"Generation Next" is in full swing for the Toronto Maple Leafs as they head into another offseason without an invitation to the playoffs. And as it's been at the end of the previous four years, all the talk will shift towards the 2010-2011 season and what it will hold for a team and city that so desperately wants a winner.
The difference about next season is that for the first time in a long time it's the kids that will be leading the way into what all of Leaf Nation hopes is a berth in the post season.
The brash of rookies that have had a hand in the team's success down the stretch will get a valuable summer off to bulk up and use what they've learned from their limited experience to improve their game.
Next season is already a hot topic in Hogtown, so let's take a look at this season's Leaf rookies, and where they will probably end up in a year that will be the unofficial first of the rebuilt Maple Leafs.
It's been nothing but positive for the 24-year-old Bozak who's playing in his first NHL season after a year at the University of Denver. After being called up at the beginning of January he has appeared in 35 games in the Blue and White, and hasn't looked out of place.
His eight goals and 18 assists are impressive but it's his vision and puck control on display each night that has people calling for Bozak to be a great asset for years to come in Toronto.
Though he spent much of his time on the first line with Phil Kessel and Nik Kulemin, the past two weeks have seen him assigned to a spot between Christian Hanson and Viktor Stalberg—"The Frat Pack"—and the three former college players have had some instant chemistry.
Next season looks to be a promising one for Bozak who has all but locked up a probable second-line center position, assuming the Leafs pick up a player or have Nazim Kadri there.
Expect him to get significant power play time as well with his great passing and ability to move the puck efficiently.
This summer he will certainly need to put on some weight to his 195 lb frame, but if this season has shown us anything, it's that he is ready to play a big role for the Leafs for years to come.
There is one thing that comes to mind when mentioning Viktor Stalberg: speed. This kid can fly, and of late he's been using his quick feet to fly in on the wing and crash the net. It's something that has the coaching staff excited for his season next year in Toronto.
His energy is electric, his 6'3", 210 lb frame is one of the biggest on the team, and his ability to score will be a valued part of his game.
His season started out rough, as he suffered a concussion and multiple trips down to the minors before finally he was awarded a permanent roster spot after the trades that sent so many of the Leaf forwards out of town.
Though he only has eight goals and four assists in 38 games, the way he picked up his play in the final weeks of the season will no doubt serve as a confidence booster as he goes into the offseason on a hot streak.
He has certainly done enough near the end of the year to solidify a spot on the team next season, and a second or third-line spot is where you'll most likely see him for the majority of time.
It hasn't been the start to his NHL career that he would have imagined, but Christian Hanson has shown signs that he could be an effective player in the future. He plays bigger than his 6'3", 200 lb body would suggest and he's shown to be useful in the defensive zone and in a penalty-killing role.
He has no goals in the 29 games he's played in, and though it's been frustrating in that sense, he has plenty he can take into the summer to use while improving all aspects of his game.
He's got a world of potential but hasn't shown he can do enough to impact the team at the level they want him to.
Unless the current Leafs roster has little change before next season begins, it wouldn't be surprising to see Hanson start the year down with the Toronto Marlies of the AHL for some more seasoning before getting a shot at a permanent spot on the Leafs.
There wouldn't be much point in giving him limited minutes in the NHL when he could be logging major time in the AHL as one of the go-to guys on the club.
He certainly has a future on the Leafs, but it might be too soon to give him the chance at a full season after what he's shown this year. It doesn't help his cause that the team will have an abundance of centers next season.
It's been somewhat of a dream season for Caputi, as odd as that sounds for a player who was traded from the defending Cup Champions to the Eastern Conference basement dwellers. But for Luca Caputi the chance to come home and play in the city that he grew up in and for the team he cheered for was something he had hoped for since childhood.
He's played 17 games for the club since the trade from Pittsburgh and has impressed many with what he's been able to do.
With a goal and five assists since arriving, as well as showing the tenacity and grit that Brian Burke is looking for in his players, Caputi certainly has a shot at reserving a spot on the club for next season.
The left-winger is only 21, making him the second youngest player on the team after Luke Schenn, and that may work against his chances. With so many young players on the team battling for spots, and all of them older than Caputi, the coaching staff may feel that they can afford to send him to the minors for another season to let him work on his game.
He'll no doubt be used as a call-up if the team deals with injuries, but don't be surprised to see Caputi down with the Marlies to start next year.
It will be a tough defensive core to crack next season for the 23-year-old Gunnarsson, but with his excellent play in 41 games this season, he's certainly given himself a great shot at it.
He's tallied three goals and 10 assists and has an impressive plus-11 rating, which is the best on the team by a long shot. With all signs pointing to Mike Van Ryn, Jeff Finger, and Garnett Exelby on their way out of town in the offseason, it looks as if "Gunner" will book is spot in the top six.
He has shown that he has fully adapted to the North American game, and though he's had his mistakes, just as every rookie defenseman, the good greatly outweighs the bad with this kid.
Next season should be his first full year in a Leaf uniform.
It's not how you start, it's how you finish. The motto that has stood strong for decades in sports certainly has done so for Gustavsson. After injury issues, multiple surgeries, the death of his mother, and struggling with his play, "The Monster" has found his game and seems to have the confidence of his teammates.
He has a 7-2-1 record in his past ten games and has only allowed more than three goals twice in that time. His rebound control is better, his movement is faster, and he isn't overplaying shots as much as at the beginning of the season.
It seems to be all coming together for the Swedish rookie, ever since the return from the Olympics and the arrival of Jean-Sebastian Giguere.
It isn't known whether Gustavsson will start next season in the starter or backup position, but there is no question that he deserves a contract extension and a chance at becoming the Leafs' starting goaltender for years to come.
He'll get his shot next season, and if his final two months of this year are any indication of what is to come, the Monster will not only be on the team next year, but will have a major role in the Leafs' chances at making the playoffs.
It's easy to speculate about next year before the current campaign is even over, but as the rookies continue to grow under the bright lights of Toronto and come together as a team, it seems that all the positive attitude about next year isn't a joke.
This team has a chance to do something next year, and the kids who've started their NHL careers this season will play as big a part as any.
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