Maple Leafs junior prospects 2009-10 review

By John-Eric Iannicello

The Maple Leafs have 11 prospects playing at the junior level, with five poised to join the pro ranks next year. Nazem Kadri once again headlines the prospect group.

OHL 

Jesse Blacker, D – Owen Sound Attack
Acquired:  2nd Round, 58th overall in 2009

After a successful season with the Memorial Cup champion Windsor Spitfires in 2008-09, Blacker took it upon himself to explore new challenges in the OHL. He requested a trade from the Windsor Spitfires on October 15th, and was soon after dealt to the Owen Sound Attack, a team looking for a strong top-four OHL defender.

Blacker took on a more prominent role in the top-four with Owen Sound and his offensive numbers started to pick up. In 48 games with Owen Sound, Blacker scored six goals and assisted on 24 others to bring his point total to 30 with the Attack. On the season, Blacker finished with 33 points in 57 games (3 points in 9 games with Windsor) while also amassing 64 penalty minutes, including four fighting majors. The most concerning statistic this season was Blacker’s -22 which was among the team’s worst.

The 19-year-old defender finished off the season with the Toronto Marlies. He was only able to participate in six games before being injured in a game vs. Rochester in late March. He recorded one assist.

Blacker is still junior eligible next season and is likely to return to Owen Sound for one more season before moving to the AHL. He’ll need to continue rounding his game as it’s been very erratic at times this season.

Jamie Devane, LW – Plymouth Whalers
Acquired: 3rd Round, 69th overall in 2009

Devane’s season started off badly when he broke his hand in a fight with Bruin defenseman Peter Stevens at the Maple Leafs annual Kitchener rookie tournament.

Devane was forced to sit out for the first month of Plymouth’s season before he was able to return. When he did eventually return to the line-up, Devane was unable to fight right away because his hand wasn’t fully healed, which hurt his value to Plymouth as their prime enforcer. His first fight came at the end of December against Kyle Neuber.

Devane has played most of the season as a depth player on the fourth line for the Whalers and has only played in 51 games because of his injury. In those 51 games, Devane scored six times and assisted on eight others while also amassing 84 penalty minutes. Although it took Devane time to rehab his hand injury, he still managed to get into 10 fights on the season (which includes two in the postseason).

With the Whalers swept in the second round by the Windsor Spitfires, Devane also joined the Marlies for the last two games of the year. Devane was held pointless in both games.

Devane will return to Plymouth next season in hopes of a more productive and healthy season as a 19-year-old.

Nazem Kadri, C – London Knights
Acquired: 1st Round, 7th overall in 2009

There isn’t much else to be said about Kadri’s season other then he started slow after failing to make the Maple Leafs, and absolutely lit the OHL on fire in the second half of the season.

Although he didn’t hit the 100-point mark most were hoping he would achieve, he was still one of the most dangerous forwards in the entire CHL. In 56 games with the Knights, Kadri scored 35 goals and added 58 helpers for an impressive 93-point total. Even more impressive (and concerning) was his 105 penalty minutes, which blew his previous season total of 31 out of the water.

His play with Canada at the World Juniors had its share of criticism both on and off the ice. He over-handled the puck which caused turnovers at inopportune times and also got into a confrontation with Swiss power forward Nino Niederreiter (2010) in which Kadri made a throat-slashing gesture towards him. At the end of the tournament, Kadri finished seventh in team scoring with three goals and five assists in six games.

Returning from the World Juniors, Kadri’s game started to pick up offensively and he started to get recognition for it. He was named Prospect of the Month by Hockey’s Future in January after scoring 25 points in 11 games. On February 8th, Kadri was recalled on an emergency basis by the Maple Leafs for one game and played approximately 17 minutes in his debut. At the end of March, he was named CHL player of the week, and OHL’s player of the month.

Kadri is lighting up the OHL playoffs at the moment with 26 points in 11 games, leading the playoff scoring race. His play this season will all but guarantee that he plays pro next year, but how he trains in the offseason will determine whether he starts in the NHL or AHL.

Dale Mitchell, RW – Windsor Spitfires
Acquired: 3rd round, 74th overall in 2007

Mitchell has had a tough year that included being sent back, in a surprising move, to the Windsor Spitfires for his overage season. He had only played nine games for the Toronto Marlies before being sent back to Windsor on November 11th. In those nine games, Mitchell recorded two goals and one assist.

While the Spitfires were more than happy to welcome back a big part of their core in Mitchell, there was little that Mitchell had left to accomplish at the OHL level. He has always been a consistent offensive threat at the OHL level both with Oshawa and Windsor, and winning the Memorial Cup left Mitchell with an impressive OHL resume at the end of last season.

To make matters worse, Mitchell suffered a nagging ankle injury at the start of the new year that would keep him out multiple weeks. Because of time spent with the Marlies and battling injury, Mitchell was limited to only 32 games on the year. He still managed to score at a very strong pace, with 16 goals and 27 assists.

The Spitfires rely heavily on the secondary production of Mitchell for their playoff success. Through the first two rounds of the playoffs Mitchell has scored six goals and added four assists in eight games.

Mitchell will be playing at the pro level next season as he’s ineligible to return to juniors. His agitating style of play and consistent verbal taunting of opposing players should make him quite the pest.

Kenny Ryan, RW – Windsor Spitfires
Acquired: 2nd Round, 50th overall in 2009

When Ryan left Boston College to join the OHL, Spitfire fans thought they were going to be getting a high-scoring power forward. Ryan’s game didn’t translate right away, and it wasn’t until the new year that Ryan’s value started to come to the forefront as a two-way forward. At the beginning of the year, Ryan seemed a step behind play due to the heavy playing schedule. He would start the game like a man on fire, but would burn out half-way through.

While his offensive numbers were lacking with only 14 goals and 21 assists in 52 games, Ryan wasn’t expected to carry that load on the team given its depth in their top nine. Ryan was cast in a role that demanded high energy, grit, and defensive prowess. Any offense that Ryan produced was seen as an added bonus.

As the season started to progress, one thing was certain about Ryan’s game and it was his ability to wear down opponents in the corners as well as play smartly at both ends of the ice. There weren’t many nights when Ryan would lose a battle in the opposition’s end.

The 18-year-old’s game doesn’t have a ton of creativity to it, but there is offensive potential in his game that should be on display next season as his role with the club increases. Ryan is expected to return to the Spitfires.

Barron Smith, D – Peterborough Petes
Acquired: 7th Round, 188th overall in 2009

Unfortunately for Smith, he’s only managed to play in 70 games over the past two seasons in the OHL, which has hurt his development as a prospect. This season he’s only played in 36 games and recorded four assists.

Last season, Smith battled a shoulder injury which kept him out a big portion of the year, and this year Smith hurt his knee which required surgery and kept him out approximately two months. The injury occurred when he took a puck off of his knee and consequently chipped the bone.

Aside from his injury, Smith has battled for ice time on the Petes blue line, rotating in and out of the line-up in the first half of the year because of their depth.

Next season will be a huge test for Smith to prove himself as a prospect. He’ll look to bounce back from a tough season. Added weight and strength should help Smith stay healthier throughout the year.

QMJHL


Philippe Paradis, LW – Shawinigan Cataractes

Acquired: Trade with Carolina, December 2009

When the Maple Leafs moved Jiri Tlusty to the Hurricanes for Paradis, they were hoping that they had traded for a player who was a safer bet to be an NHL player. While the top-end upside may not be as high in Paradis, he seems to have the type of game that may make him a solid, big-body presence who can score a dozen or so goals.

Paradis has had a very erratic season offensively. While there was increased production in his goals with 24, he failed to eclipse last season’s career high of 50 points. In 63 games this year, he only posted 44 points. He’s a player who has all the tools to be an offensive threat at the QMJHL, but has yet to put all the pieces together.

Like fellow Maple Leaf prospects Devane and Blacker, Paradis also had a brief stint with the Toronto Marlies. He played in three games and assisted on two goals. Paradis also scored the shootout winner for the Marlies on April 10th against Hamilton. He hasn’t looked entirely out of place either in the three games. He’s been physical, and has been able to keep up with the play. Regardless of how he’s played, he’ll have to return to junior next season as he’s ineligible to play in the AHL.


Chris DiDomenico, LW – Drummondville Voltigeurs 

Acquired: 6th round, 164th overall in 2007

The name Chris DiDomenico should be a synonym for resilience. There isn’t a prospect in the Maple Leafs system who has had the uphill battle that DiDomenico has had in his junior career.

Even prior to his injury, DiDomenico had to battle his way into the QMJHL. He’s been a great offensive threat since he entered the league, and now coming back from a broken femur, an injury that clouded his future in hockey, DiDomenico has displayed his passion and heart once again. Through his rehab, he’s also been able to add upper-body strength to prepare him for the pro transition next season.

DiDomenico returned to the Drummondville like a man possessed. In his first game on February 17th, DiDomenico recorded one goal and added three assists for a spectacular four-point return. Since then he’s finished the regular season with seven goals and 15 assists for 22 points in 12 games. So far in the playoffs, he’s in the top five for scoring with five goals and 11 assists in nine games along with a +15.

Regardless of where DiDomenico ends up in his career, his journey thus far should be an inspiration to others. He’s overcome major odds in his career, and will have another hurdle next season as he attempts to land a spot on the Marlies.

Joel Champagne, C – Victoriaville Tigres
Acquired: 5th Round, 129th overall in 2008

Champagne has showcased his scoring prowess this season finishing in the top 10 for goals scored with 38 goals, and hitting a career high in points with 79 in 65 games this season (top 15 in league point totals). He’s been a key player for both Prince Edward Island and Victoriaville this year, where he’s played 36 and 29 games respectively.

The 20-year-old forward has again been arguably one of, if not the best faceoff men in the QMJHL with a winning percentage of approximately 58.5. He’s also fourth in face-offs taken with 1579.

Skating continues to be the issue with Champagne, specifically in his initial few steps. His skill in the faceoff circle, should he continue to hone it, may turn him into a valuable bottom-six forward for the Maple Leafs going forward.

Champagne will likely play pro next season, although he can be sent back to junior for an overage year. He’s likely penciled into a bottom-six center spot given the Maple Leafs lack of natural center depth on the farm team.


Mikhail Stefanovich, RW – Quebec Remparts

Acquired: 4th round, 98th overall in 2008

After failing to secure a full-time spot with the Marlies, Stefanovich was sent back to Quebec to refine his game to fit a pro style.

Unfortunately, while Stefanovich was concentrating on his overall game, and using his 6’2 frame more to his advantage, his stats (specifically goal scoring) took a hit. From a year ago where Stefanovich was one of the premier snipers in the QMJHL with 49 goals, his numbers dropped to 25 goals and 68 points. The positive in his offensive numbers were his assist totals. He increased his totals to a career high of 43.

Although other aspects of his game improved, there were still noted consistency problems. For a player of Stefanovich’s caliber and age, there were too many nights where he would not show up. He may be able to get away with this type of play at the junior level, but next season there will be a bigger demand from him in the pros.

The concern with Stefanovich will always be the lure of the KHL, even more so because he was drafted by his hometown team (Minsk). For now, the focus will be on how Stefanovich adapts to the higher level. His first test may come with the Belarus national team at the World Championship, where he should have a spot on the team again.

USHL


Eric Knodel, D – Des Moines Buccaneers

Acquired: 5th Round, 128th overall in 2009

Knodel joined the Des Moines Buccaneers this season and started out very productively in his first 11 games, scoring one goal and seven assists, but was unable to keep up his point pace throughout the season. In the following 39 games, Knodel only recorded 12 points and was a team-worst -26. Even though his point production cooled significantly, he still finished second in defensive scoring. Knodel was a key producer for the Des Moines power play, scoring 13 of his 20 points with the man advantage.
   
Des Moines missed the playoffs this year, and with that Knodel’s time with the Buccaneers came to an end. The 19-year-old will attend the University of New Hampshire next season. His NCAA window will give him the necessary time to develop his two-way game.