Maple Leafs Top 20 prospects, Spring 2008

By Scott Mitchell

It has not been just one Toronto Maple Leafs regime that has gone the route of sacrificing the future for the present. When John Ferguson Jr. was hired on Aug. 29, 2003, he promised that this would not be him. He promised the emphasis would be placed on scouting, drafting and developing talent. That “youth movement” started in March of 2004 by trading a first-round pick in that summer’s draft and a 2005 second-round pick for Brian Leetch. The organization ended up with 28 games played (15 regular season and 13 playoff games) from Leetch to show for those two picks. The “youth movement”, for all intents and purposes, ended with the trading of his 2007 first-round pick and a fourth-rounder for goaltender Vesa Toskala and Mark Bell. Ferguson presided over four entry drafts from 2004 to 2007 and has left the organization only prospects Jiri Tlusty and Nikolai Kulemin to show for eight possible first and second-round draft picks in that time period.

Ferguson Jr. was fired Jan. 22 and thus won’t have the chance to try and turn the organization around with a top-10 pick this year. Cliff Fletcher was brought in to temporarily begin the overhaul before the search for a permanent GM began in earnest this spring.

While the Leafs lack the top-end, blue-chip talent of other organizations, there have been major strides taken by some of Toronto’s depth prospects this season. NCAA centers Tyler Ruegsegger and Chad Rau have turned heads this season with their offensive creativity – something sorely lacking throughout the system. Defensemen Anton Stralman and Dimitri Vorobiev are both on the verge of becoming integral parts of the blueline, while Justin Pogge, Tlusty and Kulemin have done nothing this season to diminish their stock as potential viable NHLers.

Top 20 at a glance

1. (1) Justin Pogge, G, 21
2. (3) Nikolai Kulemin, RW, 21
3. (2) Jiri Tlusty, LW, 20
4. (5) Anton Stralman, D, 22
5. (7) Dimitri Vorobiev, D, 22
6. (4) Robbie Earl, LW, 22
7. (9) Tyler Ruegsegger, C, 20
8. (8) Dale Mitchell, RW, 19
9. (10) James Reimer, G, 20
10. (11) Matt Frattin, RW, 20
11. (20) Chris DiDomenico, C, 19
12. (12) Ben Winnett, LW, 19
13. (16) Chad Rau, C, 21
14. (17) John Mitchell, C, 23
15. (6) Jeremy Williams, RW, 24
16. (13) Phil Oreskovic, D, 21
17. (19) Juraj Mikus, D, 19
18. (NR) Korbinian Holzer, D, 20
19. (NR) Viktor Stalberg, LW, 22
20. (NR) Alex Foster, LW, 24

1. (1) Justin Pogge, G, 21, Toronto Marlies (AHL)

Acquired: Third round, 90th overall in 2004.

Pogge has continued to be a late bloomer at each level of his hockey career. After posting a 3.03 GAA in his first AHL season, Pogge has blossomed this year behind a better team and a back-to-basics mentality. He has cut his GAA to 2.34 this season and improved his save percentage from .896 last season to .908 this year. A big, positional goaltender, Pogge has used his size and challenged shooters more this season, as he did during his dominating junior days. However, the organization has continued to handle their goaltender of the future carefully by having him split time with veteran Scott Clemmensen this season. Both have played 40 games as the Leafs refuse to give Pogge a full workload early in his career. It is impossible to say what the yet-to-be-named Leafs hierarchy will envision for Pogge next season with Toskala entrenched as the starter in Toronto. But another season with the Marlies – this one with 55 games or more – is the most likely option.

2. (3) Nikolai Kulemin, RW, 21, Magnitogorsk (Russian Super League)

Acquired: Second round, 44th overall in 2006.

While he hasn’t lit the world on fire like he did in the 2006-07 season, Kulemin has spent another season in Russia fine-tuning his all-around game while still scoring 21 goals in 57 Russian Super League contests, down from his 27 goals in 54 games last season. The slick winger will head to North America with a game tailor-made to the NHL style. He can skate, he can grind and he has shown a good touch around the net, as well as a willingness to throw bone-crushing bodychecks. Even with all that being said, it is hard to figure exactly what type of NHL player Kulemin will be; but there is no question whether or not he will be one. His upside is that of a 30-goal winger playing on one of the top-two lines while the floor is an energetic third-liner who can chip in with 15 goals a season. Kulemin will be one of the most intriguing storylines to watch next fall.

3. (2) Jiri Tlusty, LW, 20, Toronto Maple Leafs (NHL)

Acquired: First round, 13th overall in 2006.

Tlusty dropped from second to third on this list, more based on Kulemin’s solid play than anything to do with Tlusty regressing. He was drafted 31 picks ahead of the big Russian and is almost two years younger, but Tlusty has endured an up and down first pro season. Tlusty has dealt with an internet photo scandal, as well as coach Paul Maurice’s unwillingness to cut veterans’ ice time. Lately, Tlusty has shown more regular glimpses of the offensive talent that led the Leafs to tab him with the 13th pick in the 2006 draft. Tlusty suited up in 58 games with the blue and white, producing 10 goals and six assists. While this season has not been a lost cause for the young Czech, one wonders what he could have done with a regular 18 minutes per game – either with the Leafs or in the AHL with the Marlies.

A heady player with good speed and puck skills, Tlusty’s 2008-09 season will be important for him to continue to gain his offensive confidence back and relieve the pressure that has been placed on him as a result of being a rare Leafs’ first-round draft pick to arrive in the NHL in a Maple Leafs jersey.

4. (5) Anton Stralman, D, 22, Toronto Maple Leafs (NHL)

Acquired: Seventh round, 216th overall in 2005.

Much was expected of the Swedish blueliner this season, but it was clear from the get-go the Leafs intended to bring the late-round gem along slowly. The slight, but uber-smooth, defenseman started the season with the Marlies but was quickly summoned when injuries struck. While his offensive numbers – three goals and six assists in 50 games – are not overwhelming, Stralman has quietly improved his play as the season has progressed. Much like a young Tomas Kaberle, Stralman’s greatest asset is his ability to start the breakout with a smart first pass and handle the point on the power play. Listed at 6’1 and 180 lbs, he has been overwhelmed at times in the defensive zone but has the hockey sense to overcome what he may lack in physical strength. There is an expectation that the Leafs will head into training camp next season with a revamped back end and Stralman will be the main beneficiary.

5. (7) Dimitri Vorobiev, D, 22, Tolyatti Lada (Russian Super League)

Acquired: Fifth round, 157th overall in 2004.

The least talked about of Toronto’s top prospects, Vorobiev has quietly moved into the top five after another outstanding season in Russia. Know for his defensive presence, the 6’0 210 lb rearguard has added an offensive element to his repertoire over the last two years. After scoring five goals in his first three Super League seasons, many thought Vorobiev had his breakout season in 2006 with 10 goals in 54 games. Not so. Vorobiev has made believers out of many this year with 16 goals and 12 assists for 28 points in 55 games to lead the team in scoring. Not to mention 74 penalty minutes. Without a transfer agreement it is not known when or if Vorobiev intends to come to North America but there is no doubt the Leafs would like to get a good look at him soon.

6. (4) Robbie Earl, LW, 22, Toronto Marlies (AHL)

Acquired: Sixth round, 187th overall in 2004.

Earl’s second full professional season started off strong, but his play has tapered off as the season progressed. Earl potted 10 of his 14 goals this season before the calendar flipped to 2008. The 6’0 195 lb winger possesses blazing speed off the wing and shifty one-on-one moves that make him difficult to contain. Consistency has been an issue for Earl since he arrived in Toronto. There are games where he looks like a high-end prospect, capable of scoring on any given shift, and then there are games when he is difficult to find. The Illinois native got his first taste of the show this year as well, suiting up in nine games with the Leafs and registering one assist. Is Earl a late bloomer or just another player who can’t translate NCAA stardom into pro success? Next year will be a big one for Earl. He finished the season with 14 goals and 33 assists in 66 games.

7. (9) Tyler Ruegsegger, C, 20, University of Denver (NCAA)

Acquired: Sixth round, 166th overall in 2006.

Ruegsegger was off to a brilliant 2007-08 start with before an abdominal injury felled him for eight games to close the regular season. Ruegsegger returned for the playoffs but wasn’t as effective as he was in the opening months of the season and seemed to have lost some of the shiftiness that makes his game what it is. He finished with 10 goals and 12 assists in 31 games after scoring 15 goals and 19 assists in his 40-game freshman season. At 5’11 and 195 lbs, Ruegsegger is a tad undersized and still needs work on his first step and overall skating. What he lacks in straight-line speed, he makes up with terrific lateral movement and enviable one-on-one skills. Ruegsegger played his way onto the U.S. junior squad and served as an alternate captain. He scored two goals and two assists in six games.

8. (8) Dale Mitchell, RW, 19, Oshawa Generals (OHL)

Acquired: Third round, 74th overall in 2007.

At 5’9 and 204 pounds, Mitchell is a bulldog. In 2006-07 he was a bulldog with 43 goals. This year, Mitchell struggled early on in his third OHL season and finished with 24 goals and 36 assists with the high-powered Oshawa Generals. While teammates John Tavares and Brett MacLean constantly lit up the scoreboard in the early going this season, Mitchell could only find the back of the net three times in his first 24 games. The speedy winger picked up his play when the calendar turned to 2008, scoring 18 goals in his final 30 games, including a four-goal game in January against the Erie Otters.  The Generals should return a strong core next year and Mitchell will be looking to bounce back with a more consistent offensive season.

9. (10) James Reimer, G, 20, Red Deer Rebels (WHL)

Acquired: Fourth round, 99th overall in 2006.

Recently signed to a three-year entry-level contract, Reimer suffered through an injury-plagued third season with the Red Deer Rebels. Reimer went down with an ankle injury in early December that kept him out of action for nearly a month. Upon returning, Reimer struggled while the Rebels’ awful play in front of him exacerbated the situation. His season was shut down in late January with a torn ankle ligament. Statistically, the big netminder was putting together an impressive season on a bad hockey club with a .916 save percentage and a 2.73 GAA. Reimer has improved in each WHL season and is in the enviable position of being drafted into an organization with goaltending depth that can only be described as paper-thin. Reimer still has overage eligibility left and with Pogge looking to shoulder a bigger load with the Marlies, it will be interesting to see where the organization sees Reimer next season.

10. (11) Matt Frattin, RW, 20, University of North Dakota (NCAA)

Acquired: Fourth round, 99th overall in 2007.

Playing on a veteran-laden squad that was ranked first in the nation for a good chunk of the season, Frattin was left playing a support role in his freshman season with North Dakota. After garnering the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s rookie of the year honors in 2006-07 with 49 goals in 58 games, Frattin scored only four goals and added 11 assists while dressing in 42 regular-season games this year. While the flashes were few and far between this season in more of a checking role, Frattin displays good speed off the wing and a nose for the net. He is not a physical player at 5’11 and 185 lbs but does not shy away from the hard areas. In time, Frattin will be an important player for UND.

11. (20) Chris DiDomenico, C, 19, Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL)

Acquired: Sixth round, 164th overall in 2007.

Passed over in the Ontario Hockey League draft, DiDomenico proved he belonged in the CHL last season by leading the expansion Saint John Sea Dogs in scoring. This season he proved he is a legitimate prospect by leading the Sea Dogs in points once again with 39 goals and 56 assists for 95 points, which also placed him sixth overall in league scoring. DiDomenico is a competitor with great puck skills but has been passed over because of a perceived lack of skating ability. Many players coming out of the QMJHL have heard the same thing and become productive NHL players, while many have not. Other than his lack of speed, there isn’t much the Woodbridge, ON, native doesn’t do. He will drop the gloves, plays a competent defensive game and is dangerous on the PK and the PP. DiDomenico has come a long way in the last couple of seasons and has been doubted at every level. He is now legitimate prospect, however, and will continue to work on his skating and overall strength in the Q.

12. (12) Ben Winnett, LW, 19, University of Michigan (NCAA)

Acquired: Fourth round, 104th overall in 2007.

Winnett’s freshman season in the Big House has gone as well as was expected, even if the numbers don’t jump out. A slick-skating winger with good offensive skill who also projects to be able to play on a top PK unit, Winnett scored only six goals and added five assists in 40 games this season playing his freshman season with Frozen Four-bound Michigan. Listed at 6’1 and 182 pounds by the Maize and Blue, Winnett still needs to add muscle to his slight frame in order to withstand the rigors of a pro season. He will continue to see prominent penalty-killing time and play a third line role with the Wolverines.

13. (16) Chad Rau, C, 21, Colorado College (NCAA)

Acquired: Seventh round, 228th overall in 2005.

Always a prolific scorer, Rau really came into his own this season. After scoring 30 and 31 points, respectively, in his first two NCAA campaigns, Rau busted out with 28 goals in 40 games and added 14 assists for 42 points. He finished 22nd overall in the NCAA in points and was fifth overall in goals. He also led the entire country in shorthanded goals with six. As with many under-hyped college prospects, size and skating are the talented Rau’s limitations. At 5’11 and 180 lbs he needs to add lower-body strength and work on his skating, as offensive instincts and creativity have never been a problem.

14. (17) John Mitchell, C, 23, Toronto Marlies (AHL)

Acquired: Fifth round, 158th overall in 2003.

Mitchell has progressed nicely in his three AHL seasons, going from five to 16 to 20 goals in successive campaigns. At 6’2 and 197 lbs, Mitchell brings size and a defensive presence down the middle. Offense is a bonus when talking about the Waterloo native’s game. It was surprising that Mitchell didn’t make a cameo appearance late this season when a number of Marlie forwards were recalled to Toronto. However, Mitchell did have his best season as a pro to date and projects as a third or fourth line center who is defensively responsible and adept in the faceoff circle.

15. (6) Jeremy Williams, RW, 24, Toronto Marlies (AHL)

Acquired: Seventh round, 220th overall in 2003.

When Williams was recalled to the Leafs on Feb. 27, he had a streak going of scoring in both of his one-game recalls the past two seasons. He continued that streak by scoring against the Panthers that night in only 5:41 of ice time. In the past, Williams received those one-game cameos in 2006 and 2007 only to find himself back in the minors. This year he was around for 18 games. He scored two goals in those 18 contests, but it was still a rather limited look at the skilled winger as he would receive over 10 minutes of ice in only five games. After scoring at will in junior, Williams’ pro career has been marred by injury and an unwillingness by the organization to give him an extended shot in a scoring role when he was healthy. He suited up in 49 games for the Marlies this season, scoring 18 goals and 15 assists.

16. (13) Phil Oreskovic, D, 21, Toronto Marlies (AHL)

Acquired: Third round, 82nd overall in 2005.

Oreskovic has played the second half of 2007-08 exactly the way the Leafs envisioned when the drafted the 6’3 217 lb blueliner out of the OHL three years ago. Since January, Oreskovic has been playing a simplified game that allows him to use his size most effectively. He has registered a +13 since Jan. 1 after being +1 in the first half of the season. He has focused on the positional aspect of the game more this season, as opposed to his junior days when he ran around looking for the big hit and dropped the gloves on a nightly basis. He has racked up only 68 penalty minutes this season. Oreskovic has exceeded expectations this season as there was some thought he would be spending this season in the ECHL after the Marlies made a number of veteran acquisitions. If he continues to progress, there is no reason he won’t be in the Leafs plans as a future third-pairing defenseman.

17. (19) Juraj Mikus, D, 19, Slovakia

Acquired: Fifth round, 134th overall in 2007

Simply put, Mikus is a project. He is a player who can make GM’s and scouting staffs look very, very smart. At 6’4 and a wiry 190 lbs, Mikus possesses a great set of tools that includes a heavy shot and great mobility for his size. With a good showing at the 2008 World Juniors near his homeland, Mikus was able to prove he could produce against top competition. In six games, he scored one goal and added two assists with a +2 rating. Mikus still needs time to grow into his frame and make the necessary defensive adjustments that gangly defensemen often struggle with. His offensive package and size make him a very intriguing prospect.

18. (NR) Korbinian Holzer, D, 20, DEG Metro Stars (German Elite League)

Acquired: Fourth round, 111th overall in 2006

Playing as one of the youngest players in the top German league on a team with former NHLers Darren Van Impe, Jamie Wright, and Brandon Reid, Holzer went from fringe prospect to legimate prospect in a hurry. As a 19-year-old defenseman, Holzer scored two goals and five assists in 35 games but also showed he has some sandpaper in his toolbox with 66 penalty minutes. At 6’3 and 190 lbs, the right shooting blueliner has surprising strength and physicality for a wiry kid. When he is at his best, Holzer plays a sound positional game. Offensively, there is a bit of upside, but his future lies in patrolling the defensive zone and keeping it simple.

19. (NR) Viktor Stalberg, LW, 22, University of Vermont (NCAA)

Acquired: Sixth round, 161st overall in 2006

The big Swede had a solid sophomore season at the University of Vermont. On a team lacking offensive flair, he tied for the team lead in goals with two other players with 10. In addition to posting 23 points in 39 games this season, Stalberg also showed great maturity by playing just as well in his own end as he did in the opponents’. The 6’3 210-pounder has all the tools necessary to become a big-time power forward. He has great speed for a big player barreling off the wing and shows enough touch around the net to finish of the dirty work around the net. If Stalberg progresses at the same pace, he will quickly move up this list.

20. (NR) Alex Foster, LW, 24, Toronto Marlies (AHL)

Acquired: Signed as free agent in 2006

Written off last year as a college scoring sensation who couldn’t translate that game into pro success when he was sent to the ECHL, Foster bounced back this season with the Marlies and even received a call to the big club. With good speed and vision, Foster’s game is playmaking. He finished fourth on the Marlies in scoring this season with 18 goals and 28 assists for 46 points in 67 games. He did not register a point in three games with the Maple Leafs. At 5’11 and 200 lbs, Foster does not shy away from physical play, yet he is not an overly physical player. He needs to work on his defensive awareness and play without the puck to be anything more than a complementary player. In time, he could become one of the go-to players for the Marlies but it is questionable whether or not he has a future in the NHL. The fact that the Leafs took a look at him this season could mean they are wondering the same thing.