You can imagine hearing the call now, probably in the year 2001, and no, it won’t necessarily be a space oddity: “The Leafs are on the power play against the Canadians here in the first period at the Air Canada Centre…. They are down in this contest one to nothing….. Markov carries the puck up across the redline and fires it into the Canadians zone…… Antropov digs the puck free in the corner and feeds it behind the net for Sundin………. Sundin flips the puck out front for Johnson who fires from the crease!!….. Big Save for Theodore!!!!!!! Antropov fights free in front for the rebound………. He controls the puck……He shoots and scores!!!!!!!!!!!!! The Leafs tie it up on the powerplay on the goal from Antropov, assisted by Johnson and Sundin.” Is this wishful thinking or reality in waiting?
The Toronto Maple Leafs, that organization with a bit of a sordid, recent draft history pulled off a major shocker by making the forward from Kazakhstan their first round selection, 10th overall, after a trade down with Chicago from the 8th spot in the 1998 NHL entry draft. At first glance, the Leafs’ choice may appear to be a major reach, but further examination may eventually reveal it to be a major find. A consensus of opinions hold Antropov as the “sleeper of the 1998 NHL draft”.
Who? cried most Leaf’ fans when the selection of Nikolai Antropov was made at the podium with such confidence by Anders Hedberg, the team’s assistant general manager. Yet, several other NHL teams, among them, Edmonton, Pittsburgh, Montreal, and Detroit, were disappointed to not have a chance to select the young center from the poor country which borders China. According to a story in the Toronto Star, his underfunded junior team arrived in Finland this past year for the world juniors championship with mismatched and rusting skates and with mostly borrowed equipment. Antropov did his talking on the ice as he led his impoverished Kazakhstan’ team to a huge upset over the Canadian team. Antropov had 3 assists in his team’s 6-3 win. He scored 11 goals, 15 assists in ONE game when Kazakhstan pounded Iceland in the D pool of a European junior tournament this past spring. Howard Berger of Toronto radio station, FAN 590 stated that while at the Olympics this past year in Nagano, he heard a Team Kazakhstan fan state that despite that team’s unexpected success, Kazakhstan was without the best hockey player in the country, that being Antropov.
One of the problems may have been that so few scouts have seen him play. Those that have, have come away impressed. Anders Hedberg happened to be at the Kazakhstan – Canada game. He was quoted in the Toronto Star as “The puck just followed him around and with that came a 6-5 body.” The young man is listed at 6-3, 191 pounds and many scouts feel he may fill out to 220-230 lbs. and is already 6-5. He is believed to be one of only 4 players ever drafted from his country according to a story in the Pro Europe Hockey Report. Within that same story, Antropov stated himself that his strengths are his “Physical game, vision on the ice and his slapshot”. Other scouts feel that he uses his size, strength and reach very well also. When asked his weakness, Antropov listed his “starting speed”. Scouts have mentioned his lack of top-notch skating ability as a weakness. His size, strength and propensity for physical play should be well-suited to North American play with smaller rinks and more of a tendency toward physical hockey.
The 1998-99 Hockey News Yearbook lists him as a potential, playmaking, first-line forward, however they listed him as the 53rd top prospect in their pre-draft issue. The Central Scouting Bureau listed him as the 17th top European skater, but again these low rankings may be due to the fact that he simply has not been seen by many scouts. Central scouting gave Nikolai its highest rating for size, strength and hockey sense and ranked him high in desire, passing and positional play. They listed his skating, particularly his acceleration, and his shot as areas for improvement.
Upon being drafted, Antropov expressed his desire to come to Canada to play at the major juniors level in the OHL, where he was drafted by the Brampton Battalion. The Leafs initially wanted him to stay home and play again for his UST-Kamengorsk team where homelife would be more stable. Eventually the two sides compromised and Antropov will play for the Moscow Dynamo team in 98-99. The 18-year old just might be ready for NHL play with the Leafs in 2000-2001, but the Leafs organization will most likely bring him along slowly.
Antropov was quoted at the draft, through a translator; “I’m very surprised. I never expected to be as high as number 10. And I’m very honored it’s Toronto. Very proud.” The Toronto Star quoted Leafs’ associate GM, Mike Smith as saying “If ever you’re going to take a longshot on a guy who possesses superior talent, this is the day to do it.”
The young man who lists Sergei Fedorov as his favorite hockey playerðC may not become a superstar, but expect a solid, physical, productive 1st line forward who has helped to put his home country, Kazakhstan, on the NHL map. Once established, look for his productivity to be in the range of 25+ goals, 45+ assists if he gets 1st line play. Watch for the big guy to crush a few NHL defenseman into the boards along the way as well.
Sources: The Toronto Star: June 28, 1998
Sean Brodererick’s article in Pro Hockey Europe Report
The 1998-99 Hockey News Yearbook
The Hockey News, Vol. 51, No. 36