What the Toronto Maple Leafs were as they headed into the 2005-06 season and what they became by the end of the season were two totally different teams. After the lockout, the Leafs restocked on veteran free agents hoping to make a run at the playoffs. That plan didn’t last long as injuries began to mount. The Leafs were forced to turn to their farm team, the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, for help. As bad as things went this season for Leafs, the good news is that for the first time in years, the Leafs future looks promising. When those players suffered injuries the team learned a lot about what it had, and had to be pleasantly surprised by how much the youth stepped up. The much-needed makeover of the team came by necessity rather than plan.
Twelve rookies made appearances for Toronto this year, a number that was tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins behind the league-leading St. Louis Blues with 14. The 12 rookies played a total of 268 games. While the Leaf team that was on the ice during mid-season lacked experience, they were surely a lot speedier and more durable than the original 2005-06 version. While there are no blossoming superstars among this rookie class, it’s a solid foundation to build on. Many of these players proved to be serviceable in the short term at least when the injury-depleted Leafs earned 16 of their final 18 points of the season.
It seems only fitting that with the season over, the final call-up from the Marlies to the Maple Leafs is expected to be former Carolina Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice, to replace Pat Quinn.
Carlo Colaiacovo, D
There were a lot of eyes on Carlo Colaiacovo at the beginning of season, having not reached the NHL as quickly as some would have liked. Colaiacovo began the season with the Leafs on the opening night roster due to an injury to Ken Klee, but was reassigned to the Marlies right afterwards and didn’t make another NHL appearance until Nov. 8. In the game, Colaiacovo made a quick impression with the team, scoring his first career in a 6-4 win against Washington. Colaiacovo scored the Leafs’ fourth and final goal during a third period rally for the win.
“He stepped in really nicely,” Maple Leafs coach Pat Quinn told the Toronto Star after a game early in the season. “Maybe he has stopped worrying about whether he’s supposed to be the next big player for us and he just went out and played.”
Despite the high praise, Colaiacovo still couldn’t stick with the Leafs on a more permanent basis until another call-up at the end of November. He went on to play in 19 games, scoring one goal
and five assists during that span. The new NHL looked good on him, with his smooth skating. He also showed good physical play. During Brian McCabe’s injury, Colaiacovo stepped up.
After shifting between the NHL and AHL during the early parts of the season, Colaiacovo seemed have found a permanent home in the NHL before suffering a concussion from a Vaclav Varada hit
Jan. 23. For months after the concussion, there was no positive news. Colaiacovo was diagnosed with the most serious type of concussion with no signs of improvement. However, after months of not playing he was cleared to begin skating April 1.
For Colaiacovo, the 2006-07 season will begin the same way, with him once again trying to find his place within the organization. His and many other Leafs injuries contributed in other players getting opportunities and experience.
Alexander Steen, C
Steen began his freshman campaign having jumped directly from playing in the Swedish Elite League the previous season to winning a roster spot with the Maple Leafs. The 2002 first rounder was not favorite coming into camp and figured to be spending most of the year adjusting in the AHL. After his performance at camp, however, there was never any reason for that to happen. His combination of skill and work ethic led Quinn to keep Steen, the son of former NHLer Thomas Steen, on the roster. It didn’t take long before he was making Quinn’s decision look like a good one. Playing largely alongside Mats Sundin, Steen’s skill was evident. After going scoreless in his first NHL game, Steen went on a tear, scoring seven points in his next six games. It would end up being his longest scoring streak of the season. On Oct. 15 he recorded his first two-point game in a 3-2 win over Montreal. He topped that just a few weeks later with his first-ever three-point game Nov. 3. He was a part of each Maple Leafs’ goal during the 3-2 loss and had his first two-goal game.
Those early multiple-point games highlight Steen’s season early on, but as expected he tailed off later in the year. He would go on to have only six more multiple-point games. The adjustment to
playing a rigorous 82-game schedule wore on him. March was his worst month in terms of offensive production — in 14 games Steen went scoreless in nine of those, including a season-high six-game scoreless streak from March 10 to March 19.
Despite the slight slump, his work ethic was never questioned. The lack of production was clearly just a part of the adjustment period from playing nearly twice as many games as he was used to. His blue-collar style earned him praise on both sides of the ice throughout the season even when his scoring abilities weren’t.
Steen was also a workhorse for the Maple Leafs. Numerous injuries left the Leafs needing bodies. Due to the injuries, he and the other Maple Leaf rookies earned more ice time. By season’s end he was receiving time on the power play and penalty-killing units. Steen missed seven games in January due to a thumb injury, but other than that remained relatively healthy
throughout the season. Despite being known as an all-around solid player and not a
flashy scorer, Steen was able to finish in the top 10 in rookie scoring during a very strong year for rookies. He finished the season placing ninth among rookies in points with 45 points, 13th in goals and 11th in assists.
Kyle Wellwood, C
Unlike Steen’s unlikely emergence from virtually nowhere, Wellwood has been on the Leafs radar for several years. After scoring 147 points with the Marlies in two seasons it was time to
Move on up, and Wellwood didn’t disappoint. Although Wellwood certainly didn’t match the superb start Steen had, he didn’t do too badly for himself either. He finished his first
month in the NHL with eight points in 11 games and that was during a period of time when the Leafs still had a full compliment of veteran players. It took him only three games to net his first NHL goal against the Flyers. His biggest offensive game of the season came on Dec. 19 in 9-6
win against the Islanders. Wellwood put up a goal and three assists.
While Wellwood did have his share of dry period on offense, he helped carry the Leafs in the final month of season when the team was holding on to slim playoff hopes. In 10 games in April, Wellwood scored nine points. Between April 8 and April 15, Wellwood scored seven points in four games, his most productive streak of the season. Wellwood was often a factor for the Leafs when they were winning. He had 29 points, including 9 goals, during Leafs victories compared to 16 points in losses.
In a season where injuries became more familiar than pucks to the Maple Leafs, Wellwood was a model of durability. He missed just one game during his first NHL season. His energy was a model for disinterested veterans as well.
Wellwood finished the season tied with Steen in points with 45. He finished 10th in rookie scoring, 24th in goals and fifth in assists. Wellwood will be a restricted free agent in the offseason.
Ian White, D
Bringing mobility and vision at the blue line, White probably wouldn’t have made it to the NHL this season without the rash of injuries the Leafs suffered. He spent nearly the entire season with the Marlies and probably wasn’t figuring to get a call-up in March with the Leafs’ season and playoff chances almost over. On March 26, he played his first NHL game and remained with the Leafs for the rest of the season. In 12 games with parent club, White scored a goal and six points, one point shy of Colaiacovo’s performance over 21 games. Even without the call-up, his play in the AHL probably would have garnered him a long look at the Leafs’ next training camp. In 59 games he scored 37 points with the Marlies. After a brief stint in Maurice’s doghouse early the season, White has been a consistent performer with the Marlies. White will be one of a few young, promising defensemen looking for a more permanent call-up next season.
Aleksander Suglobov, RW
The future looks bright for Aleksander Suglobov. He was acquired at the trading deadline from New Jersey for Ken Klee. The move greatly helps the depth of Toronto’s prospect list. Though raw, Suglbov is very talented.
After the trade, Suglobov was immediately sent to the Marlies and scored two goals within his first three games. He finished out the season scoring 10 points and eight goals in 15 games with the Marlies. Combined with his totals from the Albany River Rats, he scored 33 goals, 25 assists and 58 points in 66 games in the AHL this season. Even more impressive, in five playoff games with the Marlies he scored five goals and seven points. He managed to earn a two-game call-up to the Leafs in late March but did not score any points. In one game with Devils earlier in the
season, he had one goal.
Knocked off the puck easily, he will need to work on this to stick in the NHL.
Jay Harrison, D
If reality TV producers decided to create a show called “Extreme Minor League Hockey Player Makeover”, Jay Harrison just might be able to fulfill the starring role. He was seemingly left for dead within the Leafs organization prior to this season. With Maurice as his coach with Marlies, Harrison found a way to flourish. Maurice liked what he saw from the beginning and Harrison liked Maurice’s more structured system. His confidence grew from there.
“We liked his play in training camp,” Maurice told the Toronto Star in April. “From the coaching staff’s point of view there wasn’t a sense that, this guy is really far off. … We were a little surprised by the original assessments.”
While the Leafs struggled to find replacements for each injured player, Harrison got more ice time at the AHL level. He was actually a healthy scratch to begin the season with the Marlies.
Toronto’s injuries opened up more opportunities for him. He’s always been known as a defensive defenseman, but added a touch of offensive skill this season. He had his best offensive season yet in the minors scoring 29 points and 20 assists.
He eventually played eight games with the Leafs, earning an impressive +5, and did not look out of place at all. Not a flashy player, he made good decisions. He has a chance to make the roster next season as well.
Staffan Kronwall, D
Staffan Kronwall is another young defenseman who benefited from the open spots due to injuries. That was until he became injured himself. Kronwall suffered a knee injury in late February and
played only sparingly after that, and not as well as he had earlier in the year.
The former 2002 ninth round draft pick split time between the AHL and NHL. He finished with 11 points in 16 games in the AHL and one point and a -3 in 34 games in the NHL. Kronwall was effective, but his ceiling is not as high as some other blueliners and probably won’t make the cut in the fall.
Jeremy Williams, RW
In terms of call-ups, anything was possible for the Maple Leafs this year. Which is exactly why its not so out of the ordinary that Jeremy Williams was called up for the Leafs’ season finale against
Pittsburgh. In his debut, Williams’ scored his first NHL goal. While that goal will surely be the highlight of Williams career for the near future, he made his mark in the AHL throughout the season. He was on a similar pace with the Marlies. He finished fifth on the team in scoring with 56 points in 55 games. He was third in goals with 23.
Andy Wozniewski, D
In two short years, Andy Wozniewski made the unlikely jump from undrafted free agent to NHL call-up. Wozniewski, who signed with Toronto in 2004, now further adds intrigue to the Leafs crowded crop of blueliners. Wozniewski earned several stints with the Maple Leafs throughout the season. His size is of particular advantage to him. He is one of the bigger members of this prospect class at 6’5 and 221 lbs. After suiting up on opening night, he didn’t make another NHL appearance until late January. The downside to his play with Leafs was some trouble in his own end. He finished –8 on the season. He played two games with the Leafs in March and may have earned more toward the end of the season if he hadn’t suffered a shoulder injury. In 31 games at the AHL level, he scored four goals and 11 points. He likely needs more development time in the minors.
Brendan Bell, D
Brendan Bell was one of six rookie defensemen who played at least a game Maple Leafs this season. Next season’s training camp battle figures to be interesting as Bell stocked his resume this year. He finished the season as the Marlies’ top scoring defenseman with 37 assists and 43 points in 70 games this season. On March 21, Bell earned his first NHL action in a game against Carolina.
Ben Ondrus, RW
Ben Ondrus was another late call-up for Leafs. Late surely was better than never as Ondrus played in 22 games for Leafs from March 7 through the end of the season. Ondrus was a little sparkplug for the team, played with his heart on his sleeve, unafraid to crash and bang, or even drop the gloves. He recorded no points with the Leafs and was a -10.
Ondrus is another undrafted free agent who is performing well for the Leafs. He was having a career year with the Marlies when he was called up, finishing the season with 12 goals and 30 points.
Kevin Forbes contributed to this article. Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.