The Leafs are finally rebuilding.
Until Jiri Tlusty graduated from prospect status on Oct. 23, the Maple Leafs had no major graduations for more than a full calendar year. That reflects the low priority the Leafs have given the draft since 2004. They traded 2005 first-round pick Tuukka Rask for Andrew Raycroft. The Leafs had no second rounder that year nor did they have a pick in the first two rounds in 2004. In sharp contrast, the Leafs still have both Tlusty and Nikolai Kulemin whom they drafted with their first two picks in 2006. Leafs management returned to neglecting the draft in 2007, trading their top two picks for veterans.
Despite all of this, the Leafs do have some talent in their system thanks largely to a sharp change in philosophy this summer and some luck in the later rounds. Expect there to be a modest group of prospects this year who will form the first wave of the Leafs rebuilding attempt. Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski, John Mitchell, Anton Stralman and Luke Schenn should all graduate this season.
With Kulemin and Grabovski, the Leafs have some decent left wing talent. Add Robbie Earl to that mix and you could say the position is in good shape.
Kulemin started the season well with two goals in his first three games. He also added two all-important shootout goals. After proving his sniping ability was National Hockey League caliber, Kulemin was given about 18 minutes of ice time for five games. His defensive mistakes and lack of further production put him back to the 12 minute range where he remains. Like fellow rookies Grabovski and Mitchell, Kulemin’s terrible -5 shows he has a lot of work to do before he’ll get the ice time necessary to show off his goal scoring prowess.
Grabovski’s offensive upside isn’t as evident as Kulemin’s, although he appears to have coach Ron Wilson’s respect. Grabovski plays at least 15 minutes per game centering the Leafs third line. That responsibility combined with his inexperience helps explain his team leading -6.
Even though he turns 24 in February, Robbie Earl’s elite speed fits perfectly with the young Leafs and guarantees he’ll spend at least part of his career in the NHL. He’s currently with the Marlies alongside Alex Foster who has four points in 10 games so far in 2008-09. Earl was a late cut by the Leafs and should see some time with them this season. American Hockey League rookie Stefano Giliati has two points in four games this season for the Marlies.
In 2007-08, Ben Winnett scored a modest 11 points in 41 games for the University of Michigan and has followed up with two points in six games so far as a sophomore. Another NCAA left winger, Viktor Stalberg has one goal for the University of Vermont in four games as a junior.
There are two left wing prospects currently in Europe. Johan Dahlberg is back with Hudiksvalls HC in the Swedish first division after a scoring 22 points in 31 games. An aggressive player, Dahlberg will be hard pressed to match his 119 PIMs from 2007-08. Jerome Flaake, Toronto’s 2008 fifth-round pick has struggled offensively so far, scoring only one point for the Cologne Sharks in 18 German Elite League contests.
Mitchell is working out as well as could be expected for a fifth-round pick. After producing well in the AHL last season, Mitchell forced the Leafs to keep him with an excellent training camp. He has played a consistent 10 minutes centering the Leafs fourth line and has two goals and five points in 11 games.
Mikhail Stefanovich, a high fourth-round pick in the 2008 draft, leads a group of three centers from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. The 6’2, 205-pound 18 year old has 12 points in 12 games for the Quebec Remparts, good enough for second on the team. Chris DiDomenico, a 2007 sixth round pick, leads the Saint John Sea Dogs in scoring and is currently 25th overall in the QMJHL.
DiDomenico has been exceeding expectations since he went un-drafted in the 2006 Ontario Hockey League entry draft. He ended up scoring one point per game in the expansion Sea Dogs’ inaugural season and followed it up with 95 points in 2007-08. Not only does DiDomenico lead the Sea Dogs in scoring this season, he has gained three inches since his draft year and is now listed at 6’1. Joel Champagne rounds out the Quebec league centers with six goals and ten points in 13 games for Chicoutimi.
Chad Rau scored 28 goals in 40 NCAA games last season for Colorado College. Rau continued his torrid goal scoring pace this season with five goals and 11 points in his first seven games. Leo Komarov, an Estonian playing in the Finnish Elite League, has 10 points in 19 games for the Pelicans this season. Komarov scored only 14 points all of 2007-08.
The Maple Leafs have 10 right wing prospects in their system. Unfortunately only Jimmy Hayes can be considered blue chip at this point. Hayes was thought by many to be a top ten pick a year prior to the 2008 draft. For a variety of reasons his stock dropped and the Leafs drafted him with the last pick of the second round. The 6’5, 210-pound winger is a freshman with Boston College and has two goals and three points in five games.
Matt Frattin, Tyler Ruegsegger, Pierce Norton and Alex Berry all play with Hayes in the NCAA. Seniors Norton and Berry play for lower profile schools and neither are high scorers. They’ll both need dynamite years to go to the next level. Ruegsegger had 22 points in 31 games for Denver in 2007-08 and has four points in six games so far in his junior year. Frattin, a 2007 fourth-round pick, plays for the University of North Dakota. He finished tenth among Western Collegiate Hockey Association freshmen, scoring 15 points in 43 games. Perhaps more importantly, he was the only member of the Fighting Sioux to play in all 43 games. Frattin contributed defensively too, finishing sixth on the team in plus/minus.
The only right wing prospect playing in Europe is Konstantin Volkov. In 2007-08, Volkov scored 15 points in 25 games for HK Dmitrov in the Russian second division. This season, Volkov signed with HK Rys another second division team.
Dale Mitchell and Greg Scott both play in the Canadian Hockey League. Mitchell, small but stocky, is a proven point per game scorer in the OHL while Scott is a bigger more durable player with similar scoring ability. Mitchell has eight goals and 17 points in 15 games for Windsor while Scott has six points in nine games for the Western Hockey League Seattle Thunderbirds. Scott was a late cut by the Marlies while Mitchell played two Marlie playoff games last season.
Brent Aubin and Kyle Rogers both play for the 2008-09 Marlies. Aubin, a 5’9, 180-pound spark plug, scored 22 points in 2007-08, his first full AHL season. He has six points in eight games this season while Rogers has struggled in five games with no points and a -4.
Going into 2008-09, conventional wisdom had Toronto finishing near the bottom of the league with a chance to draft local OHL star John Tavares. The Leafs have not played like bottom dwellers so far this season and Schenn is the nicest surprise on a team full of surprises. Schenn is the best defensive player on a team that needs defense. The plan was always to send Schenn back to junior but that plan has changed as Schenn might be the Maple Leafs best defenseman this season. Schenn plays alongside Tomas Kaberle on the top pairing at even strength; he’s always in the top penalty-killing pairing and has seen spot duty on the power play. A legitimate Calder Trophy candidate already, Schenn should be a star in the Scott Stevens mold.
Stralman, seven games from graduation, has picked up from where he left off last season anchoring the second power play unit and providing 15 minutes of third pairing duty at even strength. His +2 is tops among Leaf defensemen and he appears to be on schedule to fulfill his potential as a top four defenseman and power play quarterback.
The Leafs have four defensive prospects developing in Europe. Dmitri Vorobiev had a breakthrough season in 2007-08, scoring 16 goals and 28 points in 55 games in the Russian Superleague. Vorobiev’s team Lada Tagliatti made the transition to the newly created KHL which should provide an even greater test for the 6’4, 215-pound, 23 year old. In sharp contrast, Juraj Mikus struggled last year in the Slovakian Extraliga. Mikus scored 8 points in 35 games but finishing with an abysmal -10 on a decent Dukla Trencin team. The hulking 6’4, 210-pound Mikus has to improve his defensive game on his return to Trencin this season.
Korbinian Holzer, at 6’3, 195 pounds, is yet another large European defender in the Leafs system. Holzer, Toronto’s fourth pick in 2006, led DEG Metro Stars blueliners with +7 last season. He also chipped in seven points in 35 games for the German Elite League club. Holzer has dressed for only seven of the Metro Stars 17 games this season but is a respectable +3.
At 6’2, 189 pounds, Carl Gunnarsson is the smallest of the four Leaf defensive prospects playing in Europe. Unlike Mikus and Holzer however, Gunnarsson gets quality minutes for Linkoping HC in the Swedish Elite League. Gunnarsson missed only two of Linkoping’s 71 games (including playoffs) in 2007-08 and has yet to miss a game this season. The 21-year-old defender scored 13 points last season and was a respectable +5. He’s +5 in 17 games this season with six points in 17 games.
Andrew MacWilliam is the only defensive prospect playing NCAA hockey as he committed to the University of North Dakota after playing an outstanding defensive game for Camrose of the Alberta Junior Hockey League in 2007-08.
Jaime Sifers, 25, is a short, stocky defender who needs a breakthrough season to ever see the NHL. Sifers had a modest 13 points in 80 games in 2007-08 and has two goals and five points in eight games this season. Joining Sifers on the Marlies blue line is Phil Oreskovic a 6’3, 220-pound defensive defenseman who has no points in eight games. Oreskovic is a stay at home AHL defenseman who needs at least a year of pro seasoning before he’ll see the inside of an NHL arena.
Justin Pogge is the future of the Leafs goaltending. Although an excellent prospect, Pogge is currently the only prospect in the organization with an upside as a No. 1 NHL goaltender. In the AHL last season Pogge looked like a sure thing, winning 26 games and losing only 14. This season Pogge looks lost. He has an .884 save percentage and is ranked 29th in GAA among AHL goalies. Because the Leafs have Vesa Toskala they can afford to take their time with Pogge, however, if Pogge doesn’t work out the goaltending cupboard is nearly bare.
A former standout with the Red Deer Rebels of the WHL, James Reimer is struggling early in his first pro season. Reimer has played five periods with the Reading Royals of the East Coast Hockey League and has allowed seven goals so far. Given his junior success, Reimer should settle down and has a decent chance to develop into an NHL backup in the distant future. Grant Rollheiser is a big goalie playing his freshman season for Boston University.