Now more than ever Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke is under scrutiny because of the lack of legitimate NHL players he has been able to acquire. However, what most people choose to overlook is the amount of prospects that he has been able to acquire in order to restock an organization completely devoid of worthy prospects.
No longer are players like Robbie Earl, Jeremy Williams, Ben Ondrus and Kris Newbury considered the organization's top prospects. Thanks to Brian Burke, the Leafs have a plethora of young prospects who could make an impact in the NHL in the coming years.
Sure the Leafs may not be where most people had hoped right now, but they are definitely going in the right direction. I fully believe the Leafs will make the playoffs either this season or the next, and after that it's not long before they can be considered contenders once again.
Even though the odds are Burke won't be around to see this team succeed, he has done a lot more to help them than people give him credit for. While it may be time to put a new face to the Leafs GM, fans will be thanking him in the years to come.
This article will focus on current Toronto Maple Leafs players and prospects in the system who are 25 years of age or under and what their future role with the Leafs will be. Data from hockeysfuture.com will be used in this article as well as other sites like thescoutingreport.org.
Acquired by Brian Burke from the Boston Bruins in exchange for 2010 first-round pick (Tyler Seguin), 2010 second-round pick (Jared Knight) and 2011 first-round pick (Dougie Hamilton)
Undoubtedly Burke's most controversial trade to date because fans have constantly been scrutinizing this deal over and over again. I have three words for those people:
Forget about it.
The deal is done and gone. Complaining and blaming Burke will not change anything. What did happen, though, is the Leafs acquired a legitimate first-line winger who just turned 24 this past year.
Heading into the 2006 NHL entry draft, scouts predicted that Kessel could have been drafted as high as first overall and was considered a premiere offensive talent.
Leafs fans already know what Kessel is capable of offensively. The only concern would be on the defensive side which was noticeably better this past season but could still use some work. Playing under Randy Carlyle could do wonders for Kessel's overall game.
Standing at 6'0" tall and weighing over 200 pounds, Kessel is not a small player by any means. If he can learn to use his size more effectively, primarily along the boards and when taking hits, he could be an even more dynamic player than he is now. He could easily put up 40+ goals and 90+ points one day.
Acquired by Burke from the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for Luke Schenn.
Rumored to be coming to the Leafs all season, James van Riemsdyk finally became a Leaf on June 24th, the day after the NHL entry draft. While Randy Carlyle has already stated that he will be trying van Riemsdyk out at center, I think he will find his niche on the first line but as a winger.
He has a great combination of size, speed and skill while playing a style that will complement Kessel. Once he learns how to use his size more effectively, he has the potential to become a dominant power forward in the league.
Some fans believe that he is already a second-overall pick bust. I hate to break it to you, but there is no viable reason to call a 23-year-old player with as much potential as van Riemsdyk to be considered a bust. His development was stalled this past season because of four separate injuries that caused him to miss 39 games.
Expectations were high this past season following the 2011 playoffs where van Riemsdyk was easily one of Philadelphia's best players.
Toronto Marlies coach Dallas Eakins said that he always judges a players potential by the best game he's seen them play. There have been games where van Riemsdyk was a dominant force, and those are the games that Leafs fans should be hopeful about.
He just needs to become more consistent, shore up the defensive aspect of his game and learn to use his size more effectively. Once he does that, I don't think there will be a single Leafs fan out there doubting the trade that brought him to Toronto.
Drafted by Burke seventh overall in the 2009 NHL entry draft
I know most Leafs fans will probably scoff at the idea of Nazem Kadri as the team's future top-line center, but let's ignore that and look at the facts.
Kadri is a player who possesses high-end skill and who's two-way game has noticeably improved since the day he was drafted. According to Scott Brophy in this article, Kadri is training with Gary Roberts this offseason and is determined to crack the Leafs roster. An area he is determined to improve is his explosiveness.
Here is Kadri's talent analysis taken from Hockey's Future:
Kadri is a highly skilled forward who can make plays at a whim in the offensive zone. He’s fearless on the ice which compensates for his small frame. While there are questions surrounding his game-to-game compete level and some of his decision making, his positives outweigh those negatives.
Both Burke and Eakins have done nothing but compliment Kadri's development over the last few seasons. According to them, Kadri has become a much more complete player, no longer being considered as a liability defensively.
One thing he still needs to continue working on is his ability to make the simple plays. Kadri still likes to make complicated plays at times and often holds onto the puck longer than he should. Compared to the more significant holes in his game that he has improved, these should not be too difficult.
Leafs fans are notorious for being impatient with prospects. Some players just take a little more time to develop than others it so happens.
So far Kadri is headed down the exact same path (literally) as Bobby Ryan who was Burke's first ever pick during his Anaheim days. Except in this case Burke decided to draft a player who during draft time was compared to a key member of the Anaheim Ducks' Stanley Cup winning team, Andy McDonald.
No matter what Leafs fans think, Kadri is heading down the right path. For a franchise that has been known to destroy and give up on their prospects over the years, I find it odd that fans are looking for this to continue.
With Kadri's dedicated diet and training regimen this offseason, he will make the Leafs out of training camp. Not only that, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him put up 20+ and 50+ points in his first full season.
Pre-Burke era: Drafted in the fourth round 99th overall in the 2007 NHL entry draft.
Talent analysis via Hockey's Future:
Frattin uses his excellent shot to back defenders off down the wing and shows good hands when opportunities arise in close. Due to a quick, hard release he often catches goalies off guard. He has a squatty build at 6'1" and 206 pounds. He is not afraid to do the dirty work in the corners, but is at his best when posted up in the slot. His added strength over his four NCAA years has strengthened his skating ability. He’s extremely dangerous off the rush and can find ways to jump into open-ice; a snipers trademark.
Frattin was a pleasant surprise this past year. It was widely expected that Leafs top prospect Nazem Kadri would make the team out of training camp. It was a surprise then to see Frattin make the team in his stead.
Frattin's rookie season was not spectacular by any means scoring eight goals and 15 points in 56 games averaging third-line minutes.
It was during the AHL playoffs, however, where he really began to show what he is capable of, scoring 10 goals and 13 points in 13 games before going down with injury. In 36 AHL games (regular season and playoffs included), Frattin scored 24 goals and 31 points. Not too shabby for a player in his first pro season.
Frattin showed flashes of skill that led many fans to believe he has top-six forward potential in his future. He is quick with a very accurate shot and already knows how to use his size effectively from playing four years with the University of North Dakota of the NCAA. He is also a solid two-way player but could still use some work. Playing under Dallas Eakins and Randy Carlyle will definitely help out his overall game.
Acquired by Burke from the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for Keith Aulie
Many Leafs fans were disappointed the day they heard the Leafs traded stay-at-home defenseman Keith Aulie in exchange for power forward Carter Ashton.
To many fans, Aulie was still a reminder of how badly Toronto won the Dion Phaneuf trade, especially when Aulie suited for 40 games during the 2010-2011 season playing primarily with Dion Phaneuf on the first pairing.
Leafs fans were excited and rightly so. Aulie progressed faster than anyone expected him to and was poised to become a staple on the Leafs defense for years to come. However, I believe that the trade for Ashton not only was the right move, but the best move Burke could have made.
First off, Ashton is a former first-round pick and is also a player who addresses a specific need in the Leafs organization for a big scoring winger. The following is his talent analysis via Hockey's Future:
Ashton has developed into a consistent two-way performer and has quietly impressed scouts. Ashton possesses pro size and has demonstrated that he understands and accepts his role. A polished player with regards to the defensive nuances of the game, he has added some offense to his game and drives to the net hard. Ashton's skating technique may need to improve as he advances to higher levels. Ashton is the son of former NHL winger Brent Ashton, who played 998 regular season games in the NHL.
From this report we can see that Ashton is a prototypical power forward who plays a very responsible two-way game. He has been working extensively on his offensive game and doesn't mind getting into those dirty areas. His skating could use some work, but that shouldn't be too hard if he takes some skating lessons with Barb Underhill this offseason.
Hockey's Future goes on to say that if Ashton can round out his offensive game, he could potentially be a top-line power forward down the road. However, I think he is more likely to develop into a second-line winger with special-teams ability.
Even though Leafs fans were disappointed the day Aulie was traded, they will be thanking Burke down the road.
Acquired from the Boston Bruins along with a 2011 first-round pick and a 2012 second-round pick in exchange for Tomas Kaberle
Joe Colborne was the centerpiece of the Tomas Kaberle trade, and from that moment on, the Toronto media has begun speculating on the possibility of Colborne being the team's future top-line center.
I do not believe that will be the case.
Here is Colborne's talent analysis from Hockey's Future:
The smooth skating, 6’5" center, has soft hands, good vision and a wicked release. He oozes potential, but his impact on games at the AHL level varies dramatically.
The reason for that could be simply that Colborne is a big body who’s used to dominating physically and playing against opponents who are bigger and stronger than him, and it’s taking some time to adjust. But there are also games where he simply looks less engaged, and that wavering intensity level was a criticism he had in college as well.
Even with his flaws, Colborne is a high-character individual and is someone willing to put in the work to improve on his shortcomings.
According to this report, Colborne has all the makings of a top-six scoring forward. However, to say that he will be a first-line talent may be a little bit of a stretch. He has a good mix of skill, size and hockey sense and will be an impact in the future.
He will need to work on his skating and consistency a little more before he will be given a real shot with the Leafs.
Drafted by Burke 22nd overall in the 2011 NHL entry draft
Lots of people were disappointed when Brian Burke traded up to grab Tyler Biggs passing over more skilled guys like Matt Puempel, Zack Phillips, Nicklas Jensen, Tomas Jurco and Boone Jenner.
Pierre McGuire can be quoted on TSN as saying the following of Biggs prior to his selection in the 2011 NHL draft:
Biggs is probably the nastiest guy in this draft. He's a big physical player that's going to punish people once he gets to the NHL level.
Scouting reports on what kind of player Biggs can develop into vary. Some people say at worse he will develop into a pre-Toronto Colby Armstrong and at best into a Milan Lucic-type of player with more offensive upside.
He has a lot of raw offensive talent, and it will take a lot of hard work and dedication in order to hone it properly, something that Biggs is very capable of. Whether or not he lives up to this potential, is entirely up to him.
What we do know is Biggs has excellent foot speed and is a physical beast. A scouting report here says that he is also an above average penalty killer and makes few mistakes in the neutral zone. The report goes onto say that Biggs was probably the most underrated player in the entire draft.
Whether Biggs lives up to his potential or not, he will definitely become a fan favorite when he finally lands in Toronto.
Drafted by Burke 43rd overall in the 2010 NHL entry draft
Talent analysis via Hockey's Future:
Considered one of the hardest players to play against in the WHL, Ross brings energy and grit to the mix, which sometimes makes it easy for his offensive prowess to be overlooked. An in-your-face forward who’s relentless on the ice, his presence helps create open ice for his ultra-skilled linemates. He thrives in a pest role and should continue to frustrate opponents at the pro level.
This mix of talent has been missing in a Leafs player since Darcy Tucker. Burke had hoped he was filling that hole when he signed Colby Armstrong. That was not the case. Brad Ross would fit in very nicely on the Leafs third line in the future.
Because of his ability to get under his opponents' skin, his offensive prowess is often under estimated. He managed to score 42 goals this past season and was one of the last cuts from the Canadian World Junior team.
Like Tyler Biggs, Ross has the potential to develop into a top-six forward one day and, also like Biggs, will probably be a fan favorite in Toronto. These two could help form a very difficult line to play against one day.
Drafted by Burke 62nd overall in the 2010 NHL entry draft
While Greg McKegg has never been known as a defensively responsible center, I think his skill set would mesh very well with Tyler Biggs and Brad Ross.
McKegg's talent analysis via Hockey's Future:
Capable of lining up at center and wing, McKegg is an offensive catalyst with a good mind for the game. He’s a natural goal scorer who can find numerous ways to bury the biscuit. Not overly physical, but also doesn’t shy away from contact. He has deceptive hands and the ability to slip through tight areas. Game-to-game consistency and strength are areas of weakness in McKegg’s game currently.
From this analysis we can see that McKegg has all the makings of being a top-six player in the NHL one day. He is a gifted offensive player but he still needs to shore up the defensive aspect. Playing under Dallas Eakins will definitely help in that regard as will learning from Randy Carlyle.
If McKegg can improve his defensive play, he should be a good fit on a line with Biggs and Ross, a line where all three of them have the potential to be top-six players.
Drafted by Burke fifth overall in the 2012 NHL entry draft
Talent analysis via Hockey's Future:
Rielly was the top offensive defenseman in the 2012 draft class. His skating, passing, and puck skills are all top-notch, and he puts those skills to good use. Rielly has the look of a future power-play quarterback and puck-rushing defenseman. He'll need to work on his defensive game, but that isn't likely to keep him from making an arrival in the NHL sooner rather than later.
While many Leafs fans believe that Jake Gardiner will be the team's future top puck moving defenseman, they haven't taken a good look at Morgan Rielly.
Like Gardiner, Rielly has elite skating ability. He also has elite playmaking ability and vision on the ice. The defensive side of his game could still use some work which is normal for 18-year-old defensemen anyway.
Even though he was injured, Rielly was still considered the top offensive defenseman in the draft. Many believe that had he not gotten injured, he probably could have competed for the top overall defenseman as well.
In an article here containing numerous scouting reports, one from the Globe and Mail, Rielly is called "the best defence prospect since Drew Doughty." It also goes on to say Rielly possesses similar attributes to Erik Karlsson and that the two "play an almost identical skating and puck possession game."
Director of scouting for TheScout.ca, Sean Lafortune, tweeted the following about Rielly after the draft:
Everyone I have talked with love Rielly. They think he has Norris ability. Have to trust live views and expert opinions.
This is a lot of praise for a young player like Rielly. If these scouting reports are accurate, then Rielly does not just have the ability to be a top-two defenseman, but one of the best in the entire league. It will be exciting to see what he is capable of come training camp.
Acquired by Burke along with Matthew Lombardi from the Nashville Predators in exchange for Brett Lebda and Robert Slaney
Primarily perceived as an offensive minded defenseman, Cody Franson had the best plus/minus on a terrible defensive Maple Leafs team this past season with a minus-1 rating.
I believe that Burke felt comfortable trading away Luke Schenn because of Franson. When Schenn was drafted, he was said to possess raw offensive ability which he showed flashes of during his time in Toronto. However, when his defensive play began to come into question in Toronto, maybe a change of scenery was best.
Now it seems like the plan is to turn an offensive minded defenseman with size into a complete player. Due to his size, once he learns how to be a better defensive minded player, he could be as integral a shutdown defenseman as the Leafs hoped they had when they drafted Luke Schenn.
Hopefully Randy Carlyle will have a positive effect on the direction of his development.
Acquired by Burke along with Joffrey Lupul from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for Francois Beauchemin
When Jake Gardiner was acquired, fans knew that he would be the team's future puck moving defenseman. What nobody expected, however, was for him to have an impact on the Leafs roster last season. Gardiner led all rookie defensemen in points with 30 and ranked third in ice time.
I know many fans will probably think that Gardiner will be on the team's top defensive pairing and rightly so. I just personally see more upside in Morgan Rielly. I think the Leafs back end will look very imposing with two highly talented puck movers on the back end.
I think Burke realized the mistake he made going with big, intimidating defensemen who could punish opposing players physically. How many odd-man rushes did the Leafs give up last season? Gardiner showed Burke exactly the kind of rear guards this team needs—speedy positionally sound players. You don`t need size in order to be effective defensively.
Fans should get used to seeing Gardiner as a staple on the Leafs blue line for years to come.
Drafted by Burke 58th overall in the 2009 NHL entry draft
Talent analysis via Hockey's Future:
Blacker has a solid positional game and can play in a variety of roles. He rarely is caught out of position and is starting to read the play more effectively. He is a powerful skater and loves to rush the puck up the ice. His offensive game has taken major steps forward over the last few seasons as he’s become one of the OHL’s top defenders.
Jesse Blacker is a player who Leafs fans should be prepared to see in the NHL sooner rather than later. He is another puck moving defenseman who possesses good speed and is already a sound defensive player. He is not as gifted offensively as guys like Gardiner and Rielly, but he does like to rush the puck and is still working hard on his offensive game.
When watching Jake Gardiner play this past season, he performed better when paired with John-Michael Liles. I think Blacker will be the perfect replacement for Liles in the future, seeing as the two play a similar game with Blacker being better defensively.
I know that Liles signed a four-year extension this past season with a modified no-trade clause, but I think Burke will explore moving the veteran puck mover come the trade deadline. However, this will depend on how well Blacker develops and how well Liles performs this season.
If Liles can stay healthy and produce at the 40+ points pace that he's capable of, I can easily see a fringe playoff team or a contender offer a prospect and a first-round pick. This all depends on where the Leafs stand come the trade deadline. If Liles is moved, and I believe that route will be explored, then Blacker will get his shot at a full-time roster spot with the Leafs.
Drafted by Burke 25th overall in the 2011 NHL entry draft
Stuart Percy's talent analysis via Hockey's Future:
Percy possesses all-round capability, and is very calm under pressure situations. He moves the puck efficiently out of the defensive zone and has untapped offensive potential – although he is unlikely to develop into a premiere offensive defender. His focus over the next few seasons will be developing all-round strength (specifically leg strength) to compete for a spot at the pro level.
During the 2011 NHL entry draft, Burke said his decision to draft Percy was based on his showing in the 2011 OHL playoffs with the Mississauga St. Michael's Majors. Percy is already known as being very capable defensively, but he showed that he also has some offensive upside as well.
Like his scouting report says, he still needs to work on getting stronger. He will likely be used primarily as an defensive defenseman with the ability to chip in offensively from time to time.
Hockey's Future goes on to say that he has the potential to be a top four defenseman in the NHL. However, with all the talented young blue liners in the Leafs system, he may be relegated as third-pairing guy barring any trades.
Drafted by Burke 35th overall in the 2012 NHL entry draft
Matt Finn's talent analysis via Hockey's Future:
Finn's game relies on his defensive smarts and his penchant for making few mistakes. Defensively, Finn's game is well developed at this time, and that is likely to be his stock in trade when he lands in the NHL. There may be some offensive upside to his game, but he will be primarily known as a heady defensive defenseman.
Matt Finn's sound defensive game is a welcome addition to a Leafs system stocked with offensive minded defensemen. However, that does not mean there is no offensive potential there.
According to The Scouting Report Finn has done a good job improving his speed and footwork this past season. He was also given ample power-play time to show his all-around capability. While he does not possess any wow factors to his game, he works hard and does not make many mistakes.
Like Stuart Percy, he has the potential to be a top-four defenseman one day but will likely be depended on more for his defensive prowess than his offensive skill. For this reason, I see him being relegated to the third defensive pairing.
Pre-Burke Era: Drafted 111th overall in the 2006 NHL entry draft
Korbinian Holzer's talent analysis via Hockey's Future:
Holzer has good size at 6’3", and continues to add strength to his frame. He initiates contact at the proper time and handles himself well in physical contests. He is calm with the puck and has a solid transition game out of the defensive zone. As the 2010-11 season wore on, Holzer started to adjust well to the speed of the smaller-ice surface. Defensively, Holzer plays sound positionally and can neutralize opposing forwards in a shut-down role.
Earlier I said that Cody Franson's development was probably a reason why Burke felt comfortable trading away Luke Schenn. This would be even more likely when looking at Korbinian Holzer.
Holzer was the Toronto Marlies best defenseman during their run to the Calder Cup Finals. He showed that not only has he adjusted to the North American game, he has excelled at it. While he probably will never wow anyone offensively, he is defensively sound.
At best, I think Holzer will be a third-pairing defenseman with shutdown capability, but at the end of the day he may get rubbed out by more talented Leafs prospects and may be relegated as the team's extra defenseman.
Pre-Burke era: Drafted 99th overall in the 2006 NHL entry draft
Some Leafs fans have began to doubt whether James Reimer could be the Leafs' No. 1 goalie after an injury-plagued season.
What people must realize is that Reimer got off to a hot start until Brian Gionta took a cheap glide-by shot, knocking Reimer off the Leafs roster with a concussion. After that, it was a battle for him all season long; and it ended off on a sour note when he was out with an upper-body injury.
Players go through rough patches all the time, but that does not change the potential Reimer possesses. Hockey's Future believes that he can be a starting goaltender one day and one that the Leafs have needed for a long time.
Reimer has a solid work ethic and works hard day in and day out to improve every aspect of his game. Starting goaltenders do not grow on trees; they have to be tough. Talent can only get a player so far. They need to be willing to put the hard work in to get to where they want to be. Leafs fans should be supremely thankful that James Reimer is one of those guys.
Signed by Burke in April 2010
Ben Scrivens is without a doubt Brian Burke's best signing to date.
Originally thought to be a depth goaltending signing, Scrivens showed everyone that he is capable of a whole lot more. He assumed the mantle as the Marlies' starting netminder at the end of the 2010-2011 season and followed that up by being one of the best goaltenders in the AHL this past season.
Here is his talent analysis via Hockey's Future:
Scrivens has good size at 6’2" and he’s an aggressive goalie who likes to challenge shooters – but also keeps his game simple. He has a calm demeanour in net which breeds consistency in his game. His frame, combined with his ability to move quickly between the pipes allows him to get in front of the puck quickly.
He’s shown success at the NCAA level and is now translating that success into his early pro career. Like most NCAA players, he’ll need to develop consistency over a longer season and not fizzle out.
It is mentioned that Ben Scrivens' calm demeanour breeds consistency in his game, and they mean it. This past season Scrivens played 68 games in the AHL and NHL combined. Not only that, but his AHL save percentage was superb at .926 during the regular season (.935 in the playoffs), and his NHL save percentage was solid at .902.
Hockey's Future goes on to say that Scrivens has some potential to be a starter but will likely be relegated as the teams 1B goalie behind James Reimer.
There is no way to determine whether Scrivens or Reimer will be the better goaltender at the end of the day. However, the Leafs are rather fortunate to have two talented young goaltenders willing to put in the hard work to get where they want to be.
At the end of the day, Brian Burke has done more to help this team than anyone is giving him credit for. I understand that the supposed "quick rebuild" did not turn out the way he planned, but along the way a real rebuild took place.
The Leafs have a solid core of young players coming up through their system that will help the franchise for years to come. Whether management decides to stick with each of these players or use them to acquire other assets is up in the air, but thanks to Burke they are in a much better position than before.
The following lineup is something I could see the Leafs using full time in three to four years, barring any trades and free-agency signings:
First line: van Riemsdyk - Kadri - Kessel
Second line: Ashton - Colborne - Frattin
Third line: Biggs - McKegg - Ross
Fourth line: Veteran Role Players
First line: Rielly - Franson
Second line: Blacker - Gardiner
Third line: Percy - Finn
Extra Defenseman: Holzer
1A: James Reimer
1B: Ben Scrivens
This solid core of young players has the potential to be a contending team for years to come, and Burke should be properly thanked. Players like Jerry D'Amigo, Marcel Mueller, Nicolas Deschamps, Josh Leivo, Kenny Ryan, Petter Granberg and Garret Sparks were left off the roster because, frankly, there was no room to fit them in.
Burke has also taken a different approach to managing the Leafs that has been foreign to fans for so many years, namely he is letting their prospects develop properly.
I am happy that Burke is not caving in to the ridiculous demands of Leafs fans and thrusting 18-year-olds into the NHL right away. The most recent example is what Cliff Fletcher did with Luke Schenn.
Had Schenn been sent back to juniors following the 2008 draft (as he should have been), he would have been more prepared for the NHL than he was. Sure, he showed flashes of brilliance here and there, but he was forced to learn things he wasn't ready for.
Had he been handled properly, the Leafs could have gotten a lot more in return for him than just James van Riemsdyk who, don't get me wrong, I am very happy with as well.
Thank you, Brian Burke for everything you have done to help the Toronto Maple Leafs over the past four years. While the time may be coming for someone new to take over, he has done more to help this team than people give him credit for. Any future success that the Leafs will have is entirely because of Burke, whether he is here to experience it or not.