The Toronto Maple Leafs are no strangers to giving AHL contracts to higher-risk prospects in their extended depth chart. That hasn’t changed much this year. Building on a class that’s already included Kristian Pospisil, Alex Gudbranson, Josh Winquist, Matias Cleland, Michael Paliotta, Jean Dupuy, and JJ Piccinich in the Under-25 category, the Toronto Marlies announced the signing of Martins Dzierkals today.
Dzierkals, as you probably remember, was a third round pick of the Maple Leafs in the 2015 entry draft. The Latvian winger was high on everybody’s radar thanks to his promising first season in the MHL, though his time in that system was short lived.
For the past two seasons, Dzierkals has been playing for the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the QMJHL. His Draft+1 wasn’t mindblowing but still looked quite good, as he notched 67 points in 59 games and was a key player in his team’s run to the Memorial Cup, but this year was a bit of a step back. In 53 regular season and playoff games, Dzierkals notched 51 points; not exactly mind-blowing numbers for a Draft+2 winger.
What’s worth noting, however, is that this wasn’t a particularly healthy year for him. Dzierkals suffered a left ankle injury in the first few weeks of his season and came back early to make sure that he was able to play for Latvia in the World Junior Hockey Championships. Fans of the National Team will tell you that it was worth it for them; he was easily the best skater for them and gave them the passionate bunch something to cheer about.
Dzierkals continued to play through the year at the end of the tournament, which may explain the drop in production. An offseason of rest should help with that, though, and that’s what the Leafs are betting on here. By signing him to this deal, he’ll skip playing his overage year in the Q.
It also buys them time to see whether they think he’ll be a viable prospect in the organization. This isn’t the same as a traditional AHL signing, where an NHL team can sweep in at any given moment; Toronto still holds his rights for one more year. From there, they can decide whether to give him an entry-level contract or let him explore his options.
As for where he’ll play this year, it’s tough to guarantee that it’ll be with the Marlies. Due to the immense depth of wingers in the organization right now, there’s a very real chance he’ll have to open the year with the Orlando Solar Bears and wait for injuries in the NHL and AHL to push him up the latter. That could obviously, change with a good training camp, though, and no matter what the case, playing a lower level of pro hockey while having access to Leafs resources probably does him more good than being a big fish in a small pond that’s not all that familiar to him to begin with.