Maple Leafs 2006 draft preview

By Jason Menard

Maple Leafs Top 10 Prospects

1. Tuukka Rask, G
2. Justin Pogge, G
3. Carlo Colaiacovo, D
4. Aleksander Suglobov, RW
5. Robert Earl, LW
6. Jeremy Williams, RW
7. Ian White, D
8. Staffan Kronwall, D
9. Dmitri Vorobiev, D
10. Jay Harrison, D

In the “old” NHL, the Maple Leafs viewed their minor-league system as a bargaining chip with which the future could be bought. In the “new” NHL, the minor league system has to be the foundation upon which NHL success is built. With a renewed focus on the draft and a solid organization left behind by current NHL bench boss Paul Maurice, the Leafs minor league system is no longer the laughing stock it once was.

An unmistakable display of this new philosophy came at last year’s trading deadline when the Leafs were at least partial sellers for the first time in years, obtaining talented, but mercurial, forward prospect Aleksander Suglobov from the New Jersey Devils in exchange for Ken Klee. Unfortunately, when you treat your minor leagues as a white elephant, it takes a while to turn it around and steer it in the right direction. The Leafs hope to continue to move in the right direction with this year’s draft.

Team Needs

Youth — but not just any youth. In truth, the Leafs are in dire need of top-end, young talent to prepare for the eventual decline of their current top-end talent. While players like Kyle Wellwood and Alexander Steen performed well last year, they don’t project to be the top-line players to replace the Mats Sundins of the organization.

The problem is that the Leafs face not just a lack of top-end talent, but also the pressure of Father Time. Many of the Leafs’ marquee players are reaching the age where productivity tends to drop off precipitously. No longer able to shore up a declining roster with expensive aging veterans, the team must replenish from within – and that means that the team’s prospects need to grow up fast to fill the void.

On defense, the NHL club boasts an impressive top-two pairing, but the rest of the blue line crew falls squarely in the journeyman category. There are no big bodies with talent clearing the crease, nor is there that shut-down rearguard that can be counted on in defensive situations to eat up minutes.

Goaltending is in a state of transition and currently offers more questions than answers, but none of the minor league talent is ready to step into the No. 1 role.

Organizational Strengths

The Leafs boast a pair of goaltenders that most teams would love to have in their system. Tuukka Rask and Justin Pogge are legitimate future NHLers and could make a goaltending tandem that’s the envy of the league. However, neither is legitimately ready to step into the role of an NHL No. 1 goaltender, and the team should resist rushing them into the fray.

The team’s minor league system is also rife with depth players – guys that project to third and fourth-liners or fourth, fifth, and sixth defensemen. In the short term, that offers the big club the flexibility to bring young guys up to fill roles, but only of the plugger and lunch-box variety.

One advantage that last year’s injury-riddled season has given the team’s prospects is that several of them saw game action in the NHL. In fact, last year six defensive prospects were able to play at least one game at the top level last year and that experience, along with the first-hand understanding of what it takes to make it in the NHL, could prove invaluable long term for the team.

Organizational Weaknesses

The Leafs minor league organization can be described as being a mile wide, but an inch deep. While there may be a couple of attractive prospects at every position, the reality is that there’s a huge drop in the quality of players from the top names to the next few on the list. There’s more to a building than just the façade, and the Leafs need to ensure that the entire structure is solid with multiple quality prospects at each position.

Beyond top-flight goaltending, none of the Leafs’ prospects fall would be considered the can’t-miss variety. Up front, the team has a plethora of second, third, and fourth-liners waiting in the wings, but there’s nobody that appears to have the lightning in a bottle needed to be a true first-liner. On defense, other than Carlo Colaiacovo, the organization’s defensemen are more impressive in quantity rather than quality.

Even prospects who may have the ability to become game-breakers come with more than their fair share of question marks. For example, Suglobov was obtained from the New Jersey Devils for the paltry price of Ken Klee. The fact that the Devils, a team with a history of building through youth, was so willing to give up on the enigmatic winger should raise some flags about his long-term projections.

Draft Tendencies

Thanks to a combination of trading early-round draft picks and a succession of solid, but not outstanding, seasons, the Leafs haven’t had many high picks to play with. However, as of late the team’s been able to make the most out of its draft position.

Four of the team’s last five first picks appear to be legitimate long-term prospects: Rask (21st overall, 2005), Pogge (90th overall, 2004), Steen (24th overall, 2002), and Colaiacovo (17th overall, 2001). The team has also been able to mine the later rounds for solid, but not spectacular, prospects: Chad Rau (228th, 2006), Robbie Earl (187th, 2005), Jeremy Williams (220th, 2003), and defensemen Ian White and Staffan Kronwall (181st and 285th respectively in 2002).

Having gone with goaltenders with their first two picks over the last two drafts, it’s safe to say that the team probably won’t be going that route again. However, with the decision to draft Rask with his first pick in his first year as GM despite having Pogge in the system, John Ferguson Jr. showed he’s willing to go the best-player-available route when it comes to drafting.

This year, the team holds the 13th pick in the Entry Draft.

Hockey’s Future staff mock draft result: James Sheppard, C, QMJHL Cape Breton Screaming Eagles

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