Friday, July 22, 2005

Leafs Prospects Look Good

In the past 12 seasons, the Toronto Maple Leafs have played in four Eastern Conference championships and missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs only in 1997 and 1998. Since Doug Gilmour, Dave Andreychuk, Wendel Clark and Felix Potvin revived the franchise under coach Pat Burns in 1992-93 to the most recent cast led by Mats Sundin, Gary Roberts, Tie Domi and Darcy Tucker, the Maple Leafs have been perennial Stanley Cup contenders.
That success has come with a cost, however, with a number of draft picks surrendered in trades. Nor have top Maple Leafs' draft picks panned out over the last two decades. The team is under new leadership with GM John Ferguson Jr. and drafting will be one of his big challenges. It's breathtaking to realize that since 1987 when the team selected defenseman Luke Richardson, only one first-round draft pick, forward Nik Antropov, has made a significant contribution to the Maple Leafs. Other teams have used Toronto's first-round pick to take players like Scott Niedermayer, Darius Kasparaitis, Roberto Luongo and Mark Bell. That's information in a vacuum, though, because many players who have advanced the Maple Leafs' cause have come via those traded picks.
Meanwhile, first-round picks like Luca Cereda, Jeff Ware and others have failed to meet expectations.
But things are about to change.
Two recent draft picks, Carlo Colaiacovo, 17th overall in 2001, and Alexander Steen, 24th overall in 2002, should be joining the roster in the next two seasons. Colaiacovo has played four NHL games already. He played 49 games with the St. John's Maple Leafs last season in which he was hurt when he was hit in the head with a puck early in the year and suffered a midseason hip injury. He returned late in the season and played well.
Steen is going to be a favorite of Ferguson's. Steen's father, Thomas, played for John's dad when he was the general manager of the Winnipeg Jets
Steen looks like the real deal, a tall fearless center with scoring and passing ability and the kind of leadership skills that made him captain of Team Sweden at the 2003 and 2004 World Junior Championships. He played with the stocked Modo team in the Swedish Elite League last season and had nine goals and eight assists in 50 games. He might have been better off, in terms of ice time and leadership opportunities, to have played in the AHL last season. That's where he's likely to start this season.
"I've seen him play and he has matured physically," Ferguson said. "He's a very smart two-way player. He suffered a bit in terms of ice time this season, but he played with Peter Forsberg and looked good. We look forward to the opportunity to see him here in Toronto with the Marlies.
"Alexander is very smart with good offensive instincts. He has good hands and a strong lower body. He moves the puck well and has good vision. He also has a good sense of defensive responsibility and good capabilities offensively."

Every late draft pick should greet his new general manager with the short speech left wing Robbie Earl made to the Maple Leafs. The 5-foot-10, 184-pound left wing was taken in the sixth round, 187th overall, in the 2004 Entry Draft. That was just after his 14-goal, 13-assist freshman season at the University of Wisconsin. He went out and had 20 goals and 24 assists this season for the Badgers. "He was very open about the fact he thought we got a steal where we got him," Ferguson said. "I'm happy he feels that way. He has a lot to prove and last season went a long way to bolstering his argument. Wisconsin swept North Dakota one weekend last winter and Robbie had both game-winning goals. He's doing the things he said he could do and maybe showing teams he could have been taken earlier. He has below-average NHL size and it won't be the last time he hears that. He's an explosive skater with a good finishing touch."

Size, size and more size was the drafting mantra across the NHL for many years and it caused some talented smaller players to go a lot lower than they should have. Defenseman Ian White, 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, could be one of those. After a 12-goal, 31-assist rookie season with Swift Current, White was taken in the sixth round, 191st overall, in 2002. The Maple Leafs had to love his 32 goals and 47 assists for 79 points the next season, 68 points the year after that and good numbers in an injury-shortened final season. White, who played youth hockey with Steen in Winnipeg, added four assists in eight AHL playoff games two years ago and had four goals and 22 assists in his rookie AHL season.

"He knows he's somewhat undersized for the prototypical NHL defenseman. He's heard it before for a long time, but he just continues to progress," Ferguson said. "He had a strong impact as a rookie in the AHL. He played a lot of minutes and finished with a really strong plus-minus. He did nothing to diminish his status as a prospect. He only enhanced it."

A player who goes in the ninth round of the junior draft and the seventh round of the NHL draft, skates poorly, doesn't "do" defense and has conditioning issues generally doesn't make it to the NHL. So, why is right wing Jeremy Williams so close?

Because he worked extremely hard to make himself a better skater, got fit and is working on his defense. White's teammate at Swift Current, Williams led the Broncos in scoring in 2002-03 and was named to the WHL First All-Star Team. Williams had 16 goals and 20 assists in 75 games in his rookie AHL season.

"Jeremy showed very good hockey sense and skill this season," Ferguson said. "He's already got an NHL shot release. He realized he has some work to do off the ice to maintain his physical consistency and be a contributor night in and night out. It's important this offseason for him get in a lot of physical conditioning. He has skills that rightfully establish his place as an NHL prospect. He was a later pick, but in the AHL this year he exhibited the finishing skill he had in juniors. And, that was without getting frontline power-play time. He did prove later that he could contribute in that area. He played hard at critical times. Jeremy has a ways to go, but he possesses characteristics that will help him continue."

While some of Toronto's top prospects were overlooked for lack of size, defenseman Dmitri Vorobiev slid down because of a perception of a weight and fitness problem. The other problem was scouts were not enthusiastic about his potential. The rap was that he did most things well, but nothing really well. Well, Vorobiev, who went in the fifth round, 157th overall, in 2004, has two solid seasons under him in the top Russian league and he was the leading-scoring defenseman on Team Russia at the 2005 World Junior Championships. That seems out-of-sync with his two goals and six assists last season and two goals and one assist the season before.
"The Russian policy of no second assists affects defensemen the most," Ferguson said. "He gets his shot through on net and those 'assists' add up, but aren't credited. I saw him play with Tolyatti Lada and he played on the top pairing. He's only 19, 17 at the start of his rookie season. Dmitri is a good two-way defenseman with decent size. He makes good puck decisions. He's not flashy, but he's dependable and effective. That league was better last year than it typically is and he did well. He's a thickly built kid with a good attitude. We think we extracted some value getting him where we did."

The Maple Leafs used four-straight picks to select defensemen in 2001. Karel Pilar and Colaiacovo have already moved to the head of the class. Brendan Bell and Jay Harrison appear to be on their way. Bell went in the third round, 65th overall, and Harrison was taken later in the third round with the 82nd pick. They are very different types of players.

Bell has always been a great assist producer and he blossomed in his final junior season as captain of the Ottawa 67's, scoring 14 goals and adding 39 assists in 55 games. He had seven goals and 25 points in his AHL rookie season and six goals and 31 points last year. He was the Canadian junior defenseman of the year two years ago. At 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, he's got the size. His conditioning and defensive play improved dramatically under coach Brian Kilrea at Ottawa.

"Brendan had a good, solid second professional season," Ferguson said. "His play was a little inconsistent. He had some nights when he was far and away our best defenseman. Those nights tell you he continued to progress. You can see why he was the junior defenseman of the year. He's strong, solidly built, a strong skater with a big shot. Brendan is a very good puck mover and he can play the point on the power play. He possesses a low, hard shot. He's improved his strength since junior and he's more capable defensively."

Harrison didn't progress as anticipated in juniors and, despite some success, slipped with the scouts. A first-round junior pick, his skating, low scoring and high penalty minutes hurt his draft selection. Harrison won a gold medal with Canada at the 1999 World Under-18 Championship and played on the medal-winning 2001 and 2002 WJC teams. He's played three seasons with St. John's and the Maple Leafs will consider him for a physical role on the defense.

"He has very good size and toughness. We project him as a fifth- or sixth-defenseman," Ferguson said. "He can also kill penalties. He plays a tough defense and clears the crease. The new rules will impact the makeup of the roster. We expect they will put a premium on mobile defensive players. Jay makes a good first pass and clears the zone quickly. He moves the puck fine, but it's not his first suit. He's not a puck-carrying guy. He makes the simple, safe outlet and we like that."
Ferguson is also high on the chances of Swedish defenseman Staffan Kronwall, the younger brother of Detroit Red Wings defenseman Nik Kronwall. They took him with the 285th overall pick in 2002, just before he moved up to play with Djurgardens in the Swedish Elite League. He now has three years under his belt at that level, although he got shuffled around this year with the increased level of competition. A low-scoring defensive defenseman, he could be competition for the job Harrison has his eye on. He's 6-foot-4 and 214 pounds.

"We anticipate he'll make the transition to North America this season," Ferguson said. "He's a good athlete in very good physical shape. He transitions the puck very well and he competes hard. For where he was picked, this club will get value."

Ferguson is curious about defenseman Dominic D'Amour whose knowledge of positional play has always been advanced. "Always in the right place. Makes the right play," are what the scouts say about 6-foot-3, 202-pound blue liner who averaged 216 penalty minutes in three seasons with Hull in which they twice went to the QMJHL finals. He split last season between St. John's and the ECHL.

"Dominic has good size with toughness and offensive capability," Ferguson said. "Everyone said he was a defensive defenseman, but then he had 15 goals in his last junior season. He's got a heavy shot from the point. We'll see how he develops."

Center John Mitchell is a big man still growing into his body. He showed consistent improvement in juniors with Plymouth and had 82 and 75 points his last two seasons. Mitchell is excellent on face-offs and tough against other teams' top centers. Plymouth coach Mike Vellucci absolutely expects his former charge to play in the NHL and cites his leadership qualities. Mitchell's skating is good and will get better with maturity and the added strength it brings. The Maple Leafs took him in the fifth round, 158th overall, in the 2003 draft, just before his breakout junior season.

"John is a highly skilled offensive player but he has some work to do on his end-to-end skating," Ferguson said. "He's a deceptive, slippery opponent. He was in the top ten in OHL scoring the past two years. He put up consistent offensive numbers both years. I think there is more there when he gets his stride straightened out. He has room to get better. His puck movement and hand skills are top shelf."

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