Youth of Leaf Nation: Bright Future or Disappointment Waiting To Happen?
It's common when interviewing for a new job to be asked a question that can say a lot about who a person is and where he or she wants to be in the future: "Where do you see yourself in five years?"
A tough question, to be sure, but as the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, it's a question Brian Burke probably has a lengthy answer for. He certainly has a vision of where he'd like to see his team in such time.
Whether he could form a reasonably realistic response out of it is another thing.
But there is no question that a GM has a plan for the future—that's why they spend countless hours talking with scouts and others, who spend even more countless hours figuring out who would be best to draft in the upcoming year.
The future is bright when you plan for it now.
The difference for the Leafs from many other teams is that much of what their future holds is playing a full-time role on the team right now—especially up-front.
There's no question about Phil Kessel and what he's going to be worth to the club in the coming years—although many will question whether the trade that included two first-round picks was too much for just as long.
Although many players appearing in their first season in the league are older than Kessel, it is clear that they have some catching up to do if they're going to crack the lineup next season.
Maybe the most NHL-ready-looking rookie for the Leafs thus far has been Tyler Bozak— who has been thrust into the starting center role on a line with Kessel, and he has done a respectable job. His face-off efficiency is on the rise every game—and Ron Wilson has been able to count on him to win key face-offs in both zones.
His speed is another aspect of his game that has been a pleasant surprise so far. With the 13 points in 21 games that he has tallied, there is no question that a spot on the roster next season is his for the taking—probably not as a first-line center, but one of the top three, for sure.
Another guy who has shown his impressive skill level while only appearing in 24 games this season is Viktor Stalberg. His minutes have been limited on some nights—when he is used on the fourth line—but there is no question that the Swede is one of the fastest skaters in the NHL, never mind just the Leafs.
He has become known for his quickness breaking in toward the net off the wing and has had no trouble crashing the net with determination in hopes of creating a chance.
With just three goals and five points, he hasn't put up the type of numbers that a player of his kind would like to—but there is no doubting the potential he has shown if given more time to mature and grow as a forward in the NHL. He may have played his way into the lineup for next season as well, especially with his play of late.
Luca Caputi, the newest member of the team coming over in a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins, has already shown his skill in just four games with the team. The hometown kid has shown he can play a gritty, in-your-face-type game while being a menace in front of the net. He's only 21 years old, but he has a goal and an assist so far in blue and white.
It's not only up-front that the team looks to have some potential brewing—because the arrival of defenseman Carl Gunnarsson to the Leafs lineup has been nothing but positive. Sure, he's had his tough nights—as any rookie defender would—but the 23-year-old has been extremely confident and shown great poise while dealing with injury and the rigors of an NHL season.
As for the goaltending situation, Jonas Gustavsson has looked good of late, but the glaring aspect of his game that needs work is rebounding. There have been various occasions when his rebound control issues have cost the team a goal. If he can improve in that area—as well as his stick handling—it will only mean great things to come for the Leafs in the future.
Even though the playoffs are well out of reach at this point for a Leaf team that has had one of the most disappointing seasons in recent memory, there is no question that the young players getting a chance to play with the big club will only benefit from the experience.
Starting next season, it will be interesting to see how many of them—if not all—make the team and how they can contribute to a club that's hopefully in a playoff race.
It’s a tough call to make right now, but by the looks of things so far, it will be a bright future in Toronto—unlike the disappointment from so many up-and-coming players in the past.
With these players and the additions of others, the NHL's youngest team should be able to steadily improve. And when asked where the team will be in five years, Leaf fans should only reply with a smile in anticipation.
Although, they're hoping it's more like two.
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