It was abundantly clear to anyone who watched the Leafs improbable drive through the play-offs last year, that the driving force behind their success was rugged veteran Gary Roberts. His heroic play and his unexpected scoring prowess propelled the Leafs to the Eastern Conference finals, despite potentially devastating injuries to captain Mats Sundin, Mikael Renberg and Dimitri Yushkevich, amongst others.
Over the summer, despite the outraged criticisms of fans and media alike at GM Pat Quinn’s inability to add key free agents, the most important off-season activities were the two shoulder surgeries Roberts undertook to mend his battered body. Roberts will be out until February, and the hole in the Leafs line-up could be large enough to put into question a repeat visit to the play-offs.
In a training camp where few job opportunities are available on the veteran-laden team, Roberts’ injury provided some hope for a few young Leafs hopefuls. One player who is expected to challenge for the position is 6-4 Alexei Ponikarovsky. Ponikarovsky, 22, has enjoyed a modicum of success in the past year in the Leafs organization, having a fantastic training camp in 2001, impressing coaches early in the AHL season in St.John’s, and catching Quinn’s eye when call-ups were needed late in the season in Toronto. Ponikarovsky has become one of Quinn’s favorites in St. John’s, and earned substantial playing time in the Leaf’s play-off run last year.
Ponikarovsky, a native of Kiev, Ukraine, will never be able to replace Robert’s scoring abilities, but he is beginning to learn how to put his 6-4, 200lb frame to his advantage. With the new obstruction rules in place in the NHL, Ponikarovsky’s size and skating ability will allow him to be an effective fore-checker in the league. Ponikarovsky has also developed into a very responsible defensive player in St. John’s, and could be used in penalty-killing situations.
While Ponikarovsky would appear to be a front runner for the position, he does have some serious competition. Pat Quinn has made a few off-season moves to add players to the organization, namely Aaron Gavey and Josh Holden, who can add the size and tenacity that will be missing in Robert’s absence. As well, Nikolai Antropov will be looking to reclaim his spot in Toronto after successful rehabilitation from knee surgery. Antropov, a former first round pick, looked like he was regaining his form in the AHL last season where he was scoring at nearly a point a game pace. Veteran Paul Healey also played well in call-ups last year, and enjoyed some success playing on the top line with Mats Sundin.
In the end though, Ponikarovsky’s biggest challenge will probably be his contract status. Alexei is eligible to play in St. John’s this year without clearing waivers, which is not true in Antropov’s case. It is unlikely that Quinn will be willing to put Antropov on waivers, in fear that some other NHL team will snatch him up. As well, Ponikarovsky is on a two-way deal, which means he will be paid significantly less if he ends up playing in St. John’s this year. Aaron Gavey was signed to a one-way contract, and will be paid the same regardless of where he plays, which improves his chances of making the Toronto club.
Ponikarovsky is likely destined for the farm, where he will surely be one of the first player’s considered for call-up when injuries hit the veteran Leafs. He is one of the most promising prospects in the Leafs organization, and has already earned Quinn’s admiration in his brief stints with the big team last season. It shouldn’t be long before he finds his way into Toronto’s line-up for good.