With the Toronto Maple Leafs’ current youngsters making waves across the NHL, you’d be forgiven for losing track of the prospects still working to crack the big club. Nonetheless, 2015 draft pick Jeremy Bracco is doing his best to follow in Mitch Marner’s footsteps in the OHL playoffs. His Windsor Spitfires, now in a 3-3 series deadlock with the London Knights, are trying to play spoiler as they prepare to host the Memorial Cup in May.
With 83 points in 57 games this year, including 32 since the Kitchener Rangers shipped him to Windsor in February, Bracco is yet another reason for optimism among Toronto hockey fans. He’s had an exciting few months, winning gold with Team USA at the World Juniors in January. He was rewarded for it all last week.
Bracco signed his entry-level contract with the Leafs just under two weeks ago, and the left winger had nothing but praise for the organization that just locked him up for three years. “It means a lot,” he effused after game two of Windsor’s first-round series. “I’ve worked real hard for it, and I’m glad that [the Leafs] helped me along the way to try and become the player I want to be. They’ve been nothing but supportive.”
Picked 61st overall by the Leafs the day after they drafted Marner, Bracco shares more similarities with Toronto’s right wing phenom than his draft year. Close friends off the ice, both Bracco and Marner make up for their short stature with their speed and creativity with the puck.
Standing just 5’9”, Bracco’s ability on his feet has made him one of the most potent offensive weapons in junior hockey. At times, he can be seen skating laps around the opposing net with the puck until he finds an opportunity he likes.
Earlier this season with Kitchener, he briefly caught the attention of Leafs fans with a 26-game point streak that inflated the price Windsor later paid for him at the trade deadline.
Watching the Spitfires play, nobody is more recognizable than Bracco. His long black hair sticks out the back of his helmet, and he’s usually the smallest player on the ice. What stands out most, though, is the truly bizarre way he moves around the offensive zone.
Quicker than almost anyone in the OHL, Bracco says his ten-and-two sideways skating style has its roots in the years of figure skating he did when he was younger. The way he picks up speed from his edges resembles Carolina Hurricanes star Jeff Skinner, who’s well-known for his own background in figure skating.
Bracco grew up watching players like Skinner, which influenced him to try and complement his hockey skills with some extra skating help. “I was taught to always work on it and try to be elusive, especially as a smaller guy,” said Bracco. “It’s just kind of stuck since then. I’m glad I learned it.”
At the NHL Rookie Tournament in September, Bracco told reporters he’d been working with the Maple Leafs’ skating guru Barb Underhill regularly in the offseason. By working on his strengths, Bracco has now established himself as a potential piece of Toronto’s exciting future.
Leafs fans got a glimpse of Bracco in his short stint with the Toronto Marlies late last season, but they won’t have that luxury this year with the Spitfires guaranteed to play into late May. He’ll be in Toronto next year, though, eligible to play in either the AHL or the NHL.
Bracco is not a perfect player, of course. His size does sometimes seem to frustrate him, and you can’t count on him to be the first player back when play goes toward his own end. He’s pretty much as-advertised: a fast, creative forward who runs play all over the offensive zone. He’s one of the best scoring wingers in the OHL.
Right now, though, Bracco’s focus is firmly on the task ahead, with an opportunity to match his friend Marner’s OHL and Memorial Cup championships. He picked the OHL over Boston College at the beginning of last season, and now he’s hoping to see it pay off.
“I’m looking forward to the challenge,” said Bracco.
A challenge it will no doubt be, with the London Knights standing in the way. He and the Spitfires are gearing up for Tuesday’s game seven, where this phenomenal clash with their 401 rivals will be settled, for now at least.
The Leafs’ brass will surely have their eye on Bracco during these OHL playoffs, as he tries to build himself a future in the NHL.