Maple Leafs Top 20 Prospects, Fall 2008

By Scott Mitchell

It has been a long time since the Toronto Maple Leaf organization boasted as many legitimate prospects as they do right now. While they still aren’t a talent-producing haven with multiple blue chippers, the Leafs are beginning the transition back to player development.

The Toronto war room has done a decent job over the past five years, culling the late rounds and finding legitimate NHL talent. Combine that with earlier picks thanks to finishing low in the standings, and the formula for building from within is there.

This top 20 list is composed of five picks from the 2008 draft, four from 2007, five from the impressive 2006 stable, two choices from the 2005 draft, and three choices from 2004. Mikhail Grabovski was acquired from the Montreal Canadiens this summer and slides in behind the undisputed top six players after being ranked No. 8 on the Canadiens list.

It is rare that the organization will declare a full rebuild. But that is exactly what they have done in the past eight months. There are no veteran stopgaps. No dreams of fighting and clawing for the division title. This is the time for the youth to step up in hockey-mad Hog Town. While many of the Top 20 prospects will take to the ice this fall with higher than usual expectations, how will they leave this list?

Barring injury, Jiri Tlusty, Nik Kulemin, Anton Stralman, Grabovski and possibly Robbie Earl will all graduate from this list in spring 2009, but only time will tell if they will do so on their way to NHL stardom.

Top 20 at a glance

1. (NR) Luke Schenn, D, 18
2. (2) Nikolai Kulemin, RW, 22
3. (3) Jiri Tlusty, LW, 20
4. (1) Justin Pogge, G, 22
5. (4) Anton Stralman, D, 22
6. (5) Dmitri Vorobiev, D, 22
7. (NR) Mikhail Grabovski, C, 24
8. (NR) Mikhail Stefanovich, C, 18
9. (NR) Jimmy Hayes, RW, 18
10. (6) Robbie Earl, LW, 23
11. (7) Tyler Ruegsegger, C, 20
12. (11) Chris Didomenico, C, 19
13. (13) Chad Rau, C, 21
14. (8) Dale Mitchell, RW, 19
15. (9) James Reimer, G, 20
16. (12) Ben Winnett, LW, 19
17. (10) Matt Frattin, LW, 20
18. (NR) Joel Champagne, C, 18
19. (19) Viktor Stalberg, LW, 22
20. (NR) Jerome Flaake LW, 18

1. (NR) Luke Schenn, D, 18 — Kelowna Rockets (WHL) — 8B

Acquired: First round, 5th overall in 2008.

It’s been a long time since the Leafs had a legitimate No. 1 prospect. Schenn fits that bill and immediately gives the prospect list a rock to build around. While Schenn is by no means flashy, he is an old school player who gets it done on the defensive end and plays a smart game. The ‘Human Eraser’ plays a tough physical game, dishing out hits in open ice, along the wall and playing a safe and reliable defensive game. He can start the rush from the back end with a smart first pass and possesses a good shot from the point. Taken behind Steven Stamkos and three other blueliners this past June, the drawback in Schenn’s game is his limited offensive ability. His ceiling is likely 30-35 points. This season will likely be spent developing his puck skills with more power play time. With a strong training camp, cracking the Leafs’ lineup this fall is a possibility but another season in Kelowna is likely on the docket.

2. (2) Nikolai Kulemin, RW, 22 — Magnitogorsk (RSL) — 8B

Acquired: Second round, 44th overall in 2006.

One of the most hyped prospects to hit Toronto in a long time, the wait for Kulemin is over this fall. Drafted in the second round in 2006, the powerful winger burst onto the scene two years ago with a 27-goal season with Magnitogorsk of the Russian Super League. That season he spent time riding shotgun for Evgeni Malkin and formed good chemistry with him. Last year, Kulemin dropped to 21 goals in 57 games but again showed that he is a legitimate top-tier talent with skills that translate well to the North American game. A strong skater with a quick release, Kulemin also plays a physical game and a strong puck possession game along the wall in the offensive zone. He also plays with an edge that allows him more room to work and keeps opponents honest. It is hard to say what type of player Kulemin will develop into because of his well-rounded game in which he does everything well but doesn’t have one skill that stands out. He could score 30 this season or he could settle into more of an energy role.

3. (3) Jiri Tlusty, LW, 20 — Toronto Maple Leafs (NHL) — 8B

Acquired: First round, 13th overall in 2006.

Tlusty scored two goals in his first NHL game last season and then proceeded to light the lamp only eight more times in the next 57 games. Up and down pretty much sums up the young Czech’s season. He averaged 10:55 of ice time and was rarely used in an offensive role, which makes his 10 goals and six assists look a little better. If there was any doubt about Tlusty’s offensive talent, those questions were put to rest when he was allowed to develop his game with the Marlies. In 14 AHL games, Tlusty scored seven times and added 11 assists. He added two goals and eight assists in 19 playoff games. This is the season Tlusty will be given top-six forward minutes and will be able to justify his first-round selection. Look for more offensive creativity this season from the slick winger. New head coach Ron Wilson will lean on the youngster to improve his all-around game.

4. (1) Justin Pogge, G, 22 — Toronto Marlies (AHL) — 8C

Acquired: Third round, 90th overall in 2004.

Pogge’s 2007-08 season was a riddle wrapped in an enigma. He split games for the second season in a row with an AHL veteran and even though he improved greatly during the regular season from 2006, he was relegated to the pine during the postseason as he watched Scott Clemmensen carry the load. Statistically, Pogge cut his GAA from 3.03 in 2006 to 2.34 last season. Behind a much-improved team his win total rose from 19 to 26 and the ever important save percentage jumped from .898 to .908 last year. But all this wasn’t enough to give the World Junior hero the task of carrying playoff load. Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher has already stated that the Marlies’ goaltending duties will be handed to Pogge on a full-time basis in 2008-09, meaning it will be a make or break season for the B.C. native. If Pogge shines in 60-65 games he will stay on course to make the jump to the big club in 2009 and apprentice behind Vesa Toskala for a season or two.

5. (4) Anton Stralman, D, 22 — Toronto Maple Leafs (NHL) — 8C

Acquired: Seventh round, 216th overall in 2005.

Another one of the Leafs’ top prospects who spent most of last season with the big club, Stralman struggled mightily at times but showed flashes of why he has cracked Sweden‘s World Championship roster the past two years. Averaging only 12 minutes and 48 seconds of ice last season, Stralman was on a short leash for much of the year. He really came on in the last 10-15 games of the season when Paul Maurice let the youngsters sink or swim. Stralman is blessed with a smooth stride, a hard, accurate point shot and good hockey sense. He is able to transition out of his own end in a number of ways and became more confident with increased minutes last season. He struggles in his own end with more physical forwards because of his slight 6’1 180-pound frame. He needs to improve his defensive positioning. With a strong training camp, he will likely find himself playing top-four minutes from the get-go this season.

6. (5) Dmitri Vorobiev, D, 22 — Tolyatti Lada (RSL) — 7C

Acquired: Fifth round, 157th overall in 2004.

A late bloomer offensively, Vorobiev showed more creativity than ever last season in his fourth full RSL campaign. The big rearguard smashed his previous career highs in every offensive category last season, putting the hockey world on notice that he is much more than a defense-first, physical blueliner. He scored 16 goals and 12 assists for 28 points in 55 games and added another three goals in four playoff games. He also added 74 penalty minutes and ate ice time like it was his job. Unfortunately for Toronto, the closest he has ever come to playing in North America was at the World Championships last season and is very comfortable staying in Russia for the foreseeable future. However, he remains Maple Leaf property with the lack of a transfer agreement. Vorobiev has re-upped in Russia and isn’t close to testing NHL waters.

7. (NR) Mikhail Grabovski, C, 24 — Hamilton Bulldogs (AHL) — 7C

Acquired: Trade with Montreal, July 2008.

Acquired in a summer trade with Montreal in exchange for 2008 draft pick Greg Pateryn and a second-round choice in 2010, the slick center is expected to produce right away in Toronto. Drafted in 2004, Grabovski spent 24 games in Montreal last season and performed admirably with limited ice time. While he only scored three goals and six assists in his NHL cameo, he lit the Hamilton Bulldogs on fire in his 12 AHL games, scoring eight goals and 12 assists and showing supreme offensive creativity. With offensive creativity severely lacking in the Toronto system, Grabovski will likely center one of the top two lines this season and get a chance to show off his playmaking ability.

8. (NR) Mikhail Stefanovich, C, 18 — Quebec Remparts (QMJHL) – 7C

Acquired: Fourth round, 98th overall in 2008.

A first-round talent with a fourth-round work ethic — that sums up why Stefanovich fell into the Leafs’ lap with the 98th overall selection this June. Originally touted as a possible first-round selection, Stefanovich impressed scouts with his size and goal-scoring instincts but regularly left them wanting more. There is no questioning his offensive talent after a freshman QMJHL campaign in which he scored 32 goals and 34 assists for 66 points in 62 games. But his desire and willingness to do the dirty work to become a production pro is in question. The Belarusian will look to prove those doubters wrong this year and could be a steal if he does. At 6’2 and 200 pounds he has the total package if he improves his work ethic.

9. (NR) Jimmy Hayes, RW, 18 — Boston College (NCAA) — 7C

Acquired: Second round, 60th overall in 2008.

Another supremely talented winger who fell from first round consideration to the Leafs in the second round, Hayes struggled with the Lincoln Stars of the USHL last year during the regular season but ramped up his play during the playoffs. A former linemate of top-10 picks James vanRiemsdyk and Colin Wilson with the U.S. National Team Development Program, Hayes scored four goals in 21 regular season games but improved as the season went on and posted four goals and five assists for nine points in eight playoff games. He has an enviable blend of speed, power and size but has yet to put it all together on a consistent basis. The 6’5 210 pounder will battle for ice this year at Boston College and will likely spend at least three seasons fine tuning his game in the NCAA. If it ever clicks for Hayes, he could be scary good.

10. (6) Robbie Earl, LW, 23 — Toronto Marlies (AHL) – 7C

Acquired: Sixth round, 187th overall in 2004.

While Earl improved during his second AHL season, he has yet to show the goal scoring touch that he did at the University of Wisconsin.  The swift winger followed up his 12-goal, 30-point rookie season with 14 goals and 47 points last year, which earned him a nine-game stint with the Leafs that resulted in one assist. At times he was the best player on the ice last year, but there were also times he failed to make any impact at all. There is no questioning his speed and game-breaking ability from the wing, but whether or not he will ever produce like he did in college when he scored 41 goals and 90 points during his last 80 games, is another question. Earl will head to camp this fall hoping to lock down a spot on one of the Leafs’ scoring lines with an impressive camp. No matter where he plays in 2008-09, he will have to produce more offensively to keep his prospect status.

11. (7) Tyler Ruegsegger, C, 20 — Denver University (NCAA) — 7D

Acquired: Sixth round, 166th overall in 2006.

The University of Denver product starts off a run of three centers on the list with similar skill sets and boom or bust potential. Ruegsegger’s 2007-08 season was interrupted by an abdominal injury that kept him out of a handful of games and limited his effectiveness when he was in the lineup. He finished with 10 goals and 12 assists in 31 games. He was impressive for the U.S. at the World Junior Championships, scoring two goals and two assists in six games and serving as an alternate captain. While Ruegsegger has added some beef to his 5’11 frame over his first two NCAA seasons to get to 195 pounds, he must continue to add strength to play pivot at the next level. Skating is also a concern for Ruegsegger but is offset somewhat by his terrific lateral movement and elusiveness. Ruegsegger is in position to have a successful 2008-09 season with a loaded DU squad and will lead the U.S. team into Ottawa at the WJCs.

12. (11) Chris Didomenico, C, 19 — Saint John Seadogs (QMJHL) — 7D

Acquired: Sixth round, 164th overall in 2007.

Like Ruegsegger, DiDomenico’s size and skating are concerns, but over the past two seasons he has done nothing but produce results despite these drawbacks. A feisty center who is dangerous on both special teams units, DiDomenico’s story is well known by now. The Toronto-area native was passed over in the OHL and hooked onto a tryout with the expansion Seadogs. Since then, all he has done is lead the team in scoring in each of his first two seasons and last year he finished sixth in the QMJHL scoring race with 39 goals and 56 assists for 95 points. He also posted 100 penalty minutes, scored 13 times with the man advantage and added three shorthanded goals. His play last season earned him an invitation to the National Junior Team Development camp in July where he proceeded to score in the first intersquad game and add an assist in the third and final game. While DiDomenico will be a long shot to secure a spot on the final team, he seems to thrive in those exact situations. Working on his skating will be the main focus in the next two years.

13. (13) Chad Rau, C, 21 — Colorado College (NCAA) — 7D

Acquired: Seventh round, 228th overall in 2005.

This may sound like a broken record, but size and skating are the main concerns for Rau, who busted out in a big way at Colorado College last season. After being a productive player in his first two NCAA campaigns, posting 31 and 30 points, respectively, Rau scored 28 goals in 40 games to lead the Tigers to one of its most successful seasons ever. While Rau stands 5’11 and only 175 pounds, he dedicated himself last year more than ever and actually lost weight and got into better shape. A player who leads by example, one of Rau’s best attributes is his ability to consistently play at a high level each night. He is also a very disciplined player, accumulating only 10 minor penalties in 121 NCAA games. He will return to CC for his senior season this fall.

14. (8) Dale Mitchell, RW, 19 — Oshawa Generals (OHL) — 6.5C

Acquired: Third round, 74th overall in 2007.

There is no other way to characterize the stocky winger’s first five months of 2007-08 other than as a major disappointment. After scoring 43 goals in 2006-07, Mitchell went into last season expecting to ride shotgun for John Tavares and Brett MacLean, but struggled out of the gate. He turned it up in the second half of the season, finishing 24 goals and 36 assists for 60 points in 63 games. As disappointing as his season was, Mitchell returned to form in the playoffs, showing the hockey world his goal scoring instincts of the previous year were not a thing of the past. He scored 10 goals in 15 playoff games and added six assists to tie the aforementioned big guns for the Generals’ playoff scoring lead. When he is on his game, Mitchell has a nose for the net and a goal scorer’s knack for sliding to open ice and being in the right place at the right time. He is an impressive combination of speed and power when he is on his game.

15. (9) James Reimer, G, 20 — Red Deer Rebels (WHL) — 6.5C

Acquired: Fourth round, 99th overall in 2006.

Reimer’s season was cut short by an ankle injury that eventually shut him down for good in January. Before the injury, Reimer was carrying an awful Red Deer team and showing why he was taken 99th overall in 2006. In 30 games, he held a respectable 2.73 GAA and an impressive .916 save percentage. A big goalie at 6’3 and over 200 pounds, Reimer covers a lot of net and uses solid positioning to stare down shooters and dare them to beat him. He has shown in three WHL seasons that he has the ability to steal a game. With WHL teams, especially rebuilding ones, rarely keeping goaltenders as one of their three overage players, Reimer will likely battle to backup Justin Pogge with the Marlies this season or find himself in the ECHL. Since he has only played one full WHL season, if Reimer can ever prove he can carry the load on a good team, he could see his stock rise dramatically.

16. (12) Ben Winnett, LW, 19 — Michigan Wolverines (NCAA) — 6.5C

Acquired: Fourth round, 104th overall in 2007.

Winnett couldn’t have impressed more than he did last season in a checking role. Playing a Todd Marchant-type role in Michigan, Winnett posted modest numbers with six goals and five assists in 41 games, but he was frequently used on the penalty kill and in a shutdown role. Blessed with great speed and a good shot off the wing, Winnett is likely to develop his offensive game a little more this year. He will also need to add size to his wispy 6’0 175-pound frame. A point producer with Salmon Arm of the BCHL prior to signing with Michigan, Winnett is a defensively responsible player who could thrive if handed a bigger role at UM.

17. (10) Matt Frattin, LW, 20 — University of North Dakota (NCAA) — 7D

Acquired: Fourth round, 99th overall in 2007.

Miscast in a checking role in his freshman season at UND, Frattin is hoping to put last season behind him and carve out a bigger offensive role this year. One year after winning the Alberta Junior Hockey League rookie of the year honors after scoring 49 goals and 83 points in 58 games with the Fort Saskatchewan Traders, Frattin had only four goals and 11 assists in 43 NCAA games last season. While part of his frustrating freshman season can be attributed to the fact that he wasn’t getting enough ice time to make an impact offensively, he was also held back by his size and poor conditioning. The 5’11 and 185-pound Edmonton native focused on adding strength and getting into better shape this offseason with the goal of locking down top-six minutes in his sophomore season. Frattin is a goal scorer by trade and needs to be used in a offensive role to be effective. He has good speed and a good shot but needs to work on his defensive zone coverage to become trusted by coaches.

18. (NR) Joel Champagne, C, 18 — Chicoutimi Sagueneens (QMJHL) — 6C

Acquired: Fifth round, 128th overall in 2008.

Champagne is another player the Leafs scooped up after he fell in the 2008 draft. While some thought he could have been selected in the second or third round, concerns about his offensive upside saw him drop to the fifth round. A huge center at 6’4 and 210 pounds, ChampagneÕs game revolves around being a defensively responsible forward who is adept at faceoffs and using his big body in the offensive zone. After putting up 18 goals and 22 assists for 40 points last season, Champagne’s third junior season is an important one in regard to improving his prospect status. There are those who think his offensive production will develop late when he learns how to use his large frame more effectively. Whether or not he produces more, Champagne looks like he could become an effective third or fourth-line center who is a handful along the wall and in front of the net. Champagne is a long-term project.

19. (19) Viktor Stalberg, LW, 22 — University of Vermont (NCAA) — 6.5D

Acquired: Sixth round, 161st overall in 2006.

The big Swede won’t make anyone forget about Mats Sundin, but he came a long way in his sophomore season at the University of Vermont. On a squad devoid of much offensive talent, Stalberg managed to tie for the team goal scoring lead with 10 goals in 39 games. He added 13 assists to finish with 23 points. A massive big-bodied winger, Stalberg is still learning how to lean on opponents in front of the net and use his size effectively. He has good hands and speed for a big man and his game is well suited to the North American style of play. He is already defensively aware and is used in all situations at Vermont.

20. (NR) Jerome Flaake LW, 18 — Cologne (DEL) — 6.5D

Acquired: Fifth round, 130th overall in 2008.

Flaake is a relatively unknown prospect that has a very high ceiling. After being drafted by the Leafs in the fifth round in June, Flaake was taken ninth overall in the CHL Import Draft by the Prince George Cougars in July. However, Flaake did not report to Cougars camp and will finish out his obligations with Cologne of the German Elite League. Flaake finished off his season in Germany‘s top league last year by tallying one assist in 30 games for the Sharks. His production in the German Junior League was impressive as he scored 35 goals and 45 assists for 80 points. He also showed a mean streak, accumulating 109 penalty minutes. Flaake is an interesting prospect in that he possesses a nice combination of speed and size (6’2, 187 pounds). While the Toronto organization could have probably more accurately monitored his development in the WHL, a solid DEL season will solidify his prospect status and put him on the map.