While the current Toronto Maple Leaf prospect group is strong on paper, the proof will be in the production over the next few seasons. GM Brian Burke invested heavily in free agents Jonas Gustavsson, Tyler Bozak and to a lesser extent Christian Hanson this summer in an effort to boost the prospect depth. So far, all three players have shown small glimpses of being legit NHL players. But there’s pressure on all three, including 2009 first-round pick Nazem Kadri to deliver quickly.
The combined efforts of GMs Burke (bringing in Bozak, Hanson, Gustavsson), Cliff Fletcher (Luke Schenn) and even John Ferguson, Jr. (Viktor Stalberg, Carl Gunnarsson, Phil Oreskovic) have given the Maple Leafs some young depth who are chomping at the bit.
The prized left winger in the Maple Leafs system is Viktor Stalberg. After an impressive preseason, Stalberg continued his strong play into October and while his offense hasn’t translated yet, he continues to do the little things right. With an impressive combination of size and speed, the 23-year-old carries the puck with authority and drives at defenders. His current season was set back after a mild concussion on Oct. 6. Since then, Stalberg has returned to action and doesn’t seem to have missed a step.
Behind Stalberg is a collection of project forwards. European forward Jerome Flaake has only recorded one goal in eight games, but has already amassed 27 penalty minutes. He was suspended four games by the DEL for checking from behind. He’s also played one game in the second league.
In the NCAA, Jerry D’Amigo needs to assert himself as a freshman at R.P.I. For Ben Winnett, he’ll be looking to finally break out offensively for the Univ. of Michigan in his third season. Both players are off to strong starts.
Robert Slaney is still trying to work his way full time into the Toronto Marlies line-up as a 20-year-old rookie, while feisty forward Stefano Giliati has been assigned to the Reading Royals of the ECHL to begin his season. Both are character forwards who will take seasons of grooming. They will battle for spots with the Marlies over the course of the season.
At the bottom of the left wing depth chart is tough, young Jamie Devane and super pest Leo Komarov. Devane is a long-term project that the Leafs hope will develop into a serviceable checking forward with some offensive capability. The 18-year-old Devane, due to a hand injury at the Maple Leaf rookie tournament, has yet to dress for the Plymouth Whalers. Komarov infuriates opponents, and at only 22, he is still young enough to make an NHL impact, but he’s committed the next two seasons to playing in Russia.
Bolstered over the summer, the Maple Leafs prospect depth at center boasts a good combination of skill and size that has been lacking in years past.
The Maple Leafs first-round selection this past summer, Kadri had a strong camp but was reassigned to London in order to maximize his ice time and opportunities. Kadri has been a solid yet unspectacular offensive addition to the London Knights so far. He’s expected to challenge for a roster spot again next season after a year of added size and experience.
Tyler Bozak, a 23-year-old college free-agent signing, was another standout at camp. Bozak just missed the opening-day cut and was assigned to the Marlies at the start of the season. Although his numbers don’t reflect it, Bozak has been a threat so far at the AHL level. He’s been a noticeable player at both ends of the rink. He’ll be a strong candidate to steal a roster spot throughout the season.
Chris DiDomenico continues to rehab from a serious leg injury suffered at the end of last season. At the moment, the 20-year-old’s future is unknown. Before his injury, DiDomenico was developing at a great pace and was looking like a future top-nine forward. The injury to his leg, however, may seriously hamper his future as an NHL player. A healthy, rejuvenated DiDomenico would be a welcomed addition to the prospect depth.
After a trade to the PEI Rocket, Joel Champagne has started to develop a strong offensive game. The two-way center is another project the Maple Leafs hope will pan out. At 6’4 and over 220 pounds, he has great size but will have to work on his agility and acceleration over the next few seasons. He fits in well with the style of game Burke wants his team to play.
The depth on the right wing is mostly comprised of players who pride themselves on hard work and dedication.
A large part of the right wing depth is currently playing with the Marlies. While Hanson, Alex Berry and Kyle Rogers have a bit of experience carrying over from last season, they are still rather green. Hanson is 6’4 and works extremely hard at both ends of the ice while providing some offensive support with three points in five games so far this season. Berry and Rogers are both big, bottom-six players who are low on the depth chart and long shots to be NHL regulars.
Dale Mitchell and former Windsor Spitfire teammate Richard Greenop are fresh additions to the Marlies line-up. Mitchell provides good energy to the third line and a heavy shot, while Greenop has literally fought his way into a fourth-line spot with the Marlies. Fellow CHL graduate Greg Scott is another character forward who is making the transition to the pros with the Marlies. All three players will have to play with a sense of urgency throughout the year as players below them are looking to steal spots.
A late and somewhat surprising Marlie cut was 19-year-old Mikhail Stefanovich. Coming off an incredible offensive season of 49 goals in 55 games, Stefanovich was returned to the QMJHL after failing to secure a top-six spot with the team. His consistency is troublesome and he was a disappointment at the rookie tournament with only a few shifts of impressive hockey. The young Belarusian sniper still has the tools to be a top-six player, but will have to continue to round out his game if he hopes to make the next step.
Until very recently, the rest of the prospect depth on the right wing came from the NCAA. But Kenny Ryan has opted to drop out of Boston College, where he was a freshman, to join the Windsor Spitfires in a surprising move. Ryan will be a welcomed addition to the powerhouse junior squad.
The remaining right wingers in the NCAA are 21-year-old Tyler Ruegsegger, who is finishing his last season with University of Denver, while Jimmy Hayes continues his career as a sophomore forward at Boston College. The 19-year-old Hayes is coming off a good first season and will look to take his overall game to the next level.
Unfortunately for one prospect, his progress has taken a turn for the worst. Matt Frattin was kicked off North Dakota after numerous off-ice incidents. The 20-year-old forward was showing signs of offensive promise last season with 13 goals and 25 points in 42 games, but now his NHL future is in jeopardy.
With the departure of young Anton Stralman, one of the weak points in the Maple Leafs defensive depth is that they lack a true offensive threat. They selected shut-down defender in Luke Schenn in the 2008 draft, who they could build around, but to this day there doesn’t seem to be a player within the Maple Leafs defensive system capable of developing into a 45-point defenseman. What they do have is an abundance of size.
The smallest blue line prospect in the Maple Leafs system is 6’1 defender Jesse Blacker. Blacker, selected in the 2009 draft, is an unpolished, high-energy defensive prospect who skates well and can move the puck. Blacker is currently waiting on a requested trade from the Windsor Spitfires to a team that will give him the chance to be a go-to defensive player. He has the skills to produce more offense, but can lack confidence in himself at times. He performed well at the rookie tournament and garnered praise during the preseason.
Returning Marlies blue liner Phil Oreskovic is the meanest and most experienced pro out of the current group. Oreskovic is joined by the composed Carl Gunnarsson and the lanky Juraj Mikus. Both players are making the transition to North America this season and seem to be fitting in very nicely. Gunnarsson is a 23-year-old defender who was one of the best defensemen in preseason for the Maple Leafs. He showed great poise, a strong skating ability and good first pass. The 20-year-old Mikus, a project who played in Slovakia last season, has shown some untapped offensive potential in the early stages of the season recording three points in five games. He will require much-needed strength in order to compete for an NHL position.
Two players in Europe who battled injury problems last season have started strong. German defender Korbinian Holzer is having a great bounce-back season in the DEL after battling concussion issues. He has already recorded eights points in 13 games and should smash his previous career high of nine points. The 21-year-old could see himself in a Marlies uniform next season. Dmitri Vorobiev, who was diagnosed with heart issues last season, has played in 14 games this year in the KHL, recording five assists. There doesn’t seem to be much of a future for Vorobiev in Toronto as he’s committed to the KHL for the next two seasons.
Andrew MacWilliam and Eric Knodel both find themselves in new leagues this year. MacWilliam has made the transition to the NCAA playing with North Dakota, while Knodel moved to the USHL playing with the Des Moines Buccaneers. Knodel has recently committed to the University of New Hampshire for the fall of 2010.
Rounding out the defensive depth is project stay-at-home defender Barron Smith. The 18-year-old is yet another Maple Leaf defensive prospect who battled injury last season. He only was able to participate in 34 games between the London Knights and Peterborough Petes due to a shoulder injury. He’ll look to have a strong rebound year, and a fresh start with Peterborough.
The position of least depth and arguably most importance in the Maple Leafs system is the goaltending situation.
Burke did not draft a goalie in 2009 and invested a lot of time and resources this summer in signing Jonas Gustavsson out of Sweden.
Whether Burke’s time and effort with Gustavsson will pay off has yet to be seen as the 24-year-old goaltender has battled a few injuries since his journey to North America and has only played one full game in the NHL this year. Should Gustavsson falter, the Maple Leafs will have no immediate answers within their system to right the goaltending situation.
Beyond him, the Maple Leafs 2008 selection James Reimer is just now starting to make the transition to the AHL after a successful ECHL campaign. Grant Rollheiser is beginning his sophomore year at Boston University, where he is a backup to fellow sophomore Kieran Millan (COL).