Life after Hedberg and Smith, The Toronto Maple Leafs 2000 Draft Preview

By Stephen J. Holodinsky

There will be more than a little bit of nail-biting going on in Toronto this weekend as the Leafs attend the Entry Draft for the first time since super scout Anders Hedberg and Mike Smith, no small fry in the field either, left the Buds organization. This is a club that has been cursed for nearly 25 years by having Harold Ballard associated with the franchise and suffered at the draft table because of it.
Remember when the Leafs had 3 first round picks in 1989? Instead of actually spending some money on hiring good scouts, Gord Stellick was left to run this Mom ‘n’ Pop operation relatively alone when compared to other clubs. In the end the Leafs ended up taking Scott Thornton (after a decade of limbo has finally developed into a 3rd line checking winger) 3rd overall, Rob Pearson (out of hockey for years now) with the 12th pick and Steve Bancroft (career minor league defenseman) in the 21st slot overall, all from the Belleville Bulls. This in a draft class that included Bill Guerin (#5 to New Jersey), Olaf Kolzig (#19 to Washington) and Adam Foote (#22 to Quebec).
Or how about Benning, Boimstruck, and Gill starting on the Leaf blueline in the same season as rookie 18 year olds so King Harold would have a box office draw that year? That was the beginning of the end of the first two and the last only stuck it out because of expansion. It’s highly doubtful that Todd Gill would still be in the NHL today if there were only 21 teams, like there were 10 years ago. The draft and development fiascos go on and on.
Finally, after the team went into limbo following Ballard’s death, a GM with credentials was brought in by the name of Cliff Fletcher. Fletcher was a keen eye when it came to trading and his most famous heist was the one that brought Doug Gilmour to Toronto. However, as time went by it became apparent that while Fletcher knew how to make a good team great through trades, he wasn’t the man to show the patience needed to re-stock a farm system. Instead he treated his draft choices as bargaining chips, dealing them away for immediate help.
It was only when he was fired and Mike Smith was brought on board (and with him Hedberg) that the Leafs began to show any serious interest in player development and scouting outside of the CHL. Between the two of them they uncovered Toronto regulars Danny Markov, Tomas Kaberle, and Nik Antropov as well as farm system favourites Petr Svoboda, Frantisek Mrazek, Jeff Farkas, Dimitri Yakushin and Adam Mair. This of course doesn’t include those players that have since been dealt, namely Mike Johnson and Marek Posmyk. The Leaf pipeline looked to be on it’s way to a renaissance. Alas, Smith got himself fired and with him went Hedberg after the last draft, leaving Coach Pat Quinn to be the GM and Nick Beverley as the player development guru. Not that the two new guys aren’t talented in this regard, but will there be a drop-off at the draft table from the Smith-Hedberg years?
Picking 24th in the first round of a weak draft, Quinn and Beverley find themselves already playing with the deck stacked against them. Chances are, unless something catastrophic happens to some of the GMs in front of Quinn, Toronto is not going to get someone who is going to be good and multi-dimensional with their pick. With this particular talent pool, where anyone outside the Top 10 could go 11th or 60th it’s going to be very important that a players upside is good or that his downside is minimal.

A closer look at the team and their farm system will examine their perspective strengths and weaknesses.

Goaltending: Well, there’s Cujo and………..Glenn Healy? Jimmy Waite? Jamie Hodson? Not impressive company. Undoubtedly one of the shallower parts of the system. Two things that might bring a glimmer of hope though are 1999 7th round pick Vladimir Kulikov who, at 18, stunned the club brass last year at the Leaf Prospects Camp and the fact that Jamie Hodson’s unimpressive season just passed was due more to injury than anything else and perhaps deserves a mulligan for that reason. Still, they need more than that.

Defense: On the big club there are three blueliners that stand out as being players that won’t be going anywhere soon for no reason at all in Dimitri Yuskevich, Kaberle, and Markov. They can get by with the other three being Alexander Karpotsev, Gerald Diduck, and Cory Cross, but the back half of the rotation needs an upgrade. Fortunately, the defense corp is the one of the deeper parts of the pipeline. Petr Svoboda and Dimitri Yakushin are merely the front runners in this race. Other names to look out for in the future are Allan Rourke, Peter Reynolds, Vaclav Zavoral, and Tommi Rajamaki. Yakushin has a good chance of making the team out of training camp, and while Svoboda is a longer shot because he has yet to play in the CHL or the AHL, it should be noted that neither Kaberle or Markov had either when they came in.

Left Wing: Another relatively strong spot in the prospect pool, the Buds’ portside brigade can boast such names as Jeff Farkas, Adam Mair, Frantisek Mrazek and Konstantine Kalmikov. And lucky that it does because the left side is rather barren after you get past Jonas Hoglund, Dimitri Khristich and Igor Korolev. Valk is expected to be claimed in the expansion draft and if anyone sees either Wendel Clark or Kris King suit up for Toronto next season, they should check their calender to see what year it is. Expect one of Farkas, Mair or Kalmikov to break camp with the big club in 2000/2001.

Center: The Leafs have no problems here as their top 4 of Mats Sundin, Yannick Perreault, Nik Antropov and Kevyn Adams are all either in the prime of their careers or are working their way towards it. Behind them they have several multi-positional players (Khristich, Darcy Tucker, Igor Korolev) who can all play the middle if needed. The system isn’t nearly as rich in this area. The top prospect, Luca Cereda, had a miserable season in Switzerland and it looks like he will play in Peterborough next year in an attempt to make a break with the past. Don MacLean, the other name on the list, neither skates or passes well and may be best suited to a conversion to the outside.

Right Wing: Compared to the left side, this position is barren at the minor league level. The best hope, Mikael Hakansson, is the defensive conscience of his line in Sweden and although he has some skills offensively, alone they aren’t enough for him to make the big show. An intriguing name in the farm system is that of Alexei Ponikarovsky. A power winger much in the same mold physically as Frantisek Mrazek, he has the work ethic to make it as at least a 3rd line checker. If he can improve on his offensive skills, he’ll go even farther up the chart. Up top, the situation is better than the left side, but not overwhelmingly so. Steve Thomas, Sergei Berezin, and Darcy Tucker man the top three spots and while Tie Domi was indeed protected in the expansion draft, the thinking is he will be dealt in the off-season.

So what will Quinn and company do in Calgary? There has been some mention of Toronto trading up this year using one or more of the picks they have dealt for in the 2001 draft, but with that prospect pool being much deeper than the present one, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Right now Toronto is set to have one of those watershed drafts, much like Detroit had in 1989 (Fedorov, Lidstrom and Konstantinov as well as Sillinger and Drake) next year, and subtracting from that position would only be detrimental. Rather look for the Buds to keep their pick and focus on grit when selecting regardless of position. As for drafting a puckstopper, something might be done in the middle rounds, but 2001 is netminder heavy so expect Toronto to go after their goalie of the future there.

1st Round Possibilities

Martin Samuelsson-RW-MoDo Jr-Quick, gritty forward, with a goal-scoring knack who’s injuries dropped him somewhat on the draft lists. Not expected to be there at 24.

Alexei Mihknov-W/C-Yaroslavl 2-Most often compared to a more mobile Nik Antropov, this behemoth is also expected to be gone before it is the Leafs’ turn

Libor Ustrnul-D-Plymouth Whalers-Defensive masher in the mold of Derian Hatcher but with better wheels

Brian Sutherby-C-Big, hard nosed pivot who excels at two way play and is quite adept with his stick in the garbage goal area.

Shane Endicott-C-Seattle-Another big man in the middle, Endicott has a very good face-off record and a mean streak. Downside is his slow first step.

Others we’d like to see in later rounds (in no particular order):

Jared Aulin-C-Kamloops-Has the requisite offensive skills and is feisty, but as a first year junior didn’t get the ice time he needed when Kamloops made their Memorial Cup run. Needs to work on his defensive positioning and gain some weight.

Ben Knopp-RW-Moose Jaw-Another CHL rookie, Knopp had a standout year being as it was his first in major junior. Gritty, with a very good scoring touch, his age (19) counts against him.

Agris Saviels-D-Owen Sound-Has the frame to pack on 10-15 more pounds and the skating ability. Outside of that no real strengths, but no real weaknesses either. Can only surprise.

Jared Newman-D-Plymouth-Has been compared to Adam Foote by his coach Peter DeBoer. Needs to gain 20 pounds, but has good instincts in both directions

Samu Isosalo-RW-North Bay-Big Finnish power winger who missed nearly half of his rookie year. Still totaled 42 points in 48 games.

Olli Malmivaara-D-Jokerit/Tuukka Makela-IFK-There is a lot to be said for how well coached Finnish defensemen by the time they leave Scandinavia. These two are no different.

Kenneth Bergqvist-RW-Brynäs-A big rookie in the Swedish Junior League, Bergqvist comes with all the offensive skills included. His physical and defensive play could use some work and he is older than many at 20 years old, but with his skills he is worth a low round flyer.

Johan Backlund-G-Skellefteå -Bigger goaltender who is just now starting to make a move. Needs to improve his quickness a bit but if he does, watch out. He has everything else including the attitude needed to round out his game.

Herman Hultgren-D-Brynäs-A defenseman with good size and a mean streak, had a great WJC showing off until recently unknown offensive skills. Due to Brynäs being absolutely loaded on the blueline, Hultgren was relegated to the 7th defenseman role.

Thomas Greilinger-LW-Schweinningen-Greilinger came out of the German 3rd division to make the National Team this year, the first player ever to do so. A possessor of very good offensive skills all the way around, he has signed with the Schwenninger Wild Wings in the 1st division this year. Has a very good size to speed ratio. Definitely worth a late round pick.