Maple Leafs Top 20 prospects, Spring 2009

By Stuart McDonald

These are the top 20 prospects to begin the Brian Burke era in Toronto. Luke Schenn is a perfect fit for the crusty Burke, who likes lots of “character” on the ice. Other than Schenn, however, there is only a hodge-podge of one-dimensional, raw or serviceable types that must have Burke dying to hit the draft table to reload.

Top 20 at a glance

1. Luke Schenn, D 8.5 B
2. Nikolai Kulemin, LW 7.5 C
3. Justin Pogge, G 7.0 C
4. Dmitri Vorobiev, D 7.0 C
5. Mikhail Stefanovich, C 7.0 C
6. Jimmy Hayes, RW 7.0 C
7. Chris DiDomenico, C 7.5 D
8. Viktor Stalberg, LW 7.5 D
9. Chad Rau, C 7.0 D
10. Dale Mitchell, RW 6.5 C
11. James Reimer, G 6.5 C
12. Ben Winnett, LW 6.5 C
13. Matt Frattin, RW 7.0 D
14. John Mitchell, C 6.5 C
15. Ryan Hamilton, LW 6.0 C
16. Joel Champagne C 6.0 C
17. Phil Oreskovic, D 6.0 C
18. Tyler Ruegsegger, RW 6.5 D
19. Jerome Flaake, LW 6.5 D
20. Korbinian Holzer, D 6.5 D

1. Luke Schenn, D
6’2, 218 lbs.
NHL – Toronto Maple Leafs

With seven games left before he graduates from prospecthood, Schenn has made a name for himself in a very tough town to gain acceptance. The 19-year-old was not supposed to make the Maple Leafs, but has more than held his own in the NHL, playing top-four minutes for most of the season. Schenn has gained 10 pounds since joining the Leafs and can be a physical force when he chooses to be. He is currently 18th in the NHL in hits.

Despite his size and strength, Schenn wins as many battles on the boards with his stick as he does with his physical play. He has a long reach and the hand-eye coordination to win more than his share of stick battles. This bodes well for Schenn’s durability, which can plague elite defensive defensemen. Elite defenders Jay McKee and Barrett Jackman both wore down over time in a defensive role. Schenn’s good hand-eye coordination also bodes well for his future offensive game, which is still an unknown.

2. Nikolai Kulemin, LW
6’1, 185 lbs.
NHL – Toronto Maple Leafs

The 22-year-old Russian started the season well offensively, but by mid-November his production began to wane. He has only 11 points in 37 NHL games since Nov. 13, despite playing on Toronto’s top two lines for most of that time. Kulemin has helped Toronto with his shootout prowess. He’s the Leafs most reliable shootout producer, scoring three times in seven attempts. He has been used in seven of the nine Leafs shootouts this season.  Despite that, Kulemin is lacking defensively and hurts the club unless he’s producing offensively.

The Leafs are being patient with Kulemin because they are rebuilding.  He’s still young and has shown elite sniping skills from time to time. However, with only 11 goals and 23 points in 63 games, Kulemin’s season has to be considered something of a disappointment.

3. Justin Pogge, G

6’3, 205 lbs.
AHL – Toronto Marlies

Some thought Pogge would be the next great Leafs goalie, following in the recent footsteps of Felix Potvin, Ed Belfour, Grant Fuhr and Curtis Joseph. The love affair with Pogge began after his Tournament MVP performance in the 2006 World Junior Championships. The problem is that Pogge is not very good right now. Pogge, who turns 23 in April, earned the Marlies starting job in October. He has been mediocre at best and sub-par at other times. With only 22 wins in 45 games and a woeful .893 save percentage, Pogge has been outplayed consistently by his backup, Adam Munro.

Pogge’s mediocre AHL results shine in comparison to his disappointing performance with the Maple Leafs. He had one win in five games with a lackluster .855 save percentage. Some goalies take longer than others to develop, so the Leafs have to hope that Pogge is simply going to take time. The young goalie still has youth on his side.

4. Dmitri Vorobiev, D
6’1, 210 lbs.
KHL – Salavat Yulaev Ufa

In the wake of Alexei Cherepanov’s tragic death, the Russian (KHL) Continental Hockey League implemented league-wide heart testing. Vorobiev’s cardiogram after a Feb. 13 game showed heart abnormalities. That was enough for the KHL to suspend him indefinitely. He has yet to play another game. Traded earlier in the season from HC Lada Togliatti to Salavat Yulaev Ufa, Vorobiev’s play at both ends of the ice was solid as usual this season. He was Lada’s top-scoring defenseman and had 18 points in 44 games before his season was cut short. Vorobiev will undergo further tests in North America which will determine his future in hockey.

5. Mikhail Stefanovich, C

6’2, 205 lbs. 
QMJHL – Quebec Remparts

Last season, Stefanovich won the Major Junior Hockey League’s Michael Bossy Trophy as the league’s best professional prospect. He led the QMJHL in goals as a rookie with 32.

Stefanovich’s play has actually improved this season. He is 17th in QMJHL scoring with 47 goals and 74 points in 55 games. He has tallied the third-most goals in the league. He’s the Remparts leading scorer, up from fourth last season. Stefanovich has really stepped up his game since Christmas, winning QMJHL Player of the Week on Jan. 5 and Feb. 23. Although quite big for an 18-year-old, Stefanovich needs to work on his acceleration and physical play before his game will be ready for the pros.

6. Jimmy Hayes, RW

6’5, 210 lbs.
NCAA – Boston College

With a 6’5, 205-pound frame and with Tom Fitzgerald and Keith Tkachuk as second cousins, it would appear Hayes has all the makings of a power forward. Hayes doesn’t appear committed to that role just yet, as his 22 penalty minutes in 35 games for Boston College are hardly power forward numbers. Hayes is among BC’s top six as a freshman, playing with center Benn Ferriero (PHO). Hayes’ modest eight goals and 13 points should improve as he fills out and learns to use his body more. Hayes notched two goals in six games for the U.S. team at the 2009 World Junior Championships.

7. Chris DiDomenico, C
6’1, 170 lbs.
QMJHL – Drummondville Voltigeurs

DiDomenico can safely be considered a draft-day steal. A sixth-round pick in 2007, DiDomenico was the leading scorer on the St. John’s Sea Dogs before being traded on Jan. 6 to Drummondville. Drummondville acquired DiDomenico to round out its powerhouse offense in a push for the Memorial Cup.

DiDomenico has been exceeding expectations since he went undrafted in the 2006 Ontario Hockey League Priority draft. Despite being an undersized 5’10, 160-pound forward, he scored a point per game in the expansion Sea Dogs’ inaugural season. He followed that up with 95 points in 2007-08. Not only is DiDomenico on a similar pace this season, he has grown three inches since his draft year and is now listed at 6’1.

Although DiDomenico’s height is no longer an issue, his frame is still slight. He missed the 2008 ADT Canada/Russia Challenge and four QMJHL games after an injury in Gatineau in November. Once he fills out, DiDomenico has some potential as a top-six NHL forward. At 19 and currently only 170 pounds, he’s at least three seasons away.

8. Viktor Stalberg, LW

6’3, 210 lbs.
NCAA – University of Vermont

The one Leaf prospect who has rocketed up the depth charts is Viktor Stalberg. Stalberg has grown into his frame without losing an ounce of speed. Now the blazing fast 6’3, 210-pound winger is imposing his will on college hockey. Stalberg currently leads the Catamounts with 23 goals and 40 points in 36 games. He’s 16th in the country in points and an impressive fifth in goals.

The Catamounts, ranked seventh in the country with a 20-11-5 record, have leaned heavily on Stalberg’s scoring. Stalberg has scored almost 25 percent of Vermont’s goals and appears to have all the tools to bring his goal-scoring to the pro ranks.

9. Chad Rau, C
5’11, 180 lbs.
NCAA – Colorado College

Still only 5’11, 180 pounds, Rau has not developed the size or blazing speed that the Leafs were looking for when they drafted him as a project at the end of the 2005 Draft. Nonetheless, Rau is a gifted goal scorer and is especially dangerous when the game is on the line, as his team-leading 18 goals and 37 points can attest. While Rau was the sixth leading scorer in the nation half-way through the season, he has dropped to 38th in the second half.  To make the NHL, Rau needs to develop something in his game that will set him apart from other smallish, talented centers. If not, he’s destined for a long and productive minor-league career.

10. Dale Mitchell, RW
5’9, 200 lbs.
OHL – Windsor Spitfires

The Maple Leafs first pick in the 2007 draft was stocky winger Dale Mitchell, currently playing for the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL. With the Oshawa Generals when drafted, Mitchell, 19, was taken 74th overall by the Maple Leafs. They had traded away their first- and second-round picks prior to the draft.

Although listed at 5’9, Mitchell plays between 200 and 207 pounds. If you combine Mitchell’s heavy frame, low center of gravity and energetic style you have an ideal forechecker. Mitchell’s forechecking ability is one reason the Leafs signed him to a three-year, entry-level deal last season. The Leafs obviously have plans for Mitchell as they played him in two AHL playoff games last season with the Marlies.

In 2008-09, Mitchell is part of a very strong Windsor Spitfire team.  The Spitfires are currently ranked No. 1 in the CHL with a 57-10-0-1 record. Mitchell is tied for 29th in OHL scoring with 33 goals and 68 points in 66 games.  True to form, Mitchell is also 32nd overall in plus/minus. Mitchell projects as a third- or fourth-line pro.

11. James Reimer, G

6’3, 210 lbs.
ECHL – Reading Royals

Reimer, 20, has acquitted himself well with a 9-6-3 record and a .904 save percentage for the last place Reading Royals. Reimer played well enough to be recalled by the Marlies in late December when Pogge was promoted briefly to the NHL. Reimer started and won a shootout victory over the Manitoba Moose on December 27th. Reimer stopped 25 of 27 shots and was voted first star of the contest. Reimer is a big goalie who uses his size well, although he’s still very raw.

12. Ben Winnett, LW
6’1, 190 lbs.
NCAA – University of Michigan

With NHL-caliber speed, Winnett was expected to see some top-six ice time this season, but that hasn’t happened often. As a speedy Canadian winger, there were comparisons between Winnett and former Wolverine Andrew Cogliano. But Winnett’s three goals and 10 points in 30 games are a far cry from Cogliano’s 12 goals and 28 points in 39 games as a freshman. Winnett brings more size and grit to the table.  The big winger is said to have a nasty streak, but it has yet to appear consistently in Michigan. With the Wolverines ranked eighth in the country, Michigan coach Red Berenson has the depth to be able to bring Winnett along slowly.

13. Matt Frattin, RW

5’11, 185 lbs.
NCAA – University of North Dakota

Frattin’s early billing as a sniper is proving to be accurate. The sophomore winger is third on the Sioux with 13 goals in 39 games despite a six-game scoring drought. Frattin has an excellent shot, and the grit to get into scoring areas. While only a modest 5’11, 185 pounds, Frattin is fourth on North Dakota in penalty minutes because he fights for position to release his lethal shot.

Frattin’s 10 assists are a reflection of his one-dimensional offensive game as his skating and passing need work.  Nonetheless, Frattin has established a clear niche for himself unlike other Maple Leaf NCAA prospects.

14. John Mitchell, C

6’1, 185 lbs.
NHL – Toronto Maple Leafs

Mitchell’s Feb. 25 upper-body injury against the New York Rangers is one of the few things that has gone wrong for him this season. Long considered to have checking-line potential, Mitchell has achieved that this season with the lowly Leafs. After producing well for the Marlies in 2007-08, Mitchell forced the Leafs to keep him with an excellent training camp last September. His ice time has increased from an average of nine minutes to 13 over the course of the season, as he has gained coach Ron Wilson’s trust.

That Mitchell only has one NHL game left before he graduates is evidence just how far the former fifth-rounder has come since being drafted in 2003. His 24 points in 64 games show there is some offensive talent to go along with his defensive conscience and faceoff work. Mitchell’s success reflects well on the Leafs scouting and player development.

15. Ryan Hamilton, LW
6’2, 220 lbs.
AHL – Toronto Marlies

The Leafs finally cut the cord with Robbie Earl on Jan. 21 when they acquired Ryan Hamilton from Minnesota. Two totally different players, Hamilton brings more of a Brian Burke-type of game to the Leafs organization. A hard-working two-way winger, Hamilton seldom takes a shift off.

Hamilton broke through last season with an impressive 20-goal, +13 campaign for Minnesota’s farm team in Houston. Like Earl, Hamilton was struggling early but has managed to settle down with Toronto notching 11 points in 24 games. His plus/minus has improved considerably, going from a -13 in 29 games with the Aeros to a +2 in his time with the Marlies.

16. Joel Champagne C

6’4, 220 lbs.
QMJHL – P.E.I. Rocket

It was a disruptive Christmas for Champagne last year as he was traded to PEI from Chicoutimi on December 22nd, 2008. Champagne has made the most of the move, scoring 14 goals and 38 points in 23 games for the Rocket. At 6’4, 220-pounds, Champagne is a project. He’s slow on his skates and just recently started to show some offensive promise. Champagne needs to improve his skating to the point where he can use his size effectively in the pro ranks. He’s an excellent faceoff man, averaging an almost 60 percent success rate over the last two seasons.

17. Phil Oreskovic, D

6’3, 220 lbs.
AHL – Toronto Marlies

Oreskovic is the type of player all teams need to be successful. Second among Marlie defensemen at +15 last season, He leads the Marlies in plus/minus by +15 this season.  He recently received a call-up to the Maple Leafs, playing in his first NHL game on Mar. 9.

A punishing checker, Oreskovic consistently keeps forwards away from the front of the net. His willingness to mix it up, combined with good size and defensive instincts, makes it very likely Oreskovic will see some time in the NHL, if only as a depth defenseman. Since the Leafs are flush with defensive defensemen, it may not be the Maple Leafs that ultimately utilize his skills at the NHL level.

18. Tyler Ruegsegger, C
6’0, 185 lbs.
NCAA – University of Denver

Ruegsegger’s college numbers have gotten progressively worse since his freshman year. He has added 15 pounds of muscle to his frame since he started with Denver, but his skating continues to be his one, big drawback. Without solid skating there is less opportunity to show off his great hands and competitive nature.

Ruegsegger, an assistant captain, has 15 goals and 26 points in 35 games for the fifth-ranked Pioneers. If he can somehow take his skating up a notch, everything else is there for him to have a successful pro career.

19. Jerome Flaake, LW

6’2, 190 lbs.
DEL (Germany) – Cologne Sharks

The German elite league has more North American players than any other European pro league. Each club can place anywhere between 10-12 imports on its roster, which makes Flaake’s recent success all the more impressive. The lanky German has 16 points in 43 games, playing a shutdown, third-line role on a defensively weak Cologne club. The fact that he was given the role in the first place was a testament to Flaake’s ability.  But the fact that he’s excelled in the role is impressive. His +2 plus/minus on a team littered with negatives speaks volumes about the character and defensive awareness of this 18-year-old.

20. Korbinian Holzer, D
6’3, 190 lbs.
DEL (Germany) – DEG Metro Stars

Holzer’s comfort level is growing as he’s throwing his weight around more in the very physical DEL. His penalty minutes have already surpassed last year’s totals by 20 minutes. He’s still only a top-six defenseman, however, and his four goals and nine points in 38 games don’t indicate another Tomas Kaberle is on the way. In fact, Holzer has quite a way to go before he’ll be showing up on the Leafs radar. Once he fills out, and if he keeps playing a hard, physical style, the Leafs will have to pay attention to Holzer.