Prospect Breakdown: Nicholas Abruzzese

The Toronto Maple Leafs might not have a loaded farm system but the early returns on their 2019 draft class have been encouraging. The Leafs were without their first round pick as a result of the Jake Muzzin trade but that didn’t prevent them from injecting some young talent into the organization. After selecting Nick Robertson, Mikko Kokkonen, and Mikhail Abramov, Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas used his second of two fourth round choices on overage forward Nicholas Abruzzese from the Chicago Steel of the USHL.

The Slate Hill, New York native had quite an impressive season with the Steel, mustering up 29 goals and 51 assists in 62 games played to lead the team in scoring. He outproduced his next highest scoring teammate, Robert Mastrosimone who was taken in the second round by the Red Wings, by 20 points.

This season, Abruzzese is playing in his freshman season for Harvard University. With 19 games played so far, his 8 goals and 15 assists place him second in team scoring behind sophomore Casey Dornbach. Abruzzese has exceeded expectations in his first NCAA season and quickly emerged as one of the organization’s top prospects, with Scott Wheeler of The Athletic listing him at number 6 in his most recent Maple Leafs prospect rankings.

“He was dominant in his college debut and that continued right into his ECAC rookie of the week nod. He’s been so good, right from the beginning, that he’s Harvard’s Hobey Baker nominee and the NCAA’s most productive (1.24 points per game) freshman. He has done it while making a seamless transition to left wing (not his natural position).”

Scott Wheeler, The Athletic

While he’s far from being a finished product, there is a lot to like in Abruzzese’s game. Let’s take a look at some of his shifts from a game against Princeton University earlier this month.

In this shift, we see Abruzesse (#16) holding onto the puck along the Harvard bench. Unfortunately, he gets into a tie-up and ends up losing possession of the puck. Shortly after losing the puck, we see him on the blue line when Harvard completes a zone entry. Abruzesse is tracking the puck along the right side of the ice. Shortly after the cycle ends up going to the other side of the zone, Abruzesse completes a turn. The Crimson forward needs to work on his edges as they can stand to be a bit crisper. After the turn, he goes to the half wall to track a Princeton player, who is playing the puck. The Princeton player gets a pass off before Abruzzese can get close to him. Towards the end of the shift, in the defensive zone, Abruzzese tries to get a pass off but he can’t complete the cross ice pass.

In this second shift, Abruzesse gets into good position to collect a breakout pass from his defenseman. Shortly after collecting the pass, he quickly delivers a crisp stretch pass into the neutral zone. Once the stretch pass is collected and Harvard storms into the offensive zone, Abruzesse skates right to the net and looks to establish position. When Abruzesse sees Carolina Hurricanes prospect Jack Drury cycling the puck, Abruzesse drops back to the right half wall and tries to grab possession of the puck after a tap pass from Drury. Abruzesse loses control of the puck and skates it out of the zone. Once he is in the defensive zone, he notices a man on him and delivers a bounce pass off the boards to attempt to get the puck out of danger.

As soon as the shift kicks off, Abruzesse goes right to the net. At first, he tries to skate laterally to fool the Princeton defenseman, so he might have an opportunity to create some space for himself. He parks himself to the right of the net, calls for the puck, wraps around the net and fires off a quick pass to teammate Casey Dornbach. Dornbach quickly takes a shot from the corner which manages to sneak behind the Princeton net-minder. Abruzesse is credited with the primary assist.

In the fourth shift (on the power play), Abruzzese has a rather quiet start as his defensemen are moving the puck in his own zone. He is seen tracking the puck and as the rush enters into the offensive zone, Abruzesse gains possession of the puck and skates into the slot. Once in the slot, he completes a quick pass to his left, but his teammate ends up falling over a Princeton defenseman. After seeing his teammate falling, Abruzesse skates along the half wall to the mid-point between the faceoff circle and blue line as he attempts to get open for a potential pass.

To kick off the next shift, Abruzzese completes a turn off the draw as he sees the puck go back into the defensive zone. His edge work on the turn looks much smoother than the turn that we saw in one of the earlier shifts. Abruzzese rushes towards the boards to pick up the loose puck and ends up in a tie-up along the boards. Once Harvard grabs possession of the puck and tries to start a rush, we see Abruzzese tracking the puck at the center of the ice and skates up towards the offensive zone as his winger tries to get the puck into the zone, but nothing comes out of it.Near the end of the shift, we see Abruzzese collect a pass and pass the puck into his own zone from the neutral zone.

All-in-all, Abruzzese displays the skill and potential of a solid second/third line forward. He has quality speed and is a solid skater, but his edges and lateral movement need to improve. He could also stand to speed up his decision making and make more accurate reads when looking to pass the puck in the offensive zone. In addition, it would bode well for Abruzzese to work on being more aggressive along the boards. If Abruzzese gets into a tie-up with a heavier forward or defenseman, there is a good chance that he will not gain possession of the puck but that could improve over time if he can add some weight and strength to his undersized frame. He has plenty of skills that are hard to teach and his deficiencies can be addressed with Abruzzese still in the early stages of his collegiate career. It will be at least a couple of seasons before the freshman forward considers leaving school and joining the professional ranks so there is plenty of time for the forward to continue to develop and exceed expectations.

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