Maple Leafs: Prospects fight for jobs

By Brock Otten





This season will mark the beginning of a new era in Leaf land

This season will mark the beginning of a new era in Leaf land. For the first time in over four years, the Toronto Maple Leafs will have a new General Manager watching over training camp. Thirty-six-year-old Larry Pleau prodigy John Ferguson Jr. was named General Manager by Leafs President Ken Dryden and Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment president Richard Peddie earlier this summer. Pat Quinn remains the Leafs Head Coach, but no longer does he call all the shots. This could prove for a new outlook in regards to the Leafs prospects playing a part in the upcoming 2003-04 NHL season.

Last year, Leafs prospects saw in total 19 games of action, between Alexander Ponikarovsky (13), Mikael Tellqvist (3), Carlo Colaiacovo (2), and Matthew Stajan (1). In 2001-02 Leafs prospects saw in total 38 games of action, between Karel Pilar (23), Alexei Ponikarovsky (8), Jeff Farkas (6) and Sebastien Centomo (1), Leafs prospects saw in total 38 games of action. That’s only 57 games between 7 different players over the past two NHL seasons. In fact you have to go back to the 2000-01 season if you want to find the last time a Leafs prospect became a regular in the line-up. That was Nikolai Antropov who played 52 games, scoring 6 goals and 17 points in his rookie year. Those facts don’t prove to be too encouraging for the current group of prospects as they attempt to break into the NHL this season.

But unlike past seasons, Toronto’s line up has become punched with holes thanks in part to the free agent period. Gone are forwards, Jonas Hoglund, Shayne Corson, Paul Healey and defenseman Robert Svehla and Jyrki Lumme. The five combined to play 324 games last season. To counter, the Leafs brought in veteran forward Joe Nieuwendyk and defenseman Bryan Marchment, and recently, Washington veteran rearguard Ken Klee. Potentially that still leaves two forward positions, as well as one defensive position up for grabs. Regardless of the facts and stats, there are bound to be a few youngsters getting time in the NHL this year, whether it be full time or as injury fill-ins. Here’s a look at some of the candidates.

Returnees

Alexei Ponikarovsky

“Poni,” as he’s affectionately called by the Toronto media, has struggled to break through into a permanent position within the Leafs line-up so far in his professional career. He’s played 21 games over the past two seasons, but still strives to become an everyday player. To his credit, Ponikarovsky has looked solid in his time spent with the big club. He has simply been a part of the numbers game. This year should be the year that Poni takes a fulltime job with the Leafs. Look for him to take over the role Paul Healey had with the team last year, as a back line spare part whom could improve his ice time with injuries.

Year

Team

League

GP

G

A

P

PIM

2000-01

St. John’s

AHL

49

12

24

36

44

 

Toronto

NHL

22

1

3

4

14

2001-02

St. John’s

AHL

72

21

27

48

74

 

Toronto

NHL

8

2

0

2

0

2002-03

St. John’s

AHL

63

24

22

46

68

 

Toronto

NHL

13

0

3

3

11


Mikael Tellqvist

The Swedish netminder is widely considered as the Leafs top goaltending prospect. He got into three NHL games last year after injury trouble struck the Leafs. He played pretty well in the limited action. Tellqvist has yet to duplicate the success in North America that he had back home in Sweden. The Leafs still have high hopes for him, however. The same injury problems will allow Tellqvist to get into action again this year. Leafs back-up Trevor Kidd will miss at least the first month of the upcoming season rehabbing from shoulder surgery that he had in the off season. Tellqvist will look to take advantage of this opportunity and show the Leafs brass that he is indeed the man fit to be Eddie Belfour’s heir apparent.

Year

Team

League

GP

W

L

T

G.A.A.

Pct

1999-00

Djurgardens

SEL

40

?

?

?

2.07

.914

2000-01

Djurgardens

SEL

49

?

?

?

2.08

.914

2001-02

St. John’s

AHL

28

8

11

6

3.12

.909

2002-03

St. John’s

AHL

47

17

25

3

3.35

.910

 

Toronto

NHL

3

1

1

0

2.79

.895


Jay Harrison

While Harrison was among the cuts so far in Leafs camp, he still remains a strong option for the Leafs future on defense. The stay at home defenseman has drawn comparisons to past Leaf and current Oiler, Jason Smith. For this reason, Leaf fans hold much hope for Harrison. He will continue to build up experience in the American Hockey League with St. John’s, hopefully building upon his rookie season from last year. If he plays well and the Leafs brass continues to have concerns with the defense, than Harrison could see a few cups of coffee and give the fans a taste of what he brings to the game.

Year

Team

League

GP

G

A

P

PIM

2001-02

Brampton

OHL

61

12

31

43

116

 

St. John’s

AHL

7

0

1

1

2

2002-03

St. John’s

AHL

72

2

8

10

72


Luca Cereda

The Leafs first round pick from 1999 (24th overall) has been a disappointment so far during his pro career. Some things have been beyond his control, however. Cereda missed the entire 2000-01 season recovering from heart surgery he had in order to fix a defective valve. And in the past two years, Cereda has struggled to find himself as a hockey player again. He was among the cuts of camp so far, which was no surprise. The Maple Leafs management still holds out hope that Cereda can finally break out in the AHL this upcoming season. If he plays well, than he could see some time with the big club in order for the Leafs coaching staff to evaluate Cereda’s future with Toronto

Year

Team

League

GP

G

A

P

PIM

2001-02

St. John’s

AHL

71

5

8

13

23

2002-03

St. John’s

AHL

68

7

18

25

26

 

New Faces


Carlo Colaiacovo

While Cola did break camp with the big club last year, he only got into two games before being sent back to Erie of the Ontario Hockey League. He spent a good deal of time with the Leafs, but Quinn’s logjam at defense prevented Cola from doing much but practicing with the team. It still served as a good learning experience for him as he went back to the OHL and averaged a point per game the rest of the season. This year, Cola looks to break camp again, but with hopes to actually see regular ice time as one of the top six defensemen. The Leafs top prospect has a great chance to establish himself into the NHL this season.

Year

Team

League

GP

G

A

P

PIM

2001-02

Erie

OHL

60

13

27

40

49

2002-03

Erie

OHL

35

14

21

35

12

 

Toronto

NHL

2

0

1

1

0


Matthew Stajan

Stajan, like Colaiacovo, got his first taste of NHL action last year. But unlike Cola, Stajan did not break camp with the Leafs. He saw his NHL action after his season with the Belleville Bulls of the OHL had finished. He also happened to score his first NHL goal in that very same game. This year, Stajan hopes to actually break camp with the big club and for what it’s worth, he’s doing a very good job of making that a reality. Stajan has been one of Toronto’s most impressive players through camp and the preseason so far. But another reality is that the Leafs are already pretty established at the forward position. Rather than have Stajan sit in the press box and see limited action, the Leafs are more likely to send him to St. John’s where he can adjust to the speed and strength of the professional game. If he were to perform well enough, he can establish himself as the first call up to Toronto upon injury to one of the Leafs current forwards.

Year

Team

League

GP

G

A

P

PIM

2001-02

Belleville

OHL

68

33

52

85

50

2002-03

Belleville

OHL

57

34

60

94

75

 

Toronto

NHL

1

1

0

1

0

Brendan Bell

The defending Canadian Hockey League Defenseman of the year has already been sent down by the Leafs after an inconsistent training camp. But like fellow defensive prospect Jay Harrison, Bell could earn himself some time up in Toronto if he can play well in St. John’s. His offensive instincts and ability to quarterback the powerplay could also get him a call up if the Leafs should lose one of their quarterbacks to injury (such as Tomas Kaberle). His first professional season could be shaky, however he is still a strong prospect and hopefully a fixture in the Leafs future blueline.

Year

Team

League

GP

G

A

P

PIM

2001-02

Ottawa

OHL

67

10

36

46

56

2002-03

Ottawa

OHL

55

14

39

53

46


Pierre Hedin

Hedin is a 25-year-old defensive import from Sweden, after playing the past five seasons with MoDo of the Swedish Elite League. He anchored their blueline and had extablished himself as one of the best defenseman in Sweden. The Leafs finally brought him over to North America this past offseason (he was a Leafs eighth rounder in 1999) and he’s currently in competition for one of the final defensive spots with the big club. His experience and age definitely give him a leg up on his prospective competition, but it definitely does not make him a lock for the team. Hopefully Hedin can continue his success in North America this season, using his skating and offensive ability to establish himself as an NHL defenseman.

Year

Team

League

GP

G

A

P

PIM

2000-01

MoDo

SEL

46

5

8

13

59

2001-02

MoDo

SEL

39

7

9

16

20

2002-03

MoDo

SEL

46

8

14

22

32

Max Kondratiev

The “surprise” of Maple Leafs camp so far, Kondratiev has emerged from the darkhorse ranks to become a top contender for a roster spot this season. Back in Russia, Kondratiev was considered to be a strong, defensively conscious defenseman with minimum offensive upside. But so far in camp, he’s shown much more than that. He’s been excellent offensively, showing great skill as a possible powerplay quarterback and puck-rushing defenseman. If anything, his defensive game has been the only concern where he has had trouble with some mistakes in his own end. Kondratiev has definitely surprised many at camp, simply because he has been nothing short of the opposite of what was expected of him. If he continues to play well in the preseason, he will make it very hard for Quinn and company to send him down to St. John’s.

Year

Team

League

GP

G

A

P

PIM

2001-02

Tolyatti Lada

RSL

41

3

3

6

28

2002-03

Tolyatti Lada

RSL

47

2

3

5

56