Leafs’ Rookie Tournament – Game 1

By Randy Nicholson
The Maple Leafs’ Y2K prospect team and their counterparts representing the Carolina Hurricanes experienced great difficulty in creating any sustained flow at the tournament’s opening game in Kitchener last night. In fairness, it may just have been the hottest evening of the entire summer which made for a hot foggy building, soft ice and a puck that bounced wildly all night long. To make matters even worse, the practices planned earlier in the week were cancelled due to CBA provisions preventing team sponsored workouts prior to August 31st. The difficult physical conditions and obvious lack of team cohesion forced both clubs to dump and chase, to paste everything that moved and to wildly fire the puck at the net from all angles hoping that something good might happen.

Carolina’s prospects dominated early on and were able to build a 2-0 lead shortly after the 2nd period got underway. Only solid work by Leafs’ goalie Sebastien Centomo prevented the deficit from climbing even higher at that point in the match. The Maple Leafs’ prospects seemed to collectively discover their skating legs shortly thereafter when some nifty work by defender Jon Zion at the Carolina blueline led to Toronto’s first goal. Brad Boyes tied up the game early in the 3rd period with a somewhat lucky shot from long range. The comeback was capped with some nice work down low by Luca Cereda’s line resulting in a nifty wraparound effort by right winger Miguel Delisle.

As with all exhibitions of this type, the final result was completely secondary to the impressions left by the young players involved. A purely subjective scouting report follows:

Goaltenders (Centomo-Racine) – Leafs’ starter Sebastien Centomo played the entire game and was solid. You may recall that Centomo shone brightly at last year’s tournament and his obvious comfort level was a key factor in the team’s positive result. Although Sebastien spends an inordinate amount of time on his knees in my opinion, he was rock solid whenever the Hurricanes worked the puck in tight and made a superb game saving glove save with only moments remaining in the contest.

Defensive pairing # 1 (Reynolds-Zion) – Jon Zion of the Ottawa 67’s was really the only player on either team able to generate any offense off the rush. He was heady and very mobile (just as advertised) and may have been the Leaf’s top performer on the night from my perspective. Unfortunately, Zion is also a bit short of the prototypical measurements for NHL rearguards and will need to really refine his positioning in order to play in Toronto some day. Zion’s partner, Peter Reynolds, was one of the real pleasant surprises from a Toronto perspective. He is big, tough, mobile and plays his position with a precision rarely seen in one so young. In fact, it is very difficult to believe that Reynolds still has 1 year of junior eligibility remaining as he was clearly the team leader for the Leafs. This is a player that will bear close scrutiny during the remainder of the month and throughout the upcoming season as he has the look of a future NHLer.

Defensive pairing # 2 (Svoboda-Velebny) – Many in attendance at the game came specifically to see Petr Svoboda play his first game in a Leafs’ jersey and he didn’t let anyone down. The first thing that occurred to me in seeing this youngster for the first time was that comparisons to Tomas Kaberle were unfair and inaccurate. While both young Czech rearguards are excellent skaters who demonstrate great poise on the ice, Svoboda is much bigger than Kaberle and threw his weight around with abandon throughout the game. One could fairly describe his demeanor on the ice as being almost “chippy”. On the other hand, he didn’t begin to match Kaberle’s various offensive contributions. He did, however, make a couple of smart outlet passes and showcased a low hard accurate shot from the point. Clearly he is a player with a very bright future but a jump directly to the Leafs’ NHL roster seems like a bit of a stretch unless he elevates his game quickly in the coming weeks. Svoboda’s defense partner Lubos Velebny is also big, strong on his skates and played an effective physical game. He was solid last night but did little else of note.

Defensive pairing # 3 (Rourke-Zavoral) – Alan Rourke just wasn’t able to showcase the skills that made him the top scoring defenseman in the Leafs’ system last season. His play was often tentative on the night and his positioning may have been the weakest amongst all Maple Leafs defenders. On a more positive note, he is large, very mobile, played with some grit and still represents a very intriguing prospect. Rourke likely needs a year or two on the Rock in order to polish his overall defensive game before seriously challenging for a position in Toronto. Vaclav Zavoral has often been called one of the real sleepers in the Leafs’ development system. He is another big, thick eastern European defender (Yakushin, Velebny and Zavoral are all physical replicas of one another) who moves well and handles the puck with efficiency. He participated in the physical aspects of last night’s match with much enthusiasm. Vaclav will play his second season of Canadian Major Junior hockey in 2000 / 2001 with the Soo Greyhounds and is definitely a player to watch for Maple Leafs fans.

Forward line # 1 (Galbraith-Cereda-Delisle) – Other than Petr Svoboda, Luca Cereda may have been the most eagerly anticipated player in the Leafs’ lineup. In the early going, Luca seemed frankly lost, perhaps taken aback somewhat by the intensely physical nature of the game. His play gradually improved as Toronto took control in the second half of the match. Cereda has good size, didn’t shrink away from contact, showed good defensive awareness and flashed good hand skills while helping to manufacture the winning goal. Luca will clearly benefit from a year at Brian Kilrea’s finishing school for two-way forwards in Ottawa this season. His linemates with the 67’s could well be Lance Galbraith and Miguel Delisle. Both players are big, tough wingers who can get around the ice reasonably well. Delisle seems to possess a much higher offensive ceiling whereas Galbraith is comfortable with the nastier aspects of the sport as evidenced by a quick decision over Carolina’s Kevin Bertram while time wound down. This is a forward unit that could produce big numbers if they remain together with the 67’s this season.

Forward line # 2 (Murovic-Boyes-Travnicek) – 2000 1st rounder Brad Boyes was also tentative early in the game and seemed to be overmatched physically. Later in the game, however, his offensive skills slowly came to the fore and the puck began to follow him around. Although he clearly has some filling out to do during his two remaining years of junior eligibility, there was nothing in his game last night to refute the many accolades offered up by Leaf scouts last June. Murovic is a big winger who competes hard but who seems to own very little finishing power. On the other wing, noted Czech troublemaker Michal Travnicek pounded 3 or 4 Hurricane players on his very first shift – at least 2 of which didn’t appear to be in current possession of the puck. Give Travnicek positive marks for reckless aggression and then take them away for constantly abandoning his position in search of opponents to punish. St. John’s coaches Crawford and McClelland (who handled bench duties last night for Toronto) will have their hands full this season in harnessing this young stallion’s abundant energy within a structured team concept.

Forward line # 3 (Sozinov-Vernarsky-Ponikarovsky) – 2000 2nd rounder Kris Vernarsky was one of Toronto’s best forwards throughout last night’s contest. Though not overly effective in the attacking zone, Vernarsky played with composure at all times and seemed to possess a cleaner understanding of the game than most of the prospects on either s
ide. The big question to be answered in Kris Vernarsky’s situation this year at Plymouth of the OHL is simply this – how much additional offensive output can he muster? Right winger Alexei Ponikarovsky is ABSOLUTELY HUGE. He seemed to this observer to be an virtual physical match for Maple Leafs’ gigantic sophomore Nik Antropov. Obviously Ponikarovsky’s game isn’t nearly as polished as Antropov’s at the moment but players who are this big and yet effectively cover the rink are certainly worthy of our attention. Alexei’s progress with St. John’s will be a very interesting sidebar to the 2000 / 20001 season. Kazakhstan’s Vadim Sozinov (also ticketed to play with the Ottawa 67’s this season) has decent size and skating ability but looked completely lost on the small ice surface at the Memorial Auditorium.

Forward line # 4 (Lariviere-Gagnon-Ondrus) – Center Jonathan Gagnon is by reputation a solid two-way pivot who just completed a successful junior career in the QMJHL. He gave every appearance of knowing exactly what he was supposed to do in all situations and should be a definite asset in St. John’s this year. Undrafted junior Ben Ondrus was perhaps one of Toronto’s better forwards, generating one goal and several other scoring chances while keeping his opposite number effectively in check. In fact, both free agents appearing in the game for the Maple Leafs (Lance Galbraith was the other) certainly helped their chances of landing a contract with their spirited play. Jacques Lariviere, who himself was a free agent inked by the Leafs following a good showing at last year’s tournament, plays the game tough and throws his punches effectively but must pick up some foot speed in order to make continued progress in the professional ranks.

Final thoughts: It was so very encouraging to see Toronto’s entire management group in attendance at last night’s game. Coach/GM Pat Quinn was surrounded in the team’s box by his assistant coaches (Rick Ley and Keith Acton), new personnel director Mike Penny and amateur scouting director Mark Hillier. Many prominent members of the Leafs’ front office team (Floyd Smith, George Armstrong, Garth Malarchuk and others) were following the action elsewhere in the building. Perhaps the most interesting attendee of all was team president Ken Dryden who scribbled notes frantically throughout the game, engaged Quinn in many animated discussions and seemed generally more involved in the on-ice product that I had previously imagined him to be. This seemed the very picture of top echelon commitment seen in virtually every perennial winner and was a most welcome sight for all Toronto hockey fans.

This summary could not have been assembled without a great deal of assistance from seasoned Toronto Maple Leafs observer Donald McMillan – thanks Don.