It was a subtle, but straight-forward statement made by then Leafs’ GM and current president, Ken Dryden. “If you look at the best teams in the NHL, like Dallas, they have a corps of defensemen who excel at moving the puck out of their own zone.” The transition game. Puck movement. Getting the puck out of the defensive zone from the defensemen to the forwards, who can then attack in waves.
NHL hockey in the 1990′s may have become known as the “era of the neutral zone trap”, but the transition game, largely fueled by defensemen who can move the puck, may be the strategy which reverses the “swing of the pendulum” as the league looks to add scoring back to its game. As Dryden astutely observed, the Dallas Stars did “do it right” as their transition game helped to lead them to a Stanley Cup victory. During the 1998-99 season, an improved transition game helped the Toronto Maple Leafs lead the league in scoring with 268 goals.
Three, young, NHL players, Bryan Berard, Daniil Markov and Tomas Kaberle provide the core of the Toronto Maple Leafs defense as the team heads into the new millenium. Three young “guns” upon which much is expected over the next 10 years in “blue and white”.
Berard, is equipped with world-class skating and moves to go along with it. Bryan is possibly a 60-point defenseman in-waiting, with breathtaking skills and offensive potential. He has, of course, drawn comparisons to a young Brian Leetch or Paul Coffey. Only time will tell if those heady-comparisons ring true, but he is on the right team with the right philosophy to give him that chance. He was a pleasant surprise as to his effectiveness in his own end, although he still does need to improve in that regard.
Markov, who will hit anything that moves, is the tough rearguard of the three. His enthusiasm and love for the game are matched only by his defensive instincts. He is a rough and tough customer, who already is an excellent one-on-one defender. He has certainly shown a propensity for jumping into the play offensively as well and will contribute on the scoresheet. He must build himself up a bit, however, and avoid injuries, but he is a defensive star in the making.
Kaberle is the silky-smooth skating Czech., who Pat Quinn stated last year, “might be the best passer on the team”. His puck-carrying ability is very impressive and his vision on the ice is equally so. He brings a nice shot from the point and an almost-veteran presence as to his offensive instincts. All of this in a 21 year old player entering just his second year in the NHL. He also needs to add some size and strength and continue to improve his defensive reads, but that will come with time.
The Leafs, barring a trade or other unforeseen future event, have 3 young, talented defenseman who could be the backbone of the team’s defense for the next 10 years. That doesn’t leave much room for others, but the Leafs cupboard is far from bare as the team is stockpiling some potentially, good young blueliners in their system. Over the next several seasons, this “talent” will become “fruit to bear” and there just might be a real dogfight for positions within an already crowded defensive corps on the Toronto Maple Leafs. “High-noon” will be forthcoming.
Allan Rourke is a defenseman who has played for the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL the last two seasons. The Leafs drafted him in the 6th round with the 154th overall selection of the 1998 NHL entry draft. The Mississaugua native has made good progress in his quest to reach the NHL over the past two years. With prototypical size at 6-2, 210 lbs., Rourke is adding the skills, smarts and experience to help himself on that journey. His goal: To contribute to the Toronto Maple Leafs quest toward The Stanley Cup, someday soon.
“Allan was injured and was not able to participate in our prospects camp following the draft in ’98″ says Leafs’ prospects developer, Chris MacDonald. “He exhibited a real nice ability to move the puck at our camp in 1999. He’s improved as much as any other prospect in our system over the last year”, MacDonald adds.
Allan scored 5 goals with 17 assists for 22 pts. in 48 games with Kitchener in 97-98 and followed that up with an 11 goal, 28 assist effort for 39 pts. in 65 games in 98-99. “Allan has indeed made a lot of progress in his two years with us”, says Kitchener GM, Jamie McDonald. “He has become a leader on the blueline and we expect him to continue to climb the ladder next season”, he adds.
“Rourke is an intelligent, 2-way defenseman who is solid in all areas”, McDonald continues. “He makes nice defensive reads and nice plays and passes to get the puck out of his own zone. He is not a big-hitter, even though he has good size, but is positionally very sound in his own end”, adds McDonald. “He is very efficient in taking the offensive player out of the play, but he won’t knock them through the glass”, he adds.
“His offensive skills have developed very nicely as well”, adds McDonald. “He can run a powerplay and he has a nice, hard, low and accurate shot from the point”, he states. “Allan has worked very hard on his skating over the past year, and this is the area where he has shown the most improvement. This was the area he needed to improve upon, and he has always displayed the work ethic to make himself better”, McDonald states.
“We will have a fairly young defensive corps this next season, and we expect Allan to be a real leader back there for us”, states McDonald. “There is no question, he is a legitimate NHL prospect with all the tools to be a solid contributor at the professional level”, he adds.
Jonathon Zion is a defenseman who played with the Memorial Cup-winning, Ottawa 67′s this past season. The Leafs drafted the 6-0, 187 lb. blueliner in the 4th round with the 110th overall selection. Jonathon’s forte revolves around his excellent skating and puckhandling ability.
Following the Leafs’ prospects camp in July, 1999, Chris MacDonald stated, “Jonathon is an exceptional skater and stickhandler. He showed a real competitive nature on the ice, particularly for an 18 yr. old”.
Jonathon scored 4 goals and 19 assists for 23 pts. in 53 games in the 97-98 season for Ottawa. He increased his production to 8 goals and 33 assists for 41 pts. in 60 games in 98-99. “Jonathon’s skills are particularly impressive on the powerplay”, says Ottawa director of marketing, Doug Drain. “His vision on the ice, his passing touch and his shot from the point are all outstanding. He is able to make those blind, backdoor passes to the open forward which are just a thing of beauty”, he adds. “He doesn’t have a howitzer of a shot at this time, but he is a very accurate shooter from the point”.
“Zion played a couple of different roles this year with us”, says Drain. “When paired with an offensive-type defenseman, like Brian Campbell, he did an awfully good job hanging back and covering the defensive zone. When he was paired with more of a stay-at-home defenseman, he jumped into the rush and added some offense quite easily”, he adds. “When we had some injury problems and some player committments to the WJC tournament, Jonathon really stepped up and added a greater element to his game”, says Drain.
“His skill level and conditioning are outstanding”, adds Drain, “as even as a 16 yr. old, he would be one of the last players off the ice during practice. He is solid in his own end as well as he can take the hits and finish off his checks well. His lack of great size doesn’t allow him to be a bruiser, though, physically.”
With Brian Campbell and Nick Boynton moving on this upcoming season, Jonathon will have some added responsibilities as a leader on the Ottawa club this year. “Jonathon will have an increased role on our team as he will not only take his regular shift, but should see extensive duty on the special teams as well”, states Drain. “We feel he will be up to the challenge.”
There is little doubt that Jonathon Zion has the skills and the apparent desire to play in the NHL someday. His lack of size is a concern, but the size of his heart will probably ultimately determine whether he makes it to the big-time.
Allen Rourke and Jonathon Zion: two impressive, young, OHL, two-way blueliners who can really move the puck. Just the type of defensemen the Leafs are building around and hanging their hats upon. With Markov, Berard, Kaberle and McCallister already on the Toronto roster, and Svoboda, D.J. Smith, Posmyk, Yakushin, Reynolds, Bogas and Zavoral waiting for their chance, the Leafs’ blueline, prospects picture will be crowded. Obviously, not all of these players will make it, but you can count on the fact that Rourke and Zion will have something to say about the ultimate outcome.
(Special thanks to Queens’ University coach and Head of the Leafs’ Prospects, Chris MacDonald, Kitchener GM, Peter McDonald and Ottawa Director of Marketing, Doug Drain for their time in conducting these interviews.)