Death by a Thousand Cuts for Killer?
This must be getting frustrating for Ottawa 67’s Coach Brian Kilrea. For the second year in a row, his first line center going into training camp, a draft pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs, looks like he won’t be playing in the OHL this year. Last year, a heart murmur detected in Luca Cereda wiped him out for the entire schedule after heart surgery. Up until that time, he was a serious pre-season candidate to be the OHL’s Player of the Year. Enter Vadim Sozinov. After a slow start to his initial campaign with the 67’s, he became an integral part of Kilrea’s attack and the coach had gone so far as to predict a breakout year from the second year junior. He may well have that breakout year, but it looks like it won’t be in Ottawa, rather in Novokuznetsk of the Russian Elite League. Make no mistake, if the Khazakh forward makes the big squad in Russia, he’ll be playing in a league that is just a step below the NHL and above anything he’d find in the OHL or on ‘The Rock’. But he also might end up playing for their junior team as well. In any case, with this decision, Brian Kilrea has got to be wondering how long he’s going to have Jaroslav Sklenar in the Black, White, and Red, who, you guessed it, was another Leaf pick that he chose in the import draft.
The Door Swings Open for Tellqvist
With the placing of Glenn Healy on waivers and the signing of Swedish goaltender Mikael Tellqvist to a 3 year deal it looks like one of the SEL’s most dominant players in the last two seasons is going to get a chance to strut his stuff with the big boys. For the Leaf faithful, it’s a day they’ve been anxiously anticipating since the netminder’s selection in the 3rd round of the 2000 Entry Draft. Tellqvist, who burst onto the scene two years ago by taking over the goaltending duties from a slumping Tommy Soderstrom, has lead his club team Djurgartens to back to back SEL titles. It is expected that the back-up job on the big team is his to lose, but there might be more to this than just the fact that Tellqvist is a player who might be ready for the NHL. Say, what you will about Glenn Healy’s locker room presence (and in the past this columnist has done so), the bottom line is that ‘Heals’ is no longer the kind of goaltender you want to place your faith in should your starter goes down. Since he’s been with the Leafs the veteran has had a hand in 44 games, posting a 19-20-3 mark, an average of about 14 starts a season. What’s worse, his save percentage has steadily fallen over the three seasons. With Curtis Joseph starting to get up there in age, it is essential that Toronto save his best performances for the post-season. With Tellqvist starting between 20 and 25 games a year for the Leafs, they may well be able to do that now.
The Boys on the Bubble
With the addition of Robert Reichel, Mikael Renberg, and Alexander Mogilny to the Leafs corps of forwards, as well as the expected challenge from below supplied by Jeff Farkas and Alexei Ponikarovsky, there are going to be several members of last year’s version of the Blue and White that are going to have to scramble for jobs. A look at the present roster more or less identifies the following as locks to start the season with the big club: Mats Sundin, Mikael Renberg, Gary Roberts, Robert Reichel, Alexander Mogilny, Shayne Corson, Darcy Tucker, and Travis Green. That leaves four spots open for the following skaters: Nik Antropov, Gary Valk, Tie Domi, Alyn McCauley, Jeff Farkas, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Jonas Hoglund, Steve Thomas, and Donald MacLean.
Of this last group, Thomas has been officially cut loose to seek a deal elsewhere, but the feeling is he’d be welcomed back in the ACC for a considerable pay cut and a lesser role. Hoglund was nearly traded last month and is definitely on the outs with management. He also stands to make well over a million dollars this season, as does Tie Domi. As both of them would be fourth liners in the present Leaf line-up, it doesn’t seem logical to keep them around when cheaper solutions are available unless they too play for less. Then there is Nik Antropov. It is becoming apparent that he could use some additional seasoning on ‘The Rock’ after being rushed to the pros following Mats Sundin’s broken ankle in 1999. A year of dominating the AHL might be just the ticket to make Big Nik less tentative on the ice upon his return to the NHL. As for Valk, he too is getting old, but has a friendly price and is a valued penalty-killer. Alyn McCauley is a younger, possibly more brittle version of Valk with a bit more offensive upside. MacLean, with more of an offensive repertoire than either of the previous two would seem to be a good candidate here, but there have always been questions about his skating. Of course, there are still the young lions, Farkas and Ponikarovsky. They too, like Antropov could use a more time on the farm, although Farkas is much closer than Ponikarovsky.
So who will come out of this mish-mash of bodies after training camp to start the year with Toronto? Look for Steve Thomas to be re-signed and fill a spot on the third line and the fourth to include Gary Valk, Alyn McCauley, and Donald MacLean. That said, if any of Antropov, Ponikarovsky, or Farkas blow up the AHL in the first half of the schedule, it will be one of this quartet that gets his walking papers in the new year.