With the 2008 draft in the rearview mirror, it's time to re-evaluate the Toronto Maple Leafs' prospect depth.
Let's rank where their young talent currently stands. Jiri Tlusty and Anton Stralman are excluded because they've established themselves with the big club, but they would be near the top of this list.
1. Luke Schenn, D
This one's a no-brainer. Luke instantly became Toronto's best prospect when they drafted him Friday night. He's a strong shutdown defender who will make you pay when you enter the zone. Schenn is something the Leafs have sorely lacked for a long time. He's also seen as a future captain. He's probably a year away.
2. Nikolai Kulemin, LW
Kulemin is a very intriguing case. Selected 44th overall by Toronto in the 2006 draft as a 20-year-old, Kulemin's stock has skyrocketed since then. He gained fame as the right winger on a line with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin at the 2006 World Junior Hockey Championships, but has proven he's more than capable of handling himself, as his production with Magnitogorsk rose after Malkin left for the NHL.
Kulemin projects as a physical second line winger with a strong defensive conscience. He'll probably be a great penalty killer too. It looks like he will play with the Leafs next season.
3. Justin Pogge, G
Pogge's development has been a little slower than some expected, but you have to remember that very, very few goalies can crack the NHL as quickly as Carey Price did with the Canadiens. Most don't make their big-league debut until 22 or 23, at least. Many observers, including myself, were confounded by the Marlies' decision to sit Pogge on the bench during their run to the AHL conference final in favour of Scott Clemmensen. Pogge needed that big-game experience badly.
It now looks as if Pogge will be the starter for all of next season and crack the Leafs in 2009-10. That's fine. There is zero need to rush the guy.
4. Robbie Earl, LW
This American speedster impressed during his late-season cameo with the Leafs, showing good chemistry with Dominic Moore. His game is speed, speed, and more speed. But don't make the mistake of pigeonholing Earl. He likes to get dirty and drives the net with impunity. He's also a strong playmaker. If Cliff Fletcher can ship out a couple of veteran forwards, Earl will likely make the Leafs out of camp.
When he was drafted in the sixth round in 2004, Earl told the Leafs they'd gotten a steal. That may well prove to be the case, especially with the new NHL's emphasis on speed.
5. Mikhail Stefanovich, C
Stefanovich was Toronto's fourth round pick last week. He was slotted by most to be picked between 25-40 range, but he likely saw the biggest fall of anyone in the draft. That's largely due to concerns about his work ethic and consistency, though reports say that those deficiencies can be attributed in some form to his struggle to adjust to North America. Stefanovich, who hails from Belarus, is very shy and had a rough transition to Western culture.
There is no denying Mikhail's skill, though. His scoring ability and hockey sense are excellent, and he has the frame to become a physical presence around the net if he is willing to work at it. He's also a fine playmaker. Stefanovich could be a steal if he commits to bettering his all-around game.
6. Jimmy Hayes, RW
Hayes was Toronto's second-round pick on Saturday. He's a physical winger who is excellent around the net. He skates very well and really understands the team concept. Hayes is off to Boston College next year and will likely spend at least two seasons there, if not more. Don't be surprised to see Hayes on the Leafs' second line in three or four years.
7. Tyler Ruegsegger, RW
Picked in the sixth round of the 2006 draft, Ruegsegger could be another late-round gem for Toronto. He has a nose for the net, playmaking ability and incredible hockey sense. He's also defensively accountable. Skating is an issue, but it has steadily improved over his first two seasons at the University of Denver. He'll probably spend two more seasons there. Ruegsegger could develop into a middle-six player for the Leafs.
8. Dale Mitchell, RW
Mitchell was picked in the third round of the 2007 draft. He plays like a bulldog, refusing to be intimidated and almost impossible to knock off the puck. It's not clear how well Mitchell's offensive ability will translate to the pro level, but at the very least he should find a role in the Leafs' bottom six.
9. Chris DiDomenico, C
DiDomenico, who was picked in the sixth round in 2007, has been defying the odds in the Leafs system. Passed over in the OHL draft, DiDomenico got a call from the Saint John Sea Dogs and has repaid their faith in spades. He led the squad in scoring during his first year, with 75 points in 70 games, and followed that up with 39 goals and 95 points last season. DiDomenico looks to be developing into a sniper who likes to get physical and can take care of things in his own end. His skating needs work and his limit is probably a checking role on the third line.
10. James Reimer, G
Reimer is a big goalie who was picked in the fourth round of the 2006 draft. He plays for the Red Deer Rebels, which is always a good sign (Cam Ward also played there). Reimer loves to challenge shooters and is great at cutting off the angles. He's very athletic, though he needs to work on his foot speed. Some have compared him to Justin Pogge, but that may be wishful thinking at this point. We should get a better look at Reimer when he plays for the Marlies, which may happen this season if the Leafs dump Andrew Raycroft and bring up Clemmensen.
Honourable mention: Dimitri Vorobiev would have been in the top 5 if there was any indication of him coming over from Russia. He's a good skater with good balance who does everything well, but he has given no sign that he's willing to leave his homeland. That's a shame, because he's Toronto's best D prospect after Schenn.
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