Maple Leafs’ Training Camp Primer

By Randy Nicholson
Congratulations! Somehow you’ve all managed to get through three long months without hockey. Now the boys of winter are back on the ice and another season of exciting Maple Leafs’ action looms. Toronto’s line-up for the upcoming season looks to be both deep and talented. There are more experienced NHL players on hand at the club’s Training Camp than there are jobs to be filled. To further complicate matters, an improving farm system has produced several hopeful youngsters determined to push some familiar names out of the picture. Expect lots of spirited competition for NHL jobs, the emergence of some surprising newcomers and maybe even a trade or two before the 2000 / 2001 roster is finally set.

While acknowledging that these factors make the team rather difficult to handicap at this early stage, here is a preliminary position-by-position look at the 2000 / 2001 Toronto Maple Leafs:

Goaltenders

Not much suspense here … Cujo is the top dog on this team and one of the very best in the entire league … once recovered from a nagging groin pull that has kept him off the ice during the early stages of the pre-season, Curtis Joseph will be back to start 60 – 70 games and spearhead Toronto’s assault on the Stanley Cup … dependable Glenn Healy returns to mind the Toronto net when Joseph is given the night off and he is solid in this difficult role … Jimmy Waite provides an insurance policy complete with previous NHL experience and will carry the bulk of the load out in St. John’s … an interesting battle is being staged in camp for the back-up role in Newfoundland with AHL veteran Mike Minard and former Toronto draftee Jamie Hodson both looking good thus far … Vladimir Kulikov, Sebastien Centomo and Jean-Francois Racine will all continue to hone their skills in junior hockey this season … the real sleeper in this group may prove to be Swedish netminder Mikael Tellqvist and hopefully he will be ready to join the competition at next year’s Training Camp …

Defensemen

At this time, only 3 positions are set … the Leafs have no worries about Tomas Kaberle, Dmitry Yushkevich or Danny Markov … Kaberle is attempting to fill the club’s vacant quarterback slot and possesses more than enough skill to do the job very well … the Leafs are clearly hoping that this is the year that Tomas decides to take his game up to another level … Yushkevich is a vastly underrated performer who does almost everything well and is also a leader amongst the team’s large Russian contingent … Markov must continue to mature and improve but there isn’t much to dislike about this highly competitive youngster … the absence from camp of Alex Karpovtsev due to an ongoing contract dispute has created opportunities for other players … there are presently 3 veteran NHL defenders trying replace Potsie in the #4 hole … Cory Cross has seemed far more like the stalwart that he was for several years in Tampa rather than the spare part that he had eventually become in Toronto by the end of last season … in truth, shot blocking is perhaps the only skill in which Cross does not match up to Karpovtsev quite well … when signed by the Maple Leafs last season, Gerald Diduck was supposed to bring toughness and reasonably good puck skills to the Toronto backline … unfortunately, Diduck was playing on a post-operative knee and his mobility was still very much restricted … this year he is moving much more fluidly and could be a real plus if he reverts back to the form displayed earlier in his career … summer signee Dave Manson has delivered exactly what was expected of him so far … while the occasional attacker may succeed in taking him wide, no one will loiter near the Leafs’ cage or take liberties with any Toronto player when Manson is on the ice … hulking returnee, Chris McAllister is still in the mix as well but would probably be better served by playing significant minutes on the farm rather than staying on the Toronto roster as the 7th man … Czech rookie Petr Svoboda has looked completely comfortable and well schooled at camp and in exhibition games … he may very well be the one to supplant Karpovtsev if no other roster moves are made … Dmitri Yakushin and DJ Smith also remain in the running for NHL employment but would probably require injuries to strike one or two of the players above them on the depth chart in order to stick … another real “darkhorse” in the blueline mix is one time Leaf farmhand, David Cooper … Cooper has always possessed the sort of physical gifts (size, explosive skating, wicked shot) that make scouts drool … many teams have tried over the years to harness this raw talent and an equal number have failed … now we are being told that Dave finally learned how to play the game at both ends last year while in the German League … if this is even remotely correct – look out … should Karpovtsev not return (or if he decides to sign for only one season), he could be packaged with some of the club’s extra forwards in order to add one more impact player to the Leaf’s blueline … I suspect that this is very likely to happen prior to the Waiver Draft in October …

Note: This analysis of Toronto’s attackers is greatly complicated by the fact that so many of them play in more than one position. Each player listed below has been slotted into the role that he is most likely to fill this season.

Centers

Start with team captain and scoring leader Mats Sundin … Mats is highly talented, big, durable and immensely respected by all other Maple Leaf players … although he may not produce at quite the same level as the league’s elite scorers, Sundin doesn’t receive the unlimited ice time that Jaromir Jagr gets nor does he constantly float at center ice waiting for the breakaway pass like Pavel Bure does … if paired with newcomer Gary Roberts on his left flank, Sundin could certainly enjoy his best season yet in Toronto … eventually Yanic Perreault (October) and Nikolai Antropov (November) will return from injury rehab and grab two more of the club’s center ice jobs … Perreault is a classic overachiever who must be seen repeatedly in order to be truly appreciated … a master of many small skills, Yanic is deceptively mobile, very skilled on the draw and owns an incredibly accurate array of shots … Antropov only hinted at what he can eventually become during a rookie season in which he displayed surprising mobility, superior playmaking skills and a discernable nasty streak as well … this kid has stardom written all over him and should eventually prove himself to be one of the Maple Leaf’s best ever draft selections … Igor Korolev will probably be asked to play in the pivot until Perreault and Antropov return … in truth, the team’s productivity suffers very little when Korolev is given this role … Igor’s game is based in textbook positioning and he is a personal favorite of Coach Quinn for this reason … he is also a leader (along with Yushkevich) of the Leafs’ many Russian players … although his name has been included in more than one trade rumor this fall, I very much doubt that he’ll be going anywhere … hard luck Alyn McCauley is now making a spirited bid to regain his old place on the team – this time as the centerman on the 4th line … if he can stay healthy, McCauley can certainly handle this job as his defensive game is very well developed … farmhand Donald MacLean is also making a strong statement at Camp and looks to have legitimate NHL potential although he will be very hard pressed to crack a very deep Toronto roster … top prospects Jeff Farkas and Adam Mair are also performing well in camp but have been shifted to the wing in order to alleviate the logjam at center … former 1st Rounders Luca Cereda and Brad Boyes have been very prominent in scrimmage / pre-season games and clearly have very bright futures ahead of them … both will soon be dispatched to their respective OHL teams for f
urther refinement …

Left Wingers

Assuming Roberts and Shayne Corson both land here, this may well be the deepest position on the roster … although no one should complain about the offensive output turned in by Jonus Hoglund last season, it is hoped that the addition of Gary Roberts to the 1st line will create a much more balanced unit and one that is better able to function under play-off conditions … Gary Roberts is a consummate professional who leads by thought, word and deed from the opening day of Training Camp until the buzzer sounds in the team’s final game … he should be able to help his linemates win and retain the puck down low in addition to creating much more havoc in the goalmouth … Corson is another proven leader who gladly accepts all the dirty jobs that that coach assigns … Shayne will also bring a decided “edge” to the Leafs’ forward ranks … an offensive rebound from Corson would be an added bonus but don’t be too shocked if it happens … lurking ominously behind the two newcomers is the always electrifying Sergei Berezin … game-in and game-out, this highly skilled Russian is probably Toronto’s most consistently dangerous attacker … Berezin puts pressure on the opposition virtually all by himself (although some critics point out that he too often plays as though he is all by himself) … Sergei is a very important weapon in the Leafs’ offensive arsenal … Hoglund is still around but he’s clearly one of the most insecure 29 goal scorers in the history of the NHL … Coach Quinn still likes his game and may ask Jonus to take his speed, size and big shot over to the right side where there is somewhat less crowding … he is perhaps the best candidate to be included if the Maple Leafs succeed in engineering a 2-for-1 or 3-for-1 swap prior to opening night … there is a spirited fight being waged at camp for the remaining starting job between holdover Gary Valk and Swedish newcomer Mikael Hakansson … both players are gritty, defensively aware and more skilled than 4th line wingers usually are … this will be an interesting battle to follow and both may ultimately make the final roster … prospects Farkas and Alexei Ponikarovsky have proven themselves to be very near NHL-ready but will likely be AHL bound in order to mark time … much was expected from hulking Czech winger Franticek Mrazek at this camp but he has been invisible thus far due to a severe throat infection and will certainly accompany Farkas and Ponikarovsky to St. John’s …

Right Wingers

Though no one is saying it officially, Steve Thomas’ place on the 1st line may be in some jeopardy at the moment … no player on this team wears the Maple Leaf more proudly than this seasoned warrior and he has successfully fought off many similar challenges in the past … the club’s growing number of quality NHL wingers and a flood of promising kids moving up quickly through the farm system simply means that Thomas can’t survive another slow start like that one that he suffered through last season … Toronto’s starboard group would be elevated from good to great if Dmitri Khristich can return to pre-Toronto form … Khristich is possibly the most complete forward on the roster, combining ample offensive skill with sound defensive technique … though he didn’t begin to deliver the scoring expected when signed as a free agent by the Maple Leafs last fall, his less than stellar play may have been predicated by injury woes … after a full summer of treatment and healing, Dmitri has pronounced himself fit and is showing visibly more bounce than we saw from him at any time last season … Darcy Tucker took the town by storm following his acquisition from Tampa Bay last year … not a pleasant guy to play against at any time, Tucker brought a great deal of grit and determination to the Toronto line-up … the good news for Darcy is that he’ll have a lot more help in these areas this time around … far from being a one-dimensional $@*& disturber, Tucker also brings a surprising amount of offensive moxy to the 3rd line … expect Igor Korolev to also figure in this mix somewhere once all of the club’s injured centers return to action … fan favorite and resident enforcer, Tie Domi was said to have been imperiled by the off-season additions of Roberts, Corson and Manson … nothing could be further from the truth … when the league’s heavyweights issue a challenge to the Toronto line-up it will almost always be Mr. Domi taking the call again this year … Tie’s biggest challenge won’t come from team mates new or old but rather from within himself … he must continue to improve his playing skills in order to earn the ice time that he so craves … the only youngster in the mix on the right side is Adam Mair who is staging a determined bid to make the final roster this year after being one of the final cuts last autumn … a rugged player who fits perfectly into the team’s quest for added belligerence, Mair could well stick this time and will be aided greatly by the fact that he can play all 3 forward positions effectively …