Maple Leafs 2008 draft preview

By Scott Mitchell

Some may find it ironic that the Toronto Maple Leafs will begin to lay the foundation of their organization for the next 10 years on the ice surface of their biggest rival. But no one in the Leafs’ organization has time for irony right now.

Heading into the 2008 NHL Entry Draft in Ottawa, the Maple Leafs need everything. And they have 10 picks to go shopping with. The closest thing they have to a strength is goaltending, but with only top prospect Justin Pogge and Red Deer Rebels netminder James Reimer in the system.

With new head coach Ron Wilson usually favoring bigger forwards who can skate, he may take one look at the prospect stable and wish he were going back to Cali. With Jiri Tlusty and Nikolai Kulemin in line for jobs with the big club this season, the system is quite barren.
Forwards with offensive creativity have remained on the Leafs’ draft checklist since they thought Brandon Convery was the answer back in 1992. That year, in fact, was the last draft that the Leafs had a selection higher than No. 10.

The blueline youth, once thought to be an area of great depth, has been picked apart the past couple of seasons by players either flaming out or enduring chronic injuries. The days of Jay Harrison, Staffan Kronwall, and Carlo Colaiacovo being counted on are in the past. Adding to the organizational woes is the Dmitri Vorobiev situation, as the defenseman looks to be stuck in Russia (voluntarily) after tearing up the RSL this season.

With pick No. 7 this year, the Leafs will likely go the best-player-available route. With a consensus top-six consisting of four big, skilled defensemen, and two top-notch goal scorers, the Leafs will have to wade through five to eight prospects to find the one they like the best. Or they will sit back and hope a team in front of them reaches, and one of the top players drops into their lap.

With 10 total picks, thanks to interim GM Cliff Fletcher peddling Hal Gill, Wade Belak and Chad Kilger at the deadline, there will be plenty of chances later in the draft.

Of their seven original selections, only the Leafs second-round pick (38th overall) is gone, thanks to 17 games of Yanic Perreault at the end of 2007.

Potentially, there is a list of four or five forwards and two or three defensemen who could entice Fletcher, Director of Amateur Scouting Dave Morrison, and Assistant General Managers Mike Penny and Jeff Jackson when selection No. 7 rolls around. Among that group are forward Brampton playmaker Cody Hodgson, Kitchener speedster Mikkel Boedker, big center Colin Wilson and Everett intimidator Kyle Beach. While it is tough to see the Leafs reaching for a defenseman such as Kelowna’s Tyler Myers or Regina’s Colten Teubert, anything is possible.

Team Needs

Everything. Recent top prospects Anton Stralman, Jiri Tlusty, Nikolai Kulemin, Carlo Colaiacovo and Alex Steen have either lost their prospect status or will this year, leaving the depth chart of those not playing in the NHL very iffy.

Adding size and skill up front with be a priority, with skill being a prerequisite over size. They will also look to add big, mobile defensemen on the back end that could eventually team with some of the smallish puck-moving defenders already in the system. Adding another goaltender, either European or one with a few years of junior eligibility left, to the system will likely be an option in the later rounds.

Organizational Strengths

Finding a strength is difficult. A couple years ago it was the blueline with Colaiacovo, Kronwall, Harrison, Brendan Bell, Phil Oreskovic and Stralman all in the system at the same time. Now, however, the back end is looking a little thin in terms of high-end prospects.

If there is a strength now, it could be goaltending. With Vesa Toskala proving last season that he is capable of handling the load of a No. 1 NHL goalie, it takes the pressure off of top prospect Justin Pogge to become a star right away. There is a growing sentiment that Pogge will get the Josh Harding treatment and apprentice behind Toskala for a year or two, playing 20-30 games. Others think he would be best served by another full-time AHL gig. What the Leafs do on the free-agent market and how Pogge looks in training camp will likely let that situation fall into place.

The only other goaltender in the system is Reimer. Reimer has his overage season of eligibility left with the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels and after missing most of last season with an ankle injury, there is thought that the playing time would serve him better than sitting on the bench in the AHL.

Organizational Weaknesses

There isn’t an area the Leafs couldn’t use depth in; there isn’t an area they couldn’t use blue-chip prospects in; and there is not an area where they have an abundance of one type of player.

Forwards with speed and skill (size is an added bonus) will be paramount. Adding defenseman with size who can take care of their own end first but also possess agility and puckmoving skills to be a threat is also a need.

Draft Tendencies

Over the last few years, the Maple Leafs draft MO has been to take Europeans and NCAA-bound players while curiously shying away from the Canadian Hockey League. Last season the Leafs had only three prospects playing in the CHL and not one of them was taken before the third round. It is hard to find a flaw with the tendency over the past couple of years as they have found gems in the later rounds from Europe (Stralman, Vorobiev) and the collegiate ranks (Rau, Ruegsegger). Without deviating from a best-player-available theme, a more Canadian flavor may be seen in the Leafs’ 10 selections this year, as successful teams have been found culling the CHL for talent in the past couple of drafts.

The Picks

Toronto has 10 picks — six are their own selections, while they added pick No. 60 from Pittsburgh in the Hal Gill trade, pick No. 70 in the Chad Kilger trade, pick No. 130 in the Wade Belak trade. Pick No. 129 was acquired from Phoenix along with Perreault for pick No. 38 and Brendan Bell.

No. 7
No. 60
No. 68
No. 70
No. 98
No. 128
No. 129
No. 130
No. 158
No. 188

Hockey’s Future Staff Mock Draft result:
Colin Wilson, C