Its official. With the Toronto Maple leafs 4-3 shootout loss to the Washington Capitals on Tuesday night our beloved Maple Leafs have now gone without a Stanley Cup victory for 44 years.
While the Toronto Maple Leafs organization has had a number of bright spots along the way, the fact remains that, for the most part, the Maple Leafs have been an organization marred in mediocrity for over four decades.
For many years the Blue and White ignored the NHL Entry Draft in favor of trading for grizzled veterans. Needless to say, given the lack of Stanley Cups, that philosophy never really worked, often leaving the team void of any homegrown star talent, which, in turn, was a major reason the organization has suffered for so long.
Since his arrival Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke has endured an extreme amount of criticism for his trading of two first round draft choices (2010 and 2011) and a second rounder in 2010 for talented sniper Phil Kessel.
At the time of the deal Burke maintained that the acquisition of Kessel would help put the Maple Leafs on the right track towards respectability, which, to some extent, it has.
In an effort to speed up the rebuilding process Burke acquired several veteran players. Francois Beauchemin, J.S. Giguere, Kris Versteeg, Mike Komisarek, Mike Zigomanis (currently with the Toronto Marlies), Mike Brown and Colby Armstrong were among Burke’s many moves, with each player paying off in various degrees.
Burke managed to turn Beauchemin into top-six forward Joffrey Lupul, prospect Jake Gardiner and a fourth round draft choice, while Kris Versteeg was shipped off to the Philadelphia Flyers for their first and third round draft choices in 2011.
Determined to stockpile more young talent, Burke finalized a trade involving veteran defenseman Tomas Kaberle to the Boston Bruins which netted Burke prospect Joe Colborne and Boston first round selection in this years draft and a conditional draft choice should Kaberle re-sign with the Bruins this summer.
Combined with Burke’s numerous College and European acquisitions, Burke has helped build a minor league system that is more than respectable.
Goaltenders Ben Scrivens, Jonas Gustavsson and Jussi Rynnas all came to the Maple Leafs via free agency. That means Burke gave up nothing more than a few dollars for three very good goaltending prospects, assets that he may choose to use as bargaining chips when he attempts to trade up in the draft and/or trades for a player that can help his team now.
Tyler Bozak is another example of a College signing that, while nowhere near perfect, has paid dividends as is/was the signing of Brayden Irwin, Tyler Brenner, Hobey Baker Award finalist Matt Frattin (three more College products) and Marcel Mueller (European free agent signing), all of whom help give the Maple Leafs a measure of organizational depth they haven’t seen in, well, upwards of 40 years!
There are other top prospects within the organization that may make an impact on the big club as early as next season (Nazem Kadri and Jerry D’amigo come to mind), not to mention the fine jobs that both goaltender James Reimer (a John Ferguson Jr. draft pick) and rugged defenseman Keith Aulie (brought over in the Dion Phaneuf deal) are currently doing in Toronto.
At the end of the day the man that should get most of the credit is Brian Burke. First because he had the vision to focus on the U.S. College ranks and second, because it appears as if many of his signings are not just filler, they are actually contributing to the success of the big club.
With all this in mind let’s take a look at the top ten Maple Leafs’ prospects…which one will pull a “James Reimer in 2011?”
It is no secret that the Toronto Maple Leafs have been salivating at the prospect of getting top-six minutes out of their top prospect for two seasons now.
Hampered by an inability to identify his defensive responsibilities, Nazem Kadri looks to be finding his way with the Maple Leafs in his most recent call up.
Blessed with great vision, foot speed and good hands, Kadri is expected to be an essential piece to the Maple Leafs future success.
While Kadri will never be able to sneak up on us all like Reimer did this season, there will still be an element of surprise amongst the Leafs Nation should Kadri finally live up to his potential next season.
I still see Kadri as a better fit along the wall, but it remains to be seen if the Maple Leafs share my opinion.
Look for Kadri to be given every opportunity to crack the lineup next fall, with the hope being that he can eventually take over the second line centre’s job of Mikhail Grabovski or, dare I say it, evolve into that coveted number one centre the Buds so desperately need.
Brought over to the Maple leafs in the Francois Beauchemin deal, Jake Gardiner has had his fair share of critics kybosh any thought that he may be ready to contribute to the big club next season.
Known as an offensive defenseman with a great shot, tremendous skating ability and an even better hockey IQ, Gardiner could help fill the void left when veteran defenseman Tomas Kaberle was shipped off to the Boston Bruins.
What Gardiner does not have is size. At 6’2”, 182 pounds, Gardiner may not have the size to compete at the NHL level for an entire 82-game schedule.
With that in mind, look for Gardiner to focus on strength training and adding some muscle to his frame this summer, with the hope that he can develop into an NHL-ready defenseman by the 2011-12 All-star break.
Acquired in the deal that saw Tomas Kaberle sent to the Boston Bruins, Joe Colborne (who stands 6’5” and weighs in at 213 pounds) certainly has the size to be an excellent NHL player. The knock against Colborne is that he seems content not to use his size to his advantage, preferring to play more of a perimeter game instead of getting dirty in the corners.
Originally drafted by the Boston Bruins in the first round (16th overall) of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft; Colborne looks to be a talented player who can play the role of sniper and/or assist man equally well.
Colborne is expected to be a bit of a project for the Maple Leafs as he often struggles with his consistency and compete level.
Look for Colborne to get a long look at this summer’s rookie camp and, if everything goes well, get the odd call up to the big club next season in a limited role.
Coborne is exactly the kind of player that is currently under the radar of most fans, which could see him pull a “Reimer” as early as next season.
At 6’5”, 212 pounds, Jussi Rynnas is an imposing figure no matter where he is. Between the pipes Rynnas covers much of the net which, when combined with his physical ability, makes him very tough to beat.
Regarded as one of the most underrated goaltenders in Europe a year ago, Rynnas has struggled to find his game with the Toronto Maple Leafs AHL affiliate, Toronto Marlies. Through 28 games with the Marlies Rynnas owns a 9-14-3 record to go along with a .909 save percentage and 2.80 goals against average.
While it’s hard to envision a goaltender with less than thirty games of pro hockey under his belt would be able to crack the Maple Leafs lineup, stranger things have happened—just look at James Reimer.
More likely, Rynnas will remain with the Marlies next season, continue to evolve and get a decent look in 2012-13 where he may emerge as the Maple Leafs future backup.
While not as big as Jussi Rynnas, at 6’2”, 185 pounds, Ben Scrivens is still a large goaltender and, given his compete level and healthy hockey IQ, looks to be a tremendous prospect for the Maple Leafs.
With Jussi Rynnas and Jonas Gustavsson already ahead of him in many people’s minds, it appears as if Scrivens will have to take the long road to the pros.
Through 32 games played with the Toronto Marlies, Scrivens owns a 12-12-5 record, .926 save percentage and a minuscule 2.25 goals against average.
Scrivens will be 25 next fall, but he still has a lot of upside and, with the right seasoning, may evolve into a tremendous backup goalie at the NHL level.
Few players have shown the level of improvement that Greg McKegg has over the past two seasons at the OHL level.
In his rookie season (2008-09) McKegg registered eight goals and 18 points, playing mostly on the Erie Otters third and fourth line.
Since then McKegg has seen his goal total increase to 37 in 2009-10 and 49 this season. His point totals have also grown from 18 to 85 to this seasons 92—that’s a heck of an improvement for a player that was drafted in the third round (62nd overall) in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.
The good news is that McKegg excels on the special teams, scoring 17 of his 43 goals on the power play—an area that the Maple Leafs could use some help in.
At 6’0”, 191 pounds McKegg looks to have the size and skill to one day be a top-six forward with the Maple Leafs. McKegg’s ability to score and make plays should see the youngster cracking the Maple Leafs lineup before long. That said, do not start having any delusions that McKegg will crack the Leafs lineup next season as he still needs time to mature his game.
Known as a tough player to compete against, Brad Ross is looked upon by many scouts as a very valuable bottom-six forward.
Ross’ unique combination of size, skill and strength makes him a very valuable player to have on your team. Ross will muck it up in the corners, get involved physically and take on his opponents toughest players.
While he is expected to be at least three seasons away from making the Maple Leafs roster, his arrival will likely be one that will make opposing players cringe.
NHL comparatives include the likes of Darcy Tucker and Matt Cooke—both of whom were/are capable of scoring 20 goals and racking up 200 penalty minutes in any given NHL season.
This is the kind of player many general managers pass over in favor of a player that is more skilled. Ross is also the type of player that every GM wishes he had on his team—especially when playoff time rolls around.
Originally drafted in the sixth round (158th overall) in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, Jerry D’Amigo looks to be a player that, while talented, still needs some time to develop.
D’Amigo struggled to find his game with the Marlies this season (five goals and 14 points through 41 games), which led to the Maple Leafs choosing to send him to the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL.
Through 21 regular season games with the Rangers D’Amigo registered 12 goals and 28 points, followed by a good showing in the playoffs where he accumulated six goals and nine points through seven playoff games.
Like many 20-year old players D’Amigo needs to work on his defense—especially his play away from the puck where his lack of hockey IQ is sometimes exposed. Don’t get me wrong, D’Amigo has a ton of offensive talent, it’s just harnessing the rest of his game that seems to be an issue.
Look for D’Amigo to return to the Marlies in 2011-12 where the coaching staff will work with the young forward to clean up his defensive shortcomings and help him to make better decisions—with and without the puck.
Originally drafted in the fifth round (134th overall) in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, Juraj Mikus looks to be a work in progress.
In his first AHL season with the Toronto Marlies Mikus registered a total of five goals and 23 points through 68 games. This season Mikus has four goals and 16 points through 56 games.
On the surface, one might look at Mikus’ statistics and assume that he has regressed as a player, but the most important stat (plus/minus) is where Mikus has seen the most improvement, going from a minus -13 in 2009-10 to even in 2010-11.
A left handed shot, Mikus (23-years old) looks to have decent offensive tools, but like many European players, has had some difficulty finding his way physically. Should Mikus add some much needed muscle he could be a force to be reckoned with, but with so much competition both with the Marlies and on the big club it may be a while before we see Mikus in a Maple Leafs uniform, if ever.
Originally drafted in the fourth round (99th overall) of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, Matt Frattin is another example of a Maple Leafs’ prospect coming out of nowhere to receive plenty of print this season.
Frattin has spent a total of four seasons with the University of North Dakota of the NCAA. In his first season at North Dakota (2007-08) Frattin registered a total of four goals and 15 points, followed by 13 goals and 25 points in 2008-09 and 11 goals and 19 points in 2009-10.
This season, something clicked for Frattin, who has seen his goal total more than triple from his 2009-10 total with 36 on the season, while his point total of 60 is more than double his career high of 25 in 2008-09.
Part of the reason Frattin’s totals are so inflated this season is that he was suspended in 2009-10 for being arrested for a DUI, which was later thrown out. Frattin’s struggles with alcohol are well documented, including a tirade which saw him throwing debris into traffic while intoxicated.
A native of Edmonton, Alberta, this 6’0”, 205 pound forward looks to have put his poor choices behind him, rededicating himself to the game of hockey, his teammates, the University of North Dakota, emerging as a good citizen both on and off the ice.
A Hobey Baker Award finalist, Frattin looks to have all the tools to take the next step. He’s fast, tough, highly skilled and, based on his progress, looks to be highly motivated to make it to the NHL where, with a little luck and hard work, he is expected to emerge as a sniper.
At 23-years old it appears as if Frattin can be bunched into that “late bloomer” category. He will have a good chance at being a top-six forward with the Toronto Marlies next season where he will be asked to continue his growth both on and off the ice.