Nazem Kadri continues reign as Toronto Maple Leafs top prospect

By John-Eric Iannicello
Photo: A highly coveted player by Toronto GM Brian Burke, Tyler Biggs makes his debut in the Maple Leafs’ top 20 at the nine spot. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

Joe Colborne debuts in the third spot after being acquired in a trade (February 18, 2011) that sent defenseman Tomas Kaberle to the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins. Recently drafted first rounds Tyler Biggs, Stuart Percy and third-rounder Josh Leivo also make their first appearances on the Maple Leafs top 20 list.

1. (1) Nazem Kadri, LW, 8.0C
Drafted 1st round, 7th overall, 2009

After a successful season in the AHL, Nazem Kadri is primed to take the official leap to a full-time position with the Maple Leafs in 2011-12. The 20-year-old forward has had his up-and-down battles with consistency, but has the inside track to win the vacant third line wing position with the club. He saw a 29 game stint with the Maple Leafs last year and provided a boost to the team’s offense.

Once groomed as a center, GM Brian Burke admitted that Kadri’s future in the Maple Leafs organization will be on the wing. The wing allows Kadri to focus less on the defensive side of the puck and more on his dynamic offensive ability. Whether or not Kadri makes the Maple Leafs will be determined in camp, and with added forward depth it won’t be an easy task.

2. (4) James Reimer, G, 8.0C
Drafted 4th Round, 99th overall, 2006

A revelation for the blue and white last season, James Reimer will look to build on his early success by establishing himself over the course of a full season. The 23-year-old was outstanding in 37 games with the club in 2011-12 season, and earned himself a three-year deal in the process. He also earned himself a spot on Canada’s World Championship team where he appeared in four games recording a 2.04 goals against average and a .920 save percentage.

Success between the pipes will go a long way in bringing the Maple Leafs back into the post-season. Reimer has established himself over the short-term, but will now face the demands of a full season as the Maple Leafs starting goaltender.

3. (NR) Joe Colborne, C, 7.5C
Acquired via trade with the Boston Bruins, February 18th, 2011

The lanky center who the Maple Leafs acquired in exchange for Tomas Kaberle adds a different dynamic to the Maple Leafs forward group: a center with size and skill. While it may take a few seasons for Joe Colborne to come into his own at the NHL level, he’s shown flashes of top-six skill this past season in the AHL.

This season Colborne will look to take on a primary, offensive role with the Toronto Marlies. He’ll have the opportunity to battle for the top-line center spot, and should he continue trending up. He is likely to warrant a call-up at some point this season. The 6’5 center has all the skill a player would want at his disposal, but questions have surrounded his game-to-game consistency level.

4. (2) Jake Gardiner, D, 7.5C
Acquired via trade with the Anaheim Ducks, February 9th, 2011

After joining the Marlies late in the season, Gardiner will have the opportunity to take a top-four role with the club this year. Gardiner possesses great skating ability and the vision to move the puck swiftly out of the defensive zone. He has the ability to rip pucks on net, but will need to adjust to the timing of the pro game in order to become an impact defenseman.

A bit of a wild bronco at this point, the proper coaching could make Gardiner a special player. He has all the tools at his disposal (not unlike Colborne) and his developmental steps at the AHL level will be a key in becoming a quality defenseman.

5. (3) Keith Aulie, D, 7.0B
Acquired via trade with the Calgary Flames, January 31st, 2010

Keith Aulie proved he was a capable NHL defenseman last season averaging just less than 20 minutes a night. The 6’5 defender plays a hardnosed defensive style that’s welcomed on the Maple Leafs defense. He’s also capable of moving the puck out of the zone with his calm demeanor – although unlikely to rack up a ton of points.

With the additions of John-Michael Liles, Cody Franson, and big ticket defenseman Mike Komisarek still in the fold; Aulie will be in tough to win a position with the club out of camp. He’s still exempt from waivers, which could play a factor at the start of the season.

6. (7) Jesse Blacker, D, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd Round, 58th overall, 2009

Jesse Blacker had a very big turnaround season in the OHL last year. His offensive numbers took off with 54 points in 62 games and he also evolved into a stronger defensive player with a plus-17. In the playoffs, Blacker continued to raise his level of play when led the team in defensive scoring with 16 points in 22 games. For his efforts, Blacker helped Owen Sound secure the OHL Championship. He was also named to the OHL’s Third All-Star Team.

This year, the 20-year-old will have a chance to take a primary role with the Marlies. His unique blend of size, speed, and strength should aid in his transition from juniors. Blacker has slowly established himself as a strong defensive prospect with great promise. He’ll need to continue making smart pinches and knowing when to step up to make big hits at the pro level.

7. (16) Matt Frattin, RW, 7.0C
Drafted 4th round, 99th overall, 2007

After an extremely successful fourth-season with North Dakota, Frattin had the opportunity to get his feet wet with one NHL game at season’s end. The 23-year-old displayed a nose for the net recording five-shots, but finished the game a minus-one. Physically, he was able to keep up and he showed growing confidence as the game grew old.

In his final year with North Dakota, Frattin established himself as one of the top players in the entire NCAA. In 44 games, Frattin tallied 36 goal, and 24 assists. He gained top honors in the WCHA for Player of the Year, Scoring Champion, First Team All-Star, and was named to the All-Academic Team.

Coming off such a season, expectations will be high for Frattin to produce right off the hop. He’s shown an ability to score in the NCAA, but whether or not he’s able to translate those numbers to the NHL will be something to keep an eye on. Luckily, the forward possesses a strong physical game that may make him a useful bottom-six player if he’s unable to score at a consistent top-six pace.

8. (8) Greg McKegg, C, 7.0 C
Drafted 3rd Round, 62nd overall, 2010

Like Frattin, McKegg also scored at a high rate in his respective league. The third-year OHL forward established himself as a dominant force as he led the Erie Otters in scoring with 49 goals and 43 points in 92 games – which was good for eighth in scoring league wide.

While his offensive contributions can’t be ignored, he also has his flaws when it comes to overall consistency. A shoddy playoff performance didn’t shake the opinions of his critics either, scoring only five points in seven games.

Unable to play in the AHL due to age restriction, it’s almost certain the McKegg returns to the OHL, where he’ll once again captain the Otters. He’ll be looked on to crack the 100 point plateau, and continue developing into an overall force at the junior level. He’ll also have one last chance to crack Canada’s U20 team.

9. (NR) Tyler Biggs, RW, 7.0 C
Drafted 1st Round, 22nd overall, 2011

It was almost destined that Tyler Biggs would dawn the blue and white with Brian Burke at the helm. The physically dominant Biggs is a power-forward in the truest sense. With great size already at 18-years-old, Biggs will need to focus on developing his offensive skills which have been in question.

While other highly-regarded American prospects have jumped ship to the OHL, Biggs remains committed to Miami University. The fast, run-and-gun style team may prove to be the perfect development path for Biggs to develop his offensive skill and work on his foot-speed. Should he decide to join the OHL, his rights are owned by the Oshawa Generals.

10. (NR) Stuart Percy, D, 7.0C
Drafted 1st Round, 25th overall, 2011

Three spots after picking Biggs at the 2011 NHL Draft, the Leafs selected low-maintenance defender Stuart Percy.

Percy projects as a complementary defenseman who can be used in a variety of different situations. He’s unlikely to ever be a team’s top-pairing defenseman, but he could very well be the necessary glue player that helps a team win championships.

He’ll spend the next few seasons going through the basic maturation process of the OHL, and will look to continue to take steps in developing into a strong two-way defender. With graduations to a few of Mississauga’s veteran defenders, Percy is in a prime position to take a leadership role.

11. (10) Ben Scrivens, G, 7.0C
Acquired as a free agent, April 2010

After starting the season in the ECHL, where he put up a 2.23 goals against average and an impressive .938 save percentage in 13 games, Ben Scrivens was able to start in 33 games for the Marlies. Due to promotions to Reimer and injuries to Jussi Rynnas, it opened the door of opportunity for Scrivens. The 24-year-old took the starters role and ran with it, sporting a record of 13-12-5 (including two shutouts). He also posted a 2.33 goals against average and a .924 in his games with the Marlies.

With a new season comes a fresh slate for players, but Scrivens has done himself a world of good with his play last year. With Rynnas looking to bounce back from an up-and-down year, and Mark Owuya looking for a chance to prove himself, there will be healthy competition again for the Marlies starting duty in 2011-12.

12. (9) Brad Ross, LW, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd Round, 43rd overall, 2010

A player who relishes in getting under players skin, Brad Ross has shown he can also contribute some offense along the way. Ross has the makings of a strong complementary forward who may see top-six duty due to his ability to infuriate opponents and keep the pace with the highly-skilled forwards.

Since his draft year in 2010, Ross has continued to do what he does best – stir up the opposition. Over the past two years, Ross has accumulated 374 penalty minutes. He’s also improved offensively, scoring 31 goals in 67 games and tallying 69 points. While penalty minutes will always be the largest numbers on Ross’s stat line, he’ll need to avoid costly penalties that hinder his team.

Ross will return to the WHL for a third-year, and will look to take on a more prominent offensive role as the likely departures of Nino Niederreiter (NYI), Ryan Johansen (CLB) and potentially Sven Bartschi (CAL) open up spots in the top-six.

13. (5) Jussi Rynnas, G, 8.0D
Acquired as a free agent, April 2010

Had Jussi Rynnas played the entire year like he did in November, he would be talked about as one of the top goaltender prospects in the entire NHL. While he shows great promise and natural ability, he also has potentially fatal flaws that may hold him back from regular NHL starter duty.

After a slow start with the Marlies where he lost his first three games, Rynnas’s sensational November opened the eyes of many. The month saw Rynnas go 5-2-2 while posting a 1.33 goals against average to go along with a sparkling .957. Unfortunately that was the highest point in his season. He suffered a broken finger in early February which kept him out approximately two months, and only managed to return for the final two-games of the season.

While the upcoming year is not make or break for Rynnas, he has to learn to be more consistent. Rynnas still needs to harness his aggressive style, and control more of his rebounds. His glove hand was also exposed at times last season, so tweaking that portion of his game would also be of benefit.

14. (14) Korbinian Holzer, D, 6.0B
Drafted 4th round, 111th overall, 2006

Behind Aulie, Korbinian Holzer is another defender who showed great improvement over the course of the season and is one of the teams more NHL ready defenders. He was one of the more reliable defenders for head coach Dallas Eakins even though he was rookie.

His offensive game is rather non-existent, but that shouldn’t deter Holzer from making an impact at the NHL level. He’s not a physically dominant force, but knows when to use the body and can lay big hits.

Due to the current NHL depth, Holzer’s likely to take a top-pairing role with a strong puck-moving defender such as Jake Gardiner or Jesse Blacker. Should injuries arise over the course of the season, Holzer is likely to be one of the first call-ups. His game is perfectly suited for a depth role, and could vie for a full-time position in 2012-13.

15. (11) Jerry D’Amigo, LW, 6.5C
Drafted 6th Round, 158th overall, 2009

Entering the season with unreasonable expectations didn’t help D’Amigo’s transition to the pros. The then 19-year-old forward had his fair shares of peaks-and-valleys this past season as a member of the Marlies and Kitchener Rangers.

Assigned to the Marlies after training camp, D’Amigo was seen as a complementary forward who could provide a spark offensively. After a season of inconsistent offense, and a poor showing at the U20s, Maple Leafs management opted to re-assign D’Amigo to the OHL in an effort to rekindle his offensive game – and it worked.

D’Amigo’s 12 goals, and 16 assists in 21 regular season games and his subsequent nine points in seven playoff games proved that D’Amigo had the skill, but that he just wasn’t ready to produce at the pro level.

This season, the 20-year-old will return to the Marlies with a year of experience under his belt and less pressure to produce off the hop.

16. (6) Luca Caputi, LW, 6.5C
Acquired via trade with Pittsburgh, March 2nd, 2010

Looking like a front-runner to earn a spot with the Maple Leafs at the start of last season, Caputi had all the essential tools to play a role in the Maple Leafs bottom-six. But after he failed to win a spot, he was returned to the Marlies where he was counted on to produce big numbers.

His offensive game sputtered out of the gate, tallying only one goal and one assist in his first six games. In October he was recalled to the Maple Leafs, but had little impact. A season-ending sports hernia in November limited him to only 13 AHL games all season.

Still only 22-years-old, Caputi will look to make a strong bounce back in this critical year of his development. With a LW spot open on the Maple Leafs roster, if Caputi comes to camp healthy and focused he may be a dark horse to win the spot.

17. (13) Juraj Mikus, D, 6.5C
Drafted 5th round, 134th overall, 2007

A bit of an enigma, Mikus possesses some strong tools, but hasn’t quite put them together on a consistent basis just yet. The 6’4 defenseman has strong offensive instincts, and an accurate point shot, but requires more strength.

With Mikus being one of the younger Marlies defenders, he was at times caught out of the rotation. He also suffered small minor injuries which also kept him out of the lineup at times. He saw action in 56 games and tallied four goals and 12 assists.

The 22-year-old will look to secure a full-time position in 2011-12. He has the potential to put up good numbers from the blue line, but may take a few years to get there.

18. (15) Simon Gysbers, D, 6.5C
Acquired as a free agent, March 2010

A player who may deserve more respect for his rookie-year contributions is Simon Gysbers. In his rookie-campaign, Gysbers led the Marlies in defensive scoring with seven goals and 24 assists in 60 games. He plays a poised game from the back-end, and his offensively instincts have made him a reliable top-four offensive defender for the Marlies.

Gysbers flaws come in his defensive game and foot speed. At 6’4, he moves well for his size, but this could be an area of weakness at the NHL level and thus limit his impact offensively. He needs to react a bit quicker as the gaps will be tighter at the highest level. In the defensive zone, Gysbers needs to do a better job at his position. At times, Gysbers can be caught running around. Fortunately, both these areas can be corrected with practise.

19. (17) Josh Nicholls, RW, 6.5C
Drafted 7th round, 182nd overall, 2010

Josh Nicholls impressed a ton this season after he nearly double his point totals from a year ago. The 19-year-old forward finished second on the Saskatoon Blades with 34 goals, and 53 assists for 87 points in 71 games. While he was on a Blades team that had its fair share of talent, it also spoke to Nicholls ability to produce amongst his peers.

Is this a blip in the radar? Or an indication of Nicholls actual ability? It may be too soon to tell, but this year should be a good indicator as a handful of players from the 2010-11 Blades team graduate.

20. (NR) Josh Leivo, LW, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd Round, 86th overall, 2011

Rounding out the top 20 is 2011, 3rd round pick Josh Leivo. Leivo debuts at the 20th spot due to his projected potential as a top-nine forward. While he’s a bit of a wildcard at the moment due to his small sample size of success, Leivo has some natural tools at his disposal that make him an intriguing prospect. He’s shown some offensive upside, but it’s his physical tools that show promise. He has a ton of room to grow, and he already knows how to use his 6’2 frame well.

He’ll look to build on a good rookie-season and will have an opportunity to take a primary role with the Wolves as veteran offensive-forwards Eric O’Dell (WPG) and Mike Lomas graduate.