Toronto’s Keys to Success – Part 2

By Randy Nicholson
This is the conclusion of a two part series providing a detailed look at players who will determine Toronto’s destiny in 2000 / 2001. For the purposes of this discussion, superstars (Sundin, Joseph) and dependable veterans (Thomas, Yushkevich, Domi, Perreault etc.) have been excluded. These articles will focus on players whose contributions have yet to be established over the long term. If a majority of the players listed herein can rise to new levels this season, the Leafs will do battle with perennial powerhouses in Detroit, Dallas, Denver, St. Louis, Philadelphia and New Jersey for league dominance. Conversely, if they fail to step forward sufficiently, the team may once again fall short of its Stanley Cup aspirations.

Last week we examined a group of returning players and this week the spotlight swings over to several key newcomers.

Gary Roberts – With apologies to Shayne Corson and Dave Manson, Roberts represents the prize of Toronto’s Y2K free agent expedition. While all 3 players signed by the Maple Leafs this summer add unquestioned toughness to the roster, only Roberts brings proven scoring ability. It is presently Coach Quinn’s plan to start Roberts on Mats Sundin’s left flank and this is the reason that he will prove to be such a valuable addition. Gary will infuse the team’s # 1 line with an every shift intensity that it simply hasn’t had since Doug Gilmour’s glory days in the early 1990’s. Known for his willingness to work the corners and to absorb punishment in front of the net, Roberts could easily increase the overall productivity of the Sundin unit even if he doesn’t match the 29 goals turned in by Jonas Hoglund last year.

Shayne Corson – The numbers say that Corson’s days of significant offensive production are now but a memory. After all, Shayne hasn’t hit the 20 goal plateau since the 1997 / 1998 season. If this is true, Corson will undoubtedly make his presence felt in other ways, bringing skill, grit, determination and leadership to the 2nd and 3rd forward lines. On the other hand, it is conceivable that Corson became a defensive specialist in Montreal simply because he was deployed in that manner by the coaching staff. Once inserted into the “run and gun” scheme utilized by the Maple Leafs, a return to the 20 goal / 50 point level isn’t entirely out of the question for Shayne if he can remain reasonably healthy. Either way, don’t underestimate Corson’s potential impact – the NHL’s best teams have sought to acquire his services from the Canadiens repeatedly during the past couple of seasons.

Adam Mair – Though no one attached to the Toronto organization will admit it for public consumption, Mair is likely one reason that Kevyn Adams was made available at the Expansion Draft in June. Although both players play the game in a similarly aggressive manner, Mair is younger, bigger, tougher and possesses a larger offensive upside. Astute scouting is but one part of the player development process – opportunities must also be extended to young players when they are deemed ready to join the roster. This year at the Leafs’ main camp, Mair will be provided with just such an opportunity. When the season begins, Toronto’s 4th line centerman will likely be either Mair or Alyn McCauley. Either way, this would represent a significant upgrade in terms of pure talent over the line-up that completed the 1999 / 2000 campaign.

Jeff Farkas – Jeff Farkas is somewhat unique amongst the players near the top of the Leafs’ prospect list in that he’s a pure sniper. Most of the players poised to challenge for an NHL job at this time are either blueliners or defensive forwards. Breathtakingly fast, shifty and the owner of a laser-like shot off the wing, Farkas has the potential to get noticed during the pre-season contests in a way that the others will find difficult to match. He can score goals – potentially loads of them. Although scoring is not an area that necessarily needs improvement on the Maple Leafs, a breakout performance by this dynamic young player could make the final roster decisions very difficult for the team to make. It would also allow the club to deal a proven scorer in order address other needs. In any case, it will be very interesting to see just how quickly this former NCAA standout can make his presence felt on the Toronto hockey scene.

Mikael Hakansson – Perhaps the player on this list least known to Maple Leaf fans, Mikael was drafted by the club way back in 1992. He has steadily improved his game in Sweden, first with MoDo and then more recently with Djurgardens. Hakansson is big (6-3/200), fast and tough and seems easily capable of giving the team all that Jonas Hoglund can at a mere fraction of the salary. Moreover, as a 26 year-old rookie, he is unlikely to covet a lengthy stay in the minor leagues. If he can perform as well as he did last season in the SEL, it would surprise no one if Mikael breaks camp with the big team.

Petr Svoboda – There will be no shortage of experienced rearguards on hand in Kitchener next month and yet young Petr Svoboda remains an intriguing and potentially important player. He represents the Leafs’ best chance to raise the offensive ceiling of their blueline group from within the organization. There have been recent published reports suggesting that Svoboda possesses only limited scoring potential but I wouldn’t put too much faith in them. First Division teams in the Czech Republic seldom assign key roles to their young players – witness the fact that Tomas Kaberle scored but 4 times during his last season at home. Those who have actually seen him play in tournaments against players closer to his own age (Tom Renney and Pierre Page to name but two) rave about his skill level and poise, comparing him to current NHL Euro-stars such as Nicklas Lidstrom and Teppo Numminen. Toronto’s braintrust privately expects Petr to pose a serious threat to their returning regulars on defense. Clearly, Svoboda is a very important part of the future for the Maple Leafs. If he performs as well this September as fellow countryman Tomas Kaberle did 2 years ago, the future may arrive sooner than expected.

Dmitri Yakushin – Yakushin is not blessed with the superior puck skills expected from fellow rookie defender, Petr Svoboda. For this reason, the odds on Dmitri cracking the roster this season are significantly longer than Svoboda’s presently are. That said, the assets that Yakushin brings to the dance (size, toughness, mobility, sound decision making) suggest that he will be playing in the NHL someday soon. If the Leafs cannot get Alexei Karpovtsev under contract prior to Training Camp or if Dmitri can otherwise separate himself from the pack (perhaps with big hits and solid transition play) during the early going, there may still be a job available for him as soon as this year on the Toronto roster.

Dave Manson – There is really no secret surrounding the Maple Leafs interest in adding veteran Dave Manson to the roster in recent days. The abuse absorbed by star netminder Curtis Joseph from opposing attackers last year was simply unacceptable. The Leafs do have some toughness on the backline (Yushkevich, Markov, Karpovtsev, Diduck) but no one to be actually feared until now. Manson adds an unpredictable and volatile element to the team’s rearguard. It would surprise no one if the first player that runs into Cujo this fall gets jumped by big Dave who will then proceed to deliver an effective discourse on crease etiquette with his fists. This may sound somewhat barbaric but it has actually been the accepted punishment linked to this specific crime for a good many years in the NHL. This season, the Maple Leafs will finally have an accomplished policeman back on the beat.