The Weekend Warrior

By Randy Nicholson

Another in a series of weekly articles summarizing activity in Leafland during the previous 7 days – with some personal observations, commentary, prospect updates and fun thrown in for good measure.

Decision time: It seems to me as though the Toronto Maple Leafs have reached a point in time when significant determinations must be made … even an optimistic person can clearly see that the club trails the Devils in terms of championship potential – especially if Jersey can somehow acquire Rob Blake (see below) … the Leafs are essentially equal to division rivals Ottawa and Buffalo – no worse but certainly not significantly better either … to make matters even more complicated, previously dormant teams such as Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington have recently sprung to life and now trail the overall conference leaders by a very narrow margin … the situation could be much different if Toronto had performed up to expectations against several of the league’s doormats during the Christmas period … on a more positive note, the team is currently on a pace to match last season’s point total although very few players are enjoying what could be considered “career” seasons … in spite of this, all signs point to a notable player move (or moves) designed to vault the team up into the NHL’s highest echelon … Leafs’ ownership is more than willing to spend the dollars needed to improve their chances of a Cup challenge this spring and this is an option not readily available to rivals such as the Sabres and Senators … the dilemma, of course, is whether or not to deal away promising youngsters now that the club’s farm system is finally showing clear signs of recovery following years of neglect … it says here that they will and that something very big may happen sooner than anyone realizes …

Rumours: With New Jersey now considered by some the prohibitive favorite to acquire disgruntled Kings’ Captain Rob Blake for a package that includes Scott Gomez, the Leafs’ may decide to wait until they can take a shot at acquiring the former Norris Trophy winner for (only) cash this coming July – then again, there is also widespread speculation that LA will not deal such a pivotal player at all and may choose to gamble on re-signing him themselves … as Flyers’ GM Bob Clarke attempts to grind the Lindros-watch to a virtual halt, stories are now circulating around the NHL that Carolina’s Rod Brind’Amour is very available – Brind’Amour has long been coveted by the Maple Leafs – although he has struggled mightily with the Hurricanes, he would certainly cost far less than Lindros would in terms of player compensation and salary … as far as the “Big E” goes, I still hear whispers that discussions behind the scenes are “white hot” despite denials from all sides … with Peter Bondra now seemingly secure again in Washington, the search continues for a world class sideman for Mats Sundin on the 1st line – the buzz from Anaheim indicates that Teemu Selanne could be had for the right (rather steep) price and he would certainly fill the bill – incidently, Selanne and Leafs’ enforcer turned goal scoring machine Tie Domi are the very best of friends dating back to their days as team mates with the Winnipeg Jets …

Leafs Trivia I: Only 3 Toronto Marlboro junior graduates have tended goal for the Maple Leafs since the club’s most recent Stanley Cup win in 1966/67 … name all three of these netminders (answer below Do you remember) …

Baby Leafs @ Hamilton: Its very difficult to assess the prospects playing in St. John’s from a home base over 2,000 km away but the team’s infrequent visits to nearby Hamilton do provide some basis for “first hand” observation … the Baby Leafs split a weekend series in Steeltown on December 29th –31st but really should have won both contests handily … Hamilton received sensational netminding in the first game from recent UHL call-up Alex Fomitchev (who stopped 52 of 53 shots by St. John’s) and the resulting 4-1 win flattered the Bulldogs … during the second game it was quite apparent that Hamilton had been forced to travel to Syracuse for another game on the 30th while the Baby Leafs sat in the hotel waiting for their return … the result: 46 more shots and a lopsided 7-1 win for St. John’s … all of the St. John’s players who have appeared in Toronto this season (Dempsey, McCauley and MacLean) were outstanding and really don’t seem to belong at this level any more … leading scorer Bobby House was also a key performer for the Leafs … Mikael Hakansson has returned to the St. John’s line-up following a long injury lay-off and is playing a confident 2-way game – he is arguably the team’s best player and will almost certainly be the next forward recalled to Toronto … amongst the younger players, Ponikarovsky, Kalmikov and Farkas flashed lots of speed and offensive ability whereas Travnicek seems to have regressed and looked somewhat lost out on the ice … hardrock winger Shawn Thornton was a pleasant surprise as he displayed some real hockey ability along with the expected intimidation factor … on defense, young Allan Rourke was very solid and has clearly progressed a great deal during the course of his rookie season … veterans DJ Smith, Tyler Harlton and Dimitri Yakushin (though the latter didn’t dress for the second game) played strongly and could all fill a supporting role in Toronto should the need arise … I was also much impressed by the mercurial offensive talents of rearguard David Cooper and wish that the big team could somehow add his terrific speed and shooting ability to their lethargic powerplay unit … alas Cooper’s defensive play is still rather spotty as he now channels his energies on attacking the opposition goal with abandon … all in all, I came away from these contests with much the same impression gained earlier in the season: (1) the Baby Leafs are a vastly improved (and very entertaining) team under new coaches Crawford and McClelland (2) there are more solid prospects playing for the Leaf’s main affiliate team now than at any time in the post-expansion era …

Djurgarden on a roll: Djurgarden played twice during this past week, first in Farjestad and then in Frolunda … in both matches, Mikael Tellqvist was simply spectacular … a thrilling 4-3 win over Farjestad moved the team back atop the SEL table … without the outstanding play of their netminder, Djurgarden couldn’t have possibly prevailed as they were outshot 31-18 on the night and 13-4 in the third period alone … 2 days later the club recorded another 4-3 win over a Frolunda club that had former NHLer Pat Jablonski in goal … Tellqvist stopped 37 of 40 shots this time and was again the difference in the game … after these performances, Tellqvist’s name appeared many times in the Swedish press where he was praised by GM’s, Coaches and players alike … many experts are now touting the Djurgarden stopper to lead the National Team into the World Championships this spring … there has still been no public discussion of Mikael’s future plans (and more specifically a possible career with the Maple Leafs) at this point in time …

Leafs Trivia II: Complete this deal … Jim Benning and Dan Hodgson to Vancouver on December 2, 1986 in exchange for (answer below Trivia I answer) …

Leafs Trivia III: Name the player who presently holds the Maple Leafs’ single game playoff record for both penalties (8) and PIM (38) (answer below Trivia II answer) …

Prospect news: This week we’ll take look at several Toronto prospects in the OHL and ECHL … in Ottawa, wheelhorse defenseman Jonathan Zion continues to excel … though obviously disappointed not to crack the Canadian Junior Team’s roster prior to Christmas, Zion hasn’t skipped a beat for the 67’s and still leads all OHL blueliners in scoring with 47 points (14-33) in just 38 games … team mate Miguel Delisle has rebounded nicely following a slow start with 37 points (20-17) in 33 games … Delisle is rapidly becoming the consistent scoring winger that Coach Brian Kilrea predicted that he could be this season … a third Leafs’ prospect in Ottawa, Vadim Sozinov, is struggling somewhat while acclimating himself to the North American game but does have 23 points (10-13) in 34 games … Sozinov has shown glimpses of an outstanding offensive game and does not shy away from the rough stuff … he should certainly improve in the future under Kilrea’s tutelage … North Bay’s Peter Reynolds, so impressive at the Leafs’ Rookie Camp in September, has really struggled to locate his offensive game this season (31-1-10-11) and is also a rather disappointing minus 12 … Reynolds, who plays an uncomplicated stay-at-home style of defense and does many little things well, may eventually prove to be a better professional player than he has been thus far in junior hockey … scoring has also been a challenge for the Sault’s Vaclav Zavoral (36-3-3-6) but then offense really isn’t his forte … Zavoral has been rock solid on defense for the Greyhounds all season and has disappointed no one in the Toronto organization with his play … strong, tough, smart, disciplined and virtually impossible to beat on the rush, Zavoral is another player whose style will be highly valued in St. John’s next year … the Maple Leaf’s have 3 prospects currently playing with ECHL teams due to improving player depth on the Rock … Jonathan Gagnon (Pensacola), who also impressed with some heady two-way play at the Rookie Camp in Kitchener, is playing right wing this season after having been a centerman throughout his junior career … Gagnon has an impressive total of 15 goals (along with 5 assists) in 33 games as a rookie pro with the Ice Pilots … Jason Sessa (South Carolina) seems to have recovered his NCAA scoring touch … Sessa leads the Stingrays in points with 38 (21-17) in 32 game played … Jason didn’t look at all out of place during a recent recall to St. John’s and may yet prove to be a marginal NHL prospect … Sessa’s team mate in South Carolina, defender Hugo Marchand, has appeared in only 16 games due to injury … Marchand is huge, very tough and perhaps better suited to the style and speed of play found in the ECHL …

Who am I: I was the last of several players to be drafted by the Maple Leafs from the hometown Toronto Marlboro juniors (answer below Trivia III answer) …

Prospect thumbnail – Morgan Warren (D/W): The Maple Leafs’ 5th Round selection (126th overall) at the 1998 Entry Draft, Warren improved steadily in three junior seasons with the Moncton Wildcats of the QMJHL … now in his freshman season with St. John’s, Morgan is being used in a supporting role and is seeing only limited icetime while he adapts to the pro game … his ability to play both forward and defense (though I suspect that the wing will be his ultimate destination) is an asset to the team given the restricted size of AHL rosters … Warren has played often enough this year to display a very impressive set of wheels and a hard accurate shot … these skills when combined with his prototypical NHL size (6-2 / 195) make Warren a very intriguing prospect for the Maple Leafs … watch for Morgan to assume a much larger role on the Rock next season – potentially on one of the team’s scoring lines …

Do you remember: Terry Chitaroni …

Trivia I answer: The 3 Marlboro grads who played goal for the Maple Leafs since 1967 were: Bruce Dowie (1983/84), Mike Palmateer (1976/77 to 1979/80 and 1982/83 to 1983/84) and Al Smith (1968/69) …

Trivia II answer: Former Oshawa junior star Rick Lanz joined the Maple Leafs in this transaction … Vancouver had selected the Czech-born defenseman in the first round (7th overall) at the 1980 Draft … during more than 6 seasons with the Canucks, Rick had demonstrated solid play behind the blueline and also a reasonable flair on the attack … the Maple Leafs were desperate for a reliable powerplay quarterback (come to think of it – they’re still looking for one today) and this trade truly seemed like a steal from a Toronto standpoint at the time … unfortunately, many promising careers withered and died at Maple Leaf Gardens in those dark days and Lanz never quite realized his true potential while in the blue and white … after 3 largely disappointing seasons in Toronto, Lanz drifted over to Switzerland, then on to the IHL and eventually out of the game entirely by 1993 …

Trivia III answer: When the Boston Bruins swept the Maple Leafs out of the 1969 playoffs in 4 straight games (and outscored them 24-5 in the process), the door slammed shut on a golden era for hockey in Toronto … one Leaf who didn’t handle this humiliation very well was New Brunswick’s own Forbes Kennedy … Kennedy, who was rather small in stature but as tough as nails and an enthusiastic practitioner of “old time” hockey, went completely berserk and repeatedly challenged the entire Bruins team during his only appearance in the series – a 10-0 loss at the Boston Garden on April 2, 1969 …

Who am I answer: Mike Jackson, a hard nosed winger from Mississauga Ontario, was selected 213th overall by the Maple Leafs in 1989 – the Marlboros’ final season in Toronto …

Leftovers: I never thought that I would be saying this – its an absolute joy to see D-man Cory Cross back in the line-up for the Maple Leafs – his presence on the blueline improves the team’s defensive zone coverage significantly – now its time to return young Petr Svoboda to St. John’s for the remainder of the season – this kid to simply too promising to mess around with … I love watching Sergei Berezin play hockey – many players accomplish more than Berezin does but few manufacture such excitement on nearly every shift … strange and somewhat troubling that Michal Travnicek, who is considered to be one of more promising prospects stationed in St. John’s this year, has yet to record even one goal in his first pro campaign …

Many thanks to European corespondent, Jan Buben, for his weekly updates from Sweden and elsewhere.

You’ll get all the necessary information concerning the Toronto Maple Leafs organization here at Hockey’s Future – I hope to see you again next week.