Turning Over a New Leaf

The Toronto Maple Leafs building through the draft. It kind of has a weird ring to it considering the Leafs have not developed a home grown talent since probably Felix Potvin and before that Wendel Clark. In the Pat Quinn era, the Leafs have mainly gone with veteran talent brought in from outside. Younger players at the time like MacCauley, Smith, Sullivan, Johnson, Modin, Markov as well as prospects like Boyes, Immonen, and high draft picks were moved out and in their place were more experienced players like Nolan, Leetch, Cross, Khristich, Reichel, Renberg in an effort to bring a Stanley Cup to Toronto.

With a new and likely more restrictive CBA looming, it is rather unknown as to what direction the Leafs will take for the future. The need to build from within is a priority for Toronto and steps are being taken to address those needs. John Ferguson was brought in with the purpose of instilling his scouting and development background to the organization. Perhaps now he can finally put his stamp on the team. Having the farm team play in Toronto was a fine move as it will allow the team to keep a closer eye on prospects. The improved scouting staff, especially with the hiring of Craig Button will make sure this area is no longer neglected. It appears the Leafs are showing an interest in going the direction of building from the draft and developing their own players.

But the temptation of playoff revenue, being profitable and having money to spend and being surrounded by impatient owners, fans and media could cause the franchise to continue its spending ways and bring in more players from outside. With a large crop of free agents likely to hit the market once the CBA is in place, it would be hard not to see the Leafs get involved and bring in a top player or more.

Right now the Leafs have seven veterans under contract. With so many roster spots potentially open, it will be very tempting for Toronto to bring in outside help. With new rule changes likely to come into effect the Leafs may take advantage of their flexible roster and build a team that could conform to those rule changes. And depending on who is out there, the Leafs may simply want to add to the talent they have in order to remain a competitive team and keep their playoff spot in tact.

Mats Sundin and Owen Nolan give Toronto two forwards who can play on the top scoring lines. Sundin is the unquestionable leader, franchise player and biggest talent on the team. He is irreplaceable. But Nolan on the other hand is very questionable in that he never seems to stay healthy. The Leafs may need to pick up some scoring help considering the likes of Mogilny, Roberts, Niewendyk, Francis will probably not be back.

Darcy Tucker has been a heart and soul player ever since he became a Leaf. He has been a sparkplug throughout his career and being one of the few Leafs in their prime, he should have some more good years remaining. However the Leafs may have to think about upgrading their talent to include players who can kill penalties, win faceoffs, and be able to grind it out night in and night out. Players with size and speed are what Toronto lacks. too often the Leafs lost all the little battles and without the great play of Ed Belfour/Curtis Joseph, things would have been much worse.

People can say what they want about Bryan McCabe but he is a solid number 2 or 3 defenceman. He can hit, score, play physical, join the rush and has a good work ethic. Any team would want a defenceman like that. He had one bad game and suddenly he wasnt NHL calibre. Boggles my mind. Tomas Kaberle is a solid top 4 guy too. He can skate, rush the puck and be creative. if he only would shoot more, he would be a step up. He is a bit soft though, but the coaching staff should protect him better. Ken Klee is an excellent role player who gets the job done but goes unnoticed. He is a very useful player. These 3 give them a solid foundation but if Leetch decides to leave, the team will lack a top guy on defence. Most successful teams have a top dog on the blueline that makes everything go (i.e Lidstrom in Detroit, Stevens in Jersey, Blake in Colorado, etc.). And hopefully we have seen the last of Aki Berg playing significant minutes and being overwhelmed as usual.

And though Ed Belfour in goal will be over 40, he still has the talents to be a top goaltender. the only question is his health. He can no longer play close to 70 games a year. The Leafs need a top backup in order to give Belfour significant rest for the playoffs. The Leafs need a safety net in case Belfour goes down again.

As you can see, with some holes at all positions, the Leafs, who have made the playoffs the last 6 years, will certainly be tempted to bring in more veterans for a run at the Cup. Considering their two top players are well over 30, time is not on their side and players like Belfour and Sundin may not wish to be part of a rebuilding program.

However, the time may be now, with the new NHL ready to emerge, for the Leafs to start fresh and start over. Since the last few season did not bring the Leafs the success they sought, the Leafs may look to take their team in a different direction.

One of the biggest myths is that the Leafs do not have any young talent. That is not true. Though they dont have the kind of depth in their system as say the Panthers or Capitals they have some young players. People often mention that other top teams like Philly, Detroit and New Jersey always churn out young talent year after year and that is true. But in time the Leafs should be able to fill their roster with some home grown players.

Much of their young talent is on defence. Karel Pilar has been off and on with the Leafs the last couple of seasons and has shown some of the skills that got him to Toronto from time to time. If he can do that regularly he should be in the Leafs top 6 on defence. He can pass, skate, and do some good things on offence. If he can be smarter positionally, he should be a solid defencemen at the back end of the roster.

Carlo Coliacovo has been the Leafs top prospect the last few seasons. The reason he has been just a prospect and not yet a Leaf has been his injuries. He has been injured every year and that has been of some concern for Toronto. However he has the skills to be a solid offensive contributor, the heart and demeanor to be a leader and the grit to take care of his own end. this has not been seen consistently due to his health.

Brendan Bell developed under the tutulage of Brian Kilrea. Like many former 67s, they usually are pretty smart hockey players. Bell has the ability to do it at both ends. his size and grit make him tough on defence, his skating allows for contributions on offence. He just needs to be better on a consistent basis to reach the next level. It sometimes seems that Bell is uninterested from time to time which results in some lapses on the ice. He does though have the talent to make it.

Ian White has all the skills to be a very good power play quarterback. He is in the mold of Dan Boyle and if he can be as productive as Boyle, he should have a decent NHL career. He can skate and handle the puck, has a good point shot and is a solid playmaker. But being under 6’0 and well under 200 lbs makes him a liability on defence. at his size he will not be able to handle many forwards in front and in the corners. he may be prone to penalties because of his lack of size and strength. That may hold him back in the long run.

Dmitri Vorobiev may be another late round steal much like Kaberle and Markov were. He has good size and is solid in all areas. It is just that he will not be an impact blueliner but more a 5th or 6th defenceman. There really isnt much demand for these types.

The Leafs have a few under 25 forwards that should be NHLers. Nik Antropov has been with the Leafs a few seasons and will be a regular for years to come. He has the size, he has skill and he has a bit of a mean streak. But it is unknown what role he would play. He doesnt score enough to be on the top line, and isnt disciplined enough or fast enough to play a checking role. His production is not what the Leafs thought. Of course injuries have derailed is development but the Leafs hope he can be a 20 goal man some day. His biggest problem is that he takes too many dumb penalties.

Alex Ponikarovsky is similar to Antropov in that he is big, has some skills like a good hard shot, and works hard in the corners willing and able to play a physical game. But at times he can play very soft which is not what you want to see from a 6’4 forward. Pony does not have enough skills to be a top line guy but he has been one of the few home grown talents to make it to the Leafs.

The Leafs highest hopes of a top forward lie with Alex Steen. If he is like his father Thomas, he should be a very good player. He is a skilled, smart centre with the ability to play a sound two-way game. The only knock is his size or lack of it. He will probably need a season or two in the AHL to get use to the grind of North American hockey and the long season. He should be a solid second line centre for a long time.

Matt Stajan has been the biggest surprise among the young players in the organization. He some how made the Leafs right out of junior winning a spot on a veteran laden team. His speed and strong two way play endeared him to the coaching staff and Stajan should have a long productive career. Though a bit small, he is a very smart player with good hockey sense. He was able to put up points yet was probably the Leafs most responsible forward on defence.

Stajan’s fellow World Junior teammate Kyle Wellwood has yet to make the jump to the NHL. He has NHL calibre skills and smarts, but lacks size, strength and is not a great skater. That is a big drawback for a small player and could keep him from making it. But he has a chance to be a decent power play guy with strong playmaking skills. new rule changes will benefit a player like Wellwood if they decide to open up the game because he is not big enough to handle the physical grind of the tight checking trap NHL.

The only hope of the future in goal is Mikael Tellqvist. He has had success in the AHL, in Europe and internationally but hasnt seemed to be able to make the full time jump to the NHL. He has been inconsistent which has caused his status to drop from future number 1 to backup. He is small, and the smaller equipment wont help his game any. He also has trouble in traffic which is really how the North American game is played. He has played some decent games at the NHL level making him a much better option than Trevor Kidd. If he can stay healthy and play with better consistency he may be the guy who can help Ed Belfour get a break.

The Leafs have many other youngsters in their system such as blueliners Jay Harrison, Andy Woszneiwski, Pierre Hedin and forwards Robbie Earl, Jeremy Williams, John Mitchell as well as goaltender Justin Pogge. The problem is that they seem to lack one or more key ingredients that may hold them back. The encouraging sign is that the Baby Leafs had a good season in the AHL and with a stronger focus on development and deeper roster, should continue to improve. Though the Leafs have youngsters who will probably make good role players in the NHL, the lack of any top end talent coming in at all positions is a cause for concern. This is why there is a need for Toronto to start keeping their top picks and developing them properly. Hopefully making the Leafs into a young homegrown team will be the key to bringing the Stanley Cup to Toronto in the future.