The Toronto Maple Leafs are committed to a youth movement and we shall examine the players who serve in this movement. We’ll look at what they’ve accomplished thus far and what they need to do to improve in the future. The club has made some noise as to the acquisition of some veteran free agent talent, but let’s be honest. One or two veteran free agents are not totally going to put the Leafs over the hump. The key to the Leafs success will not totally depend on who the team acquires in a Felix Potvin trade. The key to the club’s fortunes will be the development of the young talent which is largely now in place. These are players who have less than 3 years in the NHL. All have at one time or another shown some promise, but all have also shown the plague of most young players: inconsistency. If all or most of these players continue to move up the ladder in their development, the Leafs and their fans will have a lot to look forward to in future years. The potential talent to be solid, not superstar, but solid players is there. It is up to the Leafs’ coaching staff, now headed by head man, Pat Quinn, to nurture and develop that talent to its fullest. It is up to the Leafs’ management team to exhibit the patience needed to aid in the development of that talent as well. The Leafs of the past have shown an unfortunate propensity to give up too soon on rising young players. If the team is truly to contend, that tendency must end. The first year of the Ken Dryden era did show some good patience with the “kids”. That patience must continue, even if some hard times still follow.
The first six players listed here are the ones who show the most potential to develop into solid, productive, consistent NHL players. They represent the first tier of young talent now on the squad. They form the young nucleus from which to build upon.
Fredrik Modin: Power forward in evolution. This young man can skate, can hit, can carry the puck, goes to the net well and has a shot clocked at over 100 mph. He has above average speed, finishes all of his checks and has good defensive awareness as he always hustles back into the play. He is still a bit raw as 97-98 saw him finish just his second full season in the NHL, having come over from Sweden with no previous North American hockey experience. He is an emotional player who is willing and able to work hard at his skills to improve his overall game. His weaknesses are a lack of shot accuracy and simply a lack of experience. As his shot improves and he gains more experience, he will become a huge positive factor on the team. You can parallel his early career to those, now successful power forwards, John Leclair, Keith Tkachuk and Brendan Shanahan. Like those power forwards, Freddie will need to work on his ability to handle the puck in traffic and his ability to become a better finisher. He will also become better on the powerplay, learning to improve his ability to be a rock in front of the net, poised for defelections, rebounds and tip-ins. He has the physical characteristics which will make him tough to move out of the slot area in front of the goaltender. Fredrik’s work ethic during the season was largely responsible for his shot improvement as the season wore on. He spends a lot of time after practice working on his shot and its accuracy. He will be a #1 or #2 line winger for years to come on a rising Leafs’ team.
98-99 forecast: 80 games, 22 goals, 25 assists, 47 pts. He will push the 50 pt. mark with future potential to be a 30+ goal scorer.
Mike Johnson: Solid, 2-way winger. This young man had a solid rookie season, marred only by a late season scoring slump which cost him the Calder Trophy for the league’s rookie of the year. I look for Mike to use this as a springboard toward an even better 98-99 season, as that does not dim his future at all. Mike is a good skater with speed and some grit, although he must improve his strength and physical play. He has a good shot and a nice array of offensive moves. He is a very solid defensive forward as well, but his strength is his hockey instinct. He is a bit more of a playmaker than sniper at this point and is an excellent passer. He saw a lot of time teamed with Mats Sundin and at times clicked with him on the give and go quite well. He does need to look to shoot more and as his shot improves and his experience is gained, he will become a better goal scorer. He has been roughed up a few times in his brief career, but has not missed any action as he shows real reserve and desire to be successful. His areas of need are to improve his shot and ability to get open, as well as his strength. I like the way he was disappointed when he didn’t make the play, but did not hang his head and get too down on himself. When he made a mistake, he came back hard on his next shift consistently. He comes back from adversity very well. He will be a #1 or #2 line right winger for years to come, who also will contribute on special teams action.
98-99 forecast: 82 games, 20 goals, 40 assists, 60 pts. He has the potential to be a 25+ goal scorer and 45+ assist man over the next few years as his game develops, particularly if he stays on a line with Mats Sundin.
Alyn McCauley: Solid, 2-way young centreman. This young man’s rookie season was interrupted by the broken fibula in late December, causing him to miss 6 weeks of action. His injury occurred at a time when Alyn was starting to feel more comfortable with his offensive play. He already was a solid defensive centreman who contributed mightily on the penalty-killing unit. Alyn is an excellent skater with very good speed. He handles the puck well at high tempo and has exhibited both a knack for playmaking and scoring in his junior league days. He is not a physical player, but excels defensively because of his hustle and defensive positioning. Ex-Leafs Coach Mike Murphy actually wanted Alyn to take more chances offensively this past year instead of always going for the safe play. Alyn will break out with these types of plays as he gains experience. Alyn quite possibly, might be the hardest worker on the Leafs’ team as he is the last player to leave the ice. This will carry him a long way in his NHL career. I would not be surprised to see a real nice offensive breakout year for Alyn in 98-99. His only weaknesses at this point are being injury prone, a lack of physical play and questionmarks as to his potential scoring ability. His offense will take care of itself as Alyn has the raw skills and the great work ethic to refine and develop those skills fully. He will eventually be a #2 line centreman, possibly as early as this upcoming season depending on the Leafs off-season moves.
98-99 forecast: 68 games, 12 goals, 24 assists, 36 pts., although I would not be surprised to see him surpass these totals this year. He has the potential to be a 25+ goal scorer with 50+ assists over the next few years.
Jason Smith: Tough, physical defenseman who will be a team leader on and off the ice. He is more of a stay at home defenseman, who is solid in his own end, but he jumped into the rush a bit more in 97-98 and tallied single season highs in goals, assists, pts and shots on goal. His skating has improved as he continues to recover from a serious knee injury suffered in ’93. He has above average speed and skating ability and makes the safe play out of his own end. He will never remind anyone of Bobby Orr. He is devastating along the boards in his own end and in front of the net, clearing out space for his goaltender. He has a nasty streak and makes the opponent pay with his physical play. He is not afraid to drop his gloves and stand up for his teammates. His shot is improving, but it is still without much movement from the point, but expect his offensive output to increase slightly over the next few years. Jason is a leader through and through with a burning desire to win. Following a late season loss during the 97-98 season, as the team was piling into the bus, Jason spent some time away from the team in reflection. It was quite obvious that losing does not suit Jason at all and ultimately this attitude will carry over to his teammates. He is a dedicated, serious hockey player and a winner who will be an asset to the Leafs for years to come. When Jamie Macoun was traded at the trading deadline, Jason was given an assistant captain position. This is well deserved.
98-99 forecast: 80 games, 5 goals, 16 assists, 21 pts. He ultimately might score between 5 and 10 goals per season, but his greatest value will be his strength and reliability in his own end.
Daniil Markov: Despite playing only 25 games with the Toronto team in 97-98, Daniil has established himself as a potential top NHL defenseman. At 6-2, 195, he does not have Jason Smith’s imposing size, but he is a physical defenseman who is often compared to Darius Kasparititis of Pittsburgh. His instincts in his own end are superb as he is tough to beat one-on-one. Even though he made a few rookie mistakes, he made many more spectacular plays defensively for the team. He is a good skater with good speed and mobility and can carry the puck out of his own end very well. His skills with the puck remind one of a young Borje Salming. He has a very good shot from the point as well and handled #2 powerplay unit time quite nicely late in the season. Look for him to push for a spot on the 98-99 NHL all-rookie team next year. Daniil has suffered some minor injuries in his young pro career, so durability is a bit of a questionmark, but look for him to be a solid blueliner for the Leafs for years to come.
98-99 forecast: 75 games, 6 goals, 17 assists, 23 pts. He ultimately will be a 10+ goal scorer for the Leafs and may just become a potential NHL All-Star defenseman.
Tomas Kaberle: Tomas has come out of nowhere to not only make the Leafs’ squad headed into the 98-99 season, but play with Jason Smith on the #1 defensive pairing and along with Sylvain Cote on the #1 powerplay unit. Yes, his emergence was aided by veteran blueliner’ Mathieu Schneider’s holdout, but Kaberle exhibits NHL level skills. He is a smooth puckhandler and skater, who has good quickness and speed. He has a good, accuracte shot from the blueline. The youngster’s most redeeming quality to this point is his poise. Unlike many raw defenseman, he does not panic with the puck, holding it for that extra second to make the right pass. At 6-1, 200 lbs., he is not a huge, physical type player, but appears to be a solid, positional defenseman. Only time will tell if Tomas will spend the entire season in Toronto, but he appears to have a solid, maybe even a spectacular future in the NHL as a solid, two-way defenseman, who might just develop into an above average offensive defenseman as he gains more experience.
98-99 forecast: 66 games, 5 goals, 23 assists, 28 pts.
The second tier of young talent on the Leafs’ squad represents those players who certainly have the potential to become solid NHL players, but have shown too much inconsistency to this point to be considered “can’t miss” players or those players the Leafs will absolutely build around. They are not untouchables as such, but still have a chance to develop into productive NHL players. Some time should be given to these players to see if they can develop into top-flight players.
Sergei Berezin: Had a very solid rookie season in 96-97, being named to the All-NHL rookie squad, but followed that up with an equally disappointing sophomore campaign, which found Sergei in the coach’s doghouse and as a healthy scratch more than once. Sergei is strong on the puck, has excellent speed and above average skills. He has a sniper’s mentality and when hot, has a scorer’s touch. He has scored 41 goals in his first two NHL seasons, which in these days of neutral zone traps and low-scoring games in not too bad indeed. However, Sergei has not been very amenable to coaching, as he has resisted moves by the coaching staff to add defensive awareness and a physical nature to his game. He holds the puck too long and does miss too many scoring opportunities for a sniper. He needs to remove the one-dimensional nature to his game, without losing the ability to score. To his credit, Sergei did become a bit more well-rounded in his play late in the year as he showed more hustle back into his own zone and more battle along the boards also. He still has a ways to go, even as an NHL sniper, but he may very well make that progress.
98-99 forecast: 74 games, 20 goals, 15 assists, 35 pts. Many feel that he has 30+ goal scoring potential, including me, but it will be up to Sergei.
Steve Sullivan: Steve came over in the Doug Gilmour trade late in the 96-97 season and immediately showed some spark to his play, offensively, defensively and despite his diminutive size, some physical grit as well. He seemingly came to training camp in 97-98, fully expecting he had the job as the #2 line center, but then subsequently, played his way in and out of that spot all year long. He was never able to put together a stretch of consistent hockey at all, and of course, his confidence suffered. He scored 13 goals in roughly 2/3rds of a season in his rookie campaign and only 10 goals, 18 assists in 63 games in 97-98. The coaching staff stated that Steve did not play with enough spark or heart and was lacking in his defensive responsibilities. He has second tier offensive skills, can skate and move like the wind. He is a creative playmaker and can finish well enough to potentially be a 20 goal scorer at the NHL level. He has some grit to his game and is at times fearless, even against larger opponents. A lack of size and strength along with his inconsistency marred his development in 97-98, a season in which the Leafs were hoping for a 50+ point season. The jury is still out on Steve, but I believe that the Leafs will learn from past errors and not give up on a player with Steve’s skills at this point. He needs to dedicate himself to the game this off-season, increase his strength somewhat and come in to training camp HUNGRY for a regular shift. One saving grace was that Steve himself stated following the season that he was very disappointed in his play. He probably needs to be teamed with physical wingers, one of whom can finish off the plays Steve creates.
98-99 forecast: 72 games, 17 goals, 31 assists, 48 points. I don’t think the Leafs will acquire a #2 line center in the off-season and the club will probably bring Alyn McCauley along slowly, so look for Steve to get another chance and move back into the club’s plans with an improved season as the #2 center.
Lonny Bohonos: Lonny’s idol has been Brett Hull and his early play in the NHL suggests he might have some of Hull’s propensity to be a goal-scorer. Lonny has a big-league shot and release and has a nose for the net. He appears to have that knack of the opportunistic goal scorer; being in the right place at the right time. He saw some action in six games late in the Leafs’ season following the trade with Vancouver which brought him to the team. Lonny got off 13 shots, 3 goals, 3 assists, playing for the most part on the #1 line with Mats Sundin. He scored the first goal of the game in each of the 3 games he scored in, but faded from the mainstream thereafter. It was hard to judge his skating and physical abilities, but these have deemed adequate at least. Lonny does one thing apparently well: score goals. He has done it to a great degree at every stop and just may get a solid chance to do it for the Leafs in 98-99. Adding to his usefullness is the fact he can play any forward position. Al McAdam, head coach at St. John’s, schooled him as to the Leafs’ defensive system while Bohonos spent time on the rock. Lonny did rejoin the baby Leafs for the playoffs and unfortunately, separated his shoulder. The status of his recovery from that injury is unknown currently. Assuming he gets a full-season chance in 98-99: 98-99 Forecast: 68 games, 21 goals, 15 assists, 36 pts. Does he have the potential to be a poor man’s Brett Hull? Can he score 30+ goals at the NHL level? Are the rest of his inabilities too much of a liability?
Todd Warriner: Todd has all the raw skills a young NHL player should have: speed, size, quickness, excellent skating abilities, a good shot with a variety of moves attached. He is a good checker, defensive forward and team player. Something, to this point, prevents him from breaking through and becoming a standout #1 or #2 line winger. Is is smarts? Is it heart? Is it stone-hands? He missed a large chunk of the 97-98 season due to a severe leg contusion dished out by a Darius Kasparitis hit. He was off to a slow scoring start at that point and never really got it going after coming back. He was a healthy scratch for several games due to what Mike Murphy said was “heartless play”. Todd is probably down to his last chance with the Leafs and may unfortunately be settling into a checking line forward role. I would not be surprised to see him exposed in the upcoming expansion draft. If he is back with the Leafs in 98-99:
98-99 forecast: 71 games, 11 goals, 17 assists, 28 pts. Some scouts have felt that Todd has 30 goal potential. I hope we see some of that this season with the Leafs, not the Predators.
Yannick Tremblay: Yannick played roughly half of a season for the Leafs, appearing in 38 games, scoring 2 goals and 4 assists. Yannick did a credible job, and although he was not outstanding, he showed he belonged in the NHL. He has good size and mobility and was pretty solid in his own end. He did show an increased tendency to jump into the play offensively as well at times. I did not see a great deal of physical play by Yannick, despite his decent size. This will improve as he gains in strength, experience and confidence. Yannick demonstrated enough skills to project him to eventually become a solid, if unspectacular NHL defenseman.
98-99 projection: 50 games, 4 goals, 6 assists, 10 pts. he may have the potential to eventually become a 10+ goal scorer and be solid in his own end.
Darby Hendrickson: Darby has stepped up to be a young leader on this now, young Toronto team. He does all the little things, the hustle things that every successful team needs. He is a fine defensive forward and is one of the top players on the Leaf’ penalty-killing unit. He is improving as a faceoff man, finishes all of his checks and hustles relentlessly. He plays every shift as if it were his last. Teamed with Tie Domi and Kris King, he helped to form one of the best “checking lines” the Leafs have had since the Zezel – Osborne – Berg line of the early 90′s. Darby simply has not exhibited the hand skills to become a big-time NHL scorer, however and that is his biggest weakness. He hustles and creates many turnovers, but doesn’t have the offensive skills, nor does he play with linemates who are capable of finishing plays to turn very many of them into goals.
98-99 forecast: 81 games, 9 goals, 7 assists, 16 pts