Leafs NCAA prospects update

By Jason Menard

The Toronto Maple Leafs currently have five prospects playing in the U.S. collegiate ranks. And while none of the five have can’t-miss type futures with the Leafs, the organization is hoping that mining the later rounds may result in one or more of this quintet making an impact with the club in the same manner as Robbie Earl, who was taken in the sixth round in 2004 and is now doing well in the AHL.

Alex Berry, F, (5th round, 2005)

The University of Massachusetts Minutemen had high hopes for Berry‘s contributions, but he only appeared in two dozen games last season for the club as a rookie due to a knee injury. Even when he suited up, his performance wasn’t what was expected as he ended the season with only one goal and one assist to his name.

This year things haven’t gone much better, as Berry has suited up for just over half of the club’s contests in his sophomore season – and one culprit was again a knee injury.  Another was a six-game suspension for violating team rules, and some additional time as a scratch. Again, as a result of not being able to find a rhythm with his teammates, Berry‘s offensive production has been less than stellar. In the dozen games he’s suited up for, he’s accounted for only four points – two goals and two assists.

But while offense may be eluding the 6’2 forward, he’s shown an admirable commitment to improving his defensive game. He’s compiled a +5 rating to date and is amongst the team leaders in that category.

Once a promising offensive prospect, Berry needs to use the rest of this season – and most likely a minimum of one more collegiate year – to exorcise his injury demons and put rising doubts about his ability to remain healthy to rest.

 

Pierce Norton, F, (9th round, 2004)

On a Providence squad loaded with NHL draft picks (including Philadelphia‘s Jon Rheault and Edmonton‘s Colin McDonald) this late-round pick has held his own at both ends of the rink.

In 20 games so far, the sophomore forward has scored four goals – two of which came on the power play — and added four assists, which is good for fourth on the team. In addition to leading on the scoresheet, Norton’s also shown he’s been willing to lead in the physical department, leading the Friars with 44 penalty minutes. Norton’s game has grown exponentially following an average rookie season that saw him post extremely modest numbers – three points in 35 games, with only 22 penalty minutes.

The 6’2 Boston native has learned to use his body to his advantage and has worked diligently to bring a measure of physicality to the Friars lineup. And while the team’s namesakes would certainly not approve of the robust style of play, his teammates and their fans certainly do.

As a ninth-round pick, Norton’s a low-risk prospect. However, he’s made the most of his skills and worked on developing the style of game that gives him the best chance of making the jump to the professional ranks – hard-nosed, rugged play with an opportunistic goal-scoring touch.

 

Chad Rau, F, (7th round, 2005)

Rau probably has the greatest upside of any of the Leafs’ collegiate players, which is faint praise indeed as he is considered a long shot to progress to the NHL level. However, he took the collegiate world by storm last season, playing a prominent role on the Colorado College squad with 13 goals and 30 points in 42 games – good enough to earn the club’s rookie-of-the-year award.

This season he has picked up where he left off, averaging almost a point per game, scoring seven goals and adding 13 assists, which has him tied for second in team scoring. Rau has also exhibited a gentlemanly side to his game, displaying his offensive flair while only earning one penalty all season – a solid trade-off as his strong play has forced many opponents to take a penalty on the speedy forward.

The former USHL rookie of the year has worked diligently at improving his first step and acceleration, but has yet to develop the requisite skills needed to perform at the next level.

Tyler Ruegsegger (6th round, 2006) 

While Rau may have had the most ink spilled about him, it’s Ruegsegger who has exploded during his freshman season with his hometown University of Denver to make a run for the title of Leafs’ best collegiate prospect.

The former top-ranked collegiate prospect in Minnesota combines on-ice prowess with off-ice book smarts. Once named the best all-around student for four consecutive years by his old Shattuck-St. Mary’s squad, Ruegsegger has shown that he’s certainly smart enough to find his way to the net as evidenced by a stunning rookie season that’s seen him perform at almost a point-per-game clip.

Ruegsegger has 25 points in 28 games, paced by 11 goals. He’s also been a force to be reckoned with on the Pioneers’ power play, accounting for four goals with the man advantage. Most impressively Ruegsegger has excelled in even-strength situations, leading the club in plus/minus ratings with a +13 total that’s almost double that of the next closest teammate. 

And although Ruegsegger has performed admirably in the collegiate ranks, there were pre-season questions about his readiness. According to a report in the Denver Post, the Pioneers weren’t sure that he was ready to make the jump straight from the high school ranks to the collegiate game without the traditional sojourn in the USHL. He made the choice not to defer his scholarship and the results speak for themselves.

In essence, hockey is a simple game and as Howie Meeker used to preach, you can’t score if you don’t shoot. Ruegsegger has obviously taken those lessons to heart and is amongst the team leaders in shots, which has been a significant factor in much of his offensive exploits to date. 

Of course, this offensive performance isn’t exactly unprecedented – Ruegsegger’s last two seasons with Shattuck-St. Mary’s saw him net 80 and 89 points. The question was always how this would translate against stiffer competition. So far so good – and, while it’s still early, the Leafs are hoping that they’ve found a diamond in the rough in Denver.

Viktor Stalberg (6th round, 2006)
 

The hulking winger decided to forgo overtures from the Swedish Elite League to join the collegiate ranks in Vermont, ostensibly to earn greater ice time. And the 21-year-old freshman has made a satisfactory transition to the North American game. 

Fresh from playing on the larger European ice surfaces, Stalberg has used his 6’3, 200-pound frame to his advantage in the smaller North American rinks and he has posted adequate numbers with the Catamounts. In 26 games, Stalberg has racked up five goals and six assists. He’s also amongst the team leaders in penalty minutes and has seen limited time on the power play. 

The decision to come overseas instead of chancing it with the SEL was designed to improve Stalberg’s future prospects. By coming over early, refining his language skills, participating in the Leafs’ prospect camp, and adjusting to the North American game, Stalberg can ease his transition to the professional ranks in the next couple of seasons.

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