Anton Stralman has come quite a long way in the past three years ― probably further than even he could have predicted.
Since being drafted in the seventh round of the 2005 NHL entry draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs (216th overall, for those keeping score at home), Stralman has not only become a bonafide NHL prospect, he's also drawn comparisons with silky smooth Detroit defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom.
Along the way, he's played on the top pairing of the best defensive team in the Swedish Elite League (Timra) and finished runner-up for the SEL's rookie of the year in 2006.
Perhaps most impressive, he nearly beat out Andrei Markov for the honour of top defenseman at the 2007 World Hockey Championship.
That's the world championship. Not the world junior. Not bad for a 20-year-old who had never played an NHL game.
Stralman was inked to a three-year contract with the Leafs last spring and beat nearly impossible odds to crack the lineup early in the 2007-08 season.
If not for Paul Maurice's inexplicable desire to play Andy "Useless Schmuck" Wozniewski, Stralman would have made the team out of camp.
Regardless, he soon got his chance and showed everyone the hype was justified.
The numbers aren't impressive ― three goals and nine points in 50 games ― but Stralman demonstrated strong puck skills, good vision, patience, and a very good shot, all on just 12 minutes a game.
On the rare occasions when Stralman got time on the power play, he showed flashes of being a future quarterback.
Stralman improved as the season went on, capped by a two-goal performance against the Habs in late March.
The first goal was scored on a slick wrister from the point; the second, a beautiful end-to-end rush followed by a seeing-eye shot from the top of the right circle.
So we know what Stralman can do. Now, the question becomes: will he get a chance to improve on his performance next season?
Cliff Fletcher clearly intends to rebuild and he is hell-bent on getting rid of Bryan McCabe (and possibly Pavel Kubina). And the first move he made after becoming the interim GM was to send Wozniewski to the minors.
In other words, the path is being cleared for Stralman to earn more ice time.
The Swede will play in the Leafs' top four at the very least. If both McCabe and Kubina are moved, he could spend most of the season on the top pairing with Tomas Kaberle. Those two looked comfortable when paired at times last season.
Or, if Fletcher signs a good stay-at-home defenseman like Brooks Orpik (certainly no players of that description exist on the Leafs roster, unless Luke Schenn cracks the squad), Stralman might be matched with him to provide a balanced pairing.
Another possibility is Carlo Colaiacovo, if he can buy some magic water from Achilles' mother.
When healthy, Colaiacovo is strong defensively and could be the ying to Stralman's yang.
Regardless of Stralman's partner, however, he should put up improved numbers this season. He will likely see upwards of 18 minutes per game, and that will include lots of power play time.
Stralman played for Sweden again at this year's worlds, posting four goals and three assists in eight games. He played a very offensive role for the Swedes and appears to be growing in confidence.
All signs point to Stralman taking another step in establishing himself as an excellent two-way defenseman next season.
Who says Detroit's the only team that can find late gems at the draft?
2008-09 Prediction: 12 g, 22 a, 34 pts