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.

Blueline makeover continues: After studying several other market opportunities, the Maple Leafs opted to stay with the organization’s long term focus on deadline day … rather than chasing any of the veteran blueliners available (Lumme, Housley, Houlder, Leschyshyn, Slegr, Svehla, Hedican etc.), Toronto obtained a player whose best years are still decidedly in front of him … Aki-Petteri Berg was selected 3rd overall by Los Angeles in the 1995 Entry Draft, behind only fellow defenders Bryan Berard and Wade Redden … a 5 year NHL veteran at the tender age of 23, Berg has thus far failed to live up to the lofty expectations attached to him during his junior career … Aki certainly has prototypical NHL size (6-3, 220) and is an extremely fast and agile skater … these two factors have allowed the strapping Finn to deliver many devastating hits already during his young career … it would be fair to say that Berg is mainly a “non-factor” on the attack at this point and that he still has much to learn about defensive play as well … during the 1998/1999 season, Aki played for Turku in the Finnish League following a nasty and prolonged contract dispute with the Kings … Berg joins a burgeoning group of young blueliners in the Toronto organization (Kaberle, McCabe, Markov, Belak, Svoboda, Rourke, Zion, Zavoral and others) and this key position could certainly become a team strength very soon … incidently, when Aki Berg made his Toronto debut on March 14th, it is believed that he was the first Finnish-born player to ever suit up for the Maple Leafs …

Tellqvist advances: Here is a brief summary of the Djurgarden-AIK play-off match-up … Djurgarden, tied 1-1 after first two games, quite easily defeated AIK in three consecutive matches and won the series four games to one (4-1, 4-7, 5-1, 5-3, 3-2) … they were clearly the superior team … AIK was outshot 161-106 in the series and Djurgarden’s forwards were particularly impressive … Tellqvist’s numbers were not spectacular – 5 games, a GAA of 2.80, 14 goals allowed and a 86.8 save percentage … despite these statistics, Mikael was very solid in games 1 and 3 and particularly during the third period of game 5 as AIK attempted to rally back from a two goal deficit … they were awarded a 5 minute man advantage and also pulled goalie Tim Thomas for an extra attacker but Tellqvist gave them nothing … Djurgarden is the first team to advance into the second round and will play Lulea (led by Mikael Renberg) next … PS. Toronto draftee Pierre Hedin is enjoying an strong playoff as well … he has scored 3 goals in 5 games and ranks 5th among SEL defenceman … he is also likely to advance with his team into Round 2 …

News from Newfoundland: The St. John’s Maple Leafs recently announced the club’s new corporate partners for both the hockey team and the new Mile One Stadium … in total the Maple Leafs have signed 17 major partners who will collectively contribute an amount in excess of $2.2 million to the organization … each partner is signed through to the 2004-2005 season … the Baby Leafs also released additional details concerning their new playing facility … seats for Mile One Stadium will be at least 3 inches bigger that those at Memorial Stadium … the building will be equipped with a 4-sided LumatronX videoboard system that will rival those used in NHL arenas … Mile One will also boast a 12,000 watt audio system … the building will have two elevators, four stairwells and twenty-four entrances to the stadium bowl … the Barter’s Hill Food Market will consist of five (5) full-service concession areas, with new and improved menu selections … “Don Cherry’s at Mile One Stadium”, a fully functional open-air restaurant, will be located in the west end of the facility … “The Cap” is an open-concept concourse pub with capacity of 700 standing patrons and will be open for pre and post event festivities … an improved “Leafwear Store” with new and exciting lines of clothing and merchandise will also be in evidence at M-1 …. For the players, there will be a 12,000 square foot locker room with two therapeutic pools, therapy room, workout and card room and private lounge … Mile One Stadium is scheduled to open in late May … details regarding the closing of Memorial Stadium and Opening Week of Mile One Stadium will be released soon …

Prospect news: When he acquired Aki Berg at the trading deadline, Pat Quinn was clearly thinking of enhancing the team’s blueline group in future years … let’s take a look at some of the other young rearguards now in the Maple Leafs’ system … Petr Svoboda (St. John’s AHL 30-4-4-8-40) – the young Czech has had an up and down season but still possesses tons of talent – will undoubtedly be a player when he grows up a bit … Allan Rourke (St. John’s AHL 58-9-18-27-32) – this rookie pro has been perhaps the most pleasant surprise in the entire organization this season – will play in the NHL if he continues to advance at his present pace … Jonathan Zion (Ottawa OHL 56-19-48-67-38) – the 67’s quarterback has been slowed by injury woes recently – he will play for St. John’s next season but, in spite of his superior offensive gifts, he’ll need to learn a great deal about defensive play before challenging for a regular spot in Toronto … DJ Smith (St. John’s AHL 47-6-10-16-60) – Smith’s prospects for NHL promotion have been derailed this season by injury – DJ is an effective AHL defenseman but he may lack the needed foot speed to take the next step (at least with the Maple Leafs) … Vaclav Zavoral (Sault Ste. Marie OHL 55-4-6-10-116) – Zavoral is very limited offensively and concentrates almost exclusively on influencing events in his own zone – Vaclav has the nasty demeanor, size, strength and agility to go far as long as he continues to refine his game … Regan Kelly (Providence College NCAA 34-4-21-25-56) – the Maple Leafs intended to draft Regan last June but the Flyers grabbed him first – he was then quickly landed in a trade for big Chris McAllister during Training Camp – Kelly has been very impressive for the Friars this season but remains far from NHL ready – he will need to steadily add weight and strength (just as Jeff Farkas did earlier) in order to continue his progression up Toronto’s depth chart … Dimitri Yakushin (St. John’s AHL 40-2-0-2-55) – Yakushin’s season has been a disaster as evidenced by his puny point total. He’s missed many games due to injury and has been very inconsistent when healthy. He possesses the size, mobility and puck skills to play in the NHL but competition along the Baby Leafs’ blueline will be very fierce next autumn. JP Cote (Cape Breton QMJHL 57-5-22-27-72) – Toronto’s last pick at the 2000 Entry Draft, Cote has put himself into the club’s future plans with much improved play this season – Jean-Philippe has pro size and a lethal shot but must improve his agility significantly … Peter Reynolds (North Bay OHL 57-1-26-27-83) – Peter started slowly this season but has picked up his game of late – Reynolds does many things well and certainly had the look of a future NHLer during last fall’s Rookie Tournament (where he was truly outstanding) – he will probably join fellow OHL grads Zion and Zavoral in St. John’s next season …

Prospect thumbnail – Markus Seikola (D): Selected by the Maple Leafs in the 7th round (209th overall) at the Entry Draft last June, Markus is a Finnish rearguard who was not listed in the final 2000 CSB rankings for European prospects … Seikola plays in the TPS Turku system, which is one of the best hockey organizations in Finland … he is currently on their junior team but was recently called up to the SM-liiga for 16 games as an injury replacement … by all accounts, Markus performed well during this brief trial … he attended the tryout camp for the Finnish team before the World Junior Championships in Russia this year but was one of the final players cut … Seikola possesses good size (6-2, 195) and is said to be an intelligent defencemen who moves the puck crisply … he is considered to be a very good skater with a hard accurate shot … he is also capable of making solid hits … he likes to play an offensive style from the blueline but must improve defensively in one-on-one situations … Markus’ rise in the hockey world has been astoundingly rapid as he’s only been involved in organized competition since the age of 15 … this lack of top level playing experience is often evident in the judgements that Markus makes on the ice … still, given the relatively short period of time that he has been active in the game, Seikola is expected to continue improving and could become one of the real steals of the 2000 draft … credit the Maple Leafs’ European scouting staff for uncovering yet another obscure and potentially outstanding prospect …

Leftovers: The approach adopted by Leafs’ management this week was the correct one – while trying very hard to acquire an “impact” player (first Blake, then Lindros, then Tkachuk and finally Lindros again), the team steadfastly refused to part with their best youngsters – they correctly see themselves as a team still building towards a championship rather than being on the verge of one – as to the argument that several of Toronto’s key players are getting on in years, the Maple Leafs have the distinct advantage of being filthy rich in a league where very few teams can make such a claim – they are also located in a hockey-mad market that is home to a significant percentage of NHL players – for these reasons, key free agents can be attracted to play in Southern Ontario at almost any time so long as the team remains competitive – despite this fact, the club cannot be considered a true Stanley Cup contender until it can fill roughly 50% of its roster with homegrown players – to risk depleting a growing (though still far too shallow) young talent pool at this point in time would make absolutely no sense at all …

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