One’s first impression upon meeting Luca Cereda is, wow!! This guy looks
like he’s 17 years old!! Then you realize, he is just 17 years old (He
turned 18 on September 7th, 1999)!! When you watch him on the ice, he
looks anything but 17 years old.
The Leafs chose Luca in the first round of the 1999 NHL entry draft with
the 24th overall selection. He was the youngest player chosen in the
entire draft, but according to former NHL coach and GM, Pierre Page, he was
the “smartest” player in the draft.
He certainly had a whirlwind tour last season, playing on 4 different teams
in his native Switzerland. Luca played for his country in the World
Juniors under-18 and under-20 tournaments. He played in the Swiss junior
league, but got the bulk of his work with Ambri of the Swiss A league. A
boy playing amongst men, he was named his team’s rookie of the year at the
conclusion of the season. He finished the year centering his team’s #1
line, teaming with former Habs’ player, Oleg Petrov and ex-Leafs’ player,
Cereda scored 6 goals and added 10 assists for 16 pts. in 38 regular season
games with Ambri and tallied 6 assists with no goals in 15 playoff games.
He helped Ambri win the Swiss League championship last season.
Luca was very impressive in the WJC under-18 tournament as he scored 1 goal
and 7 assists for 8 pts. in 7 games. He was named the tournament’s 1st
team All-Star center for his excellent work. Glenn Gawronski and Stephan
Ruth of Hockeysfuture, wrote that Luca was like a “man amongst boys” in
“Playing with former NHL players was invaluable”, said Cereda. “They made
me constantly aware of what it takes to play this game. I learned a lot
from them as to how to read the play”, he adds. Luca has already
demonstrated to the Leafs that he is a good student.
“The most impressive characteristic about Luca, besides his skill-level,
was his desire to learn”, states former Leafs’ prospect coordinator, Chris
MacDonald. “He went out of his way on quite a few occasions to approach
the coaching staff as to what he could do to improve himself and his
skill-level,” added MacDonald in reference to the Leafs’ post-draft
mini-camp for the team’s prospects in early July.
The first thing you notice about Cereda, other than his youth, is the
thick, powerful lower body that he has. At 6-1, 200 lbs., he has the look
of a power-skater in the Eric Heiden-mode. His lower body strength
reportedly makes him a very strong skater with the balance to stay on his
skates along the boards and when in traffic. He does not intitiate a lot
of contact, but does not shy away from it either. “Even though our camp
was limited in contact, Luca exhibited the excellent ability to not get
knocked off the puck or off his feet”, stated MacDonald. “He has the
ability to hold onto it until the last second, then make the proper read
and pass to a teammate for a scoring chance”, he added.
“I view myself as more of a playmaking center, rather than as a
goal-scorer”, states Cereda, “But I’m certainly not afraid to get the puck
on net myself when the opportunity is there. I feel that I’m pretty
responsible defensively as well. My biggest need for improvement is in my
upper-body strength. I need to also work on the strength and release of my
shot”, he adds.
It is the morning of the final Maple Leafs game in the rookie tournament in
Kitchener in early September. Cereda has been off the ice for about 5
weeks due to a lower back injury. The Leafs are very cautious with him
during the tournament as he does not see any action during the games. On
this morning, Luca is unleashed during the Leafs’ practice.
It becomes evident that Luca is a smooth, strong skater which belies his
thick, lower-body. Even though contact is minimal, it also becomes
apparent that he has good balance and strength on his skates in traffic.
Cereda also exhibits a strong level of confidence with the puck. During
2-on-1 and 3-on-2 drills, he holds the puck until the last second, opening
up the ice for his teammates. His wrist-shot is strong and accurate, but
certainly not of Wendel Clark caliber.
One sequence of action best demonstrated the potential of Luca Cereda. In
a 2-on-1 drill, Cereda was paired with Vladimir Antipov, with Hugo
Marchand, a tall, physical defender back on defense. Cereda smoothly
skated across the blueline, staying wide from a streaking Antipov. As
Marchand took Cereda, Luca quickly flipped a pass, flush with the ice,
between Marchand’s skates and right on the tape of Antipov’s stick on the
left doorstep. The Leafs’ goaltender expertly played the pass and cut down
on Antipov’s angle. The shot rebounded off his pads right back to Cereda
on the right side. With Marchand in close quarters, Cereda corralled the
puck, backhanded it through Marchand’s skates again, and slid around the
defender to receive his own pass, now behind Hugo. Cereda buried the
close-range shot past the netminder seemingly without blinking an eye. The
series of passes and moves had the other Leafs’ players watching on the
ice, whistling with amazement.
A concern which Cereda must someday answer is the fact that he does not
hail from a country known for churning out NHL prospects. “Even though
Switzerland is not known as a hockey-factory”, states Cereda, “I feel that
I have the desire and the experience to someday play in the NHL. Their is
a definite difference in the style of play. Players in North America spend
less time with the puck. There is more passing and certainly more physical
play. There are fewer 1-on-1 matchups and end-to-end rushes in the North
American style”, he adds. “I feel that this style will match my skills
quite well someday”.
“I don’t have a time-table for myself as to when I get to the NHL. I feel
that I can make it, but I have to be patient. I can see myself with a
chance to become a 50-pt. centerman in the NHL eventually, but I will keep
working on it”, he concludes. One can certainly envision him as a
playmaking, #2 scoring line center, teamed with a sniper or two. Imagine
what he might do someday on a line with Sergei Berezin or another young
skilled Leafs’ winger like Jeff Farkas or Konstantin Kalmikov.
“I will most likely be back with Ambri in the Swiss league this season”,
states Luca during the Kitchener tournament. Luca spent a week with the
Leafs in Barrie as they conducted their pre-season training camp.
Following that week, despite exhibiting some good playmaking skills, he was
indeed sent back to Ambri to begin his Swiss league season. He may be back
in Switzerland for now, but one can certainly see the Leafs will hear from
him again, possibly in a big way.
This young man, Luca Cereda, hails from Switzerland. He has the skills,
the instincts and with some work, the physical characteristics to make his
presence felt someday. He appears to have the presence, the confidence and
the willingness to work hard as well. All the pieces of the puzzle appear
to be there for him. It will now be up to Luca to put them all together.
Special thanks to former Leafs’ prospects coach, Chris MacDonald for his
time in conducting this interview.