What college free agent signing Jacob Quillan could bring to the Maple Leafs


When Jacob Quillan was signed by the Toronto Maple Leafs as a free agent out of Quinnipiac University on Monday night, Quinnipiac assistant coach Joe Dumais nodded his head knowingly.

Dumais thought to himself, “This makes sense” because he quickly compared Quillan, a sturdy and competitive centre, to a player Dumais coached against and watched closely: Bobby McMann.

“Bobby could skate, compete and win battles,” Dumais said. “And Quillan is very similar in that sense. He’s not as tall as Bobby, but he’s as thick as anyone I’ve ever seen. He’s a big kid and his ability to win battles and races is really high-end.”

Every spring, NHL teams take low-risk flyers on undrafted NCAA free agents like Quillan. His deal with the Leafs is for two years beginning in 2024-25 with an AAV of $875,000. Quillan, 22, is expected to arrive in Toronto on Wednesday and begin an ATO with the Toronto Marlies to finish this season.

Sure, the 6-foot 201-pound Quillan was one of the better free agents available this year according to The Athletic’s Corey Pronman, having scored 17 goals and 46 points in 39 games and winning the ECAC’s Best Defensive Forward Award. Still, whether he can jump to the pro game and continue to develop well enough to stick in the NHL remains to be seen.

But Dumais believes Quillan will make it happen because of how the centre reminds him of McMann.

In a best-case scenario for the Leafs, signing Quillan to a two-year ELC could ultimately lead to them getting a player of McMann’s ilk: a full-throttle two-way forward who can utilize his best attributes – competitiveness and work ethic – to find his way onto an NHL roster.

“(Quillan) just has it in him. He showed up with that work ethic. From day one, he was a beast in the weight room and in practice,” Dumais said. “He’s a kid that doesn’t come around too often, with the way he works every single day.”

Like McMann, the versatility in Quillan’s game is part of what made him so attractive to the Leafs. Quillan can skate well, play with pace at both centre and the wing, has the hockey IQ to skate beside skilled players higher up the lineup and the defensive acumen to be just as much of a fit in a fourth-line role.

But just as attractive was how relentless a competitor Quillan evolved into during his three seasons at Quinnipiac.

Quillan arrived at Quinnipiac for his freshman season to be part of a strong team. While it made sense to start Quillan as a winger on the fourth line, the coaching staff believed his time that low in the lineup would be short.

“We all felt he could be so much more than that,” Dumais said. “He was great as a wing but we knew he’d be a centre.”

Come his sophomore season, Quillan moved into his preferred role as a centre. The offensive chances began to come, but his finishing wasn’t always there.

Quillan realized that to become a more effective producer, he’d have to start creating more offence from in tight, close to the goal. That represented his most notable jump from his first to his second year.

And so it wasn’t surprising to any of his coaches when Quillan forced his way into the top-line centre role with his continued tenacity in his sophomore season. What impressed his coaches was how he kept his game simple and never tried to overcomplicate matters with the puck.

“His development is a product of just how hard he works. It’s been fun to watch,” Dumais said.

Quillan isn’t afraid of the big moments, as evidenced by his NCAA championship-winning overtime goal (against Matthew Knies and the University of Minnesota) in 2023. Quillan won a face-off early in overtime and followed a stretch pass by making a beeline to the same spot he’d gone to all season: in front of the goal.

He kept a level head and drove home a quick goal to cement himself in Quinnipiac University lore. It was Quinnipiac’s first national championship in program history. Quillan was named the Frozen Four’s most outstanding player.

“The fact that Quillan took that puck to the far post, that’s all instinct. That’s all the player making a great read,” Dumais said.

But as memorable as the goal was, Quillan didn’t rest on his laurels. Crucially – at least when considering his possible NHL future as a possible bottom-six option – Quillan’s game took a leap this season on the defensive side.

“He’s always been a good defensive player,” Dumais said. “But he took it to another level where he was a dominant defensive player this year, especially down low in the defensive zone. Every year he’s gotten a little bit better. And he was the best defensive forward in our league for a reason.”

Like McMann, Quillan understood that while he could produce offence, there will be players in the NHL who could easily eclipse his offensive skills and output. To succeed in the professional game, his defensive play would need to become a more prominent part of his repertoire.

And so the hours after practice working on his face-off skills added up. Quillan won 55.9 percent of his draws this season. So too did the hours in the video room, studying how to win battles and strip pucks. Then came even more time spent in the weight room, as Quillan tried to add the muscle he knew he’d need to add to put those video sessions into practice.

As he’d done throughout his career, the undrafted Quillan knew if he wanted something, he was going to have to work for it.

“When you have your top players show up and compete like he does in the gym, in practice and in games every day, it just rubs off on everybody. Everybody’s looking at him. Especially this year. He just won a national championship last year and scored the game-winning goal and he’s still our hardest worker. He’s still going out every day like he’s won nothing,” Dumais said.

Quillan will now have to work toward a challenge unlike any he’s ever faced: cracking the Leafs lineup.

Nine games are remaining on the Marlies’ regular-season schedule and Quillan will likely feature in most of them, providing valuable centre depth to a team that needs it.

From there, Quillan’s newfound physicality will be tested in the AHL playoffs.

The experience he gains could help him when he tries to impress the Leafs coaching staff come training camp next fall. Perhaps he simply becomes a responsible depth piece for the Leafs who spends most on his time in the AHL in the mould of Alex Steeves.

How the Leafs roster will look in 2024-25 could ultimately depend on what kind of playoff success the team has this spring. At least right now, there appear to be multiple bottom six spots up for grabs. That Sheldon Keefe has begun to favour a defence-first fourth line as of late suggests there could be a chance for Quillan to earn a spot on that type of line out of training camp.

Like McMann, Quillan has, after all, worked for everything he’s gotten, and will likely welcome this next challenge ahead of him.

“We’ve had guys like (Quillan) before but it’s very tough to get a guy like that, that is that good of player and have the work ethic,” Dumais said. “He’s just one of a few in our program that just has everything.”

(Photo: Nathan Ray Seebeck / USA Today)

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