Toronto Maple Leafs earning dividends from astute drafting in 2006

By John-Eric Iannicello
Photo: James Reimer was among several astute mid-to-late round selections the Leafs made in the 2006 draft. (Photo courtesy of Holly Gunning/HF)

The 2006 NHL Entry Draft was one of the more productive drafts for the Maple Leafs over the last ten years. It’s produced three NHL players, and three NHL prospects – two of which have seen NHL action. It also allowed the Maple Leafs to acquired 24-year-old forward Kris Versteeg, who is now among their highest point producers.

Jiri Tlusty, C/LW, Kladno (CZE) – 1st round, 13th overall
Status: NHL Player
NHL Games Played: 113

Drafted out of the Czech men’s league, Tlusty was expected to become a scoring top-six winger for the club in the mould of Marian Hossa. Described as a strong skater with soft hands, Tlusty showed early promise in the first few years after he was drafted. But for all of his on-ice success, he also dealt with a serious media scandal.

Tlusty had recorded just seven goals in 44 games with Kladno when he was selected 13th overall by the Maple Leafs. He was captain of the Czech Under-18 at the 2006 World Under-18 Championship and was ranked the fourth-best skater out of Europe according to ISS (International Scouting Services).

He began his North American career with the Maple Leafs affiliate Toronto Marlies (AHL) before a development decision to re-assign him to the Sault St. Marie Greyhounds (OHL) was made. In six games with the Marlies he recorded three goals and one assist. He suffered a high-ankle sprain early in the OHL season which limited him to only 37 regular season games with the Greyhounds, but he was still able to contribute offensively with 13 goals and 21 points. Tlusty’s game really started to take shape in the playoffs where he was second in team scoring behind Dustin Jeffrey (PIT) with nine goals and eight assists in 13 games.

The 2007-08 season saw positive development out of the 19-year-old Czech. He played in 58 games with the Maple Leafs scoring 10 goals and six assists while playing a minor role with the club. He also played in 14 games with the Marlies scoring seven goals and eleven assists in 14 games. However, Tlusty’s positive play was overshadowed by a nude photo scandal that made front page news in Toronto.

Tlusty came back strong in the 2008-09 season with the Marlies finishing second in team scoring with 25 goals and 41 assists as a 20-year-old. It looked as if Tlusty was starting to develop into the top-six forward the Maple Leafs had envisioned him to be, but Tlusty was unable to translate his strong offensive numbers to the NHL. He recorded only four assists in 14 games with the Maple Leafs that season.

The 2009-10 season put an end to Tlusty’s tenure in the blue-and-white. Brian Burke dealt the 21-year-old to the Carolina Hurricanes for the Hurricane’s 2009 first-round selection Philippe Paradis, believing Tlusty needed to be in a smaller-market to flourish. Paradis would later be flipped in a multi-player deal that brought in Kris Versteeg.

Now at 22-years-old, Tlusty has yet to develop as the NHL’er many thought he could be when he was taken in the first-round. He’s still with the Hurricanes (although on the Injured-Reserve recovering from an arm injury), but has only recorded ten points in 39 games with the club.

Nikolai Kulemin, RW, Metallurg (RSL) – 2nd round, 44th overall
Status: NHL Player
NHL Games Played: 194

Eligible to be drafted in 2004, Nikolai Kulemin wasn’t selected until he was 20-years-old after a standout season on the international stage. He was Rookie of the Year in the Russian Super League (RSL) while playing for Magnitogorsk. As a member of Team Russia‘s Under-20 squad he scored four goals and assisted twice in four games while also amassing 25 penalty minutes. He also played on Russia‘s World Championship squad where he tallied four points in seven games.

It wasn’t until the following year that Maple Leaf fans started to gush over the prospect of adding the Russian power-forward to the team. In 2006-07 Kulemin record a whopping 27 goals in 54 games with Metallurg. In the playoffs he continued his goal scoring streak notching nine goals in 13 contests to help Metallurg win the RSL Championship.

Kulemin debuted as a Maple Leafs in the 2008-09 season and high expectations due to the success he had in the RSL. However, Kulemin did not turn out to be the immediate top-six talent many were expecting and even saw a five game stint with the Marlies were he failed to record a point. There was a large adjustment period for Kulemin not only on the ice, but off it as well. He scored a respectable 15 goals in his first season, but finished with only 31 points.

His second year with the club came with even larger expectations in hopes that he would break out. Again, Kulemin finished with respectable numbers of 16 goals and 20 assists in 78 games – a five point increase from the previous season. Although his offensive numbers weren’t as high as many hoped, his overall game was starting to take shape. His physical game was starting to become very apparent and Kulemin looked like he was starting to develop into the ideal third line winger. He formed a strong unit with Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel and played the role of grinder perfectly. He opened up the ice for Bozak and Kessel due to his physical play.

Today, Kulemin’s game has flourished incredibly. He’s found great chemistry with Mikhail Grabovski and his confidence is starting to show. He’s already matched his career high in goals with 16 in only 41 games and is on pace to break 60 points. His success on ice can be attributed to the hard-work he’s done off of it. He’s added nearly 30 pounds of muscle since he’s joined the Maple Leafs and it’s starting to make him a more dynamic forward.

James Reimer, G, Red Deer (WHL) – 4th round, 99th overall
Status: NHL Prospect
NHL Games Played: 7

Like most goalies drafted outside the first round, Reimer was considered a long-term project with solid upside. At 6’2, and approximately 200 pounds, he’s had good physical tools to work. He’s always been a positionally sound goaltender who isn’t necessarily flashy. His style, combined with his size made him a successful junior goaltender with the Red Deer Rebels. In his first year Reimer started in 34 games with the Rebels and posted a 2.81 goals against average to go along with a strong .910 save percentage. He had a losing record that year of 7-18-3.

His seco
nd season in the WHL saw Reimer emerge as a top goaltender. He played a league high 60 games with the Rebels and finished in the top-ten for goaltending statistics. He improved his stats to a 2.66 goals against average and a .912 save percentage. In the following season, Reimer suffered a setback to his WHL career when he went down with an ankle injury that shut him down for the season. He only played 30 games that season and was carrying a poor Red Deer team with a respectable 2.73 goals against average, and an improved .916 save percentage.

The 2008-09 season gave Reimer a fresh start and a new challenge making the transition to the pros. He started the season in the AHL but was re-assigned to the ECHL affiliate Reading Roylas in an effort to get him more playing time. Towards the end of the season, with the Roylas out of the playoff picture, Reimer was loaned to the South Carolina Sting Rays which proved to be an astute move for Reimer’s development. He was able to backstop the Sting Rays to a Kelly Cup Championship and was also named the MVP of the playoffs.

The 2009-10 season saw Reimer post a 2.25 goals against average and a .925 save percentage before succumbing to an ankle injury yet again after a hot start. That season he posted a 14-8-2 record.

Currently Reimer is starting to establish himself as the clubs top goaltending prospect. If Reimer is able to stay consistent and healthy, he has a shot at become an NHL goaltender. His play this season has been outstanding. He’s played 11 games with the Marlies with a 2.73 goals against average and a .920 save percentage but it’s his play with the Maple Leafs that has him turning heads. He’s ridden the bench for most of his call-up time with the Maple Leafs, but since giving Reimer a shot through six games he’s posted an impressive 2.27 goals against average and a .930 save percentage to go along with a winning record of 4-2. While it’s a small sample size, Reimer is certainly proving that he has the makings of an NHL goaltender.

Korbinian Holzer, D, EC Bad Tölz (German-Jr.) – 4th round, 111th overall
Status: NHL Prospect
NHL Games Played: 2

Mostly an unknown leading up to this season, Holzer has quietly put together a strong resume playing in Germany. Originally drafted out of the German junior league, Holzer had recorded two goals and three assists in 36 games while also amassing 80 penalty minutes in his draft year. That season he was also a member of Germany‘s Under-18 Team and in which he scored one goal and added three assists in six games.

He finished his career in the German men’s league (DEL) with 12 goals, 26 assists and 251 penalty minutes in 125 games, but he also had his share of low points. As a member of the DEG Metro Stars Holzer battled injuries including a concussion problem in the 2008-09 season.

Overall, Holzer has shown great development over the last few seasons and even earned himself a spot on Germany’s Olympic Roster in 2010. While he didn’t register a point in Germany’s four games he took a regular shift in the top-six.

As a member of the Marlies in 2009-10 the 22-years-old Holzer has been a mainstay in the top-six while others have been rotated in and out of the line-up. He’s played a solid defensive game with a knack for physicality at the proper times. He has one goal, five assists and 68 penalty minutes in 35 games. He also had a small two game stint in the NHL where he averaged 13 minutes of ice-time and displayed strong poise.

Given Brian Burke’s belief that Germany will start to produce more NHL players, it’s likely Holzer has a future with the Maple Leafs although he may take a couple seasons to crack the lineup on a regular basis. For now, he remains a solid NHL prospect within the organization.

Viktor Stalberg, Frölunda Indians (Swedish-Jr.) – 6th round, 161st overall
Status: NHL Player
NHL Games Played: 81

Taken in the sixth round of the draft, Viktor Stalberg was a long-term project that was committed to the University of Vermont. Similar to Kulemin, Stalberg was also drafted as 20-year-old.

During his draft year Stalberg tallied 27 goals and 26 assists in 41 games for Frolunda J20. He was also a member of Team Sweden‘s Under-20 team where he scored one goal in three games.

In his rookie year with Vermont, Stalberg scored seven goals and eight assists in 39 games. The 2008-09 season Stalberg started to become a larger threat in the NCAA tallying ten goals and thirteen assists in 39 games. His ten goals tied him for team league and he also finished third in team scoring.

His third season in the NCAA saw the young Swede establish himself as an NHL prospect. He improved his goal scoring totals drastically and was by far the best goal scoring forward on Vermont. He led Vermont in all offensive categories with 24 goals and 22 assists and was named to the Hockey East All-Star Team.

His size, speed, and scoring ability naturally made him a highly touted prospect coming into the 2009-10 season. His pre-season success only fueled his hype when he scored six goals and three assists in eight games. An early season concussion courtesy of Anton Volchenkov seemed to derail Stalberg’s momentum and career as a Maple Leaf.

Returning from injury, the 23-year-old Stalberg didn’t seem to have the same impact. While his skating and hustle were always noticeable, his offensive skills stagnated. He played 40 games with the Maple Leafs tallying only nine goals and five assists. With the Marlies, he was a very noticeable threat every night. He looked head and shoulders above his competition due to his speed and persistence. In his 39 games with the Marlies he scored 12 goals and 21 assists.

The 2009-10 season was the only season Stalberg played as a Maple Leaf. He was packaged along with Chris DiDomenico and Philippe Paradis in a deal that saw Kris Versteeg join the Maple Leafs. Stalberg is currently a member of the Chicago Blackhawks and has six goals and eight assists in 40 games.

Tyler Ruegsegger, Shattuck-St. Mary’s (US-HS) – 6th round, 166th overall
Status: NHL Bust
NHL Games Played: 0

Another potential sleeper pick in the 2006 draft was Tyler Ruegsegger, a hardworking offensive player who had lacked in the skating department. He was a strong player for Shattuck-St. Mary’s where he recorded 38 goals and 51 assists in 60 games during his draft year.

He went on to complete a four year career at the University of Denver where he was a key player to the team’s success. In his rookie season he scored 15 goals and added 19 assists in 40 games. He also led the team with a plus-15 rating.

His sophomore season saw Ruegsegger battle a nagging abdominal injury that limited him to 31 games. He also missed some time as a member of Team USA’s U-20 t
eam where he tallied four points in six games. He finished his season at Denver with 10 goals and 12 assists. Similar totals were put up in his junior year when he tallied 26 points in 35 games.

His senior year saw Ruesegger produce at a point-per game with 16 goals and 25 assists in 41 games. While it looked like he was well on his way to earning a pro contract the Maple Leafs decided not to sign him. Speculation was that they would sign him to an AHL deal, but instead Ruegsegger joined the Utah Grizzlies of the ECHL. He has five goals and seven assists in 32 games this season.

Leo Komarov, Assat Pori (Finland-Jr.) – 6th round, 180th overall
Status: NHL Prospect
NHL Games Played: 0

With their last selection in the 2006 NHL draft the Maple Leafs selected pesky forward Leo Komarov. It’s no secret the type of forward the Maple Leafs projected Komarov to be, but over the last few seasons he’s developed more of an offensive side to his game.

During his draft season Komarov only recorded three goals and three assists, but racked up a whopping 106 penalty minutes.

Komarov’s best offensive season in Finland came with the Pelicans in 2008-09 where he scored eight goals and assisted 16 times in 56 games. It was also a career high in the penalty minute category amassing 144. For his success, he was named to Finland’s World Championship team where he recorded one assist in five games.

He took his game over to the KHL the last two seasons and has been fairly productive offensively. In 83 career KHL games Komarov has notched 14 goals and 20 assists.

While there isn’t any news on Komarov making the trip across the pond, he remains a prospect within the Maple Leafs system. He’ll be 24 at the end of the month and his contract is also expiring in the KHL at the end of this season. He has a niche that could work in the NHL, but depending on whether he resigns in the KHL may determine his future status within the Maple Leafs organization.