Toronto Maple Leafs are in need of a point-producing forward this season, they may not have to look any further than their American Hockey League affiliate for help.

Forward Spencer Abbott has stepped up to become one of the Toronto Marlies' top scorers this season. After his career at the University of Maine, his success is no surprise.

With one goal and 18 assists in 14 games, Abbott entered the week tied with defenseman TJ Brennan for the team lead in scoring with 19 points, a mark that also tied him for sixth in the AHL.

That ability to pile up points was what made the Maple Leafs take notice of him.

Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Spencer Abbott might not be the biggest player on the ice, but he's learning to use his skill and hockey sense to turn himself into a potential NHL player. (Photo: Getty Images)

"The thing that attracted us to Spencer Abbott was his hockey sense,” Maple Leafs vice president and assistant general manager Claude Loiselle said. "He's got great skills, good hockey sense, sees the ice really well and he's got good speed. The only downside is his size. Right now the way he's been playing, the only thing he needs to do is work on the pace of the game. He's a terrific American league player."

Abbott, 25, signed with the Maple Leafs in 2012 as a free agent after finishing his senior season at the University of Maine. In 2011-12 he led all NCAA players with 62 points and was a Hobey Baker Award finalist. As an undrafted player, his play earned a lot of attention from NHL scouts.

"I had some looks after my last year," Abbott said. "I played with two really good players my last year. We put up a lot of points together. I knew that there'd be a few offers and I had to sit down and decide who I was going to go with. I narrowed it down to a couple of teams and Toronto was my final pick."

During his time at Maine he had 146 points in 152 games in four seasons. Of those points, 92 were assists, making him a prime set-up man.

"He's got unbelievable patience with the puck,” Buffalo Sabres forward and Maine linemate Brian Flynn said. “He's really poised. He's a very good playmaker, a good guy on the power play. I think he's going to put up points, especially in the American league. He has had a good start. I think he'll continue to just get better."

It has taken time for Abbott to adjust to the pro game. After playing three games with the Marlies after signing out of college, he totaled 33 points in 55 AHL games last season.

"Going to school was huge for me,” Abbott said. “The pace is a little bit different here. I would actually say it's maybe a little bit slower than college, but guys that are here are a lot smarter and more physical. Little adjustments like that. You just have to use your head out there."

Unfortunately for Abbott, his size is something he can't escape. At 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds he's not a big guy, and playing on the wing can put him at a disadvantage. That means working harder to do just about everything is something he has to do to keep playing.

"There's not much I can do now," Abbott said with a laugh. "In the offseason I try to add muscle and do weights as much as I can. You have to try and use your head out there when you're my size. There are some big guys out there and if you don't use your head you'll get hurt."

With players like Tampa Bay Lightning captain Martin St. Louis setting the bar for success as a smaller player, the blueprint for becoming a consistent player is there. The trick comes in putting it all together.

"You see guys in the NHL that are playing at that level and they're small players," Loiselle said. "It takes time to get filled out, to get used to playing the pro game and to get that pace of the game, to pick up that pace. Power play he's fantastic, but it's the ability to play 5-on-5."

The size Maple Leafs players have up front shows that being bigger can get you to the NHL, but it will be Abbott's abilities that will be what sets him aside if he's going to stick in the NHL.

Abbott was a surprise call-up Oct. 5 for the Maple Leafs' home opener against the Ottawa Senators. He was a minus-2 in 5:16 of ice time and was sent back to the Marlies the following day.

"It was crazy," Abbott said. “I didn't really expect it this early in the season. They thought they were a pretty healthy team but someone went down in practice, and just like that you've got to be ready whenever your time comes. I didn't play a whole lot that game but you can learn a lot from watching those guys play."

Abbott is in the position many college hockey players face in that there’s pressure to show what he's capable of doing right away. For now the Maple Leafs hold him in high regard.

"He's the type of player that's going to be a top-six player," Loiselle said. "If he's going to make it it's as a top-six type, a top-nine player that scores goals, plays the power play. He's a highly-skilled player."

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