For a Toronto Maple Leafs team that has struggled to find success this season, it may already (once again) be time to look ahead to the future of the club, and the players that may have a shot at not only making it next season, but those who will have an impact on the team for years to come.
The Leafs are often criticized for their lack of draft picks and propensity to trade away prospects rather than watch them grow within the system, but the talent that is stock-piled in the minors is not as sparse as one might think.
Sure, the Leafs have called up 11 different players from the Marlies this season and it's difficult to say more than one of them has performed well enough to suggest good things to come in the future, but it's difficult to asses a player's entire future on a five-game stint in the NHL.
Actually, it's difficult to asses any player's future at any point in their career. Ask Clarke MacArthur.
The future isn't now for these players, as they're still honing their skills and preparing for what they hope to be a long, successful NHL career. For these guys, it's all about tomorrow.
Kind of like the team they're trying to make.
Here's the current power rankings of the Leafs top ten prospects in the minors (based on their current play, not hype).
Playing for the University of North Dakota, Matt Frattin doesn't necessarily play against the toughest competition for his age group, but the Edmonton, AB native is showing that he's got some serious skills-especially at his small size (5'11", 185-pounds).
In 27 games he has 20 goals and 30 points and though the 23-year-old has rarely been on fan's radar when it comes to rising Leafs prospects, make no mistake that he could turn into quite the player.
Frattin was drafted in the fourth-round, 99th-overall in 2007, just ahead of Keith Aulie (currently on the Toronto Marlies) who was chosen 116th-overall in that same round by Calgary.
The "you're too small" story no longer applies in the NHL, as plenty of players small in stature are making it big these days, so all it may take for Frattin to show what he's worth is an opportunity.
Something that may come his way if he keeps up his current play.
(Sidenote: Frattin and Aulie aren't the only two Leafs prospects from the fourth-round of the 2007 Draft currently in the Leafs system. The Leafs also picked Ben Winnett 104th-overall, while current Marlie, Luca Caputi, was selected 111th-overall by Pittsburgh. Quite the haul from one round.)
Born in Berlin, Germany, Marcel Mueller has proven this season that he may be exactly the talent the Leafs thought he was. The 22-year-old had played his entire career in Germany before this season, coming over to the Marlies and even getting a brief three-game trip to the NHL with the Leafs.
In 41 games, Mueller has eight goals and 22 points, and though the numbers don't jump off the page at you, he's showing that he can be a force with his 6'3", 220-pound frame. His game is more than just scoring, as the German can throw his weight around too.
His development is slower than one might hope, but there is no doubt that Mueller has a shot at not only playing a full-time role with the Leafs, but being an impact player for years to come.
In 39 games this season with the Windsor Spitfires, Kenny Ryan has 13 goals and 34 points and has been dangerous on the wing.
Playing on a team with popular Canadian Junior players Zack Kassian and Ryan Ellis, Ryan is not the best or most recognizable player on his club, but he is the kind of player that has top-six talent written all over him.
And that's something Burke and the Leafs should be excited about, or at least grunt in agreement with.
He was drafted in 2009 in the second-round (50th-overall) and the one thing that Ryan has going for him is his excellent two-way game. He isn't afraid of playing in the corners and battling for the puck at either end of the ice.
And in case you haven't been paying attention, it's doing those sorts of things that can make or break a young player's stay with the Leafs.
Christian Hanson is no stranger to Leafs fans, as he's already played 39 NHL games since 2009, including three games this season.
He's tied for the team-lead in goals on the Marlies with 11, and has 23 points which is third on the club. There is no doubt that he's a player who can throw his weight around, as well as move the puck and score goals—he's just had difficulty maintaining a high level of play with the Leafs.
He's gotten to play a bigger role due to injuries to other players as well as a ton of call-ups to the Leafs, but he has taken full advantage of it, and is making people notice him once again.
He will no doubt get another shot in the NHL—his great play this season almost guarantees that, but until then Hanson looks like he'll continue to be one of the best players on the Marlies.
And that bodes well for his future on the Leafs.
He's not the biggest (6'1", 190 pounds), he doesn't have the hardest shot, but Jesse Blacker has been a powerhouse this season for the OHL's Owen Sound Attack. In 41 games, Blacker has recorded nine goals and 39 points—which is tops on his team for defensemen.
He was drafted 58th-overall in 2009 by the Leafs and is certainly showing that he is one of the best defensemen they have in the system, and quite frankly one of the best in the OHL.
Born and raised in Toronto, the 19-year-old played two seasons for the Windsor Spitfires before being traded to the Attack in 2009. He has already set career-highs in goals, assists and points this season and depending on what happens on the Leafs blue line before 2011-12, we could see Blacker in the blue and white a lot sooner than originally expected.
Actually, the way the Leafs' blue line has been playing this season, expectations have all but been thrown out the window. There is no way to know which group will show up on a given night.
Bring on Blacker.
At the age of 18, Maple Leafs prospect Brad Ross is having a fantastic season in the WHL. His first-place Portland Winterhawks (32-14-3) are running away with the Western Conference, already having clinched a playoff spot, and a lot of the thanks can go to the line that he plays on.
Ross usually plays the wing alongside two of the top-five picks in the 2010 Draft: Ryan Johansen (Columbus Blue Jackets fourth-overall pick) and Nino Niederreiter (New York Islanders fifth-overall pick). Johansen, you'll remember, was arguably Canada's best player at the World Juniors this year.
Ross has 15 goals, 39 points, and is +13 in 45 games, as well as leading the team with 113 PIM. He can score, play the role of set up man, and is certainly not a stranger of mixing things up in the physical department.
After being selected in the second round (43rd) in the 2010 Draft by the Leafs, he's showing this season that fans should be drooling at his potential in the years to come with the club.
If you're looking for scoring ability, look no further than Greg McKegg, who is no stranger to piling up points. The captain of the Erie Otters sits ninth overall in OHL scoring with 31 goals and 61 points through 45 games.
McKegg was the Leafs third-round pick (62nd overall) in the 2010 Draft, and though he isn't the biggest player on the ice, his skill speaks for itself.
One would think that with the lack of depth that the Leafs have up the middle, McKegg will have a good a shot as any to crack the roster next season and beyond, and with his performance thus far this season, he's certainly making a solid case. He's currently playing at a level few other Leaf prospects are.
He's got the kind of skill that would easily make him a fan-favorite in Toronto, and it would have absolutely nothing to do with his last name.
Nothing at all.
Nazem Kadri, you may have heard of him.
The most-hyped player in the Leafs system in a long time, Kadri is expected to pay major dividends as a Maple Leaf, and soon.
After a less-than-stellar 17-game stint with the Leafs this season, where he had six assists and was a minus four, Kadri has been with the Marlies ever since. He's played in 21 of the club's 47 games, and has seven goals and 21 points.
That puts him seventh in scoring on the team, but he's the only point-per-game player, and has played far fewer games than those ahead of him.
Kadri really caught people's attention in the two seasons he played with the OHL's London Knights, where in 112 games he scored 60 goals and 171 points from 2008-2010, which lead the Leafs to draft him seventh overall in 2009.
The 20-year-old has got to bulk up if he plans on being a mainstay in the NHL, and there's the ever-present defensive issues that he hasn't yet been able to shake, but we have seen glimpses of the player he could be this season-just not enough to hand him the job in 2011-12 just yet.
This isn't going to be the easy ride to the NHL like some may have thought for the London, ON native and clearly the Leafs aren't going to roll out the red carpet for him. If Kadri wants to land a full-time job in the NHL, it's going to take hard work.
More than he may have expected.
He was just added to the roster for the 2011 AHL All-Star Classic, and that's the sort of thing that has Leafs fans eager with anticipation when it comes to Keith Aulie.
He is a beast on the ice and standing 6'5", 222-pounds, is the prototypical shutdown NHL defenseman in the making. He's recorded three goals and nine points through 31 games with the Marlies, but has also spent time up with the Leafs. He was scoreless, but effective in 12 games.
He might be the most NHL-ready player in the system who isn't already on the roster and is a major reason why the trade that brought him over with Dion Phaneuf and Fredrik Sjostrom from the Calgary Flames, is viewed as a such a good one for the Leafs.
Expect to see Aulie on the blue line for the Leafs next season, if not before then.
Technically, James Reimer isn't really in the minors at the moment. He's currently proving himself as the Leafs best goalie in the NHL, but for now (while Burke and co. are still in denial) we can live with naming him the number one player in the minors.
It's a no contest at this point.
With the Marlies, Reimer has played 15 games, going 9-5-1 with a 2.59 GAA, .920 SV percentage and three shutouts. With the Leafs, it's a similar story as he's gone 4-3-0 with a 2.24 GAA and a .933 SV percentage.
He's the only Leafs netminder with a winning record, and has the best numbers by a long shot. He's only played seven games, but he's already showing that he has both the skills and the smarts to be the Leafs number one.
In true Leafs Nation style, Reimer is already essentially a living legend in the city. His unofficial nickname, "Optimus Reim", is also one of the most creative in the NHL. Again, no contest.
He has become somewhat of a hero, only because it's seemed like a millennium since the Leafs have had a goalie who was anywhere close to reliable. That's exactly how to describe the way he's played in his short time with the Leafs.
Though to be fair, it has only been a short time. So take a breath, Leafs Nation.
He's currently the top ranked minor-league player though, because he's showing already that he no longer belongs there.
The rest of the players on this list have a ways to go before their ready for full-time NHL duty, but for Reimer, the time is now.
Or should I say, the Reim is...
No, too soon.
Follow me on Twitter: @therealjonneely