Owen Nolan joined the Toronto Maple Leafs on March 5, 2003.
In accordance with hockey protocol and out of respect for his senior, Nik Antropov consigned jersey number 11 to Nolan.
Antropov was just 23 at the time, as was I. It was only when Antropov adopted jersey number 80, his birth year—our birth year—that I learned we are so close in age.
Antropov was putting together a career year at the time.
He went on to post 45 points (16 goals, 29 assists) during the regular season. He also played in three playoff games wherein the Philadelphia Flyers wholly dominated the Leafs, including shutting down Antropov, who went pointless in the short series.
The following season, his point production dropped significantly, and he came under heavy criticism for taking unnecessary penalties and an apparent proneness to injuries.
As the trade deadline approached in 2004, rumors abounded about deals involving Antropov and several other young Maple Leafs, in exchange for hard-shooting Washington Capitals defenseman Sergei Gonchar.
In a rare moment of clarity, Leafs General Manager John Ferguson Jr. elected to hold on to Antropov. Instead, in typical Leafs fashion, he traded a first- and second-round draft pick and other lesser-known prospects for veteran defenseman and multiple Norris trophy recipient Brian Leetch.
Antropov finished the season with a disappointing 31 points (13 goals, 18 assists).
The lockout should have provided an opportunity to start over. However, injuries again kept the sinewy forward from finding his rhythm over the two NHL seasons immediately following the labour disruption.
When he was healthy, he showed moments of offensive brilliance, but they were fleeting.
It was only when he was teamed with Mats Sundin and Alexei Ponikarovsky, a line averaging six feet and five inches tall, that Antropov began scoring with any consistency. It was also around this time that he began using his size to be an effective force in front of the net, particularly on the power play.
Last season, in 72 games played Antropov recorded a career-best 56 points (26 goals, 30 assists)—11 points more than he scored in 2002-03, the season that Owen Nolan took jersey number 11.
More importantly, he demonstrated a ruggedness and veteran hockey sensibility that consecutive coaches have insisted was possible. Though he continued to take penalties, he also played effectively defensively, and accumulated a healthy plus-10 rating on the season.
With the loss of Mats Sundin this past offseason and the dissolution of the Leafs' core group of players, it was understood that Antropov would shoulder much of the offensive responsibilities on a younger, less-experienced Maple Leafs team.
During the preseason, interim General Manager Cliff Fletcher was quoted saying that Nik Antropov was the only top-six forward remaining on the Leafs roster.
Though all we share in common is our age, I can identify with the position Nik Antropov presently finds himself in—he has established benchmarks by which his performance will be evaluated going forward, and the expectations on him are higher than ever.
As the season progresses, Antropov will have to be a source of inspiration for his teammates. He will be called upon to set an example of hard work for the young forwards, and he will have to come up big in a few clutch situations.
He will also have to stay positive and continue to produce when the team is struggling, as they almost certainly will.
Barring injury, he will likely put up his best numbers this season. Subsequently, as the trade deadline approaches, Cliff Fletcher will again entertain offers for him.
The temptation to flip the lanky Russian will be great.
But perhaps now more than ever before, no other team needs Nik Antropov more than the Toronto Maple Leafs.