The much-maligned Toronto scouting department had reason to be proud of their strong recent efforts in early 2003, when six of their drafted prospects laced up the skates for the WJC gold medal game in Halifax. The returns on the Leafs’ recent drafts looked even better during the 2003-04 season when four of these players made their way into the big team’s line-up, and one, Matt Stajan, stuck around for the entire season. The other three: Carlo Colaiacovo, Kyle Wellwood and Maxim Kondratiev, all served notice that they have promising futures in professional hockey, though Kondratiev will most likely enjoy his with the New York Rangers organization, after being dealt there in the March blockbuster deal for Brian Leetch.
Here is a closer look at these four rookies, as well as Swedish prospects Pierre Hedin and Mikael Tellqvist, who also spent some time with the Blue and White in 2003-04, in order of games played.
#14 – Matt Stajan (C)
Amazingly, Stajan’s December 19th birthdate meant he was only 12 days away from having a year of junior eligibility remaining in 2003-04, and his sparkling performance at the Leafs training camp and his subsequent play during the early portions of the season absolutely veiled his youth and lack of experience. As he watched his 2003 Canadian WJC teammates Brendan Bell, Colaiacovo and Wellwood dispatched to the Leafs St. John’s farm team, Stajan moved into his permanent locker beside newly-acquired veteran Joe Nieuwendyk, who served as a mentor and road roommate throughout the season for the young graduate of the Belleville Bulls.
Stajan managed to stick in the Leafs line-up in October due to a series of injuries to Leafs veterans, and in these early games, he managed to impress head coach Pat Quinn with his poise on the ice, defensive awareness, and abilities to move the puck to his teammates. He struck an early on-ice relationship with veteran winger Owen Nolan, and the two combined to give the Leafs a deadly third-line scoring threat. Through out the year, Stajan has played with a variety of linemates, including Wade Belak, Tie Domi and Tom Fitzgerald, and has consistently provided the Leafs with smart two-way hockey, as evidenced by his solid plus-minus rating of +7.
While the acquisition of Ron Francis and Chad Kilger has temporarily bumped Stajan from the Leafs starting lineup in the playoffs, he has a very bright future with Toronto, and should only continue to improve his scoring numbers as he improves his strength and conditioning.
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#32 – Mikael Tellqvist (G)
Tellqvist was the Maple Leafs’ back-up goalie for almost half of the regular season, as Trevor Kidd struggled with his rehabilitation from shoulder surgery early in the season, and poor play later in the year. The young Swedish keeper played very well early on in the season, running off a seven game unbeaten streak before the team struggled in his final three games, and cementing his position as the Leafs goaltender of the future. Tellqvist has improved his fundamentals tremendously since first coming over to North America, positioning himself for shots better in the smaller rinks, and fighting through the traffic that he often finds in front of him here. Tellqvist has the agility to make the spectacular save when necessary, and has had the benefit of Ed Belfour’s tutelage over the last two years, which has worked wonders for players like Dominik Hasek and Marty Turco in the past. Tellqvist’s play virtually guarantees that the Leafs won’t be renewing Kidd’s contract for next season.
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#34 – Maxim Kondratiev (D)
Kondratiev had a very impressive training camp with the Maple Leafs in the fall, and beat out fellow rookies Colaiacovo and Bell for a spot in the Leafs’ opening day roster. A training camp injury to Leafs stalwart Bryan McCabe gave Kondratiev an early opportunity to impress the coaching staff, and he managed to start the first seven games of the season. While he did not display the offensive panache that was evident in the Leafs Swedish training camp games, he showed the promise of a future two-way blue-liner. Upon McCabe’s return, Kondratiev was re-assigned to St. John’s, where his play began to slip a bit before he eventually exercised a contract stipulation and returned to his Russian Senior team, Lada Togliatti.
Kondratiev struggled a bit with homesickness and language issues off the ice while in North America, and confidence with the puck and decision making while on the ice. A few costly turnovers in the AHL did not endear himself to new St. John’s coach Doug Shedden, and his decision to return to Russia did not endear himself to some of his teammates. Still, Kondratiev is a very talented young player who will definitely be back to prove himself with the New York Rangers. Perhaps the presence of his WJC team mate Fedor Tjutin in the Rangers organization will ease his transition next season and beyond.
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#3 – Pierre Hedin (D)
The SEL veteran signed with the Leafs amidst much fanfare over the summer, but the subsequent Leafs signings of veteran rearguards Ken Klee and Bryan Marchment relegated Hedin to the minors for the majority of the year. Over the first half of the year, he was St. John’s most reliable blueliner, and his strong play earned him a promotion to the big team in January when injuries hit Klee and Tomas Kaberle. Hedin did not look out of place in Toronto, and played a very self-contained, conservative but effective game. He earned his first NHL point on an assist in his first game against Calgary on January 13th. Hedin’s play this season certainly served notice he has the ability to play in the NHL in the capacity of a depth defenceman, although with the Leafs looking to retain Klee and Brian Leetch’s services for next year, his future may not lie with the Toronto organization.
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#45 – Carlo Colaiacovo (D)
Toronto’s first pick in the 2001 NHL draft made the team coming out of camp in 2002-03, but Colaiacovo was recovering from off-season shoulder surgery this time around, and was not able to make the same forcible impact at the 2003-04 camp. He suffered through an injury-riddled first pro season in St. John’s, enduring a broken nose and a badly sprained wrist at different points of the season. Despite his struggles, Colaiacovo still managed a successful transition to professional hockey, and was named to the AHL All-Star Game after demonstrating his abilities as a smooth-skating, two-way blue liner. The Leafs were encouraged by his tenacity and tendencies towards physical play, as well as his offensive production. He essentially replaced Hedin in Toronto during mid-January, and saw action in back-to-back games against the New York Islanders and Washington Capitals. While he did not stand-out particularly in any of the two games, his over-all strong play in 2003/04 more then showed he’s ready for the jump to the NHL as early as next season.
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#97 – Kyle Wellwood (C)
Wellwood, a graduate of the Windsor Spitfires organization, exceeded all expectations in his first AHL season, leading the minor league in rookie scoring, and dispelling myths that he would be too small and slow to continue the scoring exploits that made him an OHL star at the professional level. His strong first-half play earned him a promotion to Toronto for a game against the provincial-rival Ottawa Senators on January 8th. While the game was a wash-out for the badly-undermanned Maple Leafs, who were drubbed 7-1, it was undoubtedly a huge moment for Wellwood, who has worked extremely hard over the last two years to improve his conditioning and skating. Wellwood will most likely spend at least one more year in St. John’s, but he is already a lot closer to NHL duty then a lot of his critics ever thought he’d get.
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