This week we’ll examine a group of returning players and next week the spotlight will swing over to several key newcomers.
Sergei Berezin – Anyone who has followed Sergei’s career since his arrival in Toronto 4 seasons ago can certainly identify the basic trademarks of his game: 1) a quick and accurate shot that he, unlike many Russian players, doesn’t hesitate to use 2) at least five skating gears all seemingly in use at the same time 3) an absolute faith in his own ability to score every time he touches the puck 4) near total disdain for passing unless there is absolutely no other option available. Taken together, these tendencies make Berezin an extremely entertaining player to watch. However, Sergei’s overall contribution to the Maple Leafs’ cause is somewhat obscured by his flamboyant playing style. Simply put, Berezin provides the team with a dangerous offensive threat virtually without assistance. The generation of quality scoring chances by each of the team’s top three lines has made the Maple Leafs so successful during the Pat Quinn era – very few teams can ice 3 forward lines capable of checking top drawer attackers. This season, due to improving depth up front, Berezin should reap the benefits of playing with at least one gifted playmaker (likely either Perreault or Antropov) and a total of 30 or more goals is a virtual lock. It is no coincidence that the team struggled when he was not in the line-up for a short period last season.
Nik Antropov – In the modern 30 team NHL, the most difficult assignment facing each member club is the identification and acquisition of truly elite players. Essentially, a superstar can be acquired in only one of three ways: from another team in a trade, from the free agent market or from the annual Entry Draft. The Maple Leafs were fortunate to obtain Captain Mats Sundin in a very underrated deal with Quebec and then were able to add Curtis Joseph as an unrestricted free agent several years later. The drafting of a potential franchise player is a far more difficult proposition – especially for successful teams who must generally sit through a dozen or more selections before getting a chance to participate in the lottery. Yet, on rare occasions, a great player can fall into your lap and it’s beginning to look as though Toronto may have stolen one at the 1998 Entry Draft with the selection of Nik Antropov. The unlimited potential associated with the gangly kid from Kazakhstan was quickly realized last year during an impressive rookie campaign. If Antropov continues to progress at his present rate, he will soon combine with Sundin to provide the Maple Leafs with a pair of world-class forwards to rival those in Colorado (Sakic / Forsberg), Detroit (Yzerman / Fedorov) and Anaheim (Selanne / Kariya). Perhaps more than any other player on this list, Nik Antropov is capable of lifting his team to another level. After all, highly skilled forwards who are 6’5”, 225 to 230 pounds when fully mature and who play with a discernable edge are almost impossible to find.
Dmitri Khristich – When signed as an unrestricted free agent by the Leafs last fall, it was widely believed that the acquisition of this proven scorer (six seasons with 25 or more goals) was certainly a step in the right direction. It is now almost as widely held that Khristich was something of a bust in Toronto and that his signing may have been a serious mistake. Still only 31 years old on opening night, Khristich’s previous track record would indicate that a rebound to more respectable numbers is highly likely. Moreover, the Maple Leafs have recently revealed that Dmitri played with a severe groin injury last season and that this may have contributed to his sub-par showing. To his credit, Khristich continued to play through pain and concentrated on defensive assignments after his offensive game went south. Concerns regarding character shortcomings raised when he was discarded by the Bruins seem rather groundless now. This season, a healthy Khristich should flourish somewhere on the top 2 lines in Toronto and further augments the important scoring depth discussed in the Berezin comments above.
Darcy Tucker – Tucker, acquired from Tampa Bay for the popular Mike Johnson last season, almost immediately became a huge fan favorite in Toronto. Darcy’s game is guts, grit and effort personified and Maple Leaf supporters have always been drawn to this type of player. Expect Tucker to deliver lots of aggressive play along with a surprising amount of offensive skill to the Maple Leafs’ cause again this winter. In fact, Darcy’s verbal and physical challenges may become even more grating this season with brother-in-law Shayne Corson along to ride shotgun for him. Though he may be far from the most talented player on the team, Darcy Tucker is an intense competitor and a spiritual leader on a club that needs more of these ingredients in order to compete with the league’s big boys.
Alyn McCauley – McCauley has flashed superior speed, poise and sound positioning between the injury absences that have been far too frequent for the young pivot. Few doubt that Alyn can be well on the road to establishing a solid NHL career if he can somehow avoid additional detours. McCauley provides a ready in-house solution as the team looks to replace Kevyn Adams, lost to Columbus in the Expansion Draft. The fact that Yanic Perreault and Nik Antropov may be missing from the line-up early in the season due to knee injuries suffered last year provides McCauley with a golden opportunity to re-establish himself on the team. Certainly, McCauley possesses far too much talent to remain a depth player on the periphery of the roster for very much longer. Unfortunately for McCauley, young players only get a limited number of chances when trying to claim a spot on a club in the league’s upper echelon and this may be Alyn’s last one with Toronto. If he fails to produce positive results or if he succumbs to further injuries, it would surprise no one to see McCauley moved to a rebuilding club that can afford to be more patient with him.
Tomas Kaberle – Kaberle is already a legitimate top-drawer NHL defender who demonstrates skill in virtually every aspect of the game with the exception of punishing physical play. He compensates for this one shortcoming with outstanding positioning and is extremely reliable in his own zone. Although Kaberle has been very effective in his 2 seasons with the Maple Leafs, scouts around the league insist that he has only begun to scratch the surface of his abilities. Many predict that a huge upside still exists, especially in his offensive game, and that Tomas can become a perennial Norris Trophy candidate if he decides that he wants it badly enough. The reason that Kaberle’s name appears on this list is that he represents the only legitimate candidate on the current roster capable of standing in for the electrifying talents lost when Bryan Berard was injured late last season. Improvement on the powerplay is an absolute must if the team is to become a serious contender for the Stanley Cup. The Leafs will be monitoring Kaberle’s growth this fall before deciding whether or not a move for a proven quarterback is needed.
Cory Cross – When acquired from Tampa Bay at the outset of last season, Cross was considered to be an underrated player stuck for too many seasons on a terrible team. For their part, the Lightning have to be pleased with their return on the deal (Freddie Modin) while, in Toronto, Leaf supporters have been critical this former Canadian college star. The problem stems from the fact that Cory stands 6’5”, weighs in at approximately 215 pounds yet plays a brand of defense based upon finesse and positioning. He’s more than big enough to punish attackers but he just isn’t inclined to do it. League insiders still maintain that Cross is a solid defender who is very difficult to get around (due to his tremendous reach) and who also contributes effectively to the Maple Leafs’ vaunted transition game. In order to silence the critics, Cross must begin to consistently use his size in defending the goal area (and the franchise goaltender) – the Leafs don’t have a better option on hand in order to deal with the Leclairs, Jagrs, Shanahans and Arnotts of the world.
Danny Markov – In many ways, Danny Markov combines the best attributes of both defenders described above. Though certainly not as flashy as Tomas Kaberle, he does possess the necessary mobility to make a much larger contribution in the offensive zone. Markov also has the right disposition to substantially increase the number of hard hits handed out along the Leafs’ blueline, even if he isn’t nearly as physically imposing as teammate Cory Cross. Any improvement shown in either area by Danny during the upcoming season will reduce the pressure to deliver on both Kaberle and Cross. The effectiveness of Toronto’s entire defensive corps will be improved considerably if players like Danny Markov are able to cross the line that separates the reliable professional from the promising youngster.