The Toronto Maple Leafs have spent the past few years trying to pick up the pieces from a largely broken down franchise in the mid-1990’s. The management team, headed by President and General Manager, Ken Dryden, has decided to try to rebuild the team from the ground up, using the draft to add skilled prospects and the Leafs’ system to develop that talent.
Following the end of the Leafs’ magical playoff run in 98-99, Coach Pat Quinn earmarked a team need for more bigger, stronger, physical, forwards who have the speed and skills to be significant offensive threats as well. Associate GM, Mike Smith, then stated that the free agent route will most likely not be an avenue used by the team this year to “upgrade” their talent level. It appears that for the most part, the Leafs will use their own system to add to this “team need” as they enter a new season and a new milleneium in 1999-2000.
The Leafs went out, a bit, on the “proverbial limb” in the 1998 draft by selecting a largely unknown prospect in center, Nikolai Antropov from Kazakstan. Antropov has some potential as he is refining his game with the Moscow Dynamo team in Russia. Some in the Leafs’ system feel that Nikolai may push for a roster spot next season, but it is likely he will return to Russia for one more season and then may need at least a half of a season at St. John’s to acclimate himself to the North American pro game.
A further look into the Leafs’ system finds them with several decent center-ice prospects from Antropov to Adam Mair, Kevyn Adams and Jeff Farkas. They also have several above-average blueliners who might project nicely as 2-way, #3 to #7 level NHL defensemen someday in the NHL. These defensemen are Petr Svoboda, D.J. Smith, Marek Posmyk, Dimitri Yakushin and Chris Bogas. They all may be solid NHL defensemen, but probably, only Svoboda has an elite offensive upside.
The Leafs have few outstanding prospects at the wings and fewer that have the potential to become NHL power forwards with that size, strength, skills combination. The exception may be Frantisek Mrazek, who toiled with Red Deer this season and has twice been a 30-goal, WHL scorer. He certainly has the size at 6-4, 225 and the skills, but the questionmarks on Frank are his consistency and willingness to play a “big-man’s” game.
Vladimir Antipov, Jonathon Hedstrom, Mikael Travnicek, Konstantin Kalmikov, Ryan Pepperall and Jason Sessa are among the top wingers in the Leafs’ system, but all have their own questionmarks regarding their potential as NHL forwards. Of that group, Travnicek, who had a good World Juniors Championship tournament for his Czech team, until his suspension, might be a sleeper prospect. Jonathon Hedstrom is a 6-2, 200 lb. physical winger who may have some NHL potential as well. Antipov is a speedy Russian winger in the Sergei Berezin mold.
Currently, there are no #1 goaltender prospects within the Leafs’ system as well. Jamie Hodson, Marc Robitaille, Francis Larivee and Doug Bonner all have #2 NHL goaltender potential, at best, at the present time. Of these four, Hodson might have the most potential following two good years with the Brandon Wheat Kings in the WHL.
The Toronto Maple Leafs surprising and exciting 1998-99 season leaves the team with the 24th selection overall in the first round of the 1999 NHL draft (barring a trade). Drafting that late in the first round usually means a team can take the best player available, regardless of position and for the most part, that’s what the Leafs will do. Don’t be surprised if a center or a defenseman is taken, even though the Leafs most obvious needs are skilled, physical wingers with some good size and a future #1 goaltender for “beyond the Curtis Joseph years”.
Anders Hedberg is the man in charge of amateur scouting and the NHL draft and he, of course, is very familar with the European players. Like the choice of Antropov last year, don’t be surprised if Hedberg and the Leafs “go off the board” for a first round selection who may not be a “name” player. You can also look for Hedberg to uncover those “diamonds in the rough” in the late rounds like a Sergei Berezin, Daniil Markov or Tomas Kaberle, all of whom were taken in the late stages of the draft.
In what appears to be a very deep draft, the Leafs should get a quality player with their 1st round selection. Most experts agree as to what the first 10 selections might be in the 1st round. Certainly some of the ’97 draftees, such as Nick Boynton and Matt Zultek, who have gone unsigned, and are back in this year’s draft might throw a monkeywrench in the draft order.
Some players, who might be available when the Leafs select in the first round and who the Leafs may be interested in, are defenseman, Steve McCarthy. McCarthy is a good, strong, 2-way defenseman who has drawn some comparisons to Bryan Berard and Wade Redden at a similar stage of development. McCarthy has been projected to be as high as a top-10 pick, but his stock has fallen. He doesn’t have the prototypical size of an NHL defenseman and there has been some question as to his skating ability. The Leafs would love for him to “drop” to that 24th spot in the first round.
Branislav Mezei, a 6-5, 220 lb. defenseman, who played with the Belleville Bulls in the OHL, might also be a player who interests Toronto. He is a big, physical, stay-at-home defenseman, but has above-average skating skills and can move the puck. He is particularly adept at clearing the traffic from in front of the net. It is doubtful, but possible he will be available at #24.
Jeff Jillson of Michigan in the CCHA would also be an intriguing prospect and a good fit for the Leafs. He is a physical, 6-3, 220 lb. defenseman, who is developing a “nasty” streak. He came in and contributed as a college freshman in a perrennial powerhouse hockey program and veteran-laden team in 98-99 with 5 goals and 19 assists in 38 games.
Among the forwards who might be available, Michigan State’s Adam Hall is an intriguing prospect. Hall is a power-forward prospect, who at 6-2, 205 has size, strength and fearlessness in the corners and in front of the net. His offensive skills are still developing, but he did score 16 goals, 7 assists for 23 pts. in 36 games. He draws some comparisons to a Darren McCarty at a similar stage of development.
A player who I believe also intrigues the Leafs is London Knights’ winger, Chris Kelly. Kelly has good size at 6-0, 179, but his strength is his skating ability and his speed. He scored 36 goals, 41 assists in 68 regular season OHL games and added 9 goals with 17 assists in 25 playoff games. He is a responsible defensive forward as well. He draws some comparisons to a young Tony Amonte.
A “sleeper” prospect who must intrigue the Leafs might be defenseman, Kristain Kudroc. He is huge at 6-6, 229 lbs. and scored 11 goals and 23 assists in 41 games for Michalovce in Slovak Division 1. He is slotted to go late in the 2nd round, but if he shows potential, he might be the “diamond in the rough” player the Leafs typically scout well in the European leagues.
Among the goaltender prospects, Brian Finley is this year’s top goalie and he will certainly be long gone when the Maple Leafs select in the first round. Maxime Ouellete out of Quebec in the QMJHL and Alex Auld are possiblities for Toronto. Ouellete is a butterfly-type goaltender whose game is improving while Auld is a big goaltender at 6-3, 190 and played for a poor North Bay team in the OHL in 98-99. He is not particularly quick, but positions himself well. Auld might be available when the Leafs choose in round 2.
Whoever the Leafs choose in round 1, he will not be expected to jump into the Toronto lineup right away. The Leafs’ management philosophy appears to have changed toward one of patience and player development. Even though Tomas Kaberle in 98-99 and Alyn McCauley in 97-98, made the big jump to the NHL as 20 year olds, the Leafs will most likely allow their 1st round choice in the 1999 NHL entry draft to develop slowly.
Just prior to the NHL entry draft, the Leafs will lose a player to the Atlanta Thrashers in the 1999 expansion draft. Veterans, Derek King, Sylvain Cote and Glenn Healy, among others, will most likely be unprotected. Look for the Leafs to lose a player like a Todd Warriner or maybe even Yannick Tremblay in the expansion draft.
Sources: Hockeysfuture draft profiles;
NHL draft from the Canadian Press, June 2, 1999
The Toronto Star article by Mark Zwolinski, June 3, 1999
The Toronto Star article by Paul Hunter, June 2, 1999
USA Today stories on the NHL draft by Phil Colvin