Toronto Maple Leafs used 2009 NHL Draft to add skill and toughness to prospect pool

By Peter Prohaska

Nazem Kadri - Toronto Maple Leafs

Photo: Selected by the Toronto Maple Leafs seventh overall in the 2009 NHL Draft, forward Nazem Kadri has developed into a solid top-six forward in the NHL. (courtesy of Nick Turchiaro/Icon SMI)

Brian Burke's first draft as General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs featured a variety of picks intended to help implement his somewhat idiosyncratic vision for a franchise in dire need of direction. The Maple Leafs finished the 2008-09 season with 34 wins and 81 points, and had missed the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season.

With seven selections overall, and four in the top 75, the 2009 NHL Draft class looks to have been a little too dedicated to size and the shibboleth of 'truculence' that defined Burke's tenure as Leafs GM. The organization did however find a quality prospect in their first pick, Nazem Kadri, who currently sits third on the Leafs in points.

Nazem Kadri, C, London Knights (OHL) – 1st round, 7th overall
Status: NHL Player
NHL Games Played: 155

Although Kadri was not among the top 10 North American skaters in the Central Scouting list, it appears the Leafs did well to follow the advice of their own scouts in this selection. Though he trails some of the earlier first round picks, Kadri is steadily coming into his own as a potentially elite NHL player, and one of the best of this draft class.

There was never any real doubt that Kadri had innate talent. As a 17-year-old with Kitchener, he had gone a point-per-game with an eye-opening playoff run. His draft year was impressive as well, as he managed to still improve his numbers despite suffering a broken jaw.

There was some grumbling criticism of the way the Leafs handled Kadri's post-draft development, with an additional year in junior and parts of three seasons in the AHL, but patience seems to have served this player well, as it often does. Kadri is still not really imposing physically, and though his quickness makes up for that often, some extra weight and muscle would make him far more effective. His playing style is somewhat opportunistic, with great vision and a deceptive shot counter-balancing an uninspired defensive posture at times. Nonetheless, even a quick glance over the other first round picks from 2009 should give Leaf nation confidence in this player and the wisdom of this pick. One very rarely finds a player with Kadri's ability elsewhere.

Kenny Ryan, RW, USNTDP – 2nd round, 50th overall
Status: Prospect
NHL Games Played: 0

Kenny Ryan was expected to play for Boston College in his post-draft year but instead headed for Ontario. Having won a gold medal with Team USA at the 2009 U18 World Juniors, Ryan would continue his winning ways in the OHL. Though not a primary offensive driver, his strong two-way play and timely scoring contributed to Windsor's second straight Memorial Cup victory in 2010.

Since those glory days, Ryan's professional career has been of mixed quality. After spending a good chunk of the 2011-12 season with Reading of the ECHL and acquitting himself well there, he was able to stick full-time on the Marlies in 2012-13. However, Ryan followed up a decent AHL regular season with a pointless nine game playoffs.

He was hampered by a sports hernia injury to start the 2013-14 season, and it may have cost him a bit of mobility and leverage. While many of Ryan's contributions are deeper than the scoresheet shows, it is safe to say that more was expected on draft day.

Jesse Blacker, D, Windsor Spitfires (OHL) – 2nd round, 58th overall
Status: Prospect
NHL Games Played: 0

With the second of their second round picks, the Leafs went for their first defenseman of the draft. Toronto native Jesse Blacker was hardly drafted for his imposing size, but he had excellent mobility and some notable offensive upside, both of which were major sources of need in the organization. Blacker also boasted an impressive resume, though he was a bit of a passenger for the Windsor Spitfires as their forwards largely carried the team to a 2009 Memorial Cup victory. He was traded to the Owen Sound in the 2009-10 season and put up impressive totals despite not playing with any superstars in the lineup. He even enjoyed another OHL championship and helped lead the Attack to the 2011 Memorial Cup tournament.

Blacker's pro career has not been as encouraging. Ongoing neck issues certainly hampered him at times, and while on draft day 2009 Toronto's depth at defense was nothing great, the team made an effort to improve it over subsequent drafts. After not making the Marlies lineup out of camp this season, he was eventually moved to the Anaheim Ducks as part of the trade for Peter Holland.

With the Ducks AHL affiliate in Norfolk, Blacker's offense is once again clicking, and he is second in scoring among defensemen for that team. Blacker has the skills to maybe yet find his way to the next level.

Jamie Devane, LW, Plymouth Whalers (OHL) – 3rd round, 68th overall
Status: Prospect
NHL Games Played: 2

Jamie Devane is a hockey player of limited utility, but he handles his duties competently. By that limited metric, the Leafs did very well with this selection. Devane's 400-plus penalty minutes over his OHL career, played entirely with the Plymouth Whalers, tell the tale. That said, he was able to put up some respectable points along the way as well, and players with that kind of resume will find themselves getting chances for an NHL paycheck.

For the time being, Devane is mostly getting AHL money though, leading the Marlies in fighting majors.

Eric Knodel, D, Philadelphia Junior Flyers (AYHL) – 5th round, 128th overall
Status: Prospect
NHL Games Played: 0

The Philadelphia Junior Flyers program has become a little better known now with the emergence of Johnny Gaudreau (CAL) onto the national scene. Many Maple Leafs supporters may have been perplexed at this announcement at the time it was made in 2009.

Though even then, Eric Knodel was obviously a big lad who could score some and play an intimidating physical game. Knodel has filled out a bit five years on, but whether he still fits into the Maple Leafs' plans is mostly guesswork.

After a 20 point season with Des Moines of the USHL, Knodel may have been better served staying there, rather than have a freshman season with no game action. While some redshirt freshmen find it useful to hit the weights and books before joining the team full-time, it is not usually indicative of a strong prospect. Now technically a senior, Knodel is captain for the University of New Hampshire squad and one of two NHL draft picks on the team (Carolina's 2013 third-rounder Brett Pesce is the other).

His offense has steadily trended upward throughout his college career, and while UNH has tended not to be that strong of a program in recent years, the Leafs could see their patience with this player rewarded. Knodel has a few tools – most glaring of which is his imposing size – that could still translate to the pro game.

Jerry D'Amigo, LW, USNTDP – 6th round, 158th overall
Status: Prospect
NHL Games Played: 19

The Leafs again turned to the United States for incoming help with their selection of USNDP player Jerry D'Amigo in the sixth round. A teammate of Ryan's in Ann Arbor, the Leafs must have liked what they saw in D'Amigo's point-per-game draft year and strong performance at the 2009 U18 WJCs. After just one very productive college season at RPI, in his home state of New York, the Leafs integrated D'Amigo into their system by turning him pro and later loaning him to the Kitchener Rangers.

While D'Amigo is not going to be the proficient offensive player he was as a junior, he has successfully developed into a speedy, three-zone player. His first full pro season with the Marlies proved he could be a capable scorer at the AHL level and he played a major role in that team's 2012 Calder Cup run.

His 2012-13 season was a little less encouraging, but he still finished second on the squad in goals. Between his NHL debut this season and a changing role with the Marlies, D'Amigo's results this current season may not appear promising. Nonetheless, with his speed, his ability to process the game, and his checking prowess, D'Amigo is the only other pick from this draft with a very good chance to stick as an NHL player.

Barron Smith, D, Peterborough Petes (OHL) – 7th round, 188th overall
Status: Bust
NHL Games Played: 0

For its final selection, the team again went for a big defenseman, this time taking a player with some NHL bloodlines in Peterborough's Barron Smith. His father Steve was a force on the blue line for some of the Edmonton Oilers' dynasty years, a punishing defenseman who also played years with Chicago and Calgary before ending up in the Edmonton coaching ranks.

Barron Smith has some of his father's qualities as a player as well, chiefly in his size. He is a sturdy, stay-at-home type who never brought enough offense to find success at the higher levels of hockey. Smith is a student-athlete at an excellent program at the University of Alberta, and though he has attended pro camps in the past, is not in the picture for the Maple Leafs.