Maple Leafs 2004 draft evaluation

By Stuart McDonald

The 2004 entry draft provides a perfect example of the profit-now, win-maybe philosophy popular under the regime of Richard Peddie, current president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE).  Trading their first two picks in the 2004 draft helped translate into 10 home playoff dates at the expense of two high picks in a good draft.  

To achieve more home playoff dates, the Leafs opted to trade their picks for some immediate but over-the-hill help on the blue line. Leading up to the 2003 trade deadline (March 2003), Toronto traded their 2004 second-round pick to Carolina for defenseman Glen Wesley, then 34. The trade didn’t help the Leafs get past the Philadelphia Flyers, as the Leafs lost the first round of the playoffs in seven games. A year later, the Leafs made their 2004 first rounder the centerpiece of a deal with the New York Rangers. The Leafs acquired Brian Leetch, then 36, from the Rangers for defenseman Max Kondratiev,  center Jarkko Immonen, a 2004 first rounder and a 2005 second rounder. With Leetch patrolling the blue line, the Leafs reached the second round of the 2003-04 playoffs and scored seven home playoff dates, but once again lost to Philadelphia in six games.

Partially because of the 2004-05 lockout, both trades turned out to be unmitigated disasters for the Leafs. Wesley played a grand total of 12 games for the Leafs while Leetch played a whopping 28 games before signing with the Boston Bruins for his final season. Current young NHL stars Travis Zajac, Wojtek Wolski, Andrej Meszaros, Cory Schneider and Mike Green were all taken just after the pick traded away for Leetch.

The second pick could easily have led to David Krejci, David Booth, Alex Goligoski or Brandon Dubinsky, all of whom were taken soon after the pick traded away for Wesley.

As a result of beginning their selections at 90th overall, the Maple Leafs draft class of 2004 has played just 16 NHL games, for a per-pick average of 2.8 games.
Justin Pogge, G – 3rd round, 90th overall (Prince George, WHL)
NHL Games: 7
Status: Prospect

In 2007-08, Pogge appeared in 41 regular season AHL games, going 26-10-0 with four shutouts. He finished with a 2.34 goals against average and a .908 save percentage to cement his status as a good prospect.  Pogge, 23, earned the Marlies (AHL) starting job in October 2008 but had a sub-par 2008-09 season. Finishing with only 26 wins in 53 games and a woeful .895 save percentage, Pogge was outplayed consistently by his backup, Adam Munro.

After a woeful season, Pogge will need to bounce back from a very mediocre performance to regain his blue-chip prospect status. A fighter, Pogge is still ranked No. 1 because of his competitive streak. If he returns to form and becomes a No. 1 or 1A NHL goalie, the Leafs amateur scouts will deserve credit for salvaging this draft.

Roman Kukumberg, F – 4th round, 113th overall (Trencin Dukla, Slovakia

NHL Games:  0
Status: Bust

Kukemberg was already 24 when the Leafs selected him. In August 2005 they signed Kukumberg to a one-year contract. In 2005-06 he scored eight points for the Marlies in 54 games. He wasn’t re-signed. Kukumberg returned to Slovakia for the 2006-07 season. He then he played a few games in Russia before returning again to Slovakia. He is signed in the KHL for next season.

Dmitry Vorobiev, D – 5th round, 157th overall (Tolyatti Lada, Russia)
NHL Games: 0
Status:  Prospect

Along with Pogge, Vorobiev looked like he was a steal a year ago. Unlike Pogge, the issue is not his production but his health. 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, 2009 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. Between his health issues and his reluctance to come to North America, it’s unlikely Vorobiev will ever play in Toronto despite his solid defensive game.

Robbie Earl, LW – 6th round, 187th overall (U. of Wisconsin, NCAA)
NHL Games: 9
Status:  Prospect

Earl was a wild card headed into the 2004 draft.  He was seen to have skill, but was far from a sure thing.  He fell all the way to the sixth round, and upon being selected by the Leafs, Earl, clearly emotional after having sat through that many rounds, stated in the media room that the Leafs had gotten a steal.

It looked for a while like that could be true. Earl’s game is based on his great speed but he has regressed since 2007-08 when he had 47 points in 66 AHL games. This year, including playoffs, Earl had 18 points in 53 AHL games.

Earl was traded in January 2009 to Minnesota for prospect Ryan Hamilton. At 23 years old, Earl is running out of time to regain his offensive form and with it any chance at a serious NHL career.

Maxim Semenov, D  – 7th round, 220th overall (Tolyatti Lada, Russia)

NHL Games: 0
Status:  Bust

Semenov was an overaged European, but not as old as Kukumberg.  He was 20 when drafted, but never signed by the Leafs. The 6’0 defenseman now plies his trade for Mytischi in Russia’s KHL where he has played since 2005-06.

Jan Steber, C  – 8th round, 252nd overall (Halifax Mooseheads, QMJHL)
NHL Games: 0
Status:  Bust

After junior in the QMJHL, Steber spent the 2005-06 season with Pensacola in the ECHL. The 6’3, 210-pound center could only manage 19 points in 49 games and remained unsigned by the Leafs after the season. This prompted the young Czech to sign with HC Ocelari Trinec of the Czech Extraleague where he currently plies his trade. 

Pierce Norton, RW – 9th round, 285th overall (Thayer Academy – Mass. HS)

NHL Games:  0
Status:  Prospect

After high school, Norton developed slowly into a productive power winger with Providence College. Norton managed 21 points in 33 games during his senior year. He still has an outside chance at a pro career although most likely as a minor leaguer.  The Leafs retain his rights until Aug. 15, 2009.

Holly Gunning contributed to this article.