Maple Leafs Top 20 prospects

By Scott Mitchell

1. Justin Pogge, G, 20
3rd round, 90th overall in 2004

While Pogge hasn’t lit the world on fire like he did in his last season in the Western Hockey League, he has still shown why he’s one of the top goaltending prospects in the world. A year after he rose to elite prospect status by posting a remarkable 1.72 GAA with the Calgary Hitmen, winning the WJC gold medal in Vancouver, and taking home the CHL Player of the Year, Pogge has seemed mortal this season. Splitting time with J.F. Racine with the Toronto Marlies, Pogge has posted a 3.16 GAA in 36 games with a .894 save percentage, but he has shown flashes, earning two shutouts on a team that has struggled all season, while supplying the big club with the majority of its top players for a good portion of the season. Seven other goaltending prospects heard their name called before Pogge in the 2004 draft, which did not faze the youngster who was not drafted into the WHL. With outstanding size for a goaltender and the quickness of a much smaller netminder, Pogge has risen to the top of that draft class. There is no reason to think that Pogge won’t be ready to assume the position of starter with the Leafs by the time the 2008-09 season rolls around.

2. Jiri Tlusty, C, 18
1st round pick, 13th overall, in 2006

Tlusty has made quite the transition to North America. He could be exactly what the Leafs’ farm system has been lacking for the past 10 years – top-flight forwards with offensive flair. Tlusty performed well in a six-game audition with the Marlies to start the season, before Toronto brass decided he would be better served honing his game while riding the buses with Craig Hartsburg’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. Tlusty scored three goals with the Marlies during his stint. The 6’0 196-pounder from the Czech Republic has shown his speed and skill, while playing the gritty game that the Leafs saw translating well to North America when they drafted him. Tlusty sustained a high-ankle sprain that limited him severely upon being sent to Sault Ste. Marie and also was the determining factor in being cut from Czech Republic‘s World Junior entry. Tlusty returned to the Greyhound lineup and hasn’t missed a beat, posting 13 goals and 33 points in only 35 games thus far.

3. Robbie Earl, LW, 21
6th round, 187th overall, 2004

Like many NCAA prospects, Earl’s transition from the University of Wisconsin to the AHL has been a slow one. Coming from a place known for actors with flair, rather than wingers with flair, Earl has shown the speed and flash that led the Leafs to select him. After scoring 55 goals in 123 NCAA games, Earl has only been able to put up seven markers and 20 points in 50 American Hockey League games this season. The name of Earl’s game is speed, which translates well to the new NHL. Not only does Earl possess great straight-line speed but his ability to stay agile and move laterally, while keeping possession of the puck allows him to score highlight reel goals. At only 5’10 and 184 pounds, Earl’s size is a bit of a disadvantage. While he is strong on his skates, Earl will need to bulk up and/or show the same ability he did in the college ranks to avoid contact. He is also a proven winner, and shows leadership abilities after he led Wisconsin to the NCAA Frozen Four Championship in 2006 and scored the game-winning goal in the championship game. He is projected to be a top-six winger who provides offense in bunches.

4. Carlo Colaiacovo, D, 24
1st round, 17th overall, 2001

The Toronto Maple Leafs have long awaited the arrival of Colaiacovo. The puck-moving defenseman looked as if he had arrived in the 2005-06 season, posting seven points in 21 NHL games and becoming known for his trademark hip-checks, but, again, a severe concussion against Ottawa ended his season. Post-concussion symptoms lingered into the start of this season and he did not return until December. In his first game back with the Toronto Marlies, Colaiacovo suffered a hand injury that further delayed his return to the big club. Once Colaiacovo was finally healthy he was recalled to the Leafs on Dec. 4 and hasn’t looked back. Through 38 games the 6’1 195-pound defenseman has shown the potential that allowed him to be a first-round pick six years ago. Smart with the puck in his own end, Colaiacovo uses deft puck handling and smart outlet passes to navigate through the defensive zone, much like teammate Tomas Kaberle. While he is solid in his own end, Colaiacovo is an above-average offensive defenseman. His low, hard shot has become as much of a trademark as his tendency to headhunt in the neutral zone. If Colaiacovo can avoid injuries and stay in the lineup, Toronto may have another top-four, puck-moving defenseman on its hands. 

5. Nikolai Kulemin, LW, 20
2nd round, 44th overall, 2006

When the Leafs were trolling for blue-chip forwards in the first post-lockout draft, they came upon Kulemin. Kulemin had been passed over in two previous drafts due to lack of exposure, but no longer is he an unknown. Playing with Evgeni Malkin‘s Magnitogorsk Metallurg in the Russian Super League, Kulemin skated on a checking line during the 2005-06 season and garnered five goals and 13 points in 31 games. This season, Kulemin has busted out with 27 goals and 39 points in 54 Super League games, supporting his second-round selection. Kulemin boasts considerable upside, but the tricky part is not if he will be a NHL player, but what type he will be. He is an above-average skater with a solid 6’0 200-pound frame that allows him to play solid in the corners. He is also defensively responsible and shows a deft scoring touch on occasion. He could turn into the next Ville Nieminen, a hard-working third liner who contributes 15 goals a season or he could be a top six forward. Either way, once Kulemin makes his way overseas, he should quickly establish himself.

6. Jeremy Williams, RW, 23
7th round, 220th overall, 2003
Williams, a former seventh-round pick, has come a long way in the last four years. Passed over in the 2002 draft, the Leafs took a chance on the slight winger from Saskatchewan in 2003 and it has paid off. A four-year Swift Current Bronco, Williams scored 41 and 52 goals, respectively, in his last two WHL seasons. He has continued to progress since joining the Marlies in the 2004-05 season. He also added his first NHL goal in his first NHL game on his first shot late last season. This season, Williams started strong but went down with a knee injury Nov. 17 that forced him to miss over two months. He returned to the Marlies lineup in late January and, to date, has posted five goals and 13 points in 21 games. Only 5’11 and weighing in at around 180 pounds, Williams has improved his skating, which has allowed him to continue to climb the depth chart. He has great hands and shows a willingness to participate in the physical side of the game for a player his size. Williams has been dogged by injuries during the past two years, missing time in 2005-06 with a shoulder injury and this season with the aforementioned knee injury. Williams is a threat to score whenever he is in the lineup, but he must work to add size to his slight frame and continue to focus on the defensive side of his game.

7. Dmitri Vorobiev, D, 21
5th round, 157th overall, 2004

Vorobiev is a solid all-round defenseman who has added offense to his game this season. Toiling with Tolyatti Lada for the last four seasons, Vorobiev scored five goals in his first three seasons, while playing the solid all-around game that the 6’1 215-pound rearguard had become known for. In 2006-07, Vorobiev broke out and posted 10 goals and 17 points in 54 games, doubling his goal output from the last three seasons combined. Don’t let the offensive exploits fool you, though. If Vorobiev is to ever contribute to a NHL club, it will be as a sound defenseman who chips in with the odd marker. Some wonder if Vorobiev has the desire to play in North America, but the Leafs can afford to let him develop in Russia with more than enough backend prospects in the system.

8. Tyler Ruegsegger, RW, 19
6th round, 166th overall, 2006

The Leafs drafted the 5’11 170 lb. forward out of Shattuck-St. Mary’s in the USHS. Notable alumni of that school include Sidney Crosby and Zach Parise. This season, Ruegsegger attended the University of Denver and proceeded to turn heads as one of the top freshman in the country. He has recorded 15 goals and 34 points in 40 games and led the team with a +15 rating. Ruegsegger scored 64 goals in 129 USHS games, so it was known that he could put up the offensive numbers, but it was surprising how successful he was so early. A competitive player, Ruegsegger’s chore over the next three years in the NCAA will be to improve his skating which currently is below average, according to NHL scouts. There is no questioning his heart or scoring touch, but whether or not he can improve his skating to the point where he can get to the spots he needs to to make plays at the NHL level is the question. However, there was a noticeable improvement in his first collegiate season and he has gone from a borderline prospect with scoring touch, to a definite prospect to monitor.

9. Staffan Kronwall, D, 24
9th round, 285th overall, 2002

Kronwall was a late bloomer who was selected as a 20-year-old in the waning rounds of the 2002 draft. Kronwall has developed into a solid rearguard since being an afterthought as a ninth-round pick. Possessing great size at 6’3 and 210 pounds, Kronwall’s game is as a presence in the defensive zone with the ability to move the puck and make smart plays in all three zones. The big Swede’s brother is Detroit Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall. Staffan does not have the offensive upside of his older brother, but the younger Kronwall could still have a lengthy career as a third pairing defenseman. Kronwall played 34 games with the Maple Leafs in his inaugural season in North America before a knee injury ended his season. In 2006-07 he was again felled by various injuries but began to show the steady defensive game in the New Year and was involved in numerous trade rumors before fellow Marlie defenseman Brendan Bell was eventually dealt. If Kronwall can continue to use his enormous size to his advantage, he will again see significant time with the big club when the inevitable injury bug hits. Had he not been injured early in the season, Kronwall may have already been able to establish himself with the Leafs.

10. Jay Harrison, D, 24
3rd round, 82nd overall, 2001

A dominant physical presence — when he wants to be – Harrison has fallen behind Ian White, Colaiacovo, Kronwall and Bell, before he was traded, on the organizational depth chart. The fact that Harrison fell behind was in large part due to injuries as it was bad play. When he is on his game, Harrison is a physical presence that can intimidate, use his big body in front of net and make a smart first pass out of his zone. When he is off his game, the former Brampton Battalion rearguard plays small and is prone to turnovers. Last season he played 57 games with the Marlies and recorded a respectable stat line of 9 goals and 27 points to go along with 100 PIMs. After starting the 2006-07 season with the parent club, he suffered a right hand injury. By the time he was ready to return, White had established himself and Harrison was returned to the AHL. While Harrison has done nothing this season to hurt his stock, he has done nothing to help it, either. Playing on a bad team he has the second-worst plus/minus rating (-17) on the team. He needs to continue to use his size and make sure he does not get beat off the rush to earn a shot as a sixth or seventh NHL defenseman.

11. James Reimer, G, 19
4th round, 99th overall, 2006

A big netminder at 6’3 and 208 pounds, Reimer has enjoyed a breakout season in his first year as starter with the Red Deer Rebels. He currently sits eighth in the WHL with a 913 save percentage and also boasts an outstanding 2.57 GAA., all while playing a league-high 59 games. Reimer relies on solid positioning and challenges shooters to beat him. Reimer is considered a very raw goaltender, but with patience and a steady workload, he could develop into being one of the best goaltenders in the WHL. Considered the lack of depth in the Leafs system at every position other than defense, Reimer has a bright future if he is able to progress.

12. Phil Oreskovic, D, 20
3rd round, 82nd overall, 2005

With Big Phil you get exactly what you see. A huge physical specimen at 6’3 and 220 pounds, Oreskovic moves bodies in front of the net, battles in the corners and is an intimidating force on the backend. This has been his best offensive year, posting three goals and 18 assists in 51 games. One thing he does consistently rack up is PIMs and is on pace for over 200 again this year. Last year in the annual OHL Coaches Poll, Oreskovic was named the hardest hitter in the league, and best defensive defenseman. While he won’t win any Norris Trophies, he has a good chance to stick as the defensive complement in a third pairing. His ability to move bodies, while not hindering the team in any other aspect is something any NHL organization can appreciate. Expect to see Oreskovic and another former Brampton Battalion, Harrison, forming an excellent combo for the Marlies next season.

13. Brent Aubin, RW, 20
Free agent signee 2006

While QMJHL numbers always have to be taken with a grain of salt due to the offensive nature of the league, Aubin’s stats jump out nonetheless. After scoring 57 goals in 73 games last season, Aubin has continued his torrid pace by notching 51 goals in 68 games, while also showing his feisty side with 124 penalty minutes. The diminutive winger stands only 5’9 and 180 pounds but plays bigger than his size. Aubin needs to work on his skating in order for his game to translate to the NHL. His instincts should allow him to be a productive AHL player next season. Undrafted out of the Q, he was signed to a free-agent contract by the Maple Leafs in September after an impressive performance at rookie camp. He is the type of player who will play on a NHL team’s top two lines or he won’t play at all.

14.  Chad Rau, C, 21
7th round (227th overall), 2005

Rau was selected out of the USHL‘s Des Moines Buccaneers. Since then, Rau has gone on to play for Colorado College where he put up 13 goals and 17 assists in 42 games in his rookie season. A native of Minnesota, like many late-round goal scorers, Rau needs to improve his skating to make his natural goal scoring ability translate to the NHL game. This season Rau scored 14 goals and added 17 assists in 39 games. While Rau plays bigger than his size, his hockey sense is his standout attribute. His ability to get to where he needs to be, despite below-average skating is what sets him apart from other prospects of his caliber. Rau has a chance to be a productive NHL player if he can overcome his lack of top-end speed. He will need AHL seasoning once his NCAA career is over.

15. John Mitchell, C, 22
5th round (158th overall) in 2003

Mitchell is the prototypical third-line center in today’s NHL. He possesses good skating ability, defensive awareness, excellent size at 6’2 205 pounds, and he can chip in with the odd goal. After a four-year junior career that saw him lead the Plymouth Whalers in his last two years, Mitchell had an excellent rookie season with the Toronto Marlies. In 2005-06 he played 51 games, netting five goals and 12 assists. He is building on those numbers this season as he has 10 goals and 14 assists in 57 games.

16. Anton Stralman, D, 20
7th round, 216th overall, in 2005

Stralman is a prospect whose stock has risen with the rule changes in the NHL. Once considered too small to be a successful NHL defenseman, his 6’0 175-pound size is no longer looked at the way it once was. Smart, puck-moving defensemen that use positioning rather than bullying the opposition, are chic in today’s game. Much like White, who has excelled with the Leafs, Stralman’s game features a good point shot, smart passing, and good, although inconsistent, defensive skills. He was another late-round choice by the Maple Leafs who could prove his worth with time. Stralman is playing with Timra IK in the SEL and has 21 points in 53 games. He could challenge for a spot with the Marlies next season should he decide to make the trip overseas.

17. Alex Foster, C, 22
Free agent signee 2006

Foster was signed out of Bowling Green after the 2006 season. He immediately jumped into the Toronto Marlies lineup and contributed one goal in eight games. At Bowling Green, Foster was a prolific playmaking center with good vision and hockey sense. In 2005-06 he racked up 11 goals and 40 assists in 38 games. That was enough for the Leafs to take a chance on him the same way they did with another Bowling Green alum, Mike Johnson, years earlier. This season, Foster has struggled a bit in the transition to pro. In 40 games with the Marlies, he has scored four goals and added three assists while seeing limited ice time under head coach Greg Gilbert. With Columbia he has one goal and 10 assists in nine games. Foster has the skating ability to one day center a second line in the NHL and put up similar numbers. He does not shy away from contact and is generously listed at 5’11 and 200 pounds. Once Foster adjusts to the AHL game, it may not take long for him to start piling up the points the way he has at every stop that he’s made throughout his career.

18. Johan Dahlberg, LW, 20
6th round, 173rd overall, in 2005

If there is an easy comparison to make to a past Maple Leaf it is the Freddy Modin comparison. At 6’2 and 195 pounds they both have similar size, and like Modin, Dahlberg possesses a pretty good set of hands. But the one thing that sets these two players apart is Dahlberg’s willingness to mix it up and drop the gloves. In 2005-06 he led his Modo U-20 team with 194 PIMs and added 18 goals and also played two games in the SEL.  He has seen no time in the SEL this year, however. Dahlberg will likely play two more years in Sweden before making an attempt to crack the Leafs roster the way Modin did as a 22-year-old in 1996.

19. Korbinian Holzer, D, 19
4th round (111th overall) in 2006

A big defenseman from Germany, Holzer was drafted as a project. Holzer stands 6’3 but weighs in at only 190 pounds. He played for Germany at this year’s World Juniors, getting onto the scoresheet with eight penalty minutes in six games.  In the second German league, he has seven points in 36 games, just two points more than last year.
Holzer projects to be a defensive defenseman with the ability to move the puck. He will stay in Germany for the next two or three years and should add bulk to his slight frame.

20. Konstantin Volkov, RW, 22
4th round, 125th overall, 2003

Volkov has developed rather slowly since the 2003 draft. A shifty 6’0 175-pound winger, Volkov’s downside is that he tends to shy away from the physical element of the game. He is outbattled for pucks in the corners and does not initiate any sort of physical contact. His offensive skills are not in question, as he possesses a good shot, good playmaking ability and top-end skating and agility. This season, playing with Alexander Korolyuk on the Russian club team Chekhov Vityaz, Volkov scored seven goals and added three assists in 30 games. He is one of the youngest players on the team. Volkov will likely attend camp next fall and the Leafs will decide then where Volkov should play.

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